Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fungus Among Us – The History of Mushrooms in Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

We eat too much of what is bad for us, experts say, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. But one positive trend is visible in some parts of the world: People are eating more mushrooms than they did a generation or two ago. That is good news from a nutrition perspective because many types of mushroom contain vitamins (especially B1, B2, B3, and B6) as well as iron, selenium, and other minerals. They are rich in antioxidants that can survive cooking, and there is some evidence mushrooms have cancer-fighting properties.

Global mushroom cultivation grew tenfold between 1981 and 2002. Since the mid-1960s, annual per capita mushroom consumption in the United States has risen from 0.7 lbs to 3.7 lbs. In recent years, fresh mushrooms account for three quarters of this total. Precise data on mushroom consumption in Taiwan is hard to find, but anecdotal evidence points to a steady increase. Edible fungi find their way into hot pots, stir fries, and soups, as well as the “mock meats” eaten in vegetarian restaurants.


In Taiwan, the systematic cultivation of fungi dates back over a hundred years, with many of the original techniques introduced by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 colonial period. However, the industry did not properly take off until the late 1950s, after domestic shortages prompted the U.S.-ROC Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) to expand local mushroom production.

Early trials were conducted in mountainous areas such as Xibao (915 meters above sea level, and now within Taroko National Park), but very soon farmers in the west-central region came to dominate production. According to a report prepared for the Federal Reserve’s Division of International Finance, the American economic aid program (USAID) provided US$82,574 to help develop sanitary harvesting and canning practices, as well as for the construction of processing facilities. The return on this investment was fantastic. “Taiwan first began to export canned and bottled mushrooms on a regular commercial basis in 1960,” states the report. “By 1963, Taiwan had become the world’s foremost exporter of mushrooms…supplying one-third of the total amount of mushrooms imported by all countries.”

About 80% of the canned mushrooms sold in the United States in 1963-64 were from Taiwan. Annual exports of canned mushrooms peaked in 1978 at US$120 million, before Chinese and South Korean growers ate into Taiwan’s share of the global market.

In 2013, the Council of Agriculture’s Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) estimated that the industry’s annual sales had reached US$295 million. In recent years, fungus farmers have been shipping around 140,000 metric tons of produce annually to domestic and overseas buyers. Relatively few farms now concentrate on the species that kick-started the boom – the humble Agaricus bisporus, also known variously as the common white mushroom, button mushroom, or champignon mushroom.

Frank Tai and his cousin Chu Rui-Jong are second-generation mushroom farmers in Taichung City’s Wufeng District. Both men grew up helping their parents cultivate button mushrooms, which Taiwanese often call “Western mushrooms” (yang gu, 洋菇).

“Wufeng has the right conditions for successful mushroom farming,” says Chu. “Northern Taiwan is too humid and the south is too warm, but the Taichung area is ideal.” Local weather patterns no longer matter much, however, as both men’s operations are now more like food factories than traditional farms. Growing the mushrooms indoors enables them to fully control temperature and other factors.

Their families, and hundreds of others, have benefited from the presence in Wufeng of TARI’s Edible and Medicinal Mushroom Laboratory. Among the laboratory’s many contributions are introducing the king oyster mushroom (xing bao gu, 杏鲍菇) – currently one of Chu’s principal crops – to Taiwan from France and devising ways in which this unusually sensitive fungus can be protected from micro-organisms.

Tai, who was born in 1970, graduated from Soochow University’s Department of Microbiology, choosing this major knowing he would eventually manage the Tai Mushroom Farm, currently Taiwan’s number-one producer of enoki mushrooms (jin zhen gu, 金针菇). He also grows shiitake (xiang gu, 香菇) and shimeji (liu song gu, 柳松菇) mushrooms. Until it was overtaken by growers in China, the Tai Mushroom Farm was regarded as Asia’s largest in terms of output...

