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TAIPEI, Taiwan — Tokyo’s Harajuku district might be leading Asia’s hot trendy streets, but a little-known corner of Taipei is trying to play catchup: Hsimenting.
While global fashion chains like Esprit and Mango have set up shop along Taipei’s vibrant Chung Hsiao East Road and in a score of new retail developments nearby, like Core Pacific Mall and Hsin Yi, this city’s oldest fashion district is ironically reemerging as an epicenter of youth fashion here.
The location of Taipei’s first modern marketplace and Taiwan’s first movie theater, Hsimenting, or the “West Gate District” is a cluster of streets and alleys in Taipei’s southwest corner. Dubbed “Taipei’s Left Bank,” Hsimenting is part night market and part fashion incubator. It experienced a dramatic renaissance in the early Nineties when former Taipei mayor Chen Shui-Bian — now Taiwan’s president — gave the area a facelift and declared it a pedestrian zone.
In December 1999, the completion of the Nankang line of Taipei’s mass rapid transit subway system made Hsimenting far more accessible, and on weekends the neighborhood now teems with teens checking out new fashion boutiques, noodle bars, Pearl Tea houses, cinemas and tattoo parlors.
Hard house and pop music blare from every fashion storefront, from larger chains like Today down to the dozens of tiny, hole-in-the-wall boutiques that are open seven days a week and are crammed with American, Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese fashion brands — and of course, lots of copies — and collections of mint-condition figurines and toys.
“The MRT brought people back,” said local shopper Dennis Hwang.
“It’s not dirt cheap like a night market, plus you can find originals,” added Ohtomo Tsugimoto, a Japanese-Taiwanese toy connoisseur who abandoned his toy stall in Harajuku in August 2000 to set up one of Hsimenting’s hottest holes-in-the-wall: Gacya Gacya. Crammed floor-to-ceiling with graphic T-shirts, distressed denim, handknit sweaters and kaleidoscopic accessories — 70 percent of his clientele is girls, 30 percent boys — Gacya Gacya sells small Japanese labels like Los Cabos, Wears Inc. and Quash International. And, of course, lots of toys. Noted Tsugimoto: “Hsimenting has become our Harajuku.”
Another small boutique that launched in 2000 is Nana Jiang’s Kira Kira boutique. A fashion shrine to the Japanese cult of “kawaii,” or “cute,” Kira Kira sells an assortment of zany separates and accessories, from layered buffalo girl skirts to oversized T-shirts with cute kitten or animal graphics and camouflage bomber jackets. Prices range from about 44 cents for a hair pin up to $59 for a coat. (Dollars are converted from Taiwanese new dollars at the current exchange rate.)
Bestsellers are bags, mainly in printed cotton, vinyl and fake fur.
“Anything punk and cute,” said buyer and store manager Vivi Chen, who is Jiang’s daughter. Chen travels to Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong every two months sourcing new stock. “I think in Taiwan young people don’t like to go to department stores. In department stores, there’s no fashion. They’re selling to [people over age 22] and young people want something special. Hsimenting is very fashionable and the prices are student prices.”
She added: “On Sundays and public holidays, people come and have parties in Hsimenting — like they do in Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo. And the fashion is getting better here. Before, people thought that any Japan-style or ‘pink’ girls were very strange. But not any more — 70 to 80 percent of what we sell now is pink.”