Alpacas and Kitties and Coffee (Oh My)

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 2

Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe was someplace we’d been meaning to visit for almost a year but hadn’t made it to for a variety of strange reasons. We’d heard about it last year, a large cafe and restaurant in Sanzhi, a town located about 30 minutes north of Taipei city’s northernmost MRT stop in Tamsui. Though you’ll find it online by searching any variation of “Alpaca Cafe Taiwan,” the name of the place is Oia Art Cafe. The Chinese name 草泥馬, pronounced cǎonímǎ sounds dirty if you say it fast, at least according to our friend Candice who accompanied us. But Taiwan Alpaca Cafe would be a good name as well, since it’s a cafe whose claim to total uniqueness is the fact that a pair of extremely friendly – maybe even overly friendly  snow-white Alpacas wander the floor entertaining diners.

Pet Cafes in Taiwan

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Animal-themed cafes aren’t a new phenomena in Taiwan, and while I’ve been to several good cat cafes (not as many as my friend Pauline, who’s chronicled a bunch of them at her blog The Neighbor’s Cat ), I’ve also visited a number of spots claiming to be animal cafes on fairly thin grounds. A bored house-cat or two, a few bits of dog-related artwork, that sort of thing.

Our group of four got there mid-day on a Saturday, and within ten seconds of walking through the front door it was clear that Oia Art Cafe wasn’t just going to live up to its reputation, but totally exceed it. The place was crowded with couples and families with kids, all happily eating ice cream and french fries, sipping coffee and soda as Snow and Li Bai wandered from table to table like celebrity restaurant owners interacting with customers. As our hostess (who spoke pretty good English – we found out later that this was her first day on the job at the Oia) weaved us towards our table, Snow, the larger of the pair came over to check us out, and I could almost imagine it sizing us up to see how many carrot sticks we’d be good for.

We sat, ordered lattes, fries, waffles and a few other items, and long before our items had arrived Snow had already decided that one of us had something that she wanted. The someone turned out to be Tobie, and the something, apparently was salt, or to be more specific, sweat. Tobie had been out all morning at an outdoor wedding, and while hardly odoriferous in any way, Snow’s keen nose detected that his shirt contained nourishing electrolytes and proceeded to chew it gently on and off for the duration of our stay.

Alpaca Cafe Tobie Shirt Collage

My own garments were worth barely a sniff.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 1Prized by knitters, alpaca fur is cloud-soft and known for its durability and warmth-retaining properties. As an integral part of an animal that’s nuzzling your armpit and demanding cuddling, its pretty safe to say alpaca fur is the creme brule of animal fur in general. As we sipped our lattes (which were strong and excellent) and ate our food (which was pretty good pub fare), both of the Alpacas made the rounds and nuzzled us before moving onto other customers.

 

After finishing our coffee, we headed out back to a larger area housing a small flock of brown alpacas on one side and a tribe of goats on the other. Both animals were friendly enough to be pet, but clearly not hygienic enough to be allowed inside of the dining area. I’ve long had an affinity for goats, and while alpacas are Oia Art Cafe’s main attractions, I found the pygmy goats friendly and seemingly some of the more intelligent of the cafe’s resident animals.

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Meeting The Alpaca Godfather

Heading back inside, I was approached by a man sporting a magnificent mullet. This was Michael, the Oia’s owner, and while chatting about what inspired him to open the cafe in the first place, my first thought was that Michael may well be a contender for the title of “World’s Greatest Dad.”

“My daughter really loved alpacas, and we used to watch films about them on the internet. The more we watched, the more she fell in love with them, so we flew down to New Zealand and imported some.”

You can watch the rest of the interview in the film below (most interesting not so much for the noisy multilingual conversation as for the fact that you can watch Snow and Li Bai greeting customers in the background). But if you’re more into bullet points from this and later conversations with Michael:

  • The Oai has been open for almost five years.
  • Some of the alpacas were imported from New Zealand, and the younger ones were born in Taiwan.
  • Snowy and Li Bai are the two who have been raised with humans the longest, and are therefore the only two “House Alpacas”. They get bathed and groomed a few times a week, while the ones in the back lead a bit more of a hippie lifestyle.
  • Michael has been a lover of unusual animal-related business ventures for most of his life. An earlier animal-related business endeavor involved raising donkeys to make Pule, a Serbian cheese made from the milk of donkeys which, at over USD $1,000 per kilo is probably the most expensive cheese in the world. (I’d never heard of Pule, and asked Michael how his came out. “I was not successful,” he answered.)
  • In addition to the alpaca cafe, Michael also raised a small group of very unusual Mangalica, woolly pigs originally from Hungary, on a farm he owned in the mountains. (“They are very cute, but also quite delicious,” Michael told me, mentioning that he also sold sausage made from the unusual, apparently tasty, swine.)

