Chinese Food on Taiwan

Some years ago, I walked into a new “Taiwanese” restaurant in London’s Chinatown with my friend Andy. The waitress shuffled over and imperiously announced that Taiwanese food wasn’t like any other food we had ever had.

“I doubt that,” said Andy to her in Mandarin. “We both lived in Taipei when we were students.”

The waitress visibly blanched and called over her colleague.

“We’re both from Shanghai,” she confessed, huddling closer. “We don’t know what any of this stuff is!”

She could have used a copy of Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Heng’s A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, a truly exhaustive account of the multiple cuisines of China’s famously rogue province, from the various delicacies of its aboriginal peoples, through the foods and crops brought in by various settlers – including the Dutch, Spanish, Cantonese, Fujianese and Hakka – and local food’s many modern transformations. Their book takes in the powerful, enduring influence of Taiwan’s fifty years as a Japanese colony, as well as the austerity era of the mid-twentieth century juan cun emergency housing, when Taiwan was flooded with refugees from the mainland, and the modern logistics of everything from pork transportation to convenience-store microwave cookery.

“Those who live in the mountains eat what they can find in the mountains; those who live by the sea eat from the sea.” Crook and Heng begin with subsistence foods, before delving deep into indigenous folklore in search of reasons for multiple conflicting tribal taboos. When the Chinese first arrived on the shores of Taiwan, they were disgusted at the natives’ penchant for deer’s intestines, while the aborigines were aghast that the Chinese ate chicken. They are nicely focussed on etymologies, including a long discourse on why the humble frog became known as the “water chicken.” The natural assumption, they suggest, is that it is a euphemism designed to conceal the origins of an icky food from disapproving diners. But Taiwanese diners love frogs’ legs – it is far more likely that the new name arose to get around a Song-dynasty government ban on killing frogs, not because they were taboo, but because they were of higher value in eating insects in the rice paddies.

Of particular interest is the sudden rediscovery of indigenous dishes in the 1990s, after the rise to power of the nativist Democratic Progressive Party pushed the mainland-focussed Chinese agenda aside. At the inauguration banquet of president Chen Shui-bian, diners were treated to milkfish ball soup and óaⁿ kóe (“bowl pudding”), a savoury porridge. Both were common dishes in Chen ‘s hometown, and the president would go on to troll his guests in later dinners by pointedly serving taro to represent those who were not native to Taiwan (i.e. the descendants of 1940s refugees), and sweet potatoes to represent the Chinese who had lived there for hundreds of years previously.

Except, of course, the sweet potato is itself a new arrival, only showing up in south-east China in the 16th century, a New World food arriving via the Spanish Philippines. It, along with hundreds of other foodstuffs, was entirely alien to the island, but now forms part of Taiwan’s vibrant food culture, which incorporates vast swathes of Cantonese and Fujianese foodways, but also vestiges of the home cultures of multiple groups of refugees. Crook and Heng explain why Taiwanese bread is so sweet – it only really arrived with the Japanese, who tended to regard it as a dessert rather than staple. They detail the menu of a standard military breakfast, the transformations of sushi brought about by the availability of local fresh fish, and the impact of Western food franchises in the late twentieth century.

They are also fantastically informative on the metadata of Chinese food. When Taiwan joins the World Trade Organisation in 2002, one of the unexpected fall-outs is a sudden, five-fold leap in the price of cooking wine, an entirely benign and vital condiment, now classed as an alcoholic beverage and subject to a tax hike. Crook and Heng chronicle the ripple effect this has, not only on the family kitchen, but on the black economy, as gangsters and spivs rush to fill the hole in the market with ersatz replacements. Similarly, the authors devote an impressive page-count to the multiple puns and euphonies of festive dining, explaining just why certain foods are popular with superstitious locals on particular family occasions and festivals.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Heng’s A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

God’s Storm (1940)

In something of a structural innovation, Valentin Vaala’s film begins where so many might end, on someone’s wedding day. But all is not as it seems at the nuptials of Kilian (Olavi Reimas) and Elisa (Kaija Rahola), a chain of escalating disasters soon revealed in a series of flashbacks.

