Living and working in Taiwan

Taiwan

The Restaurant

About six months after I arrived I was presented with an opportunity that required some big decisions. An Italian guy who used to work for the shoe companies had opened a little street front establishment with a bar and about six tables. People would stop by for a beer and when enough people were hungry he’d cook up a big bowl of pasta and serve it family style. He wasn’t really making any money, he may even have been losing a little, but he had larger plans.

I would have been just another customer of the new much larger restaurant that was in the works if it wasn’t for Luigi’s birthday. I had become friends with Luigi while playing chess with him before his little tavern opened around 6pm. I’d always thought I knew how to play chess, but Luigi showed me I just knew how to move the pieces. He was passionate about chess–he often played through games by grand masters written down in books to learn from them. He taught me basic chess theory, and, though it would take a couple years before I even had a chance of beating him, I soon could truthfully say I played the game of chess.

When I learned of his upcoming birthday, I offered to cook him dinner. He seemed to think that was a fine idea, though I’m sure he didn’t expect much from an American traveler. But I had become passionate about food when I got out of college. I spent hours watching cooking shows and experimenting in the kitchen. I started with The Frugal Gourmet and moved up to The Great Chefs series on Discovery Channel. I became quite good and even cooked in one restaurant for a little while. That evening I cooked up a nice meal with a Thai shrimp and mango coconut soup and a grilled medallions of pork tenderloin with orange cilantro sauce, not your typical Italian fare, but good food. Luigi was curious and I told him about my television education and restaurant experience. He must have been thinking about asking to join the venture during dinner as I talked. After dinner he brought out some scotch and outlined the plan. He and his Taiwanese partner had already picked out a place and the restaurant would be opening in four weeks. He said ten percent would cost $10,000, but more importantly I’d have to commit to working.

I had not even met the Taiwanese guy who was to be the majority owner when I decided to take the plunge. I did not have the money so I placed a few excited international phone calls to explain the plan to my parents, my uncle and a few friends. I realized that I was presenting them with a rather risky and unorthodox proposal, so I offered them a fairly high interest rate on the loans–%17 on a one year note. Even so, this was just friends and family coming through; I don’t think anyone truly expected to see their money back.

A few days later, bank wires completed, money in hand, I joined the partnership. The Chinese still prefer cash and they handle it well. Clerks behind the tellers fan and whip notes around with precision. They are stewards of a steady assembly line. The bills are spun out of counters, wrapped and bundled. The bags tossed into a pile contributing to among the highest hard currency reserves in the world on a small island with only 23 million people. I walked out of the bank with about 250 $1000 Taiwan dollar notes–currently the largest note with a value of about $30. The only other time I ever had a stack of cash like that was in Vietnam and that’s because the largest note in the Vietnamese unit of currency the Dong is worth about a dollar. On that trip I was traveling with two other people. One of them was the designated dong-carrier. We cashed in three to four hundred U.S. dollars in Saigon and walked out of the bank with a backpack full of money.

I handed my new partner, Russ, a few rubber banded stacks of cash, and he set about counting. Like most Chinese who deal with foreigners frequently, he had taken an English name and stuck to it rigorously. His real name was Luo Hwai Ren and his nickname was Syau Luo, which just means Little Luo, but now he was Russell and only his parents and a couple old friends used his Chinese names–even his wife called him Russell. I found the process of choosing a new name as a teenager very interesting. In the beginning many of these kids wore there names much like an style of clothing. Many freely changed names changing one from another much as they moved from one fashion statement to another. I never did get completely used to this name skating. One might see a girl named Apple, and when you greet her, she might cheerfully inform you that, “No, no, she’s Sarah, now.” What do you say, “Oh that’s a nice name,” or “Great choice,” or “I’m happy for you,” or do you ask, “What was wrong with Apple?” There’s really no answer, you just try to remember to use the new name and after a while the name becomes an identity. Eventually, as they matured they usually choose a fairly sober name and stick with it; but, when I was teaching my attendance sheet often looked more like a vocabulary list than a group of names. My favorite was Box. Maybe it was Box himself, he was a little feisty kid who made it no secret he was not interested in being in class. His name, though, was always my favorite.

The next month passed quickly. A contractor threw up some paint, built some booths and a bar and put some workbenches into a cramped kitchen, and just like that what had been an under- patronized tea house was christened Luigi’s Italian Restaurant.

