Monday, August 07, 2006

The Soy Sauce Factory

Here is story about an experience I had returning a lost wallet several years ago. It was first published elsewhere, but that site appears to be dead. So...... enjoy.....

The Soy Sauce Factory
Michael Turton

One day my wife and I found a wallet in the alley in front of my father-in-law's house in Yungho. Ordinarily, finding a wallet is no big deal. You look up the owner's address on the ID, give them a call, and arrange the return of the wallet. Good deed done, they offer you a few bucks and you politely refuse. The smug, happy afterglow can last for days.

But, this being Taiwan, finding a wallet has all sorts of ramifications. Many legends of the negative side of good-deed doing circulate among the Taiwanese. The writer Bo Yang, in his brutally funny essay collection The Ugly Chinaman, relates the commonly-heard tale of the taxi driver who was arrested and charged as the culprit after he had innocently taken an accident victim to the hospital. There are numerous stories of thieves posing as crash victims by the side of the road in order to lure the insufficiently paranoid.

In such an atmosphere, it's not surprising that we had hardly got the wallet into the house for proper inspection before the warnings began. "You better not return it," intoned one sister-in-law. "He’ll probably claim you stole money from it, and the police will make you pay him." Familial Agreement, in the form of nodding in-laws, embraced me.

My wife interrupted that Hallmark Moment with a little oooh! of shock as she extracted the contents of the wallet. Almost a thousand US dollars worth of Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean money spilled out onto the table, as if its owner ran a miniature foreign exchange concession. The voluminous depths of battered leather -- it was the fattest wallet any of us had ever seen -- held more than six hundred US dollars in Chinese renminbi alone. There was no ID, only a thick wad of name cards.

A thousand bucks! Just found on the street…The air pressure in the room plummeted as everyone sucked in their breath.

My wife, still fishing around to see what treasures the wallet had not yielded up, found a pay stub. The poor fellow made $18,000 NT, just $500 US dollars, a month. We looked at each other. Here in his wallet was a couple of months' pay.

"Let's call the name cards," someone suggested. "Maybe they know him."

One by one we called them all. After running through the whole stack, we finally found a relative at a factory in central Taiwan, who connected us with the owner's mother in Taipei. After overcoming the usual suspicion, she told us her son was not right in the head. "I keep telling him to put his money in the bank, but he won't listen." She vented a long, theatrical sigh. "Last time he lost several hundred thousand dollars. Maybe that's why he didn't tell us this time." We made arrangements to deliver the wallet to its owner at an address nearby, and set off forthwith.

Yungho, where my father-in-law lives, is a suburb of Taipei located south and west of the city. A city in its own right, it is a densely populated urban wasteland, like a block from the Simcity computer game blown up to galactic scale, grim, gray and grimy. To step out into the street is to enter is a loud, garishly lit neon nightmare of wide, cramped streets, racing motor scooters, and recently up-scaled shopping districts. The noise level is incredible. The local working-class Taiwanese population, the kind that is invariably described as "the sinews of the nation" when not drunk and beating their wives, looks decidedly out of place in the brave new world of shiny subway stations and giant Japanese department stores. But that experience, the one foreigners find so exotic and stimulating, is just the thickly-painted face of Yungho.

The real Yungho lies within those fortress-like city blocks. Inside them is another world, a labyrinth of narrow, twisting alleys crammed with identical five-story concrete buildings. The vast majority of metropolitan Taipei's population lives in two- or three-bedroom flats in such buildings. In stark contrast to the bedlam on the giant avenues outside, it is astonishingly quiet inside the blocks. Building laws limit height to five stories within the block, while permitting developers to go much higher along the major streets. The taller buildings out front keep out the roar of the street. They also block the light and air.

My wife and I walked out of the alley where my father-in-law's house was located and found our way to the main drag. For a moment we were ensorcelled by the mad energy of modern Taiwan. A few steps brought us to the next alley over. And into that other universe.

For many foreigners, one of the most fascinating things about Taiwan is the complete lack of respect for the law shown by all the island's citizens. Inexperienced outsiders are constantly fooled by the Asian skill at fashioning a beautiful facade over an ugly reality. Foreign academics fly into Taiwan, stay for six weeks, and write books about how the government has lead the nation's spectacular economic growth through sound policy and forward-looking initiatives, but this is humbug. If there is anything the Taiwanese are experts at, it is ignoring the government.

Even more confusingly, the Taiwanese manage to combine a casual disrespect for the law with a marked deference to custom. Housing is no exception to this rule. On the roof of many buildings is an illegal sixth floor, generally put up by the owner of the fifth floor house. Although by law the roof belongs to everyone in the building, and building on it is forbidden by the earthquake codes, by custom the roof belongs to the person who owns the highest floor in the building. Consequently, the rooftops of Taipei are crammed with illegal structures: discos, pigeon farms, restaurants, and of course, thousands upon thousands of rental homes.

