Sunday, March 15, 2015

Zhejiang delicacies, Taiwanese dishes

Crowd watches street magician in Taichung.

FocusTaiwan reported on the Grand Hotel's reopening of a restaurant. I've always hated the place, a triumphant eyesore in a faux Chinese style that broods over Taipei, the architectural equivalent of heads impaled on spikes in front of the city gates. But that wasn't what caught several pairs of eyes:
The Grand Hotel reopened its Yuan Yuan restaurant on March 11 with an expanded menu of Jiangsu and Zhejiang delicacies and Taiwanese dishes.
That's right. Jiangsu and Zhejiang have delicacies, but Taiwan? Just dishes. After raving about delicacies for the emperor and favorite foods of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the article does an "oh yeah" at the bottom and mentions that there are "Taiwanese dishes" for foreign guests. The mindset behind the article is rather obvious.

Food is one of the most important sites for KMT colonization of Taiwan, and it is probably its greatest victory. Whereas almost all other KMT strategies for colonizing Taiwanese minds, from the claim that Taiwanese are Chinese to the rewriting of Taiwan's history, have generated resistance from locals, there has been no resistance to the KMT's exploitation of food and food tourism.

Taiwanese cuisine was invented in the Japanese period. Prior to that period there was no such thing as Taiwanese cuisine, it was all Chinese food. Colonizers all face the same problem: having colonized X, they must define what X is. They must define it so that it is intelligible to the colonized and to the citizens of the colonizer's homeland, and it must be defined as inferior to the colonizer's own culture. Early on in the Japanese period restaurant menus were referring to Taiwanese cuisine -- it first appeared in 1898 in the print media -- and state banquets offered "Taiwanese" dishes as a way to help construct and define what Taiwan was, because, as officials reported, Chinese and Taiwanese foods were not easily distinguished. The colonial government even published a Taiwan kanshu kiki (Records of Taiwanese Customs) monthly from Jan 1901 to Aug 1907, which contained Taiwanese banquet menus and other menus as evidence of what Taiwan culture was.

This evolution began officially with the Taiwan Pavilion erected at the Fifth National Exhibition in Osaka in 1903, for which 6,000 items were shipped over from Taiwan to ensure "authenticity." Chefs were brought over from Taiwan to prepare the dishes, and young ladies were brought over to keep the diners company, young women being a significant feature of Taiwanese restaurants during the Japanese colonial period (for details, see Embodying Nation in Food Consumption, a PHD thesis for Leiden by Chen Yu-ren).

This creation of a Taiwanese cuisine was a fait accompli when the KMT came over and recolonized Taiwan with a faux Chinese culture. The KMT followed the same strategy it followed with Taiwan culture in general: it subsumed Taiwanese cuisine as a regional and provincial cuisine. That is the strategy followed in the Grand Hotel PR handout above, where Taiwanese dishes are placed on a level as one more provincial style food like that of Zhejiang or Jiangsu, except not as good.

As the KMT lost its grip on society, the idea of Taiwanese food has become slippery and contested. It was promoted under the Chen Administration and in State Banquets during the Chen Shui-bian administrations. For KMT True Believers, it remains a provincial cuisine. For other locals, it has many meanings. As Chen's PHD thesis notes, even when people cannot define Taiwanese cuisine, they still say this or that dish is a Taiwanese dish. They identify Taiwanese cuisine as foods of home or of their childhood. Others can articulate a detailed and defensible view -- note that articulating a "national" cuisine is a project that nationalists of all stripes believe they must engage in, hence for Taiwan nationalists a "national cuisine" must be defined. In response, Hakkas frequently assert their own cuisine against Hoklo/Taiwanese cuisine. We manufacture identities to fight the imposition of identities...

The KMT lost the battle to define Taiwanese cuisine as a mere provincial cuisine, though that reflex remains, as the Grand Hotel PR piece above shows. But it won the war. All over Taiwan, if you say a city name, like Changhua or Hsinchu, people associate a food with it automatically (ba wan and mi fen). Even foreigners know many of these associations. This attitude is common in Taiwan, but it is rare in the rest of the world. You can associate foods with cities or locations, of course, but it is usually not the first thing thought of. If you say Los Angeles most people will mention Hollywood. You have to press them for a food association. But in Taiwan it is quite the opposite. Few places are first associated with a particular industry or historical site or famous building. If you ask people about Taichung they will say sun cookies, but you have to press them to divulge what industries are associated with the city.