Two years earlier, Kilian was a happy-go-lucky philosophy student, forced to retrain as a lawyer after the sinking of a lumber transport placed his father’s business in jeopardy. Putting a brave face on corporate brinkmanship, Kilian is dispatched to a remote region to turn around a small business, only to find a bunch of surly locals who rightly do not trust him. But the good-hearted new trouble-shooter makes friends after saving the life of a young boy, and falls for local girl Hanna (Irma Seikkula). That might have been the beginnings of a happy ending, but Kilian is obliged to marry for money, not love… which brings us back to where we came in, a wedding tinged with tragedy, and just about to be tinged with a load more.

The screenplay for this film was written by Turo Kartto, an actor last seen on this blog being entertainingly dickish as a reluctant British tourist in All Kinds of Guests (1936). He does a nice job hammering Lauri Haarla’s 1937 novel into a movie, to the extent that the TV reviewer in the Helsingin Sanomat a generation later commented that the only thing wrong with it was the occasions where it had to adhere to the “pompous and pathetic” dialogue from the original book. That’s a little economical with the truth – Kaija Rahola sports an utterly ridiculous hat that is liable to be the most memorable thing about this film, while the gorgeous Kirsti Hurme is forced to wear a costume that makes her look like a fondant fancy, and not in a good way.

Haarla purportedly based this 1890s melodrama on an incident from the history of his own extended family, and one gets the sense that its adaptation in 1940 was intended to impart a little allegorical message of the necessity of self-sacrifice on a nation still reeling from the Winter War. The film took several years to earn back the cost of its production, although once the Continuation War was underway, it did get a little boost from being released in Germany, inexplicably with Uuno Klami’s stirring score ripped out and replaced by that of a German composer.

For reasons unknown, the film was premiered in November 1940 not in That Fancy Helsinki, but hundreds of miles to the north in Oulu, despite featuring location work shot on the shores of lake Päijänne in the middle of Finland.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

A Short History of Finland (2022)

‘Highly entertaining’ – Nordic Reach

‘Written in a lively and humorous style, including many personal anecdotes, this book would be a good introduction to Finland’ – Scandinavian Journal of History

The modern nation of Finland is the heir to centuries of history and heritage, as a wilderness at the edge of early Europe, a borderland of the Swedish empire, and a Grand Duchy of Tsarist Russia. From prehistoric reindeer herders to the creators of Angry Birds, medieval barons to the rock band Lordi, Finnish history is rich with oddities and excitement, as well as unexpected connections to the outside world – the legendary English bishop who became its first Christian martyr; the Viking queen who hailed from the wastes of Lapland; the bored country doctor who helped inspire The Lord of the Rings; and the war heroes who held off the Soviet Union against impossible odds.

Jonathan Clements examines Finland’s public artworks and literary giants, its legends, folktales, and its most famous figures, building an indispensable portrait of this fascinating nation. This updated paperback edition includes expanded coverage on WW2 and new sections on Finns in America and Russia, as well as the centenary of the republic, taking Finland’s history up to its battle with COVID-19 and its historic application to join NATO.

And if you’re wondering where the awesome cover image comes from, you can read all about it here.

Appleseed: Alpha

The Appleseed franchise has ever been the Cinderella at the anime ball, never quite making the right connections to realise its potential. It was a state-of-the-art cel anime in the year before Akira wiped the floor and changed the rules. It was a forerunner in CG animation before getting bogged down in an acrimonious fight between its producers, some of whom wandered off to make Vexille, while others stayed around for Ex Machina. Despite having the potential to pack similar punch to its sister title Ghost in the Shell, it has been defeated in the past by a series of naff scripts and gung-ho interpretations, hobbled by the limitations of under-funded CG.

Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed: Alpha is a marked improvement on previous Appleseed CG features, although the bar has been set so incredibly low that that in itself is not much of an achievement. Set before the opening of the manga, in a post-apocalyptic New York and the Wild West desert that is apparently nearby, it plumps for an intriguing zombie aesthetic in its cyberised goons, mixing biomechanic textures, chrome implants and carbon patches with distinctive camo-influenced body art. The film’s design excels at showing rather than telling, hinting at the messy clean-up after a high-tech war, and offering a world in which Deunan Knute appears to be the only unaugmented human – at least, the only one we see.

