Station to Station

—Encounters with Southeast-Asian Cultures

2019 / November

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Phil Newell

“It’s no big deal if you don’t understand Southeast Asian cultures—it’s just that you’ll lack the perspective of seeing the world map turned upside down.” So says Lin Zhouxi, founder of the bookstore “SouthEastAsian ­Migrant inspired” (SEAMi).

Looking closely at the languages and customs of Southeast Asian countries, you will discover cultural connections with Taiwan. For Taiwanese, strolling along a local “Indonesia Street” or “Thai Street” can mark the first step in understanding Southeast-Asian cultures. And noticing the types of business that operate in these streets—providing services such as ordering products for delivery overseas, or handling remittances—is the beginning of an understanding of the story of Southeast-Asian migrant workers in Taiwan.

On Sunday afternoons, you will find many migrant workers from Southeast Asia gathered in circles on the black-and-white checkerboard pattern floor of the main concourse of Taipei Railway Station. At the center of these circles are dishes from their homelands, and they chat joyfully as they enjoy the delicious food, filling the air with the warm sound of laughter.

Understanding migrant workers

In front of a branch of Amo Bakery in the station concourse, there are also several Taiwanese sitting on the floor. Beside them is a trunk full of books, mainly in Indonesian, which provide opportunities for migrant workers and long-term immigrants to read books in their mother tongues. This is a mobile library of the Southeast-Asia-themed Brilliant Time Bookstore. It opens each Sunday at precisely 1 p.m., and it does not sell books, but only lends them, in hopes that migrant workers and immigrants far from their homelands can find a sense of freedom through reading.

Library director Ombak Lee and bookstore volunteer Julien Hsu act as guides, taking us to visit the Southeast-­Asian commercial area known as “Indonesia Street” near the station. Indonesia Street is located in the small lanes behind the Cosmos Hotel Taipei, and gets its name from the fact that most of the shoppers here are migrant workers from Indonesia.

Coming alive on Sundays

Businesses on Indonesia Street mainly operate on Sundays, in line with the fact that this is the weekly day off for most migrant workers. On these days off, Indonesia Street is filled with music, conversation, shouts from shop owners selling their wares, and riotously colorful small eateries. It seems like the whole area has come alive, in marked contrast to its dim and quiet appearance on workdays.

A remarkable range of goods and services are offered by businesses on the street, from food and beverages, assorted dry goods, and hair styling to karaoke, remittances, and furniture. First to catch the eye are the Indonesian restaurants, offering all kinds of golden deep-fried foods—deep-fried bananas, deep-fried tofu, and deep-fried soybean cake—as well as satay and Nyonya cake, and self-service buffets with a wide variety of dishes.

Walking on, we come to a shop selling Indonesian wheat cakes. Ombak Lee points to the shop sign and explains that this was a polling place for migrant workers to cast their ballots in Indonesia’s presidential elections. Despite living abroad, he says, Indonesian migrant workers still take an interest in events in their country, and on election day there was a line of people down the entire street.

Next door is a money transfer company, Money­Gram. Each payday, migrant workers come here to send part of their wages back to their families. Julien Hsu says that migrant workers always have to work during the opening hours of banks in Taiwan, so they cannot use them. Meanwhile, firms like MoneyGram have tellers to assist with remittances even on weekends and holidays, so they have come to provide an invaluable service to migrant workers in Taiwan.

One of the shops around Indonesia Street is a dry goods store operated by Chinese-Indonesians. Besides selling household products, it also markets shrimp crackers and tempeh, indispensable items in the Indonesian diet. Shrimp crackers are an import­ant side dish to all kinds of meals, while tempeh, a fermented food made from soybean, is also a mainstay of Indonesian cuisine.

Across the street is the Rajawali company, where migrant workers can order products to be delivered to their families back in Indonesia. It is also the place where Brilliant Time Bookstore stores its mobile library. Rajawali offers everything imaginable, including furniture, appliances, building materials, and even cars, with a wide variety of brands to choose from. Inside the shop, besides there being several sofas on display, the walls are covered with photographs of family members in Indonesia pictured with their “gifts.”

An Indonesian employee in the store explains that some migrant workers fear that their family members may spend money wastefully if it is remitted to them directly, so instead they come here to purchase items and have them delivered to their families by Rajawali in Indonesia. In the run-up to the Islamic New Year, people will often buy items of furniture such as sofas to spruce up their family’s living space, but at other times of the year they generally send practical appliances like washing machines.

Every migrant has a story

Walking back toward Taipei Railway Station, we see Muslim women wearing hijab headscarves in many different styles and colors. Ombak Lee reminds us, “In fact, they are all different.” Most Taiwanese are quick to regard women who wear the hijab as a homogenous group, but this ignores the fact that each comes from a different place and community, and is an individual in her own right. Even if they come from the same cultural background, each woman has a unique life story.