Of Course There Were Cats

Michael turned out to be a wonderful host, and in addition to the indoor alpacas, their outdoor brethren, the pygmy goats and the off-site woolly pigs, he also counts among his extended menagerie a pride of Savannah cats bred from a group he’d brought from the United States. I’d seen a few of these when I came in, but it turned out he had many more upstairs in the floor below his living quarters.

“If you like cats, I can take you to visit them.”

How could we say no?

A criticism that’s been made against certain American situation comedies involving 20-30 year old’s living together in generally super-expensive cities like New York and LA is that their apartments are way too big for any actual 20-30 year old’s to ever be able to afford. The space that these cats had was kind of like that, if it had been designed by cats. The area, about half as big as the cafe downstairs, was mostly taken up by an enclosed area with huge windows and a series of catwalks leading to perches, ledges and other feline walkways. There was even an old sofa that had been turned into a massive scratching post.

Inside, abut a dozen of the most beautiful cats we’d ever seen sat, lay, reclined, played and otherwise were doing what cats do.

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“Just don’t let them downstairs,” Michael said. “They can be naughty.”

We went inside for a visit with Michael’s feline family while he told us how he’d fallen in love with this specific breed, which looked like miniaturized leopards, on a trip to America. The cats were typically cat-like, alternating between demanding attention, rubbing against our legs and ignoring us entirely.

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Heading back downstairs, Michael asked us if we wanted to head to the farm to see the woolly pigs.

“Let’s save it for the next visit,” I said. “I get the feeling we’re going to be regulars here.”

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Getting to Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe

The Oia Art Cafe (Oia伊亞藝術咖啡館) is located in Sanzhi in
New Taipei City. The address is Sanzhi District, 252新北市三芝區後厝里北勢子12-1號. Your best bet if you’re not in a car or on a bike is to take the MRT to Tamsui (also spelled Danshui) and hop in a taxi or on a bus to Sanzhi. The trip from Tamsui station takes about 40 minutes.

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Taiwan Fight Club

Mixed Martial Arts in Taipei

Taiwan Fight Club. (Photos by David Hartung)

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

It’s a hot August night in Taipei, and I am about to be beaten up in public.

Standing across the ring  (if you can call a cement square taped on a cement barroom floor a ring) stands a teenage kid with a mean, hungry glint in his eyes. He is pounding his gloves together in anticipation, his message clear:

“You’re going down, white boy.”

My last shred of confidence evaporates.

Where did this madness begin?  Was my strange, self-destructive approach to journalism somehow involved? Did I really need to ask myself that?

I’d heard about the club from some friends in Taipei who told me about a local bar that hosted an amateur boxing night every Saturday. They’d said the participants were generally overworked Taiwanese businessmen letting off steam in a completely controlled environment, with regulation gloves and padded helmets.

I’ve made many a Taiwanese businessman burst into tears simply by refusing to let them pick up the dinner check. How hard can it be, I’d reasoned,  to beat one in a boxing ring and then write a Hemingway-style story about it?

My friend Kyle came along, also intending to fight. True to character, He insisted on belting me several times on the way over.

“It’s for your own good,” he’d say with each blow, seeming to be enjoying himself a bit too much.  “You need to be able to take a punch.”

It was only by sheer luck that we managed to spot the silver letters “VS” inlaid on the round handle of a silver door located in the far corner of the lobby of a nondescript Taiwanese office building. The place was locked up, but the doorman told us to come back after nine.

We got back around nine to find the chest-high VS sign up and the door leading into the basement open. It was still early, and the place was quiet. Kyle sat down and ordered a coke while I scoped the place out. A decent sized basement club, the VS was separated into two rooms. Over to the left of the coat check counter (which doubled as a weigh-in station on fight night) was a large chill-out space complete with low-slung chairs surrounding a dozen or so tables and some plush couches over by the walls.

Behind the bar was a stunningly gorgeous bartender named Jo who was glad to talk up the positive aspects of the club’s most popular event.

“It really isn’t violent at all. Most of the people who compete are just regular people, businessmen mostly, though sometimes women fight, too.” She said, “Amateur boxing helps them to let off some steam.”

Vincent Dai, the club’s manager, told me that the club had been holding Fight Night every Saturday for about six months.

“The event has become increasingly popular with westerners living in Taiwan.” He said “They think it is like that movie Fight Club, with bare knuckles and no rules, but that isn’t at all the case. All our fights are two minutes, opponents are paired by weight class, and we use regulation ten-ounce gloves and padded helmets.”