This casual attitude toward building codes and land use is the norm at every level of society and in every community. The island of Taiwan has over 100 golf courses, but no more than a third are legal. Until it was torn down a few years back, the city aquarium in Taichung was an illegal structure. In a place like Yungho, where there is little open space, the first floor owners typically attempt to build out into any empty space nearby. If the alleyway curves, the first floor will build out into tiny vacuum left by a curve instead of an angle. If the lane is slightly wider, the first floor owners will often build a wall in the "extra" space, leaving just enough of the alley to walk or drive through. There is no such thing as an empty lot in urban Taipei, because if any appeared, the adjacent homeowners would instantly occupy it.

My wife and I stop at a little family-run grocery store and grab some Cokes. One of the advantages of Taipei's staggering population density is the availability of almost any imaginable service in the local neighborhood. The streets may be overrun with department stores and auto repair shops, but the alleys retaliate with noodle stands, convenience stores, beauty parlors, locksmiths, video rentals, and clothing shops, little outcrops of humanity struggling against the swamping tide of large modern corporations. The alleys are losing, however, as the family-run economy follows the dinosaur and dodo into oblivion.

We followed a narrow lane as it burrowed into the center of the block. Farther and farther in we went, passing potted plants set out in the alley to mark places where people parked their cars, old men in pajamas squatting on doorsteps, stray dogs, a housewife struggling home from the market with a half-dozen bags of fruits and vegetables. At last we located the address. We rang the bell.

An older woman answers, her face a mask of bland friendliness. We ask for the owner of the wallet.

"There's no such person here," she says apologetically.

"But we got this address from his mother!" we protest.

"He doesn't live here," she insists, shaking her head.

"But -- But --." We sputter to a halt.

Suddenly the wind shifts. I am a foreigner after all, so I can't possibly be the tax man or the local police or gangsters.

"What do you want him for?" she finally grudges us.

"We're returning a wallet."

She looks us over. "C'mon," she says, inviting us in with a shake of her head.

Taiwanese homes are never wide, but they are always somehow deeper on the inside than they seem on the outside. Back we went, through the living room crammed with plastic bottles, down a long dark hallway, a cramped kitchen stuffed with equipment, and a cement-lined backyard. We emerged into a factory.

Tucked into little corners all over Taiwan are small factories. In the 1970s and 1980s they were everywhere, in homes, backyards, abandoned buildings, and so forth. They would run power cables illegally from nearby homes, or tap directly into streetlights or other municipal electric systems. A system of payoffs, coupled with official indifference, guaranteed immunity from the authorities. In 1992, when I was doing research at an industrial district in Taiwan, I had occasion to ask the District director about such factories in the district's community area. "Oh no," he said, "there are no factories in the community area. Factories are forbidden in the community area." Sure enough, a stroll through the apartment buildings confirmed that the rule was no more honored than any other edict from the Powers That Be. The first floors of every building were crammed with small metal and woodshops, storage bins, and every other conceivable accouterment of modern manufacturing activity.

That same day in that industrial district I had lunch at a tiny noodle stand that fronted on an empty building in the community area. Contemplating that cavernous space as I sucked down my portion of gan mian (“dry noodles”), I asked the noodle lady why there was no business there. She scowled, and explained that there had been two factories, but both had gone under. "This is the only way I can make this space pay," she said, with a sweeping gesture that dismissed the noodle stand, her factory, and all of industrial civilization with them.

The factory my wife and I had inadvertently discovered in the middle of residential Yungho was busily churning out soy sauce. Old plastic paint tubs, full of soy sauce, were lined up along a badly-erected concrete wall, waiting to be poured into plastic bottles haphazardly piled along one wall. A little old man carried more paint buckets full of materials into a dark rear area. Waste products wound their way sluggishly into the sewer beneath the concrete under my feet. My stomach instantly took a mighty vow to eat only imported food.

In the old days such family-owned and operated factories were the cutting edge. In the late 1960s they made textiles and cheap electrical parts. In the 1970s they shifted to telephone sets after ATT broke up. In the 1980s they moved into sporting goods, computers and other more advanced manufacturing. It was not uncommon for a factory owner to have participated in several businesses during this period, rushing along with thousands of other subcontractors from one boom area to the next, in a style colloquially known yi wo feng: a swarm of bees. By subcontracting out each step in the manufacturing process, small Taiwanese factories reduced capital costs, learned new modes of manufacturing, kept labor costs down by using family members, and stayed competitive in the world market.

Even today, when this system is dying, one can still find in every neighborhood a couple of women who manage piecework for a local subcontractor. They farm out tasks like applying stickers, connecting widgets, or bundling parts, to local housewives, who can do the work while watching TV or chatting up the neighbors. The pay is low, but for many housewives of the previous generation whose education was halted in grade school by chauvinist fathers, it is the only way they can make a little money for their households.