Why? It's political, of course. In most countries tourism consists of local history and nature. I grew up in Michigan, where we visited the Upper Peninsula and state parks for nature, and local battlefields and forts for history. No one ever suggested that the state's prodigious cherry production should be its key association. But in Taiwan, the food association functions to keep locals from associating places with their history, and thus, developing associations with local history that in turn would support and build local identities... Hence, in Taiwan, local domestic tourism is not historical tourism, but food tourism.

Congrats on the victory, KMT.

UPDATE: Many great comments. A commenter noted below:

Through the 1970's there were strict restrictions on accurate public maps of Taiwan (for security purposes). School children were taught to view Taiwan as merely one part of "our glorious China".

Even through the 1990's, much of Taiwan's history and civics curriculum was China-centered.

The KMT, on a central level, decided to avoid addressing their problematic narrative as the government of all China while occupying a former Japanese colony, an experience that was fresh in the minds of the Taiwanese.

They decided to invent and deploy "local foods" as a means to teach Taiwanese geography to avoid political differences and to avoid local identification in favor of the Chinese Nationalist identification.

It was a way to reconcile obvious cultural differences with the nationalist narrative, while dismissing cultural differences as either regional, or in terms of a portrayal of an area's "development". This took the conversation away from ideas of ethnic differences. In China this was a means to defuse different nationalisms after the fall of the Ching.

This is not accidental.

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19 comments:

solidarity.tw said...

Very interesting theory. Japan is another place where local areas are all associated with different foods, so I've always thought the Taiwanese habit of doing the same was a product of Japanese cultural influence. However, Japan is also a place where the central government has made huge efforts since the 1800s to homogenize the population and paper over memories of previous regional conflicts like the 19th century civil war. Tangentially, the many dialects(?) of Japanese are arguably in a worse position than Taiwanese right now because the movements to preserve them are far smaller.

P.S. Of course it's Zhejiang and Jiangsu btw, the home cooking of the KMT elite.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent example in the ways a civilizing center appropriates local cultures to serve a political ends.

Not only does the phrase in question serve to denigrate Taiwan to a [mere] province along side Jiangsu and Zhejiang, but it also allows the civilizer, which is, in this case a Chinese nationalist state, to locate its object, define it on the terms of the state, and moreover, it shifts to the civilizer the role as the arbiter of authenticity and removes the formation and expression of identity away from the local. This makes local identity more difficult to renegotiate even if those identities have changed. It is about exercising control.

"We have a handle on OUR Jiangsu cuisine because it can be defined by x,y,and z, in accordance with our own criteria. Any deviation from that formula will not be allowed to be recognised as authentic Jiangsu cuisine...even if it does.... And let me make this abundantly clear.... Even if it DOES come from Jiangsu!"

Why is it worth to seemingly make a mountain out of a molehill with this case? Food is a daily cultural ritual.To colonize food is another way to colonize culture.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, thank you for this informative take on food as it pertains to culture in Taiwan prior to KMT rule. Please do more posts like this, i.e. cultural identities in present/ past Taiwanese society.

Jen

Jenna Cody said...

How about aboriginal food? And, do you think that pre-Japanese era food in Taiwan did not evolve away from its Chinese roots in the century or two since the immigration waves from China in the 1600s?

I also disagree that there's some grand conspiracy to keep people from associating places with their history for two reasons. One, on the east coast in the US we absolutely DO associate our places with food. New York? Bagels, pizza, black and white cookies. New Jersey? A different version of pizza. Maine? Whoopie pies, blueberry pie, haddock chowder, lobster rolls. DC? Aw man, Ben's Chili Bowl, Ethiopian Food, Bob&Edith's. I associate my hometown area - the Hudson Valley - with apples, apple cider donuts, certain local wines, local whiskey, Krause's chocolates, I associate my grandparents' area (New York capital region) with fish fry. So I just don't find it weird to associate places with food!

The other reason? They do this in Japan too. Go to Shizuoka, green tea. Go to Nikko? Pickles and soba noodles. Hokkaido creameries, Osaka pancakes. As a friend of mine noted about Japan, "they will know the one small town that is famous for, like, asparagus, and the one weekend a year when it is the best in season, and the one hill where it is the most delicious, and the one restaurant that prepares it the best, and drive six hours to that town, hill and restaurant to eat it."

You know what that sounds like to me? Taiwan!

So I see this tendency as a part of Taiwan's Japanese past, not a political conspiracy on the part of the KMT.

That said, I agree about the condescension of a lot of Mainlanders and Mainland-associated KMT types toward Taiwanese food and other cultural items.

Anonymous said...

The context is important too. This is a country that has claimed to be the true representative of all of China and therefore feels a need to produce "regional" culture.