This is the second of our articles in the Wine & Dine 2017 special issue. To read all of it, go here. To see the first (on guabao), follow this link. I took the photo at Wufeng Story House, near the Frank Tai and Chu Rui-Jong's mushroom farms.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Getting a Handle on the Taiwanese Hamburger (Taiwan Business Topics)

Compared to the cult-like veneration of beef noodles, hot pot, and stinky tofu in Taiwan, the guabao is an underappreciated snack. What English-speakers often call “the Taiwanese hamburger” is available in every town and city, but certainly not on every street, nor even in many night markets.

Because of their shape, these hearty delights often appear in weiya banquets, traditional end-of-the-year feasts at which Taiwanese bosses treat their employees. According to some, a generously proportioned guabao bears an auspicious resemblance to a purse overflowing with money. The way in which the bun envelops the pork has also inspired a nickname which some vendors have embraced: hu yao zhu (pronounced ho ka ti in Holo, “tiger bites pig”).

Some foodies steer clear of guabao because they think neither of the main ingredients – pork belly and steamed bread – is especially healthful. The meat, while exceptionally tender and juicy, is heavily marbled with fat. To people who believe whole-wheat bread is better for you than loaves made of bleached flour, the shiny whiteness of the wrap suggests it offers nothing but carbohydrates. Those who abstain may be right, yet over the past six or seven years the popularity of guabao in the Western world has leapfrogged that of other Taiwanese dishes.

And truly Taiwanese it seems to be, too. There is a theory, though not a widely held one, that a meat-filled, steamed cut bun called roujia mo (literally “meat pressed into a small loaf”) popular in the mainland Chinese province of Shaanxi made its way to Fujian and eventually to Taiwan. Fujianese cuisine does have something called khong bah pau (Holo pronunciation; kong rou bao in Mandarin), but nothing is added to the meat and bun but celtuce (also known as Chinese lettuce).

Taiwanese guabao, by contrast, almost always incorporate fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and a dusting of crushed peanut. “These three components extend the dimensions and depth of the dish tremendously, making it so much more interesting,” gush Singaporean bloggers TravellingFoodies. “The regular [khong bah pau] taste rather plain and run-of-the-mill in comparison.”

Just as it is hard to image an American-style hamburger without lettuce, tomato, onion, and perhaps a pickle, many Taiwanese assert that if a guabao is to be considered authentic, peanut powder is an essential element.

Guabao is similar to the Mexican dish carnitas soft taco in that the protein in both is slow-cooked pork. However, whereas carnitas is pulled apart by hand or shredded, most guabao feature a single slab of deliciously soft meat about the size of a deck of playing cards. Taiwanese usually call this kong rou (khong bah in Holo). Beyond Taiwan and Fujian, common names for pork cooked this way include hongshao rou (“braised pork”) or dongpo rou (featured in many cookery books as “Dongpo pork”). A few vendors advertise their guabao with the Holo term for uncooked pork belly (sa chan bah; in Mandarin this cut is known as wuhua rou). Not just any chunk of pork belly will do. The meat should not be too lean, to ensure it does not become dry and fibrous after braising. The meat is cooked in a thick gravy that typically includes soy sauce, rice wine, and often sugar...

This is an extract from the first of what I expect to be several articles co-written with Katy Hui-wen Hung (who also provided the photo above), with whom I'm working on a major food related project. The entire article can be read online here.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Taiwan’s Export Processing Zones: Forward-looking at 50 (Taiwan Business Topics)

Free trade zones of one kind or another have been around since at least the 1930s, but when the Taiwan government created an export-processing zone (EPZ) in Kaohsiung in December 1966 – half a century ago this month – it was still a very bold move.

“Two major psychological barriers and a number of minor problems had to be overcome before the idea evolved into an actual program,” the late K. T. Li, the technocrat given much credit for Taiwan’s economic transformation, wrote in his 1988 book The Evolution of Policy Behind Taiwan’s Development Success.