We bought an old stainless steel eight-burner stove that had two blast furnaces for ovens and seemed heavier than a car; a few refrigerators and furniture and paintings for the dining room, and soon we figured we were ready for opening day.

About a week before we were scheduled to open, we sat around a table in the dining room of the restaurant and tossed out ideas for dishes. Luigi’s original idea had been to keep it simple and make the place more of a pub, but with my interest in food I pushed for a more complete menu. Even so, our first menu only consisted of a soup, five salads, six pasta dishes, and a variety of pizzas.

If this whole process seems a little blasé, it was. Russ delivered a clearly printed copy of the menu to be typed on a computer. A couple days later we received a proofing copy strewn with spelling errors. I made the necessary corrections and suggested we have a look at the next copy before printing. Needless to say, this did not happen. A couple days later, Russ brought in a package and removed our menus: one laminated page with the food menu on one side and drinks on the other…. and plenty of spelling errors. I made some exasperated motion with my hands and complained, but Russ looked unperturbed. He waved me off and said, “It’s no problem, we can fix them.” I was incredulous, but I could see that I had lost this battle. Sure enough the menus soon had the correct spellings pasted on over the bad… and the lamination. Maybe he was right, we were opening the next day and we needed the menus pronto. Who could wait for time-consuming proofreading? He knew all along we just had to get by; I thought we had to do things right. As a consolation, most of the other English language menus in the city had spelling errors also. Luckily for them, the owners and patrons were oblivious in most cases, somehow I think Russ would have preferred not knowing, also.

Opening day came and the promise of free beer–passed primarily by word of mouth–brought a capacity crowd. We prepared a buffet of pasta dishes and salads that was well-received but the beer did not flow as freely as promised. The San Miguel dealer had given us a couple cold boxes to chill the beer as it came to tap, but these poorly designed stainless steel boxes were no friend to a good workout. Hands, outstretched with empty cups, clamored for refills and soon the spigot was spouting a wealth of foam. It seems that the electric motor generates so much heat during high-use that the beer is turned to foam before being chilled. Try explaining that to a sweaty thirsty crowd who by this point would gladly have paid for a frosty beer.

Over the next few months our business steadily increased, but unevenly. Some nights we’d have no more than a few tables while others we’d fill up and run a wait. On those nights we had three people in the kitchen and we just couldn’t keep up. Orders would sometimes take 40 minutes and that was with us working at a breakneck pace. Sometimes on weekends these rushes would last three hours in a blazing hot kitchen with hardly a chance to think about a glass of water. We used to walk out of that kitchen dazed and sweaty. We were one hell of a sight. I’d heave myself onto the bar and a pint of beer would be down my throat in less than a couple minutes.

We started off with expatriates making up about 75% of our business. If we were to grow though we knew that had to change. Sure enough by the time I left, our business was probably 60% Chinese. Serving these two crowds turned out to be quite a trick. Many of the locals really had little or no experience with Western style food. Despite the presence of soy sauce in a great deal of their diet, the Taiwanese turned out to be very sensitive to salt. We tried to be careful but we had plenty of dishes sent back for being to salty. Noodles were also a tricky issue. While traditional Italian cooking calls for al dente pasta, the noodle in Chinese cuisine is served relatively soft. Again we erred with the majority–a compromise any Chinese restaurant is familiar with in this country–and cooked the pasta longer than would normally be done in in Italian cuisine. Another amusing detail was the “more is better” style of ordering pizza. We had a full list of toppings for our pizza which catered to local tastes as well as Western. Our toppings included shrimp, squid, ham, salami, and a host of vegetables. We never intended for one pizza to carry that kind of load, but it was not rare for a Taiwanese table to order one of these monsters: a thin crust pizza with 1″ 1/2 of toppings. By the way squid isn’t bad on pizza. The squid does have to be cooked first though, because of the amount of water released during cooking.

As the months went by we settled into a pretty good business. I worked long hours: 12 hours a day with one day off, but that’s not unusual when you start your own business. Our one running skirmish involved our neighbors. We were situated in the bottom floor of an apartment building, and our bustling night life was causing some problems. Not only was noise a problem–we were open until 3am–our electrical needs were taxing the building’s system, and we occasionally plunged the whole structure into darkness when a fuse tripped. The fact that a bunch of crazy foreigners were running around at all hours of the day and night didn’t help any, either.

