Food & Drink / 吃喝

UNPOPULAR OPINIONS: Do American Restaurants in Taipei Really Represent the American Dream?

It began with this well-meaning article – not badly written at all, though with a dubious title of “The American Dream is Alive and Well in Taipei” for NBC News. It covers a current business trend in Taiwan’s capital that I blog about quite often (and have even written an entire magazine about):

“an explosion of new, American restaurants in Taipei, launched by a collective of Asian-American expats.” For these entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, trying to bring a piece of America to Taiwan, it means leaving behind respectable and high paying jobs to risk it all in an unfamiliar territory. Being closer to family – retired parents and elderly grandparents – is also a shared element in their decision to uproot.

All this is very true, from what I’ve gathered – and being one of these Asian-American expats myself – there are many, many businesses being opened by ABCs in the past few years – not only in the food & beverage sector, but in many other areas. I’m glad that this is being noticed and covered on mainstream media outlets.

And so my beef [ha] isn’t with the business trend that article is trying to dissect, although her whole premise of that these returning ABC expats are bringing this rags-to-riches ” American Dream” back with them is a bit preposterous: “unfamiliar territory” (most of us have been coming back to Taiwan on and off throughout the years). Also I guess from her examples, the American Dream = burgers and fried chicken and pizza? 

If the American Dream is indeed the pursuit of “upward mobility”, as the writer claims – what the hell are ABCs doing even mentioned in this? Perhaps our parents had to struggle, but with the ability to speak Chinese and Asian faces combined with Western education and, many times – “family money” : in terms of socio-economic mobility, Asian-American expats living in Taiwan already have occupy a top spot that they’ve done nothing to earn, a perception that the local media alternately encourage and despises. My point is that these businesses are hardly rags-to-riches, started-from-bottom-now-we-here stories. They’re more of – well, because of course there are always some language and cultural barriers to consider – started-from-the-upper-middle-now-we-here.

That being established my beef has to more to do with the choice of businesses that have been chosen to showcase this particular trend, and how those businesses have been portrayed. It showcases two bigger problems with how ABC businesses are portrayed by both local and international media:

• Wang says Spot offers “unapologetic American food” that he won’t be changing to please the local palette.

I understand that people are misquoted or mis-interpreted in articles, and I’m sure the SPOT dudes are great. However – Unapologetic? You’re not running a revolution (or Rihanna) – you’re opening a restaurant in a market that, unlike nearby cities Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai, who have enough of an expat population – is almost completely local. Taipei is just a different game; that is just a foundational fact. A crucial part of succeeding as an expat business-person in Taiwan is to understand and respect the local Taiwanese market; what they like and dislike, how they interact and share information. If you ignore all that in pursuit of a “taste like home”, you will not be sustainable in the long-run. You won’t see it first, because if there’s anything that I’ve learned about the Taiwanese F&B market, it’s that they love anything new. But this is how it goes: GQ covers you, ELLE covers you – and then no one will care about you anymore in six months – you haven’t educated or changed anyone. You’re just another place serving burgers and fried chicken –  because you haven’t bothered to create a sustainable culture around what you’re doing, or truly tried to invest in your staff (who will most likely be local).

The second example brings to light another disturbing trend in the way Taiwan is being portrayed in the media lately – Taiwan Explorer has a list. You’ve heard of the hunky bean curd seller – the ripped model selling fruit shirtless? And what about the pork princess – the hot girl chopping meat at the wet market? The local media is already ridiculous enough – generating stupid stories like this all time – and the fact that these stories are essentially the only features stories being reported in international media don’t help. And then we finally get a “serious” feature on USATODAY: with real quotes and everything! And the place featured is essentially a shop that subsists on two gimmicks:  #1. “famously handsome pizza guys” & “social media darlings” – male models selling pizza. Does this sound vaguely familiar? Come on.

One of the American food restos I really respect that have been started by ABCs (and note that most of them really don’t like the label of “ABC business” slapped on them) is EIEIO Gastropub (read my review here).

You can find a round-up of my favorite American Restaurants (started by ABCs or otherwise) here.