With a series of box-ticking MacGuffins, wandering-monster encounters and vaguely defined side missions, Appleseed: Alpha feels all too often like one is watching someone else playing a computer game, not the least because several crucial moments are bodged or oddly framed, so that it is not always clear what’s going on. A series of level bosses have convenient Achilles heels, and a series of coincidences serve to impart the feeling of playing on rails, even with the whole of the American wilderness to explore. The plot is so bonkers that even the cast seem incredulous at some of its twists, while there are some odd slips of logic – like a kingpin who is prepared to leave his office to do his own grunt work and a vaccine that nobody seems to actually need.

The script itself is one of the greatest mysteries, packed with redundancies, half-hearted exposition and a series of quips that are less dialogue than they are “barks” – one-liners yapped at one another by sprites in a game when someone presses a certain button or stands on a certain place. The notable exception to this is Chris Hutchison as Dr Matthews, who imparts real meaning and character to his clichéd dialogue. The other voice actors do their best with their one-dimensional material, but are infected with a Marvel Comics virus that forces them to repeatedly think of something witty to say in the middle of every strenuous fight. Credited to a non-Japanese writer, it appears to be the “original” language of this Japanese film, with lip sync matching English words, much as the characters in Resident Evil added a cosmopolitan cachet by speaking English even in the Japanese game.  

Oddly, the smart decision to make this latest film a prequel to the action of the original is undermined by the inclusion of a plot device that earlier versions have used at least twice before – a rogue robot tank. The comedically indestructible gang leader Two Horns blunders through the story like an NPC with a malfunctioning loyalty algorithm, sometimes threatening to kill everybody, sometimes lending a hand, accompanied by random bodyguards who forget to leap to his defence when he is threatened, allow armed enemies to walk into his office, and turn out not to be able to shoot straight, even when they open fire. He is involved in his own private war with the rival cyborg Talos and a sleek lady-android, who turn up late to the party like dinner guests who couldn’t find anywhere to park.

Many elements of the film recall 1980s cyberpunk, with several shots recalling iconic moments from James Cameron movies. But this could easily be another design decision, recalling the inspirations that were so obvious in Masamune Shirow’s original manga.  Appleseed: Alpha is a step closer to the idealised Appleseed franchise that producers and fans undoubtedly dream of, but one wonders how many more missteps it will take before it actually delivers the goods. For the crowd at the screening I attended at Glasgow’s Scotland Loves Anime, much of the film’s shortcomings were taken on the chin and greeted with increasing, good-natured hilarity, as if we were watching a much-loved cheesy action movie from our childhood, complete with quotably corny dialogue and a plot written by a teenage dungeon master who just wanted to get to the fight scenes.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared on the Manga UK blog in October 2014, and is reprinted here after the disappearance of that website.

Hybrid Products

“Although Ichikohji relentlessly focusses on the big picture, his narrative implies the existence of actual personalities who must have had some blistering complaints to voice. He alludes, for example, to the difficulties of implementing software updates when a company is trying to work 24-hour days on two simultaneous productions, which made me feel for Toei’s anonymous I.T. managers.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Takeyasu Ichikohji’s new book A Development Strategy for Hybrid Products: The Case of the Japanese Animation Industry.

The Mile-High Club

We are off to Lijiang, home of the Naxi people, regarded in China as the cherries on the cake of nutcases, a quasi-Tibetan tribe famous for believing that they are descended from the survivors of the war with the snake people from space. Their God of Pestilence is depicted holding a steaming, fresh turd in his hand, and their shamans like to dip their hands in oil and set light to them so they can run around indoors throwing fire at people. They have the world’s only living pictographic language that causes all their sacred texts (and they have 20,000 sacred texts) to read like comic books, and their panoply of ceremonial artefacts includes “sacrificial puppets”. Their God of Banging is called Dsu, and the Ho-bpo ceremony involves praise to the Lord of Spunk. 150 years ago, they were still cannibals, although supposedly they have stopped doing it now. I am not making this up.

I try to interest the crew in my study of Naxi pictograms, but they display little interest in the symbols for “wizard” and “vaginal discharge.”