Ji Xiang said...

Quite frankly I think this is a bit over the top.

All over China people tend to associate certain cities with certain foods, and it's also the case in Japan.

I think it's just East Asian culture to place a lot of importance on food and associate certain cities with certain dishes. I personally would never travel to a city just to eat a certain dish, but I don't see a conspiracy behind this way of thinking, and I really can't imagine how associating places with dishes would somehow stop people from remembering their history.

solidarity.tw said...

There -are- a lot of innocent reasons to promote food tourism as well. For instance, not everyone cares about history, but everyone loves to eat good food, and many consider unique tastes one of the things you most have to really be there to enjoy. Plus food is easy to market and sell, unlike (honest) history. I'm pretty sure the food tourism crowd is bigger than the history tourism crowd.

Jenna Cody said...

I will travel all over to eat good food. I went to Indonesia basically to eat Indonesian curry and drink Indonesian coffee. One of the best parts of Central America was the coffee. I love ba wan, and am fairly likely, having already been to Zhanghua, to go to Yuanlin just to eat it. (I have this plan in my head of someday roadtripping through those small west coast towns - Yuanlin, Xiluo, Shalu etc. - from Miaoli more or less to Chiayi via Yunlin and back.

Also, if anything, certain Taiwanese foods promote Taiwanese nationalism rather than dampen it.

In the city near my hometown there is actually a Taiwanese restaurant (this is not a large city so it's a bit surprising) and it's surprisingly good. The Hakka stir-fry is a bit saucy but otherwise they do a solid job of making some of my favorite restaurant foods, run by a family from Taipei. They also serve American Chinese "typical" dishes to get the "let's get Chinese" crowd to come in without them going "this isn't the Chinese I know, where's the lemon chicken?"

Since I've been home in the wake of a death in the family I've gone a few times and the proprietors and I have bonded over things specifically "Taiwanese" after talking about those dishes, with the feeling that it is a distinct culture with a distinct identity. This family's politics is such that they are not interested in Taiwan being annexed by China, ever.

And yet I am pretty sure they vote KMT (I didn't ask but they didn't seem fond of my homegirl Chen Chu).

Jenna Cody said...

In fact, more than just the east coast of the USA associates its region or geographical area with food:

http://www.thefoodsection.com/.a/6a00d8341c4ec753ef01538e02346d970b-800wi

Mike Fagan said...

"For instance, not everyone cares about history, but everyone loves to eat good food..."

Not necessarily so. Sometimes I like to spend time and money on food, but not usually because I've got better things to do. Many and often are the occasions when I've relied on a large pack of beef jerky (from the 7-11) to get me through a day out visiting some historic site out in the hills.

I certainly would not travel all the way to, say, Lishan in Taichung just to buy a bunch of pears.

Personally, I suspect the Taiwanese obsession with food is a consequence of too much time being allotted to formal education, and not enough time allotted to informal play during childhood and adolescence. Basically people talk endlessly about food probably because they haven't got much else to talk about, which in turn is because they've been actively discouraged from developing their own intellectual interests.

Jenna Cody said...

...or maybe simply because food is good, food is in theory apolitical (it can be politicized but in this case I don't agree that it is), food is universal, food is something people can bond over.

I don't really agree with the implication that people don't have individual intellectual interests in Taiwan, either, even though it's true that free time in childhood and adolescence is unfortunately over-restricted.

By the way, while I wouldn't go to Lishan just to buy pears, I would definitely put "eat and buy some pears" on my list for the trip, which I'd actually take for the relaxation, fresh air and mountain views.

Anonymous said...

Through the 1970's there were strict restrictions on accurate public maps of Taiwan (for security purposes). School children were taught to view Taiwan as merely one part of "our glorious China".

Even through the 1990's, much of Taiwan's history and civics curriculum was China-centered.

The KMT, on a central level, decided to avoid addressing their problematic narrative as the government of all China while occupying a former Japanese colony, an experience that was fresh in the minds of the Taiwanese.

They decided to invent and deploy "local foods" as a means to teach Taiwanese geography to avoid political differences and to avoid local identification in favor of the Chinese Nationalist identification.

It was a way to reconcile obvious cultural differences with the nationalist narrative, while dismissing cultural differences as either regional, or in terms of a portrayal of an area's "development". This took the conversation away from ideas of ethnic differences. In China this was a means to defuse different nationalisms after the fall of the Ching.

This is not accidental.

an angry taiwanese said...

chinese nationalists brought stinky tohu to taiwan. since then, taiwan is like a piece of tohu fried in a pot of stinky boiling oil.