The first obstacle was that “resentment of the extraterritoriality (freedom from local jurisdiction) enjoyed by foreigners in prewar China created opposition to both free trade zones and EPZs,” said Li. “Although it is true that the zones allowed investors to operate under a different set of rules than those outside – which was the whole point – they were nonetheless [Taiwan’s] rules.” The second barrier was the fear of exploitation – “the sale of relatively cheap Taiwanese labor for the enrichment of foreign investors,” as Li put it.

There was also a concern that companies inside the EPZ would have an unfair advantage over exporters operating outside the zone. But as Li pointed out, enterprises that invested in the EPZ had already established their export markets, so they posed little threat. “Indeed, during the early years they helped promote Taiwan as a supplier of light consumer goods and not merely as a source of agricultural products,” Li explained. “In fact, after visiting factories located in the EPZs, foreign buyers would necessarily come to Taipei to examine products produced by firms outside the EPZs. In this way, new business connections were established. Consequently, I have always regarded the EPZs as showcases for our industries.”

The EPZ was created just as Taiwan was beginning its export-driven economic takeoff, and it became a source of national pride. Among early investors in the zone were companies that helped established the foundations of Taiwan’s information, consumer electronics, optics and TFT-LCD industries, including Philips Electronic Building Elements Industries (now known as NXP Semiconductors Taiwan Ltd.), Hitachi, and Canon.

According to an August 1972 report, of the 161 factories in Kaohsiung’s EPZ, 37 were electronics manufacturers, 23 made textiles, 21 produced handicrafts, and 14 were garment manufacturers. Only the first of these sectors is still important. Nowadays, the EPZs’ most important tenants are semiconductor testers-and-packagers and LCD companies. Electronics production no longer means TVs and radios, but flat-panel displays for mobile phones and components for photovoltaic arrays. Intangible goods like apps, as well as animation and cloud-computing services, are coming out of the zones’ software parks.

Over the years, EPZ tenants have became important customers for Taiwanese companies outside the zones. Back in 1967, a mere 2.1% of the inputs shipped into Kaohsiung’s original export-processing zone were of local origin. By 1973 that figure had risen to 17%, and in the 1980s it reached 33%. Last year domestic inputs equaled 48% of the zones’ total export value, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Export Processing Zone Administration (EPZA).

Today several hundred export-processing zones operate around the world, and many of those set up in the 1970s and 1980s were directly inspired by Kaohsiung’s success. The original site, a 68.3-hectare plot next to the city’s harbor, filled up so quickly with factories that within five years new zones had been designated in what are now Taichung City’s Tanzi District and in former sugarcane fields in Kaohsiung’s Nanzi District.

Between late 1967 and 1976, total employment in the zones grew 13-fold. Since then, the number of workers has fluctuated, but the current tally of 81,045 (12.4% of whom are foreign nationals) is the highest it has been in this century. The most recent nadir was in 2009, when employment came to 58,002. In addition, the workforce is far better educated than ever before, with recent data showing that 7.5% of zone employees hold graduate degrees.

First-mover advantage was one reason for the EPZs’ initial popularity with investors. In a 1992 issue of Asian Survey, Canada-based academics Jing-dong Yuan and Lorraine Eden wrote: “EPZs in Taiwan and South Korea were established in the late 1960s when the first wave of global industrial restructuring was taking place. A new international division of labor was created as multinational enterprises in labor-intensive, non-complex, light industries began to move offshore to reduce production costs… There were few other countries with EPZs, so they faced little direct competition.”

As Yuan and Eden explained: “Both countries had already achieved a measure of economic growth by the late 1950s so that labor-intensive industries were relatively well developed, making it possible for zone enterprises to establish linkages with domestic producers.” Japanese colonial rule was a recent memory in both countries, making them “natural sites for Japanese FDI.”

Half the NT$138.2 billion total foreign investment in Taiwan’s EPZs between their creation and October 2016 came from Japan, according to EPZA data. Although the zones’ contribution as a proportion of the island’s exports has declined since 1974, when they stood at just over 9%, the 2014 figure of 4.7% was the highest for some years. Cumulatively, exports from EPZ tenant enterprises have earned Taiwan around US$76 billion.

