Snake Alley, Taipei: Then and Now
Snake Alley is an infamous covered shopping arcade attached to Taipei’s Huaxi Street Night Market (華西街夜市, Huaxijie Yeshi) which was notorious for prostitution (before it was outlawed in the 90s) and is known for being the place to go if you want to boost your vitality by eating the body parts of various animals – snakes especially, hence the name. Given that drinking snake blood is said to boost the male libido, it makes sense for a knot of snake restaurants to have formed in a red-light district – customers could pop in for a shot of blood before visiting the ladies of the night (or, often, allegedly, girls of the night – have a read of this New York Times report from 1987).
These days prostitution is illegal in Taiwan and has been for a couple of decades now, so Snake Alley is no longer a red light district; however, the chance to drink snake blood (or to watch people doing so) kept the tourists coming and the restaurants in business. When I first went to Taiwan in 2008, I found Snake Alley to be an interesting place to visit. It was gritty and old school, rough around the edges with dirt under its fingernails; the brothels of old seemed to have given way to massage parlours (legitimate or otherwise I know not – I didn’t investigate!) with scantily-clad masseurs hanging out in the doorways calling you in as you passed by, and there were half a dozen or so ‘adult goods’ shops lining the alleyway; and of course there were the snake restaurants, a few on either side of the alley, with their snakes displayed in cages and crowds of tourists gathering to watch the staff as they prepared the shots of snake blood and called people up to try it. It was seedy, but in an interesting way, and I was all about trying some snake soup and having a shot of snake blood.
I walked up and down the alley taking it all in, then joined a gathering crowd in front of one of the restaurants. The chap at the front of the store had removed a pair of cobras from their cage, which were now coiled on top with heads raised vertically, hoods open in a threat display and seemingly ready to strike; and he proceeded to toy with one of them while speaking to the crowd through a microphone worn round his neck. He’d give the cobra a slap and then quickly whip his hand back – I noticed he was missing a couple of fingers, and wondered if this was a result of snake bites or perhaps a sign of some sort of gang membership. He certainly seemed quite a rough character, and yelled threateningly when he noticed me taking a photo – I hadn’t seen the ‘no taking picture’ sign (though it was actually quite obvious!) but he pointed it out to me with his knife (and a cold glare) and so I put my camera away.
I couldn’t understand what he was saying to the gathering onlookers through his microphone, but he was engaging in good old-fashioned showmanship, drawing a crowd with this display of snake-baiting. I found it pretty unpleasant to watch – making a creature agitated and angry before killing it for food isn’t something I felt I could condone. But he got his crowd, and then he challenged those in the crowd to step up and try some blood, and eventually a group of guys did so. I was already now in two minds about whether I was going to try it, having seen the way he was toying with the snake – but when I saw what he did next, I knew for sure that I wasn’t going to be supporting this business. Once he had some paying customers, he caught the snake’s head with a hook and pinned it down, grasped the body firmly, and then strung it up in a noose; and as the snake writhed and struggled, he took a pair of kitchen scissors and slit the helpless thing up the entire length of its body and proceeded to cut various organs inside from which he then drained off the blood, the bile, and the venom (note the deceased snakes strung up on the left of the above photo). The customers drink a shot of each, chased down with a shot of rice liquor (the venom, while extremely dangerous if injected into your bloodstream, can safely be drunk and digested). I found the whole thing sickening, and so my cash remained firmly in my pocket and my desire to try snake meat remained unfulfilled (for a few years, anyway – I did eventually try snake, grilled from a Beijing street vendor, but it was awful – like eating a belt! – and then gave it another go at a famous Hong Kong restaurant where I had a bowl of snake soup, which was much better but still not something I’d rush to order again)
So, in 2008 I found Snake Alley to be an interesting place to visit for its gritty and colourful character, though the trade for which it was famous was one that I found very distasteful. The area was already in decline by then according to what I’d read, but it retained enough character to make for an interesting evening and although we failed to eat any snake we did have some excellent food in the surrounding streets of Huaxi market. However, during a more recent stay in Taipei in 2015, I visited Snake Alley again and found it had changed markedly. Most of the sex shops have disappeared, and there are now only two snake restaurants, one on either side of the alley. And while the snakes are still displayed in cages, I’m glad to say there was no snake-baiting and live skinning going on. Apparently this is due to the pressure from animal rights activists, with most Taiwanese today against the practice (you can still order snake meat dishes and snake blood, you just won’t see the act of slaughter performed). Huaxi market remains as lively and vibrant as before but Snake Alley (at the back of the market) is now just a run-down, seedy row of massage parlours with those two restaurants displaying snakes in cages. In its own right it isn’t really worth a visit in my opinion – if you dislike animals in display cages you’ll still find it unpleasant even without the live slaughter shows, and if you don’t care about that and you’re looking for the Snake Alley of old you’re going to be disappointed. 2018 update: the last snake restaurant closed down (see here), so Snake Alley is now a thing of the past.
That said, the area is home to Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s most important, and it’s still a colourful area with more than its fair share of drunk old men hanging out near the station playing xiangqi and go (or randomly shouting at passers-by) and Huaxi market still has good food (though there are better night markets in Taipei); so while I wouldn’t go out of your way to specifically visit Snake Alley you could still check it out quickly in conjunction with Longshan Temple and Huaxi market.
Any questions or comments about Snake Alley? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.