I am having trouble catching my breath today. It is after lunchtime before the director reveals that we are more than a mile above sea level, in the foothills of the Himalayas. So it is not my imagination; the air is thinner. Lijiang is nestled inside a curve of the “Golden Sands” river – it is 25 miles to the east, and also 25 miles to the west, and eventually it changes its name to the Yangtze. But here we are high, high up. Shangri-la, or rather, the town that purports to be Shangri-la, is only a few miles north of here. Peter Goullart, who was the local consul here in the 1940s, wrote in his autobiographical Forgotten Kingdom that matters get worse another mile up, where the thinner air makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, leaving all the Tibetans and related tribespeople permanently irritable.

The history of Lijiang is difficult to reconstruct, but a few historians have read between the lines of the Dongba recitations and the chronicles of the locals, and come up with the following. The Naxi themselves were once nomads on the desolate northern plains – this we can deduce from references in their most ancient funeral rituals to yurts and herds. This area was not even considered part of China until the Mongols conquered it. When Khubilai Khan’s troops arrived, a family of Naxi chieftains in Lijiang swiftly saw which way the wind was blowing, and willingly collaborated. They were instrumental in the Mongol conquest of the area, and maintained a constant war footing thereafter. Long after the Mongols packed up and went home, the Mu clan were sending raiding parties into the mountains and valleys, demanding tribute from the locals and proclaiming themselves as the rulers of everywhere from here to Tibet.

The Chinese hated Yunnan. The air was too rarefied, and the locals too odd, and they very happily left the Mu clan to it. The Mu chieftains, soon rebranded as princes, were sure to send some appropriate gifts to the coronation of each new emperor, and were thanked in turn by the conferral of official titles. When the Mongols retreated before the resurgent Ming dynasty, the Mu chieftains clung onto their power, for the same reason, which was that the Chinese really couldn’t stand the idea of such a desolate place, and were happy to leave the locals to it.

The Mu did not die; they faded away. In the 18th century, the Chinese reverted the Mu’s status as hereditary leaders, and instead incorporated them into the magistrate system of appointed governors. A few generations later in 1729, when the time came to appoint the next representative, Beijing surprised everybody by not appointing a Mu man at all. The princes had been dethroned, although apparently overnight, their demise had been coming for decades. Early in the 20th century, the consul Peter Goullart reported a banquet in Lijiang where the head of the Mu family was not even afforded a place at the high table. Instead, this shrunken, opium-addled old man was left to eat with the B-list. Now there is little to remind us of the Mu, apart from the stone bridge in Lijiang old town that was supposedly built at their behest, and a couple of mansions and monasteries endowed with what had once been their wealth.

Every conquest of territory downhill pushes other people further into the heights. The Kam once lived in the lowlands, but were shunted into the hills by the Mu conquest – the word for Kam in Chinese is Dong, and originally meant Good for Nothing, or perhaps The Hidden – the former definition has been deviously removed from modern dictionaries. Their famous songs sidle shame-facedly around the fact that they cannot read – a fact which we regularly encountered when filming there, when some of our interviewees were unable to write their own names on their release forms.

But as the Naxi pushed the Kam, the Kam pushed the Miao, who were driven even further into the heights, often living without fire or fresh water. But if the Miao were shunted, they also displaced someone. At the scrag end of history are the Yi, a people who even today have a fearsome reputation.

And then there are the amazonian Hlihin, reported in the diaries of Peter Goullart from the 1940s, when their brash, tough womenfolk would swagger into town with a couple of their husbands meekly in tow, on the search for new bridegrooms. Goullart treated several of them in his clinic, and reported that they were invariably suffering from advanced syphilis. We’re not going to visit them, either – in fact, I have seen no mention of the Hlihin in modern accounts, and wonder if they even exist anymore.

When the Red Army came through Lijiang on the Long March, the locals asked them who the emperor was these days. They had literally had no news from the outside world for fifty years.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E05 (2017).

Kiyoshi Kobayashi (1933-2022)

Kiyoshi Kobayashi, who died of pneumonia [in July], hated the term “voice actor.” He found it to be belittling and reductive, and insisted on describing himself on documentation and contracts as a plain actor. Despite this, a huge amount of his work was narration or dubbing, and he actively shunned the limelight, claiming that it was detrimental to his performances if people formed an image in their minds of the man who played them.

He started off in theatre, drifting into radio and television in the 1950s after he was approached to perform in an adaptation of The Caine Mutiny. A key player in the Izumiza theatre company, he devoted himself to television when the company folded in 1971.

