Fishing for shrimp inside of a massive warehouse bar while drinking cheap beer with your friends? Think of it as bowling for shellfish.
It's 11:19 PM in Taipei and I've just reeled in my first shrimp.
Let me back up for you and set the scene: I'm in a bar. No, more like a warehouse. A "facility," if you accurately read the characters on the neon sign out front which, in Pinyin, translates to something like "Xin Hao Shrimp Fishing Place." The lights are fluorescent. The space is expansive. The chairs are plastic and the two shallow, dingy pools are similar in size to the one at your grandpappy's Florida complex. These, however, are filled with live shrimp, and we're here to fish for them.
This is, per our new friend Ping, the Taiwanese equivalent of bowling—a family-friendly activity, a drinking-friendly pursuit, and an endeavor which has its own subset of obsessives, as evidenced by the men arriving alone, circa midnight, with their own fishing poles and tackle boxes.
That's not us. We're a group of five—and all of us, save Ping, our local connect, arrived in Taipei two days earlier and are wrecked with a combination of jet lag and food comas, thanks to a near-constant stream of dumplings, noodles, stinky tofu, and pork.
This is our night out. And once we learned that there was a place where you can fish for shrimp while drinking beer, we knew that there was no alternative.
It's Anna's birthday. She'd been put in touch with Ping by a friend back in San Francisco, who promised to take us out. "We'll meet in your hotel lobby at 9:30," he had texted. "Don't wear anything that can't get dirty."
I had visions of a dank, narrow bar; barrels filled with shrimp set up like tables in a kitschy Irish pub. A dirt floor, quickly turning muddy. Liquored-up Taiwanese regulars with cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths yelling, fighting, break dance battle-style.
The reality is more brightly lit, and infinitely stranger. We race through the streets of Taipei, a convoy of two taxis. We pull up to a group of warehouses set back from the main street, with few lights other than the neon signage.
Entering, we find ourselves in an expansive space with two huge pools. Only one seems to be operational, as evidenced by the men, largely solo, sitting in plastic chairs around its perimeter. Other than the pools, there are clusters of tables with a few couples—surly-looking dudes, heavily made-up girls—eating greens and noodles and, of course, shrimp. Mostly, the room is empty. What's prime time for shrimp fishing? Ping's not sure. No matter: At the counter, he orders for us—two-hour minimum, five fishermen, $20 USD each.
A high price, yes. Particularly so, as the booze—in our case, big bottles and cold cans of mediocre Taiwan Beer, and small bottles of peach-flavored soju that taste like Bed, Bath & Beyond products circa 1999—are not included.
No matter. We have our fishing poles, complete with hooks that, pro that I am, I keep getting stuck on my dress. We have bait, tiny little shrimp to tempt their cannibalistic brethren. Drinks, because we're in a warehouse with pools filled with shrimp and it's after dark on a Wednesday in Taipei. A soundtrack of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry pulses loudly. To be sober would be an insult or, at least, a major confusion.
We sit in our plastic chairs and bait our hooks. We fish and drink. We gently tug on our lines to see if the shrimp—six-inch, alien-looking creatures complete with bright blue claws—are biting. I feel a tug-of-war pull back almost immediately and panic; pulling my line frantically while shrieking, I find that I've lost my catch. He lets go, taking the bait with him.
Alex and Tim are the most successful. By some weird hunter-gatherer instinct (or calmer demeanors than I have, at least) they're reeling in shrimp regularly. Ping has a fair haul, and Anna hooks two, a fitting birthday accomplishment. Halfway through our session, a humorless employee, unlit cigarette in his mouth, dumps a new basket of shrimp into the pool. Finally, toward the end of our two hours, decently buzzed, I catch one. With support from my fellow fishermen, I extract the flailing shrimp from its hook and dump it into our mostly closed net, hanging in the pool for later use.
Soon enough, our group number is called over the loudspeaker in singsong Chinese; our two hours are up, and it's time to cook. We take our haul—a decent one, all things considered—to the row of sinks, where we proceed to gut our shrimp alive.
We stab them with wooden sticks and cover them salt, the only seasoning available. There's no supervision, no oven overlord to ask for permission as we slide our trays into the gas ovens, glowing orange. We can't find a lighter, and are helped by a clear regular with boy band-like features and twice as many shrimp as we have, despite fishing solo. In a moment of inspiration, Tim, a chef, pours the Taiwan Beer over the lot of them. We're so absorbed that we completely fail to notice the earthquake, magnitude 4.7, that hits right around 11:30.
The entire scene, so surreal at first, feels obvious as our shrimp come off the grill and are loaded onto a plate. We eat them with our hands, peeling off shells and sucking out brains, our lips covered with salt and our hands with grease.
"Bowling," we knowingly say with a laugh. Plates empty, there's not much to do but head back out into the inky, humid Taipei night for rounds of whiskey and dice, followed by foot massages. Tomorrow morning, we'll stumble into the hotel breakfast buffet for plates of noodles and DIY bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches. But that will come later. For now, a new round of fishermen are just arriving, and we need to give them space to shine.