Nan-Shisan (南十三): Alternative Coffee Culture in Tainan, Taiwan
Tainan, Taiwan — In the narrow, intertwining alleyway of old brick houses, we paused in front of a rusty, sky blue door. It looked like a private home entrance without any business sign. I peeked through the mesh window and saw a mid-aged man conversing with a younger gentleman. Behind them was a modest cupboard with siphon coffee makers and an old-fashioned water dispenser sitting on top.
“Is this Nan-Shisan (南十三 / ‘South 13’)?” I asked, lowering my head to show my face through the mesh window.
The mid-aged man raised his eyes through his thin-rimmed glasses and signaled us to go in. He dressed as if he’d just woken up in a comfortable track jacket, and his hair slightly messy. With his permission, we walked into his space like Alice walking into the wonderland… of coffee.
Nan-Shisan (南十三): Tainan’s Most Hidden Coffee Shop
Nan-Shisan is a coffee shop in Tainan located inside of a 300-year-old house. Its crude interior didn’t resemble any cafe I’ve seen. There’s a long wooden table consuming the center of the small space, with six or seven chairs around it. The owner, 文哥 (Wen-ge), stood behind the table with a simple setup of his siphon coffee makers. A set of large speakers stood by the wall full of classical CDs. Meanwhile, a symphony brimming with passion was playing in the background, but only to accentuate the coffee notes.
“If you want water, pour it yourself,” he said, pointing at the water dispenser on the cupboard. “No menu here, you’ll just have whatever I’m making.”
We nodded obediently, amused.
“It’s $100 twd per person, just so you know the price. Don’t worry about being robbed,” he continued lightheartedly.
“Yes, we know. Our friend has already told us about the ritual,” I said.
He raised his eyes again and said, “oh really?”
Through the brief second of his softened facial expression, I thought, “YES, we’re in!” I assumed he’s glad that Chloe and I weren’t just naive tourists who stumbled upon this place via the media.
We chatted up the younger gentleman next to us about Tainan while Wen-ge went about his siphon magic with a faint smile on his face. Several minutes later, a couple walked in and sat down in the corner like it’s their usual spot. They casually told Wen-ge that they were going back to Taipei for the holidays and wouldn’t be able to visit him in the coming weeks. If this wasn’t a coffee shop, I’d think they were having a family conversation.
Life seemed to work that way in Tainan, where customers had faces and names, and business owners had personalities and notable reputations. Business transactions were beyond cash-product exchange; they were personal, even meaningful at times.
Coffee as a Communal Experience
Every time Wen-ge brewed a round of coffee, he’d let us smell the coffee grinds first and explain their origins and special notes. Then, he’d pour everyone a small glass to taste. In that kind of communal environment where you share the same coffee with everyone else, you also start sharing your life stories and travel adventures. Remember the time when you talked to random strangers around you at the bar? Nan-Shisan was like that for us, except we’re under the influence of coffee instead of alcohol.
What’s special about the coffee in Nan-Shisan? Instead of using a machine roaster, Wen-ge hand fries the green beans in a ceramic pot. This method, not to mention the difficulty, retains more of the coffee bean’s original flavor and magnifies each origin’s special note. Although light roasts are trending in Taiwan, Wen-ge still prefers medium roasts for the denser body.
What I love the most is the absence of a menu. Imagine visiting an artist’s studio: you’d breathe in the atmosphere, engage in an inspiring conversation, and appreciate the space that’s crafted by a creative mind.
Back in New York, coffee is merely what we need to survive the day. In Croatia, coffee is a joyful excuse for people to sit around and do nothing. But in Taiwan, coffee is a craft, in which, we admire the barista’s meticulous precision, consistency, and quite simply, his/her devotion to the love of coffee.
I remember walking out of the coffee shop mesmerized, like Alice in Wonderland waking up from her dream.
This is why I love traveling — I thought — to encounter bizarre people and things that leave me in awe, thinking life isn’t real.