The EPZA now supervises seven EPZs, a logistics park, and two software parks. In all, they cover 530.3 hectares. The number of tenant companies now totals 602, up from 568 at the end of 2013. Manufacturing tenants pay a service charge of 0.08% to 0.22% of turnover (to reward success, the rate is regressive).

Both software parks have made notable progress. Total sales volume of the Kaohsiung Software Park approached NT$15 billion in 2015, 30% higher than in 2014, and 100% of the land (but not all of the office space) in the Taichung Software Park has been rented out. In the past, the zones offered a very different business environment compared with the rest of Taiwan. The infrastructure was better and the paperwork less onerous, but until 1986 the tenant manufacturers were required to export everything they produced.

The science parks in Hsinchu, Taichung, and Tainan nowadays enjoy a higher profile than the EPZs, but the former undoubtedly benefited from Taiwan’s experience with the latter. "The statute for the establishment and administration of the science parks, as well as the systems of one-stop services and factory-building land, are all copied from the export-processing zones," says EPZA Director-General Huang Wen-Guu.

Even though the rest of the island has caught up in terms of simplified procedures and efficient transportation links, the EPZA still strives to accommodate every qualified investor. "The main challenge is that we lack space," says Huang. "We need to expand, or figure out how to relocate older buildings to make space..."

To read the whole article online, follow this link. To see the article I wrote about Taiwan's EPZs half a decade ago, go here. The photo is courtesy of, and shows a new factory belonging, Advanced Semiconductor Engineering, one of the zones' key tenants.


Monday, December 19, 2016

New life for Taichung's old buildings (Compass)

I’ve long been captivated by architecture, concerned about the environment, and fascinated by Taiwan’s past. These interests converge neatly at dozens of locations where the authorities or private landowners have decided to preserve old buildings, and adapt them for modern uses. Thanks to surging interest in local history, sites becoming available as old industries wither, and Taiwan’s booming tourism industry, several such projects have been completed in recent years.

These repurposed buildings add diversity and beauty to the cityscape. At the same time, the environmental argument is compelling. Professor Lin Hsien-te, one of Taiwan’s leading practitioners of sustainable architecture, points out that many buildings on the island are knocked down before they’re 30 years old. This obviously represents a massive waste of resources. 

The great majority of new buildings in Taiwan are reinforced concrete (RC). Not only does cement have a huge carbon footprint, but on average each square meter of floor area for an RC structure generates 1.8kg of dust and 0.14m3 of solid waste during construction, and then another 1.23m3 of solid waste when the building is demolished. Even the most thorough of renovations, therefore, has a smaller environmental impact than destroying a building and starting again from scratch. 

In Taichung, one of the first repurposing projects transformed a row of warehouses immediately behind the old railway station. What’s now called Stock 20 was built around 1917; since 2000, they’ve been made available to artists for exhibitions and performances. Air-conditioning and modern bathrooms were added, and if you look up while inside you’ll notice a lot of work has been done to make the roof safe.

How much you’ll enjoy Stock 20 depends a lot on whether the current events appeal to you. If industrial heritage rather than art floats your boat, walk five minutes southwest to Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park. It’s quite easy to spend an hour or so looking at and inside the buildings which dot this 5.6-hectare former winery.

Since 2011, the complex has served to nurture startups in various fields such as broadcasting, design, and digital content.  A couple of sizable new structures have been added to the site, but the original infrastructure - including 50,000-liter tanks in which rice wine was fermented - remains in place. Bilingual information boards explain how the architect took into account both Taiwan’s hot, humid climate and the frequency of earthquakes. Even if none of this interests you, you’re sure to enjoy wandering around in search of photo ops.

Aficionados of Japanese-style architecture should head next to the Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center, a landmark so gorgeous it’s hard to believe it was once part of a prison. The main attraction here is the dojo where, before and during World War II, prison staff practiced martial arts such as kendo. The building now hosts classes and lectures on a variety of subjects; its current name alludes to the six disciplines Confucius regarded as essential to a good education.