His early roles included parts in Star of the Giants and Yokai Ningen Bem in the 1960s, but his true heyday was in the 1970s, when he began playing the sharpshooter Daisuke Jigen in the Lupin III series.

“I didn’t think it would become such a popular work,” he once said of Lupin III. “I thought at the start it would be just another job. But I was soon saying, I want to do this as much as possible.”

In fact, he would keep doing it for the rest of his life, remaining in the role of Daisuke Jigen throughout the TV series, films and TV specials. In 2011, when the decision was made to retire the original cast in favour of new blood, Kobayashi expected to be given his marching orders, but was kept on, being told that they couldn’t find anyone to replace him. He did not actually retire as Jigen until 2021, after over fifty years of service.

Jigen, of course, was not his only role. He appeared in many other anime, including stand-out performances in Space Adventure Cobra (Crystal Bowie), Death Note (Watari), and the Japanese dub of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Splinter). But his true metier was live-action dubbing, in which he became the go-to guy for voicing Japanese versions of Lee Marvin and James Coburn and even, after the death of his Lupin co-star Yasuo Yamada, Clint Eastwood. If producers needed someone whose voice could send a shiver down the audience’s spine, be it Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, or Edward Teague (Keith Richards) in Pirates of the Caribbean, they made sure to make Kobayashi their first call.

When asked what his secret was with Jigen, he once confessed that it was the only role he ever played where he had never bothered to “act” at all. In everyday life, he said, “If I speak, it’s Jigen.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #223, 2022.

Kyoto Stories

“Unlike the protagonist of Kyoto Stories, I was never invited as a bonus extra to a wife swappers’ party. Nobody quizzed me about the size of my genitals. I was never offered a bit-part in a B-movie where I had to dress up as a brothel-creeping American GI. At no point, in my teaching career, was I ushered into a room with two gangsters, and ordered to take them from zero to fluency in two months, or else.”

Over at All the Anime, I review ex-Ghibli employee Steve Alpert’s Kyoto Stories, a gleefully unreliable memoir about someone‘s student days.

A Good Pounding

The Wu sisters are in their seventies, and have a relatively posh house near the centre of the village, alongside their ramshackle dyeing studio. There, behind a door so low I practically have to limbo underneath it, they make Kam clothes by dipping cotton cloth into a mixture made from indigo leaves, collected from the riverside and soaked for three days to create a bluish soup. The clothes come out yellow, but oxidise almost immediately on contact with the air, turning a pale blue. The Wu sisters will dip and wash and dry and dip and wash and dry over and over for the next twenty days to get the right level of dark blue.

Other ingredients include cow skin, with hair still attached, which is boiled for gelatin, pig’s blood which can be used to form the red dye that turns the dark blue into black, and rice wine.

“You can drink it!” enthuses Wu Big Sister. “Go on, have a go! We already have!”

She titters playfully, and I realise that the Wu sisters have been knocking back some of their ingredients all morning. I join in, and then they start singing a song of Kam welcome, which apparently has to end with me downing a grubby Hello Kitty mug full of rice wine. They then reveal that nobody can leave their house until they, too, have downed a mug of wine, leaving the cameraman and the driver red-faced and somewhat the worse for wear.

The Wu Sisters, however, are ready for anything.

“Come on inside!” says Wu Little Sister. “We’re going to whack the cloth with the hammer to make it soft and shiny!” She proceeds to smack her cloth around with a mallet dangerously close to her fingers.

I try to leaven the shoot with comedy business, including a Jacques Tati masterpiece of idiocy as I attempt to get across the village square when it is carpeted with drying rice. I negotiate a maze of rice mats, and end up dangling from the side of a building and braining myself on a jutting joist. I also get to turn to camera with a straight face and say: “There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good pounding.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).

The Wolf’s Call

“Russia has invaded Finland, the USA has recused itself, and only plucky France dares to send a naval squadron to the Baltic…This entire backstory, however, which would surely form the A-plot in any Hollywood action movie, is largely ignored. So, too, is any resolution of two other prospective plots – that jihadists have control of a military submarine, and that said submarine may have been sold to them in a CIA sting operation that went wrong.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the French technothriller The Wolf’s Call.