So yesterday my husband, sister and some friends decided to go to that "Strasbourg Christmas Market in Taipei". We figured it'd be crowded on a weekend but didn't really have any time we were all free during the week to go together.
I bought tickets in advance at 7-11, having heard that sales were limited on-site (which seemed like a good idea when I thought you needed a ticket to get in - limiting numbers. Great.) Then I found out entrance was actually free, but you got the cost of the ticket (NT$500) turned into vouchers you could spend at the fair. Okaaaay, I get not wanting every stall to be handling tons of cash, but it seems a bit byzantine, and it wasn't very clearly announced. Then I saw a video panning the market, saying they did only sell 1,000 tickets per day at the site (whether or not that's true is still unclear).
So we are told that because we have pre-purchased tickets, we could not get the vouchers at the area near the fair with almost no line. We had to go to Taipei 101 Mall's B1 information counter and exchange them there. We got there and took a number (so we bought a ticket to get a ticket to wait in line to get more tickets that we could use as cash?) and waited a good 10 minutes to get our vouchers plus some worthless plastic crap 'gift'.
We get our vouchers and get about 10 meters into the market when Brendan decides to bail - he had had to leave in an hour anyway for work, and we wasted most of that getting those damn vouchers, and honestly it was just too crowded to be any fun. So I completely understood.
We passed a few stalls of unimpressive stuff you can buy in any store - Carrefour, Jason's etc. - and way overpriced Christmas decorations (hey, wanna spend NT$300 on a cutout wooden tree ornament that you paint yourself? Me neither!) and noticed that instead of Christmas music, the live band - which wasn't very good - was playing...Green Day?
Like, why Green Day? When I think Christmas I don't think "Dookie".
Would it have been so hard to hire a jazz band to play Christmas classics, or even have a cappella groups or brass or string mini-ensembles here and there playing Christmas music (no Green Day!) instead of a big stage? Why did there need to be a stage at all?
Way too much market space was allocated to seating for people wanting to listen to music that absolutely nobody wanted to listen to.
So we found the more European-looking wooden stalls down one edge of the market - there were maybe ten of them. Some had food or sweets, but everything we wanted to buy was sold out (gingerbread cookies, olives and cheese) and nothing available was particularly appetizing. Some sold wine, one sold beer. We got some beer, that was fine, but the wine was way too expensive by the bottle. We got mulled wine which was okay, and the one thing we didn't have to wait for. We got egg nog which said it was spiked (in Chinese) but...if it was I couldn't taste it, and it wasn't egg nog. It was milk with some vanilla in it and maybe fake rum flavoring. It was not good.
It was so crowded: those ten, maybe slightly more than ten, stalls in that long, narrow space meant there was no way to just walk around. Even if you wanted to, random areas were cordoned off, but the crush of people near the stalls was so bad you literally could not move. We ended up walking behind them. There were a few tables and chairs, all of them constantly full.
Evening came and everything lit up - that was nice enough, and we finally got a table that was covered in some other group's trash. My friends got food at McDonald's because nothing at the market was appealing and fairly priced (I am rather used to this and ate in advance). My sister said she spent her voucher money and wasn't sure what she got for it - some mulled wine and bad "egg nog"?
There were a few other things you could buy, like truffle salt and foie gras, to bring home, but all of it was very expensive. There were no mid-range goodies on offer that people could buy as small Christmas gifts, and nothing pricey was impossible to get elsewhere, in less crowded
When it came down to it, the whole thing was poorly planned. The ticketing system was ridiculous - clearly nobody who'd ever worked in event planning and understood Taiwanese crowds had planned it. There were not nearly enough stalls. I would not have minded that some of them were fairly humdrum, like Carrefour, if there had been more stalls selling anything at all unique or at least appealing.
Taiwan-style crowds are to be expected, and can't be avoided. The organizer's clearly did not understand that basic fact about this country. It's a densely packed place, and weekend events like this will draw numbers that you simply won't see in Western countries. The event space was far too small, with far too little to do, for the number of people who showed. They either needed to control numbers by making it voucher-entry only (and have more on offer for the cost of entry), or pick a bigger damn venue. Banqiao, despite being far from the city, would have been a good choice, as would Maji Maji square if they decorated well and used both the outside and inside areas. Cramming it behind Taipei 101 was probably decided because it would bring in the weekend Xinyi shopping crowd, but it was a very poor choice of space in every other respect.