While here, it’s worth taking a quick look at the old dormitory buildings a stone’s throw to the south. Several dates from around World War I, and only a few are still occupied. One of the uninhabited bungalows is being torn apart by an immense banyan tree. If preserved, it could easily be turned into a smaller version of Tainan’s Anping Tree House.

In a different part of the city, not far from National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and the Calligraphy Greenway, is Shen Ji New Village. The buildings here aren’t especially old, but they’re very typical of the housing provided for government employees and their families between the 1950s and early 1970s. Each has two floors, and there are two housing units per building. Unlike more modern homes, there are no balconies, and no external shelves to hold air-conditioners...

I wrote this article at the same time as this piece about repurposed buildings throughout Taiwan. To read the entire article, pick up the December issue of Compass (a very useful bilingual city guide for Greater Taichung), or visit the publisher's website. I took the top photo at Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park; it also appears on the cover of Compass. The lower photo was taken at Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bussing Through Taiwan's Bucolic East (Taiwan Business Topics)

After World War II, Taiwan’s western lowlands saw rapid economic and social development. Cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung multiplied in size, and factories producing “Made in Taiwan” goods proliferated. Families which had farmed for generations exchanged village existence for the excitement, convenience and opportunities of urban living. On the roads, cars and motorcycles replaced ox carts and bicycles. But in the east, it was a very different story. Isolated from the majority of their compatriots by the strikingly rugged Central Mountain Range, Hualien and Taitung lagged far behind. Not until the north, central and southern cross-island highways were completed, and rail links constructed, could residents of either county reach a major city in less than a day. 

Getting to the east still takes time, but it is worth every minute spent on a train or an airplane. The scenery is fantastically varied and largely unspoiled. Hualien and Taitung account for more than a fifth of Taiwan’s land area, yet have just 2.4 percent of the country’s total population of 23.3 million. Unlike the western portion of the island, citizens of Hoklo (Fujianese) descent are not the majority. There are a great many Hakka families. In the late 1940s, thousands of newcomers arrived from mainland China. But what gives the east its special atmosphere, fascinating festivals and unique cuisines are the nine Austronesian tribes [represented by this young musician pictured top left, playing the nose flute] who have called this region home since time immemorial.

Thanks to road improvements, driving a rental car from the west to the east is no longer such a daunting prospect. Whether one takes Highway 9 from the southwest to Taitung, or the Suhua Highway from Yilan towards Taroko Gorge and Hualien, the mountain, forest and ocean views along the way are very rewarding. That said, many tourists are happy to outsource the stress of driving and navigating, especially now that express trains from Taipei can reach Hualien in just two hours, and Taitung in three and a half. 

So long as you book your train or plane tickets well in advance, getting to the east is straightforward. But once there, exploring is a bit trickier. As in other parts of Taiwan, local public transportation is set up for the benefit of commuters, not excursionists. 

Ever sensitive to the needs of visitors, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has over the past decade refined a network of specialized bus services called the Taiwan Tour Bus. Working with several licensed tour companies, the Tour Bus system provides access to many places which, for tourists who do not speak Chinese and do not wish to drive themselves, would be difficult or impossible to reach. Each bus is accompanied by a guide who introduces attractions along the way (in English, Japanese or Chinese), answers questions, and ensures no one gets left behind. 

The geological-hydrological marvel known to English speakers as Taroko Gorge is the east’s no. 1 attraction. An astonishing combination of solid rock and rushing water, the 19 km-long gorge and the surrounding national park draw hikers and ecotourists as well as mainstream sightseers.  An easy way to see the best of the gorge is to join the one-day Taroko Gorge tour (NT$1,600 per person if an English-speaking guide is needed). Pick up is from Hualien City, and among the dramatic spots introduced are the stunning oceanside Qingshui Cliffs, Changchun Shrine, plus the short but intensely beautiful Yanzikou (Swallow Grotto) Trail.