“If we never have any contact with them on a personal level, our understanding of them will come purely from our own imaginations,” says Julien Hsu. Rather than relying on descriptions made by others or written in books, the quickest way to understand Indonesian immigrants and migrant workers is to directly engage them in conversation.

Transportation hubs

Leaving Taipei, we head south to another Southeast-­Asian commercial area, this one near the Tao­yuan Train Station. We invite local Southeast-Asian groups and ­SEAMi bookstore owner Lin ­Zhouxi to guide us to under­stand the history and evolution of the connection between the train station and migrant workers.

At the intersection facing the rear entrance of the station, Lin ­Zhouxi points toward the nearby Gui­shan Industrial Park and says that large numbers of migrant workers began arriving here due to the increasing demand for labor starting in the 1990s. Since good public transport makes the area around the train station easily accessible, migrant workers gradually made it a gathering place on their days off. However, in recent years, because many Southeast-Asian shops have sprung up near the ­industrial park, migrant workers no longer make the trip to the train station area just to shop.

Changes to Taoyuan’s local traffic system have also altered the places where migrant workers congregate. Previ­ously there was a large open space behind the Tao­yuan Train Station, which provided a great venue for migrant workers to spend their days off. However, about three years ago, to help relieve traffic congestion around the station, the space was turned into a parking lot, so they lost this gathering place. Lin ­Zhouxi adds that in future, when the station is moved underground and new lines of the Taoyuan Metro come into operation, the situation will shift again, bringing about further changes in the relation­ship between migrant workers and the city.

A Thai restaurant owner’s perspective

Most of the migrant workers who first came to Tao­yuan were from Thailand. When the number of Thai workers was at its peak, there were as many as 35 Thai restaurants operating in the area behind the Tao­yuan Train Station. Of those that remain today, the one with the longest history is the Sawasdee Thai Restaurant. The owner has by now been operating a restaurant in Taiwan for nearly 20 years, and her grandson is in the fifth grade of primary school.

The décor in the restaurant conveys a powerful Thai ambience. On one wall there hangs a picture of King Rama V (1853‡1910), and there are “money trees,” commonly seen in temples in Thailand, set out on the tables. (Money trees are tree-shaped objects with branches of split bamboo on which people hang banknotes as offerings.) On another wall there is an altar to the Buddha, and Thai dramas play on the television.

“My cooking style has never changed!” The owner insists on staying true to the original flavors of Thai cuisine. She continues to use traditional seasonings, and makes no concessions to Taiwanese tastes. This is why her restaurant is filled with the rich aromas of coconut milk, curry, and spicy and sour flavorings.

Despite the authenticity of her cuisine, the restaurant has been attracting fewer and fewer customers over time. The owner says that Thai workers no longer come to Taiwan, preferring instead to work in South Korea, where wages are higher. “Now all the people who come to eat here are Vietnamese!” The shift in the nationality of patrons reflects a change in the ethnic composition of migrant workers in Taoyuan.

Introducing Southeast-Asian culture

In the past, relatively few migrant workers visited the commercial area around the front entrance of the Taoyuan Train Station. But since the opening of the Taoyuan New Immigrants Culture Hall in July 2018, there has been an influx of immigrants and migrant workers here, attending language classes and taking part in activities to highlight Southeast-­Asian ­cultures.

On the last Sunday in September 2019, SEAMi organized a spice market in front of the culture hall. They invited immigrant mothers from Southeast Asia to prepare dishes from their homelands, enabling Taiwanese to try these foods and bringing a taste of home to Southeast Asians.

One of the immigrant mothers on hand, Emy Kuan, who also teaches Indonesian at the New Immigrants Culture Hall, proudly says that the clothes she is wearing are the national attire of Indonesia, made with batik textiles.

An Indonesian finds faith in Taiwan

When Kuan is asked about the fact that the large majority of Indonesians follow Islam, she immediately responds, “I am a Christian!”

Kuan, who was born in Jakarta, explains that the Indo­nesian government requires every citizen’s religion to be stated on their ID cards, so she wrote down something at random to meet this requirement. When anti-Chinese riots broke out in Indonesia in 1998 Kuan, who is partly ethnic Chinese, came to Taiwan, where she met her current husband.

Living in a foreign land, anxiety kept her awake at night. One day, on an impulse, she entered a Christian church, after which her feelings of anxiety disappeared and she began to sleep soundly. There­after she became a Christian.

Kuan’s story overturns the stereotypes most Taiwanese have about Indonesian religion, and is a great example of the advantages of direct contact over imagination. If your understanding stops at the fact that more than 80% of Indonesians are Muslim, you are likely to overlook the personal experiences of migrant workers and immigrants with different faiths.

“Every migrant worker or long-term immigrant has their own unique life story.” When you step into a Southeast-­Asian commercial area to try exotic foods, such things as exchanging pleasantries with the owner or chatting with the migrant workers sitting next to you all provide opportunities to see and understand the world from a new perspective, and to overturn our preconceptions about Southeast-Asian cultures.

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