"Cats Are Always Right!"
Tofu, peanuts, experimental schools, and other delights from Hualien.
Hello from Hualien! We have spent the past couple of days on the eastern coast of Taiwan. It’s known for being one of the most beautiful areas in Taiwan, as well as one of the poorest. This is also where Albert’s parents grew up, and he nurtures fond memories of traveling here to sweep tombs. In the coming months we plan to write pieces inspired by this visit. Here is a sneak peek.
Why is a generation of urbanites moving to rural areas? What drives them to revive traditional practices? From making organic tofu to building experimental schools that value local knowledge, they’ve left behind city life to create something new.
Two of these newcomers to Hualien are the owners of Mimanten Tofu （味萬田）. They worked in medicine in Taipei before deciding to transform a dilapidated soy sauce factory into an organic tofu manufacturing plant. This is the most delicious tofu we’ve ever tasted. It’s soft, silky, and fresh, and it doesn’t shred into pieces when you pick up it with your chopsticks.
Another couple owns Meihao Peanuts, where they make mouth-watering peanut butter, desserts, ice cream, and other treats. They both were embedded in the contemporary art world in Taipei, and left it ten years ago to take up peanut farming. For the husband, it was a homecoming. He’d grown up in Hualien, where he helped his mother plant and harvest crops. The work was grueling, and as a child he never imagined he’d ever follow in her footsteps. But as he grew older, he began to grapple with how globalization had caused farmland to disappear. His work, along with his wife and their team, attempts to preserve traditional agricultural techniques that are dying out.
We visited a KIPP-inspired public school in Sanmin, a small rural community, and talked to the youngest principal in Taiwan. Like many areas surrounding it, Sanmin was once bustling; now there are only 50 students in the entire school. Most are children of watermelon farmers, and represent a mix of new immigrants from countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam, indigenous people, and Han Chinese. The school is doing innovative work to support social and emotional learning, as well as to connect students to their local communities.
We also got to eat some astoundingly cheap food. Michelle’s new favorite cuisine is Hakkanese. The salt egg tofu melts in your mouth and goes well with rice. We also loved the “wild vegetable” soup (taro and pumpkin!). But the show stopper was a salt-baked fish.
We stopped by Albert’s mother’s childhood home in Yuli. The big banyan tree next to the house is still thriving. As Albert’s mother recounts, her own mother, a refugee from China tended to a small business, so she had to interact with a diverse range of people. A whiz at languages, she quickly picked up the diverse languages of the people who lived in her area. Though illiterate and poor, she learned Taiwanese so well that she speak it without an accent. She could also speak indigenous languages and Hakka. Over time she also taught herself how to read Chinese and write characters.
Years later, she remembered the generosity of local Taiwanese during her most desperate moments. While nursing twin baby boys, for instance, she ran out of breast milk and couldn’t afford to buy powdered milk. A kind Taiwanese neighbor gave her some, telling her to pay for it later.
In Hualien, you’re surrounded by mountains and the sky is constantly drawn by their outline. Layers and layers of clouds move, hide, thicken, change shape—all in a day or an hour. It’s just breathtaking.
And finally — can somebody explain to us how Taiwan become a cat-loving country? Cats are everywhere: in coffee shops, on murals, on book covers. We know cat-love has intensified with President Tsai being a cat lady—she has two, Think Think and Ah Tsai, who appear frequently in her social media posts—but when did the lovefest begin? Our baby delights in cats more than anything, so we’re feeling good about these changes. She points and says, “Chat! Chat!” (Alas, this word, and “dodo,” appear to be the only French words she has retained from our time in Paris.)
Next Week: Our First Guest Essay, “Beat, Our Migrant Hearts”
We are honored to publish a guest essay by Bonny Ling. In an intimate and eloquent piece, she explores her own family’s migration history, collapses the distinctions between “expat” and “migrant,” and introduces our Migrant Workers Speak project, to be hosted by Broad and Ample Road. Look for it next Sunday.
Book Club This Week: Girl, Woman, Other
Our book club is this coming Friday, November 19th at 10 AM EST or 8 PM EST. It is never too late to join! You can come to either or both. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (or reply to this email) for the zoom link. No pressure to finish the book. See you soon.
Chinese-language newsletter on Thursdays
This week we published a Chinese-language translation of Albert’s piece on returning to Taiwan. Thank you to our wonderful translator Lisung Hsu (徐麗松). If you are receiving Chinese language newsletters and do not want to be, you can go to “My Account” and unclick the box next to the Chinese characters. (We would do it for you but Substack does not yet have that function.)
We’re collecting a batch of reader responses from across the world. Feel free to write in about anything. And if you want to say hi but don’t have too much to say, send a photo of your whereabouts. We would love that. <3