Turning Life Around

Downhome Thai Cuisine in Taoyuan

2018 / March

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Taoyuan is a city of light industry, so it has long had a large population of foreign laborers. With so many Thai factory workers, Thai cuisine has also thrived here. The “Thai-Style Yong­­shun Snack Bar” is located behind the Tao­yuan Train Station on a street featuring numerous Southeast-Asian businesses. Its fresh and authentic Thai food has been a hit with Thais and Taiwanese alike.

Yongshun’s owner, Zhao Xiu­lan, has lived in Taiwan for nearly 40 years. Although her path here has been a bumpy one, full of times both good and bad, through it all she has proved as resilient as grass, bending but never breaking. “I love Taiwan and I love Taiwanese people.” Compassionate in spirit, she is grateful for the blessings that life has brought her. “All I ask is that my family is together and safe.” When she first came to Taiwan, she couldn’t stand the cold winters, but quickly, thanks to the love and warmth of her family, she became inured to the hardships of being overseas.

Arriving in Taiwan at 19

Born in Bangkok to a large family that struggled to feed its many mouths, Xiu­lan was the fifth sibling and a smart and obedient child. Her mother, who had seven children all told, died when Xiu­lan was just five. Her father, a plumber and electrician, had to bear the burden of juggling his career with caring for his children.

“When I was young, Papa would say that eating water spinach would brighten one’s eyes, so he gave us it ­every day.” When Zhao speaks about her childhood, there is a bittersweet quality to it, a sense of sorrow amid the nostalgia. Yet, however poor the family was, her father made sure that the children got the nutrition they needed to grow. “Every day, when I would open my lunchbox, I would find an egg. What’s more, my father always found ways to mix things up to create some variety.” She thus came to revere her father’s cooking.

When she was 19, Zhao came to Taiwan with her maternal aunt. They lived in Tam­sui and worked in a bread factory. “Money was easy to make in Taiwan. When I lived in Bangkok, I earned 1800 Baht a month, but once I moved to Taiwan, I was making NT$10,800 a month.” Recalling her work situation when she first arrived in Taiwan, Zhao’s eyes can’t help but brighten. “The first time I went back to Thailand, I came loaded with gifts and placed 7,500 Baht in my father’s hand.” The expression of pride on her father’s face is still vividly etched in her mind.

But the winters in northern Taiwan made Zhao shiver, accustomed as she was to four summer-like seasons. Within a year, she had returned to Thailand. After two months back home, however, her aunt in Taiwan grew ill, and she came back to look after her. “It was as if I was destined to come to Taiwan.” Some six months later, she married a Taiwanese man who was more than 20 years her elder.

“He was a good person and treated me well.” But with their age disparity and the language barrier, as well as different customs and habits, they ended up divorcing.

After the marriage ended, Zhao, with the help of her friends, moved to Tao­yuan’s Gui­shan, where she operated a general store. At 28, she remarried. “I like children but I wasn’t successful in my attempts to have them.” For her dreams of motherhood, Zhao spent several hundred thousand NT dollars on in-vitro fertilization procedures. Sadly, all three attempts proved fruitless.

Karmic debt

“It was thanks to the benevolent guidance of the Bodhisattva Guan­yin, the Goddess of Mercy, that I opened a restaurant.” But what she originally regarded as a gift from heaven turned out to be the first in a series of a trials by fire.

“When I first opened the restaurant, I was continually having to borrow money to pay off old loans. The spiral of revolving debt almost pulled me under.” When she recalls those hard times, Zhao frowns, and her eyes well up with tears. “My debts were mounting, and I wasn’t able to make any money. People from my hometown would often come to eat, and they wouldn’t pay. Or they’d keep a tab for an extended time, and I wouldn’t be able to collect when they moved back to Thailand.” Then she experienced a series of unfortunate events: “NT$60,000 worth of phone cards were stolen, and the coins were broken out of the ka­ra­oke machine.” Yet the restaurant’s operations required cash to purchase produce every day, and there were seasonings to buy and rent to pay. It made her want to run away.

The toll that this crisis took on her mind in terms of depression far exceeded the fatigue it imposed on her body. “In my last life, I must have accrued substantial debts, leaving me with a lot to pay off this time around.” The chronic turmoil and desperation imposed a heavy psychological burden.

“Things started to go more smoothly when my younger siblings came over from Thailand to help.” Having survived three tough years, Zhao was at last able to enjoy sunnier days. “I was able to pay off my debts gradually. I am very grateful to the Goddess of Mercy. She blessed and protected me.” As an expression of Zhao’s gratitude, the restaurant has a shrine to the bodhisattva, featuring a statue that came originally from Keelung.

“I love Taiwanese food. Beef noodles used to be my favorite, but for religious reasons, I no longer eat beef.” When she had been in Taiwan for just a year, Zhao, then 20, slipped and fell and found herself confined to bed, unable to walk. “I prayed to the Goddess of Mercy to bless me and allow me to walk again. I promised that if I regained my health, I would no longer eat beef for the rest of my life.” True to her word, Zhao has not taken a bite of beef in the 30-odd years since.

Customers are family

“The taste of food is secondary. What’s most important is that it’s fresh.” Having built a reputation on word of mouth, the restaurant has a steady stream of customers, both new and old, who come through its doors every day. Preparing to open another restaurant in February, Zhao takes a principled line on controlling the quality of ingredients: “You can only give to your customers what you would eat yourself.” Zhao is intent on keeping prices low but quality high.

“With a small business, you’ve got to be willing to get things done yourself.” Committed to authentic­-tasting Thai food, Zhao makes a trip every month to Thailand to acquire various ingredients. Yet having resided in Taiwan for more than 30 years, she long ago became familiar with the flavor preferences of Taiwanese, and understands how best to balance sour, sweet, bitter and hot flavors in a manner that appeals to the local clientele. “I’m constantly adjusting. I often say to customers: If it’s not good, tell me.” Despite being a cook for decades, she is far from smug and self-­satisfied, and she is always willing to listen to her customers’ opinions.

The tonic of gratitude

“If you don’t like me, that’s OK. So long as I like you and smile at you every day, a day will come when you smile back.” She has used smiles to overcome one hard knock after another in her life.

Zhao Xiu­lan has long been the central pillar of support for her family. She has provided financial help to her elders and siblings and even selflessly supports her nieces and nephews, loving them as if they were her own children. “Now my younger brothers do all the purchasing of ingredients for the restaurant. They’re up to handling these responsibilities on their own.” Seeing them hard at work, walking back and forth in the restaurant, she feels blessed despite all the struggles she has had to endure. “Taiwan is my home. Now I pray for just one thing—that the family may stay together at peace.” An appropriate wish for the proprietor of a restaurant whose name means “eternal peace.”        

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