Like most operations our size in Taiwan, we were a wild chicken; that saved us the cost of getting a license, but ceded the uncertain protection of the law. After a few months the neighbors began complaining vociferously to my Chinese partner about the disruptions. Also the owner of the main expatriate pub, The Frog, just a few blocks down from us, had taken a hit in business and he wasn’t all that happy about our existence either. We hadn’t racked up to many friends and that precipitated the next incident.

Because neither Luigi nor I had work permits we were always vigilant to the possibility of a raid. Bushibans are raided all the time in Taiwan. A couple times the local cops ambled in and Luigi and I would sprint from the kitchen and try to blend in with the crowd, not an easy task in our food splattered clothing, but we tried. These were always false alarms though, these guys were just looking for some free beers.

One night about 5 months after we opened, one of the waitresses ran in with an alarmed look and told us the police were here again. By this time we were leaving the kitchen with practiced non-chalance during these events, but this was a different case. A ring of maybe 15 cops was standing shoulder to shoulder with their hands clasped behind their backs, their eyes locked militarily forward seemingly oblivious to the dumbfounded collection of hushed foreigners. Their sergeant asked for the proper licensing–unheard of in Taiwan–and since we had none, shut us down. Someone had gotten to the local government.

The next day we sat in our empty restaurant glumly waiting for Russ. When he arrived he acted like this was a minor inconvenience. He told us that we had racked up about $15,000 in fines and that we’d have to get the place up to spec and get a license. This is good he said, “Now the neighbors can’t bother us.” That seemed to be looking on the bright side. But, could we get a license? Luigi and I were thinking this could be a catastrophe. We’d sunk $100,000 into the place and we may never have the chance to earn the money back. “I just have to search some Guanxi,” Russ said, using the Chinese word that literally translates to relationship, but covers almost every aspect of the way Chinese interact. Guanxi, is much more than relationship, it is a stew of bribes, nepotism, friendship and favors and explains the initial building blocks of a relationship when you arrive in a Chinese community. You will notice that people you meet are always wanting to do favors for you. This is not from a wellspring of generosity–though they are genuinely friendly people–nor is it a calculating attempt to bring you into their debt, though that will be the ultimate scenario, if you do not extract your own debt. The resulting web of favors creates the bond of trust and dependence that is another pillar of Chinese society.

So Russ was off to trump our enemies, guanxi. And so he did. He transferred ownership of the restaurant to his sister who had a different surname and we changed the name of the restaurant. “Forget the fines, we don’t have to pay,” he said. Our old contractor came in and did some redecorating and in a week we had a license to operate as Napoli Restaurant. Who knows if any money changed hands. We changed our hours to accommodate the neighbors. The local cops kept coming in for their free beers and we had a chance to earn our money back. The fines just went away. No one ever came after Russell. He must have found some guanxi.

This is business in China. Which explains why everyone has a joint venture partner. A harbor pilot is imperative when it comes to navigating the labyrinth of shoals hidden beneath the murky surface of Chinese business.

I ended up working in the restaurant for two years. We did well enough that I paid all my creditors off with interest by the end of the first year. On the other hand I did not make a great deal of money; but, the experience and education were priceless. After two years and a half years though, I decided to return to The U.S. I was now 30, and I decided I needed to reacquaint myself with this country and my family.

From that first evening, when I rode the bus into downtown Taipei, along the congested highway that ran through Taipei’s ramshackle outskirts giving me my first glimpses of the rectangular tiled buildings, draped in a raiment of riotous neon, advertising everything from shoe repair to KTV and restaurants, that make every city on the island look alike, to the congested city streets, where the bus, flanked by a swarm of moped riders, many gauzed against noxious fumes by what looked like cotton surgical masks, haltingly made its way to the train station where I got off and stepped into the Chinese community, I had come a long way. But I also knew that these few years on Taiwan were just the first chapter of many to come. I had grown up and found direction, but up until then, everything had happened almost accidentally, I had trusted caprice and my personality to propel me through life. I now knew that I had to take a more constructive role in shaping the remainder of my journey.

By Mark Cannon

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