Vintage Flavors

Shaved Ice in Madou and Qishan

2020 / July

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Brandon Yen

They don’t boast splendid furnishings, but they do offer freshly prepared ingredients. Don’t expect super-powerful air conditioning there, but be prepared for a sweet and invigorating coolness. Come and visit the old shaved ice shops of Madou and Qishan. Enjoy a bowl of ice and experience authentic vintage flavors and downhome hospitality. What better thing to do on a hot summer’s day?

Shaved ice at 7 a.m.

The sun rises early in summer. At six o’clock, Zhu Shumei, whose husband is the third-generation owner of Longquan Ice Shop, is already busy preparing ingredients. Grasping a long spatula with both hands, she stirs and beats the thick sweet potato and brown sugar batter in the piping hot wok with deft, practiced strokes. The bubbles bursting out of the boiling amber mixture look like a ­series of tiny volcanic eruptions. After the mixture cools, what you have is a firm, springy jelly with an al dente bite. 

At this busy time of the farming year, customers begin arriving for their shaved ice as early as 7 a.m. Farmers start to work in the fields at five, and by eight the sun is blazing. Coming to Longquan for shaved ice with sweet potato and aiyu jellies not only quenches their thirst but also allays their hunger. It’s like having brunch.

While busily cooking adzuki beans and taros, Zhu says: “The brown sugar in our sweet potato jelly helps farmers withstand the heat at this time of year. We use brown sugar from Baoshan in Hsinchu County. The starch we use for the jelly is all made from sweet potatoes, without tapioca or other additives you’re likely to come across elsewhere. That’s why our jelly is soft yet slightly firm to the bite.”

Carrying on the family business

Longquan Ice Shop is almost a century old. In his youth, first-generation owner Yang Jing traveled around the country­side with theater troupes, carrying his ice on a shoulder pole and hawking it on village squares where performances took place. He later married and fathered two sons and six daughters. After marrying, he set up a shaved ice stall in front of the Guangfu Road market in the town of Ma­dou (now a district of Tainan City). In winter, he sold oyster fritters and glutinous rice balls in warm syrup. His custom­ers called him “Oyster Fritter Jing” or “Shaved Ice Jing.”

In 1951, the government established Madou’s Central Market, where Yang opened a shop. Because his family lived in Madou’s Longquan Village, he named his shop “Long­quan.”

When Yang retired in 1956, his eldest son Qinggui took over the oyster fritter and shaved ice shop. To set up his own business, Qingfa, the second son, borrowed money from his elder brother, whose family was already enjoying a stable income. He used the money to invest in a rotating savings group and opened another shaved ice shop in the market. But he remained burdened with debt. When his son Hailong graduated from senior high school, the father, lying ­despondently on his bed, spread out the fingers of one hand to gesture “five,” meaning that Hailong should spend at least five years helping him with the family business.

In the end, Yang Hailong gave up his studies to help his father repay his debts. Vowing to prosper one day, he rose at four every morning to help his mother out by kneading aiyu (jelly-­fig) seeds and making sweet potato jelly, so that his younger siblings could attend university.

Old-time atmosphere, authentic flavors

The business gradually got on track, and within five years Yang Hailong not only fully repaid the debts but also found a job at Chunghwa Telecom. A dutiful son, he continued to help prepare ingredi­ents for the shop each morning before going to work at seven. After work, he’d return home to roast wheat flour for his mother. 

Each batch of flour took four to five hours to roast, and every ingredient sold at the shop required a lot of labor to prepare. Only by repeating complex and tiring procedures day after day could they carry on offering fresh, authentic flavorings to their customers. It’s thanks to this perseverance that the old shop enjoys its success today.

Madou’s Central Market has been through two fires, which makes the antiquated place look even more dilapidated. Facing demolition and relocation, Yang Hailong’s son Junxiang says: “We’ve found a new place, but many of our old customers have fond memories here. We have people who were brought here by their grandparents when they children, who nowadays come with their own grandchildren, and they insist on sitting at their old table. So we’re staying on here for the sake of our loyal customers, and we won’t move until we really have to.” His mother, Zhu Shumei, gently expresses her approval: “We’re the real thing. I believe the shop will still be open in a hundred years’ time.”