The soy sauce factory we were standing in was a fairly representative example of the other side of that system, one that few academics who write on it have forthrightly confronted: it cannot flourish without an utter absence of regulatory oversight. The system thrives on illegality. It is a common practice in small Taiwan businesses to maintain two or even three sets of books, one for the tax man, one for the investors, and one for the owner. A whole system of gray financial practices arose to serve the subcontracting system, including post-dated checks, "3:30 loans" to cover post-dated checks that have come due before the bank closes, "car loans" in which a vehicle serves as collateral for an informal business loan, and so on. These practices are dying out too.

And then there is the safety and environmental oversight. No sane government would permit a factory to dump untreated industrial waste into the sewers of a residential neighborhood, but in Taiwan that is still a common sight. The EPA was tickled to announce a few years ago that the amount of waste entering one of Taipei's rivers untreated had been reduced from 90% to 60%. An ironic benefit of the increasing corporatization and globalization of Taiwan's manufacturing is an enhancement of worker safety and environmental practices.

The soy sauce factory was a typical citizen of this milieu. The soy sauce was bottled by pouring it into buckets. The pay stub for the wallet's owner showed that they were paying no taxes, and the worker was without national health insurance. Obviously nobody was complaining about the untreated waste or the smell. In the old days the locals would have ignored the noise and odor, but today's Taiwanese are more confident about complaining.

One of the amazing things about Taiwan's small factories is the way they combine such casual attitudes toward organization and hygiene with the latest in technology. Behind the hasty concrete walls of the soy sauce factory one could glimpse shiny steel vats. The plastic soy sauce containers may have been tossed unceremoniously against the wall, but each was marked by a label neatly printed out on a computer system in an office located just over my shoulder. Several different labels, I noticed with shudder. I couldn't help wondering how many times I had eaten this soy sauce, poured without thinking from the bottle sitting helpfully on the table at my elbow.

The old woman who had acted as our guide called out, and led us to the office. It was crammed with people. The "little" soy sauce factory had over a dozen employees. I showed the wallet and gave the name. In a moment the wizened old man who had been carrying materials into the inner sanctum of the factory appeared.The old man looked up at me, grizzled, pink-cheeked and thin as the soup in a Soviet gulag. A bony hand snatched the wallet from me. He sat down in a chair and quickly spread the contents of the wallet out on the table, meticulously inventorying his worldly treasures. The office staff, a group of middle-aged men, made a number of good-natured but raucous comments. He was congratulated on how fortunate he was that a foreigner had found the wallet and not a local -- which says more about how the Taiwanese view themselves then it does about the relative honesty of foreigners -- and excoriated for not putting his money in the bank. Ignoring us all, he finally folded everything neatly and placed it back in the wallet.

Satisfied, he stood, and without a backward glance, fled from the room. My wife and I felt sorry for him. A man pressed some money into my hand, but we politely refused several times, as custom demanded. After all, returning a wallet isn't about the money, it's about the smug, happy afterglow.


Anonymous said...

Oh man, that is so awesome. There is more about the "real" Taiwan in that post that a dozen articles on Taiwan's political economy.

"Foreign academics fly into Taiwan, stay for six weeks, and write books about how the government has lead the nation's spectacular economic growth through sound policy and forward-looking initiatives, but this is humbug. If there is anything the Taiwanese are experts at, it is ignoring the government."

Was ever a truer word spoken?

Michael Fahey said...

Great piece. But I'd quibble with one detail. Loans secured by cars are still very common. You see ads for them everywhere outside Taipei.

Anonymous said...

Man, I used to work in Yonghe and it's totally the way you described.

Michael Turton said...

Great piece. But I'd quibble with one detail. Loans secured by cars are still very common. You see ads for them everywhere outside Taipei.

Yeah, I wrote that about six years ago. i can't recall why I developed the impression that they were going out of style....

Thanks for all the great comments, guys.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece. I had a very rosy impression of Taiwan, probably because of all the foreign academics' pieces, but your article was enlightening. I feel like I have a better idea about the real Taiwan now, particularly since everyone seems to be agreeing with you!

Joel Haas said...

A terrfic story and a great combination with the double ghost month story as well. I've fowarded it to a friend of mine in Spanish class whose father was a missionary/doctor in Tainan in the early 1970s.

Anonymous said...

What can I say, you gotta love this place!

maoman said...

Great post. "ensorcelled", eh? I've learned a new word!

Leann Zarah / LMS-SGW said...

A great read, indeed.

This reality, though, is something not unique to Taiwan as you can find sorry conditions like what you've seen in other asian countries, too, like the Philippines. There are moments when you feel like the government is a friend, but there are times when you wish its legitimacy for existence would cease to breathe as it suffocates your survival with laws that so-called political leaders themselves violate.

Carry on, Sir.