Those unable to devote more than a day to the east may want to sign up for a daylong Taroko tour departing from Taipei. These are more expensive (NT$5,200 for adults, NT$4,200 for children up to the age of 12) but save time with a morning flight from the capital’s Songshan Airport. The return journey is via the scenic railroad through Yilan and along the northeast coast.

Also departing from Hualien is the East Rift Valley one-day tour. Sandwiched between the Central Mountain Range and the Coastal Mountain Range [seen in the lower photo], the valley is said to grow Taiwan’s best rice. Over the past century, this lovely area has seen two industries based on its natural advantages emerge, then decline. At the first stop, Lintian Mountain Forestry Center (Lintianshan), tourists will learn how millions of trees were removed from Taiwan’s mountains until logging was completely halted in the early 1990s.

After a look inside Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area, renowned for its fabulous butterfly population, the tour calls in at Hualien Sugar Factory. The landmark refinery buildings still dominate the small town of Guangfu, but most of the surrounding sugarcane plantations have been afforested. No English-speaking guide is available on this tour, but an English audio guide is provided at no extra charge. The price (NT$988 per adult, NT$900 per child) is the same on weekdays and weekends.

Visitors interested in farming and food production, and those basing themselves in Taitung City rather than Hualien, should consider the Taitung Yuli-Changbin Highway one-day tour (adults NT$1,400, children NT$1,200; no English-language guide available). In addition to stops at a tea farm and an area now synonymous with organic rice, this adventure roams from the hilly interior to the rugged coast. One halt is at a place known as Water Running Uphill. The toponym aptly describes a beguiling optical illusion which draws tourists by the busload. 

There is also a one-day Taitung City tour (NT$1,300 per adult, NT$1,100 per child; no foreign-language guide available) focusing on cultural and ecological attractions within and around this city of 106,000 people. For part of the tour, visitors swap their bus seats for bicycles, exploring Taitung Seaside Park and its public art installations on two wheels. The tour also includes a look at one of Taiwan’s most important archaeological sites, Beinan Cultural Park. Named for the Beinan people who inhabited this part of Taiwan from approximately 5,300 years ago until perhaps 2,300 ago, the park is where  archaeologists unearthed 1,523 slate coffins, plus skeletons and priceless jade items such as knives and arrowheads. One of the original excavations has been preserved and is open to the public.

Anyone planning to visit the eastern part of the country should peruse the websites of the East Coast National Scenic Area and the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area; both are especially useful for details of upcoming events such as festivals in indigenous communities.

Since the beginning of the year, I've been writing advertorials like this for Taiwan Business Topics, promoting Taiwan Tour Bus services. This is a slightly modified and shortened version of the advertorial that appeared in the magazine's November issue, and also on the website of the publisher, the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Shared on The News Lens

Sadly for folks like myself, The News Lens International doesn’t seem interested in commissioning original work from freelancers (although I did one profile piece for them soon after they launched), but at least so far they’re making a good job of selecting and sharing items published elsewhere. A lot of the articles and blog entries they’ve posted deserve a wider audience, and it’s gratifying to see features I wrote for both Taiwan Business Topics and Life of Taiwan appear on their site. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Writing about Taipei and Kaohsiung for Scoot

For the October/November issue of Scoot, the inflight magazine of the Singapore-based airline with the same name, I wrote two short columns on what to do, see and eat in the cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung. 

For the capital, among the tips I give are to visit the National Museum of History if you want to see some ancient Chinese artefacts without having to fight your way through the crowds which often pack the better-known National Palace Museum; and to enjoy cocktails at AlchemyThe two highlights I chose for Kaohsiung are Maolin's spectacular butterfly migration, and Gangshan's wintertime signature dish, mutton hot pot.

The October/November issue, as well as previous issues, can be read online here. The photo here is one of mine and shows the old harbor mouth and Qihou Lighthouse.