At the end, I had several hundred NT worth of vouchers I hadn't spent on mulled wine or shitty egg nog, and used it to buy bottles of German beer to bring home. I still had NT$100 after that, which wouldn't buy another beer, and went for some mediocre-looking Carrefour chocolate only to find that, too, had sold out in the time we'd been there. I ended up with a carton of pumpkin soup...for some reason?
That was even sadder, because I was planning to spend quite a bit more, maybe get some new nice Christmas decorations, chocolate and other treats, alcohol and stocking stuffers. None of that was really available, so I had to search for something to spend my money on (to be fair I would have bought the beer regardless, but the selection should have been bigger - there could have been more beer stalls in general).
The lights came on, and the stage was empty. My friend pointed out that the transition to evening before dinner was the perfect time for live music, but no music had been booked. A CD of generic Christmas songs played (at least it was seasonally themed and not, like, Weezer. But even Weezer has a Christmas album).
Because I got some German beer, and got to drink mulled wine, I refuse to call it a total wash. But, honestly, it was pretty bad. That is a shame, it could have been so much better.
So, organizers, if you are reading this:
Taiwanese events mean crowds. Plan for this accordingly. You did a bad job.
Fire whomever booked the music. Just kick 'em out.
Fix your ticket issues.
Consider what people really want at a "European Christmas market" and endeavor to offer that.
I don't need to feel like I'm in Europe. I'm not. That's fine. But I at least want to have an enjoyable time and not be stuck in a too-small space with too many people listening to fucking Green Day and drinking gross vanilla milk. Make it better next time. You totally could - Taiwanese clearly are eating up the idea of a European Christmas Market. Certainly you could get adequate food and goods vendors out to take advantage of that.
And that's just it - usually I am okay with crowds. Certain spots on the weekend (and some all week), certain public holidays, certain tourist sites, certain events? Crowds are to be expected in Taiwan. It's a part of living here - either you accept it and roll with it or you don't. If you go to the National Palace Museum, Jiufen, pretty much anywhere on a three-day weekend, or a night market on a nice weekend night, you know what to expect and you deal with it. But it's not too much to ask that the planners of these events freakin' take that into consideration and plan better events.
I might be so annoyed by this in particular because in the past, Christmas was the one thing I had. The one holiday where I could shop in peace because it wasn't a 'thing' locally. I didn't have to plan in October to get Christmas goodies because otherwise it'd be too crowded or sold out. Stores and offices decorated and department stores played seasonal music but that was about it. But it's a thing now - friends exchange gifts, people put up trees, people, well, go to Christmas markets. IKEA is already sold out of Glogg and the wrapping paper I liked, and it's not even December 5th! Christmas was the one time I could celebrate a holiday in Taiwan without having to plan for a guerilla offensive like a 5-star general, and it's gone.
Or maybe I'm so irritated because this is part of a trend of terrible events. A friend of mine was telling me that pretty much every Latin festival was so poorly planned that, for example, air conditioners wouldn't be turned on so people dancing would be about to pass out. I remember that kinda-terrible Taco Festival where lines for any given taco stand were 45 minutes long, and almost everything ran out by the time you got to the front, and how I had to leave and go eat pot stickers because I was so hungry. I remember friends of mine going to art exhibits at Huashan and saying it was, like, a few stalls of mediocre art and not much else. I honestly think the last expat-friendly or expat-planned events I've been to that were in any way well-planned were Dog Days in Drag 2014 (I couldn't make it this year and last year it felt like it ended well before midnight and well before all the raffles should have been done) and that British music thing by the river, which had to have been at least 3 years ago.
How is it not possible to do better?
I see one ray of hope: people are starting to complain about it. A lot of people bitched about how the Taco Festival virtually guaranteed by dint of poor planning that most people would not get tacos. Pretty much everyone is complaining about the "Strasbourg Christmas Market".
Seriously...just...freakin' do better. There is no excuse for so many poorly-planned events. There is no reason why this market had to be so terrible. There have got to be locals or long-term expats here with backgrounds in event planning that you could hire.