Dispatch

On the Front Lines of the China-Taiwan Food Fight

A Brooklyn start-up hits back against Beijing’s pressure campaign.

Farmers harvest pineapples in Pingtung county, Taiwan
Farmers harvest pineapples in Pingtung county, Taiwan
Farmers harvest pineapples in Pingtung county, Taiwan on March 16, 2021. A Chinese ban on pineapple imports from Taiwan has sparked a flood of patriotic buying of the fruit. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images
By , a New York-based writer and editor.

NEW YORK—When China banned imports of Taiwanese pineapples in March 2021, Lisa Cheng Smith and Lillian Lin decided to respond. As the owners of Yun Hai, a Brooklyn-based Taiwanese food market, the pair are passionate about championing Taiwan, a nation often overshadowed and threatened by its more powerful neighbor.

“When you grow up in Taiwan, it’s very obvious how overlooked it is by the international community,” said Lin, a native of Taipei.

The Taiwanese pineapple industry is highly dependent on Chinese consumers; 90 percent of Taiwanese pineapple exports end up in China. Beijing said its ban was due to the presence of “harmful creatures” on the fruit that could threaten Chinese crops. But most experts saw the ongoing measure as a strategic move by China to pressure Taiwan politically—and possibly push Taiwanese farmers to blame the current Taiwanese government for worsening the island’s relations with China.

Farmers harvest pineapples in Pingtung county, Taiwan
Farmers harvest pineapples in Pingtung county, Taiwan

Farmers harvest pineapples in Pingtung county, Taiwan on March 16, 2021. A Chinese ban on pineapple imports from Taiwan has sparked a flood of patriotic buying of the fruit. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK—When China banned imports of Taiwanese pineapples in March 2021, Lisa Cheng Smith and Lillian Lin decided to respond. As the owners of Yun Hai, a Brooklyn-based Taiwanese food market, the pair are passionate about championing Taiwan, a nation often overshadowed and threatened by its more powerful neighbor.

“When you grow up in Taiwan, it’s very obvious how overlooked it is by the international community,” said Lin, a native of Taipei.

The Taiwanese pineapple industry is highly dependent on Chinese consumers; 90 percent of Taiwanese pineapple exports end up in China. Beijing said its ban was due to the presence of “harmful creatures” on the fruit that could threaten Chinese crops. But most experts saw the ongoing measure as a strategic move by China to pressure Taiwan politically—and possibly push Taiwanese farmers to blame the current Taiwanese government for worsening the island’s relations with China.

As a small business, Yun Hai lacked the infrastructure to import large quantities of fresh pineapple from Taiwan to New York. So its owners turned to the dried version. In Taiwan, dried fruit is ubiquitous, sold in dedicated fruit shops that offer a dizzying array of items such as dried mangoes and red wax apples. Taiwanese dried fruit is different from U.S. dried fruit, which is often overly sugared, packed with additives, and cut into small pieces instead of the thick slices preferred in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese enjoy dried fruits daily—whether they are eaten as a snack with tea or gifted to loved ones.

Smith and Lin wanted to introduce Taiwanese-style dried fruit to the U.S. market and planned to source exclusively from independent farmers in Taiwan to help them diversify their export markets beyond China.

The pair launched their project on Kickstarter and expected to raise around $12,000. Instead, they racked up $113,050. By August 2021, the first packages of Taiwanese dried fruit had arrived in the United States, and customers, many of them Taiwanese Americans, left impassioned comments on the webpage, sharing nostalgic memories of Taiwanese dried fruit and expressing support for beleaguered Taiwanese fruit farmers.

Within the walls of their compact store, Smith and Lin have created a unique brand centered on promoting Taiwanese culture and identity as something separate from China. Yun Hai’s mission is not only to introduce Taiwanese ingredients to a broader audience but also to translate that exposure into political awareness about Taiwanese identity and self-determination.

“It’s subversive,” Smith said. “The more people recognize Taiwan as unique, the more people’s perceptions can change.”


A vendor sells traditional snacks at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan on February 22, 2008.
A vendor sells traditional snacks at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan on February 22, 2008.

A vendor sells traditional snacks at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan on February 22, 2008.Andrew Wong/Getty Images

Although Taiwanese cuisine is intimately interwoven with China’s, the island’s food is distinct. The two countries share similar staples, such as rice and soybeans, but Taiwanese cuisine has evolved over time to be influenced by the island’s tropical environment, Indigenous tribes, and history. Taiwanese soy sauce, for example, is made from fermented black soybeans, rather than China’s yellow soybeans, and produces a sweeter and funkier taste. A former Japanese colony, Taiwan’s food culture also features many influences from Japan, such as sour plum powder or mirin, a sweet cooking wine made from rice.

For Smith and Lin, these distinctions in Taiwanese cuisine are a source of cultural pride. Like many Taiwanese, Smith and Lin have fond memories of eating late-night snacks at Taiwan’s famous night markets—festive open-air street food stalls that are common throughout the island. There’s a sense of fierce pride among many Taiwanese when it comes to their cuisine; many have strong opinions about the best spot in the country to find Taiwanese-style breakfast or beef noodle soup, the national dish of Taiwan.

A chef prepares food at the Raohe night market in Taipei on April 13, 2015.
A chef prepares food at the Raohe night market in Taipei on April 13, 2015.

A chef prepares food at the Raohe night market in Taipei on April 13, 2015. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwanese identity is complex and often perceived differently depending on a person’s generation and/or place in various migration waves from mainland China. After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, many mainland Chinese arrived in Taiwan, most of them members and families of the defeated Chinese nationalist government, which had fallen to communist forces. In Taiwan, this population is known as waishengren, or “outside province people.” Waishengren established themselves in elite positions in Taiwan, often over the benshengren, or “native province people,” who can trace their lineage on the island to generations before the war.

