Thank God it’s Thursday!By Derek On October 31, 2011 Under Failed Trades, Post
A number of years ago, I was visiting Taiwan for a week with a good client of mine, Steve from Canada and he wanted to spend the weekend there to “look around outside of Taipei.” We decided we would take a train to Hualien on the east coast which is known for a stunningly beautiful gorge always cloaked in mysterious mist. Through the gorge is a narrow winding road that the Japanese built during their pre-WWII occupation of the island using Chinese labor and teaspoons. It is an engineering marvel. All good. So we bought our tickets, half a case of beer and boarded our train. The trip there was beautiful and importantly, lasted long enough for us to finish most of beer. When we arrived at our sleepy destination we were feeling well toasted and happy in the late afternoon. After checking into the hotel it was time to roam the town and see what exotic Hualien had to offer.
Chewing Betel Nut
As in most of Taiwan, the streets were cluttered with scooters, outdoor markets and friendly locals. The area is noted for being a traditional stomping ground of pre-Chinese aboriginal peoples and we noticed some of the populace looked more Eurasian than Chinese, which added to the uniqueness of our visit. After a dinner of “san-bei-ji,” or “three cup chicken,” we had more drinks and were walking along the street when one of us got the bright idea to buy some “bin-lang,” or betel nut chew. In southern Taiwan the roads are stained red, not from scooter accidents, although seeing the way they fly down narrow alleys you may wonder, but rather from red spit squirting out the gap-toothed mouths of the happy betel nut-chewing locals. This is big business in Taiwan and betel nut is the country’s second largest cash crop after rice. Much like tobacco “chew” in the US, the refined delicacy of betel nut is mainly enjoyed by daft old people and working class men. The marketing of betel nut is a Taiwan original in that little glass-enclosed metal betel nut stands can be found scattered all over the place, quite often with the precious goods sold by young, beautiful women wearing just lingerie. Yeah, I’ll pay up for that. Alcohol overwhelming good judgment, Steve wanted to give it a try so we did. Chewing bin-lang takes practice because you don’t want to swallow any of the toxic powdered lime and tobacco paste that is sandwiched in the nut and you don’t want the red juice dribbling down your shirt. So there we stood on the busy roadside, two foreigners chomping on betel nut, leaning over to spit out great streams of blood red juice all over the place. If you surmised the local people stared at us with surprise, you would be correct because A) there are almost no foreigners in Hualien, B) foreigners never chew betel nut, and C) it tastes terrible!
To wash the awful acid/dirt taste out of our mouths we started off on another bar crawl. Steve spied a “TGIF,” or “Friday’s” down the road and there we marched. What luck, to find a real “Friday’s” in distant Hualien. The place was kind of empty when we walked in but the music was loud and the staff were all decked out in the traditional red and white striped shirts, some with goofy hats, others with badge covered suspenders, and all were friendly and festive. We took two stools at the bar and looked at the menu. “Welcome to Thursdays!” it read. Thursdays? Was this some kind of misprint, or joke? We ordered a couple of beers and were discussing this little mystery when the Taiwanese boss came out from the back room and started chatting to us across the bar. Mr. Tsai was a nice guy and spoke some English. One of the enjoyable things about a Taiwan visit is how friendly and sincere the people are. He wanted to know where we were from and why we were in Hualien and to tell us what a great place it is. So, I asked him about the misprint in the menu. He told us, no, that is right, this wasn’t a “TGIF, Friday’s,” it was a “TGIT, Thursday’s!” I was kind of surprised and asked him point blank, “But isn’t this just a blatant rip-off of the original Friday’s franchise?” Mr. Tsai laughed and told us with great sincerity a line I will never forget, “No. Not at all. Our stripes are thinner!”