A polyglot small-town shop

The red tiles on the pitched roof of the shaved ice shop Charng Mei shine under the blazing sun in a historic neighborhood of Kaohsiung’s Qishan District. Indonesian workers come here to enjoy frozen desserts with their employers; second-­generation owner Michel Kuo chats with them in Indonesian. French tourists cycle here, clued up by their hosts at Meinong’s Yellow and Black Guesthouse; they don’t have to use body language to order their ice because the owner understands French. The Italian priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church likes to visit the shop too; it turns out that the owner’s daughter speaks fluent Italian. Of course, English is also spoken here: Charng Mei has received an “English Service” mark from the Executive Yuan. Overseas visitors never cease to wonder at this international small-town shop.

Second-generation owner Michel Kuo has a degree in French from Chinese Culture University. He retired from China Airlines 18 years ago to run the shop. While working for the airline, he was stationed in Indonesia, as well as some of the world’s hottest and coldest places: Saudi Arabia and Anchorage, Alaska. The Italian speaker at the shop is Kuo Yiling, who studied design in Milan.

Michel Kuo decided to retire early at the age of 54 when his father passed away while he was working in faraway Anchorage. He regretted not being able to return to Taiwan to say his final goodbyes to his father. When he eventually came back on holiday, he was saddened to see his mother and younger sister struggling to keep the old shop afloat. Realizing that “money can’t buy everything,” he decided to come home to help.

Paying off family debts

Kuo admits that although he origin­ally wanted to come home to help his mother, it’s she who has been helping him out, preparing ingredients every morning and cooking adzuki beans and taros for him to serve with shaved ice.

Kuo-Li Charng Mei, who is 94, disagrees with her son: “He has been a tremendous help since he came back.” You can feel the mutual care and love in their interactions.

The old lady has an astonishing sense of purpose and business acumen. She smiles and says: “I used to talk about retiring and going on tours. But you can’t be a tourist ­every single day, can you?” She feels better selling frozen desserts.

In 1945, Kuo-Li opened a grocery store in her house, selling joss paper, sesame oil, and miso, as well as black tea, wax-gourd syrup, and other cold drinks.

However, her husband Kuo Cheng-hui stood surety for a friend and became enmeshed in debt, and the court seized their house at one point. Kuo-Li started selling pop­sicles to repay the debts and even kept a pig behind the house to supplement the family income. In 1966, to send her son to university, she had to sell the pig to scrape together the money for his tuition fees. She struggles to hold back tears as she recalls those difficult days.

The debts were gradually cleared up, and they eventually accumulated savings of their own. In 1982 Kuo-Li made a bold investment, spending hundreds of thousands of NT dollars on an ice cream machine. Her innovative mind also came up with as many as 16 different flavors of popsicles. The dazzling array of frozen desserts listed on the wall—numbering more than 30—are all her ­inventions.

Both old and new

In 2003 Charng Mei was chosen by Uni-­President Enter­prises Corporation’s Good Neighbor Foundation to take part in a program to “rescue” shops that were more than 30 years old. The project helped renovate the old shaved ice shop and media coverage brought it national fame.

Despite the shop’s new looks, the “globetrotting” second-generation owner Michel Kuo has been entirely faithful to his mother’s recipes and methods. But the old popsicle machines have been converted to semi-­automatic operation, reflecting technological advance: the machines take over the tasks of filling the molds and ejecting the popsicles. Kuo says: “My mother used to move the ice tubs with both hands. Over the years, her thumbs and index fingers became deformed. My son Renhao came up with the idea of attaching handles to the tubs. His simple design makes them much easier to move now.”

Kuo Renhao came back home to help in the shop after graduating from Tainan National University of the Arts in 2009. Inspired by an iconic image of their grandmother mixing ice with a spatula, he and his sister Yiling have drawn on their artistic talents to give the old shop a makeover. While you’re sitting here enjoying a bowl of soft, sweet ice, the leisurely atmosphere of the little town washes over you, and time itself seems to stand still.   

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