Mike Fagan said...

"I don't really agree with the implication that people don't have individual intellectual interests in Taiwan, either, even though it's true that free time in childhood and adolescence is unfortunately over-restricted."

Jenna, in some cases I get asked to try to paper over that particular crack, so don't tell me it doesn't exist. To give just one example, a Taiwanese business woman wanted my help because she couldn't keep up with the conversational topics with her customers in the US - not because of her English, but because of her lack of knowledge. She usually worked long hours and spent her free time watching soaps or going shopping, and didn't put any time into reading up on science, technology, history and other subjects. People like that with little beyond TV, Facebook, food and shopping to fill up their lives are far from atypical here.

Robert Scott Kelly said...

I won't comment on the thesis as I haven't read it, but if much of the argument rests on the supposed uniqueness of Taiwanese association of places and food then I agree with Jenna that it isn't convincing. Even in Canada we associate Quebec with maple syrup (and I would love to visit just for the festivals) and BC with salmon, and the interior with cherries. My family would drive to the interior each summer just for the cherris just as we would go to the docks to get fresh salmon. Tourism BC promotes all these.

Malaysia is another place where all locals can rattle off the dishes in every town, and just as in Taiwan my friends here (of all ethnicities) will go out of their way to stop in the most obscure places for something notable. Italians are the same, and most dishes never even make it on the tourist radar as only locals know exactly the window of time when they come out and where to look for them. One reason my Italian wife found Taiwan so warm and relatable was the similarities between it and Italy with respect to food, rural life, and gangsterism. Anyway, I hope to read this thesis one day no matter what. Sounds absolutely fascinating.

Michael Turton said...

I won't comment on the thesis as I haven't read it, but if much of the argument rests on the supposed uniqueness of Taiwanese association of places and food then I agree with Jenna that it isn't convincing.

That is not her thesis. I just used her on understanding the idea of Taiwanese food.

Michael

Anonymous said...

Part of the importance of regional specialty foods is that people are expected to present them to one another as gifts, or to serve them to guests. In cultures with fewer family ties, or less of a tradition of formal visitation, perhaps the food culture would change accordingly.

Andrew Kerslake said...

Anon up there beat me to a point I was about to make. There are two issues being discussed.1. Why are these cultures produced. Why are they consumed? These are two separate issues. A culture may be contrived, as it is here, for purposes of ethnic nationalism, but the other end is how the object receives it and reflects it back.

Often, the contrivance is subverted for other purposes outside the intent of its creator. This does not make the culture any less or more meaningful or authentic. This phenomenon is often experienced by indigenous peoples who deploy these new, contrived and colonized identities as a means to maintain difference in the face of acculturation and, practices that are termed "traditional" that would not have been recognizable by the generation or two prior, still have salience.

In Taiwan the food culture that was created out of a need by the state to promote Chinese nationalism, instead, was transformed to satisfy Taiwan's culture if a gift economy.

Anonymous said...

What is being overlooked in some of these comments is that the intent of the subject/civilizer/colonizer and the reception of the civilizing/nationalizing/colonizing project may be completely different.

In this case, we see a program that, by all intents and purposes, seeks to assert its control by grouping Taiwan with two Chinese provinces, is a propagandist and ideological attempt to equate Taiwan's status as an equal of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces through the use of cuisine.

Often, local cultures subvert these colonial practices as they have salience in resisting acculturation. Many indigenous cultures that have been grouped together by civilizing projects will deploy the contrived differences of the coloniser to maintain the borders that have been used to define them as a form of social integrity against acculturation by a cultural hegemon. Whereas the goals of the state to define, control and exert power over a people are redirected and reflected bak against complete assimilation. Customs that are defined as "traditional" would often never be recognisable to earlier generations.

The consumption of food culture, while part of the Chinese nationalist culturalization and civilizing project, has also been redirected on the local level to satisfy the existing need for the gift economy. It becomes indigenised or localized.

So in this regard, the KMT doesn't get a solid win.

The redirection, subversion and reflection of cultural/civilizing programs is something that is most overlooked in Taiwan. We often see Taiwanese culturally defined as "predominantly Chinese", without understanding how external influences are reconfigured to fit local needs, experiences and expectations. This reinterpretation and reflection back at the outside is the image of Taiwanese culture.

The ROC/PRC (Chinese nationalism) apparatus is still inherently colonial, but that coloniality is regularly challenged at the local level. This article is a very good example of how subtleties are not necessarily innocent, but loaded with intent and meaning.