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

Abstract This essay examines the recent proliferation of Thai restaurants in Taiwan, relating their development to different streams of transnational migration from Thailand, Myanmar and mainland China. Thai restaurants in Taiwan take many forms from low-cost 'ethnic' restaurants around the Taoyuan train station and in more peripheral areas, catering mainly to migrant workers from Thailand, to upmarket restaurants in city centre locations, catering to a 'cosmopolitan' clientele with high levels of economic and cultural capital. The paper traces the contours of transnational taste in Taiwan where Thai food has been adapted to suit local demand. In this context, as elsewhere, notions of culinary authenticity are contested, revolving around specific ingrethents, recipes and dishes as well as notions of provenance, décor and other aspects of material culture. The paper examines the process of authentication, focusing on the culinary claims made by differently-located stakeholders. It also considers the material as well as the symbolic construction of 'taste ', a term whose multiple meanings provide a valuable way of rethinking transnationality. As well as providing a case study of the evolution of culinary culture in a non-Western context, the paper sheds light on the role of food in defining Taiwan's contemporary political culture through notions of cosmopolitanism and modernity.

Keywords Taiwan, Thailand, Transnationalism, Taste, Authenticity, Restaurant

In August 2005, more than 1 00 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 die 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 die simultaneous situation in which Thai workers were being forced to endure inhumane working conditions. It addresses this paradox by bringing together die 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 die idea diat 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 (à la Bourdieu) and die 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'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.