Within these groups, whether and to what extent one identifies as Chinese and/or Taiwanese can vary drastically. In a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 83 percent of Taiwanese aged 18 to 29 identified as solely Taiwanese, compared to 64 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds. Sixty percent of all Taiwanese adults surveyed also oppose closer political ties with China.

This is a worrying trend for the Chinese Communist Party, which considers Taiwan a historical and rightful part of China and seeks to reunify the island with the mainland. Beijing’s messaging has emphasized its shared history and culture with Taiwan—albeit in an often-patronizing way. In August, Chinese official Hua Chunying tweeted about the abundance of Chinese-style dumpling restaurants in Taipei, and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, implied Taiwan had a “filial obligation” to China.

“For a domestic audience, [China] playing into the nostalgia and emotion of food is a good way to invoke those emotions,” said Gina Tam, an East Asian studies professor at Trinity University. “We have this shared history, shared culture. We break bread together. If a Taiwanese and Chinese end up in the same room, they have the shared language of food.”

However, most of China’s attempts at influencing Taiwan have not come in the form of euphemistic language about family and food but pressure campaigns designed to isolate the island on the international stage. Just this year, Chinese pressure forced candymaker Mars Wrigley to issue an apology for mentioning Taiwan as an independent nation in a promotional event, and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list found itself in controversy over the inclusion of the word “Taiwan” in the addresses of Taiwanese restaurants in its ranking. Besides pineapples, the Chinese government also banned Taiwanese wax apples in September 2021. Taiwanese pomelos followed in August—an action seen by many experts to be a retaliation against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan that month. According to Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture, Chinese agriculture bans have led to more than $20 million in lost trade for the island.

According to Dalton Lin, a political scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, China’s economic actions reveal that Beijing is not confident in its ability to win over Taiwan through soft power alone.

“When you tie your fate to this issue [Taiwanese reunification], you generally have two kinds of tools: one hard, one soft,” Lin said. “And when you are not very confident about your soft tools, you always go back to the hard one.”


Left: The exterior Yun Hai, a Brooklyn-based Taiwanese food market. Right: Owners Lisa Cheng Smith and Lillian Lin inside the store.
Left: The exterior Yun Hai, a Brooklyn-based Taiwanese food market. Right: Owners Lisa Cheng Smith and Lillian Lin inside the store.

Left: The exterior Yun Hai, a Brooklyn-based Taiwanese food market. Right: Owners Lisa Cheng Smith and Lillian Lin inside the store. Heami Lee/Courtesy of Yun Hai

Smith and Lin’s ultimate dream for Yun Hai is to become a Taiwanese version of Eataly, a worldwide chain of Italian marketplaces filled with specialty Italian stores and restaurants. But for now, the daily challenges of running a food business keep them occupied.

Once, several bottles of Taiwanese-style soy sauce arrived damaged from Taiwan, forcing them to take a financial loss. Sourcing food from Taiwan is also often an obstacle. Most Taiwan-based purveyors that Yun Hai works with are small, making delivery across the Pacific Ocean difficult. Aided by two warehouses—one in California and one in New York—Yun Hai also delivers its products to consumers across the contiguous United States, an ambitious undertaking even for much larger companies. Smith, who has a background in marketing, handles Yun Hai’s social media and bookkeeping. Lin juggles the company’s shipping and sourcing.

Smith started Yun Hai as a brand in 2018, but its physical storefront is a recent addition. (Lin joined the company in 2021.) The shop, which opened in June in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, is tiny—no bigger than a typical New York apartment living room. Its layout is warm and inviting, a testament to Smith’s background as an architecture professor. Several wooden shelves grace the walls, each stacked with Taiwanese ingredients and artisanal culinary tools like Maestro Wu knives—kitchen blades crafted from salvaged Chinese artillery shells, the last of which were fired onto the Taiwanese island of Kinmen in 1978. A lone fridge stands by the door, packed with creamy Taiwanese papaya milk and crisp Apple Sidra, drinks intimately familiar to any Taiwanese transplant.

While most of Yun Hai’s sales occur online, Smith describes the physical store as “the heart and soul” of the business. Many walk-in customers are regulars eager to satisfy their craving for hard-to-find Taiwanese specialty ingredients such as dried green mangoes or bottles of sweet, red-colored Sea Mountain sauce, a classic condiment to Taiwanese-style oyster omelets. Others are inquisitive passersby, drawn in by curiosity.

While many in Asia are familiar with Taiwanese food, most Americans are not. Some visitors to Yun Hai express that it is their first time seeing explicitly Taiwanese products for sale. Smith and Lin hope that introducing Taiwanese flavors to a wider audience can stimulate curiosity, prompting customers to ask questions about the food’s origins—and Taiwan.

The owners don’t shy away from discussing the island’s precarious political situation. “I didn’t want to feel that [politics] couldn’t be part of our story or dialogue because it might offend someone,” Lin said.

But the stakes reach beyond cultural exposure. “Often, the presentation of the Taiwan issue is that the worst possible outcome is war with China,” Smith said. “But for me, the worst possible outcome is the loss of Taiwan if it’s absorbed into China.”

Hunter Lu is a New York-based writer and editor. His work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, The War Horse, and The Cleaver Quarterly. He was awarded the 2022 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship at UC Berkeley. Twitter: @hungryhunterny

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