There was some prize money involved, he told me, a few thousand New Taiwan Dollars for the most wins accumulated at the end of the month. But everything about the club was strictly amateur.

“And most importantly, it stays friendly. No grudge matches.” In addition to the professional referee, the club also employed two bouncers.

“To make sure everything stays friendly,” Vincent assured me.

At around eleven, people began to arrive, and by midnight, the place was packed. I scanned the faces of the patrons, seeing among them not one who looked like they’d ever even owned a tie.

These were no businessmen. These were hardened street punks. My bravado faded like a cheap dye job.

If the sight of my potential opponents shook my poise, the next person I ran into shattered it. He was a stocky, well-groomed American who bore with the look of a man who had broken many a brick in his life. But his appearance wasn’t what scared me. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he hadn’t come to brawl. It was what he said that threw me into a blind panic.

“The mouthpiece isn’t there to protect the teeth, it’s to protect you from biting your tongue in half when you get hit in the jaw…I’ve seen it happen. Very hard to stop the flow of blood from the tongue.”

Bill (full name withheld by request) was a lawyer and former kickboxing champion. He’d heard about the club, and wanted to see if the place was as colossally stupid as it sounded to a man with years of experience in competitive fighting.

“Even in a controlled situation, with experienced fighters, padded rings, and professional referees, injuries are bound to happen.” He said gravely “Here, a barroom situation with concrete floors, no mouthpieces, and untrained combatants. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

It was too late for me to back down, so Bill offered to bring me upstairs for a quick sidewalk sparring session, an offer I gladly accepted. He drilled on a few basic blocks and jabs, all the while giving me useful pre-brawl tips.

“Keep relaxed, keep a good posture, and keep your mouth shut so you don’t bite your tongue off.”

After a half an hour, I was confident of being able to survive this thing in one piece, and not much else. We headed back downstairs to find that the dance floor had been cleared and a makeshift boxing ring had been marked with white tape on the floor. The air was charged as the referee pushed through the crowd and began the big wind up. He laid out the rules in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

“No hitting below the belt. No elbows, knees or feet. No back of the head blows. Cross the white line once, a warning! Twice, disqualification!”

The Ref turned to address the crowd.

“I see that we have some foreign friends signed up tonight. Very good! We love watching our foreign friends fight here at the VS club, don’t we?”

The crowd cheered wildly, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the first combatants were called into the ring.

The first contest was between two young, scrawny teenagers who looked like they were barely out of high school. They didn’t “box” so much as flail wildly. I began to feel encouraged, figuring that I could have handled either of them. As I was contemplating this, the referee spoke up again.

“Uh-oh, our next match-up is between a foreigner and a Taiwanese – the best kind of fight!”

Which brings us back where we came in.

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

The crowd is screaming as I press my way into the taped-off ring. One of the bouncers fits me into a sweaty pair of gloves and sparring helmet. I size up my opponent. He is taller than me, with a vicious look making previous two fighters seem downright angelic. The bell rings. I gulp. He snarls and runs at me swinging.

The strobe lights are blinding. Forgetting everything I’ve been told, I just try and block my face. A punch lands on the top of my head. I retaliate and miss. Another hits me on the jaw, rattling my teeth through the mouthpiece.

I am not having fun.

More punches hit my head, hit the back of my neck. I start grappling my opponent blindly.

The referee pulls us apart.

“You OK?” He yells.

I remember Bill’s last bit of advice: “If you’re clearly outclassed, don’t wait to tap out!”

I am clearly outclassed.

My opponent is declared “winner by surrender” and given his prize: A large beach towel with the Tiger Beer logo. I am handed a thin washcloth with the same logo and slink back into the crowd.

It is up to Kyle to regain some lost prestige for Taipei’s foreign community. Still breathing heavily, I watch as he matches the other fighter blow for blow before pushing him out of the ring. The crowd seems less than pleased.

Kyle emerges clutching his prize beach towel.

“I watched the other fights and realized it was more of a sumo match than anything else. So I just let him tire himself out before pushing him out of the ring. It hurt like hell, but was worth it.”

The fighting over, a floor show featuring bartenders juggling bottles of flaming alcohol begins. It seems like a bad idea in a crowded basement filled with alcohol, drunks, and no fire exits. I say goodnight to Kyle, still basking in the afterglow of victory, and leave the bar with teeth, tongue, and self-esteem more-or-less intact.

I’d done what I’d come to do, and if I didn’t get the story I intended to get, it was only because the actual facts had intervened. There’d been no thrill of victory, and no real agony in defeat. Only a reminder of what I should have known all along.

I was too pretty to be a prizefighter.

~~~

Taiwan Fight Club ran originally as Late Night Taipei Smackdown and is one of 33 stories featured in Vignettes of Taiwan.