Sunday, September 6, 2015

Indigenous Fine Dining in the Hills of Taitung (Travel in Taiwan)

The emblem of Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant (響羅雷美食坊餐廳) is a snail, and for those reading the menu from left to right, which Taiwanese don’t always do, the very first item on the menu is Basil-Flavored Snails (塔香螺肉, NT$250 per portion). But edible gastropods aren’t the main reason why a cartoon snail represents this establishment.

Visitors who speak the language variously known as Minnanyu (閩南語), Taiwanese or Hokkien will quickly guess why the owners opted for a cute snail motif. The founder’s name is Mr. Luo Lei Pei-hua (羅雷陪華), and in Taiwanese snails are known as luolei. He's taken a childhood nickname and turned it into a brand. 

Two-syllable surnames are rare in Taiwan, and Mr. Luo Lei owes his to his mixed parentage. Luo was the surname of his mother, a member of the Puyuma aboriginal tribe. Lei was the family name of his father, who migrated to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland after World War II. Mr. Luo Lei grew up among Puyuma people, married a Puyuma lady, and considers himself Puyuma, hence his decision to put his mother’s surname first. All of his employees are Puyuma, too.

Xiang Luo Lei, a large open-sided structure made of wood and bamboo, looks over Taitung City from a foothills village 11 km inland of the downtown. There’s an hour of live music - typically a female vocalist accompanied by an acoustic guitarist - every weekday evening starting at 7pm. On weekends, local schoolchildren perform indigenous dances. 

Huge photographs - some historic, some recent - of aboriginal people decorate the walls, and there are a handful of unpainted wood carvings. The decor is understated and tasteful, which is as it should be. As far as most customers are concerned, what goes on in the kitchen is much more important than the interior, the performances, or the view. 

Whereas the hearty fare on offer at most aboriginal restaurants can be relied upon at least to satisfy gourmands, the cuisine here is a notch higher. Some standout dishes surely qualify as gourmet - and that’s a word this writer doesn’t bandy about.

The menu lists more than 60 dishes, and Mr. Luo Lei’s wife starts by recommending the snails. They’re available year-round, she explains, but become scarcer when the weather is hotter. 

At least four dishes on the menu are distinctively Puyuma, she explains. One is Meat-Filled Wild Bitter Gourd (野苦瓜鑲肉, NT$350), the foraged gourds being far smaller than farmed variants. Another is Teng Xin Pig’s Foot Soup (藤心豬腳湯, NT$400 to 500 per portion, also available with chicken instead of pork). It’s cooked using a wild vegetable foraged by indigenous people in several places in East Taiwan...

To read the rest of this article, go here and scroll on to page 36

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Nomads of the Digital Age (Taiwan Review)

The Internet has freed millions of workers from the daily commute. At health insurer Aetna Inc., education services company Kaplan Inc., and several other major US corporations, more than half of all employees regularly clock in from home. The prevalence of high-speed Internet has also led to the emergence of another, though much smaller, cohort of modern professionals known as “digital nomads.” Few of these individuals work full time for a single company. Many provide knowledge-based services, such as app or website development, to several clients. Others are entrepreneurs who have set up online stores.

While the typical telecommuter lives in the same region as his or her employer, digital nomads—as the term implies—can and do roam. Most require nothing more than a laptop and a reliable Internet connection to work and so take advantage of their mobility by staying in places where the cost of living is lower, or the weather better, than at home. Clusters of digital nomads can be found in Indonesia, Mexico and Thailand, with the Thai city of Chiang Mai often being described as the digital nomad capital of the world.

Taiwan, renowned for its cutting-edge information and communications technology industry, has thousands of public locations that offer free wireless Internet, including convenience stores, coffee shops and transportation hubs. According to the website Numbeo, which claims to be the largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide, consumer prices including rent are around 35 percent lower in Taiwan than in the United States. And last year, US-based website Lifestyle9 ranked Taiwan as the world’s second-safest country for expatriates.

“Taiwan ought to be a digital nomad’s paradise,” waxes a May 2015 article ("10 great co-working spaces in Taiwan"on Tech in Asia, a site describing itself as “the online community for Asia’s technology and startup ecosystem.” The article praises Taiwan’s “ultra-efficient urban infrastructure, affordable prices ... and jaw-dropping Internet speeds.”

But according to digital nomad Greg Hung, Taiwan is often overlooked by roaming professionals. “I was fortunate in that I have Taiwanese friends in Vancouver. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have come here,” says the Canadian national, who decided to relocate to Taipei after visiting to attend a friend’s wedding. “The country is safe and affordable, and I wanted to learn Chinese while figuring out my business.”

(Click here for a videotaped discussion about Taipei between Hung and another digital nomad.)

Hung arrived in August 2013 and stayed for almost two years. He now lives in Chiang Mai, running various online businesses related to video. He films and licenses stock footage in addition to teaching video courses through platforms such as Udemy, an online learning marketplace. “Taiwan is well located, just a cheap flight from Japan, Korea, Singapore and Thailand,” he notes.

Not all facets of Taiwanese society are accommodating to this modern nomadic lifestyle, however. Hung says he was discouraged by certain aspects of Taiwan’s work culture. “It’s still very traditional in that people are expected to work for companies,” he states. “I was asked so many times what I do, and when I explained I’m an Internet entrepreneur, even younger Taiwanese didn’t really get it.”

He says one of the main problems faced by digital nomads coming to Taiwan is that renting apartments, particular on a short-term basis, can be quite inconvenient. “In Chiang Mai, it’s easy to get a one-month rental contract,” he notes. “Also, Taiwan is generally more expensive than Thailand, and the digital nomad community is very small.”

According to the website Nomad List, typical living expenses for a digital nomad in Chiang Mai are US$510 per month. The same website gives a figure of US$1,282 per month for Taipei, US$760 for the central city of Taichung, and US$455 for Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. On his website Chicvoyage Travel, Hung says a digital nomad in Taipei who is single can live quite comfortably on US$1,070 per month...

The photo was supplied by and shows Ian Serlin, an American digital nomad who recently spent time in Taipei with his girlfriend. Serlin's comments can be found in the second half of this longish article, which can be read in its entirety here.