Academic journal article New Formations

Thai Food in Taiwan: Tracing the Contours of Transnational Taste

Academic journal article New Formations

Thai Food in Taiwan: Tracing the Contours of Transnational Taste

Article excerpt

In August 2005, more than 100 foreign workers, mostly from Thailand, rioted in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city. Burning down the dormitories, which housed around 3,000 workers who had been hired to build Kaohsiung's rapid transit system, they set fire to cars and threw stones at the hostel managers before being subdued by riot police. The rioters were protesting against the 'unfair and unjust' treatment they received from their employers who, among other grievances, owed them overtime pay and prohibited them from consuming food and drink which was not purchased from the dormitory store ('Thai laborers riot in Kaohsiung', The China Post, 23 August 2005). Former Taiwan Premier, Frank Hsieh, later apologised for the poor living conditions of the Thai workers, insisting that greater hospitality and fairer treatment should be extended to them ('Premier apologizes for Kaohsiung riot', The China Post, 21 September 2005). The riots were the most severe protest by foreign workers in recent Taiwanese history. Paradoxically, they coincided with a period when Thai food was becoming one of the most popular foreign foods in Taiwan, served in a growing number of cosmopolitan and high-end 'fusion' restaurants as well as to low-income Thai workers in 'ethnic' restaurants across Taipei and Kaohsiung.

This essay seeks to understand how Thai food became more popular with Taiwanese consumers, while contrasting it with the simultaneous situation in which Thai workers were being forced to endure inhumane working conditions. It addresses this paradox by bringing together the study of labour migration and culinary culture explored as part of a single transnational social field. Focusing on the recent proliferation of Thai restaurants in Taiwan it addresses the construction and contestation of a specific form of transnationalism. It advances the idea that transnationalism is best understood as a 'social field' incorporating a range of people with diverse interests and investments rather than restricting the term to those who are themselves transnational migrants. It also suggests that thinking through the dual meanings of transnational 'taste'--signalling the marking of social distinctions (a la Bourdieu) and the material qualities of specific kinds of food (defined as hot or spicy, for example)--offers a valuable way of tracing the contours of this particular social field.

Transnationalism has been defined as the 'multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states'. (1) More specifically, the term encompasses the continuous connections between people in different places rather than assuming that migration is a one-off process that separates 'host' and 'sending' societies. Ulf Hannerz describes the complex transnational connections that characterise the modern world as involving 'an intense, continuous, comprehensive interplay between the indigenous and the imported'. (2) While some have celebrated the emancipatory potential of transnational culture and associated notions of cultural hybridity, recent studies of transnational migration have been criticised for their failure to 'ground' their understanding in specific empirical cases, studying its particular effects in practice. As Katharyne Mitchell has argued:

   Without 'literal' empirical data related to the actual movements of
   things and people across space, theories of anti-essentialism,
   mobility, plurality and hybridity can quickly devolve into terms
   emptied of any potential political efficacy. It is geographical
   context ... that is best placed to force the literal and the
   epistemological understandings of transnationalism to cohere. (3)

In theorising transnationalism, we have been particularly influenced by the work of Roger Rouse who approaches transnationalism as a 'social field', occupied by a range of actors with different kinds of investment and different cultural orientations. …

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