February 4, 2016

Fighting over breakfast in Taipei

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I'm back home in Taipei for the Lunar New Year holidays, spending some time in my empty apartment.  I wanted to get some of the classic breakfast that I don't get to have in Hong Kong, and one of the most famous breakfast joints just happen to be somewhat close to my apartment...

I arrived at Huashan Market (華山市場) shortly before 8am, and of course there was already a line all the way down to the street level for Fu Hang Dou Jiang (阜杭豆漿)... but I took comfort in that the line wasn't as long as it was on my last visit.  How wrong I would turn out to be!

As it turns out, it took me about 50 minutes to get to the counter to order my soy milk.  It then took me another few to order my food, and when I finally got it, it had been 65 minutes since I started at the back of the line.  This was much, much worse than I had expected, considering that I went on a weekday and relatively early.

A couple of reasons for this: China has started their Lunar New Year holiday season, and there was definitely a number of Mainland Chinese tourists lining up.  Tourists coming here is nothing new, as the place is pretty famous.  But the issue I noticed this morning was that they don't just come and buy for themselves.  Some of these tourists - along with some locals - come and place an order for a large group of people.  I saw a Chinese tourist place an order for FIFTEEN thick baked flatbreads (厚燒餅) for takeout, while there were others who ordered six, eight, or ten.

This place is famous for their thick version of baked flatbreads, and almost no one orders the "thin" version that is available just about everywhere.  The problem is that there are only two charcoal ovens here, and each one will only bake about 20 of these flatbreads at any given time.  So if one customer comes and puts in an order for 15, that takes out most of the production from one oven.  That leaves the rest of the crowd standing around waiting for the next batch - and hence the extended wait time.

With the long wait times, it's natural that customers get impatient and agitated.  The cashier plays traffic controller and assigns the available goods to the waiting customers, and she has enough experience to try to optimize the process to clear the deck.  Sometimes this means that customers are given goods out of order.  And this was exactly what happened with me.

I had been lining up behind a family of Mainland Chinese tourists, and they ordered 5 of the flat breads while I ordered one.  While we all waited at the front of the line, the cashier decided to assign me one of the last flat breads from a particular batch.  This was a logical choice, since there weren't enough in this batch to fill the order of 5 for the family in front of me, while assigning one to me would have satisfied my order and sent me away.  If you know something about logistics and operations research, you'd know this makes sense.

One of the women from the Mainland Chinese family wasn't happy about this, and complained that they were treated unfairly.  I had left the waiting line by then, and didn't want to get involved in this argument.  Somehow, a simple argument turned ugly, and became a shouting match between the Mainland Chinese woman and another local Taiwanese woman who had nothing to do with this incident.

The local woman started calling the other person a whore, and told her to stop "working it" in Taiwan and go back to the Mainland.  The Mainland woman didn't take this kindly, and told the Taiwanese woman to hurry up and get in a coffin.  Within moments, this became a show of anger between two sides of the Taiwan Straits.  How did we get here?  We all have the same ancestry, so why have things gotten so ugly that we've become so full of hatred for each other?

There are similar sentiments over in Hong Kong, and we've seen that erupt over the last couple of years at various protests.  There are various reasons for the animosity felt by the people of Hong Kong towards the Mainland Chinese, but I would have thought that many of those reasons do not apply to the Taiwanese.  So why the hostility?

Anyway, I guess it just felt really strange that something as innocuous as a simple breakfast item became the spark that started a shouting match.  This little (OK, so maybe it's not THAT little...) baked thick flat bread with deep-fried crullers and omelette (厚燒餅夾油條蛋餅) is my breakfast of choice when I'm home.  The thick flat bread that Fu Hang is known for is fairly unique, and pretty tasty after baking in those charcoal ovens.

Add in a thin pan-fried omelette, and the deep-fried fatty goodness of the crullers, and you can understand why people are willing to line up for this.

But this will probably be the last time I'm willing to stand in line for this.  The current system sucks, since there's not enough production capacity to meet demand.  And I have better things to do than to waste an hour of my time standing in line.

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