In Mandarin, days and months don’t have proper names like in Western languages, but are just numbered. So the 9th of September is day nine of month nine. The characters for “nine”, “long” and “alcohol” all have the same pronunciation and share the third tone out of five, but the three look completely different.
Still, on this day I would like to write about drinking culture in Taiwan, which bears little similarity to the one in the West. Despite radical social change on the island in the last decades, in many ways it reflects ancient Chinese customs and traditions.
First of fall, until about 40 years ago, there were no pubs or taverns like those century-old institutions we have in Europe, often in the countryside. People would drink alcohol (and still mostly do) only while or after eating, but not go out for a drink.
In consequence, the owners of the first (often illegal) bars that opened in Taiwan got immensely rich. Locals had money and wanted to spend it, catching up with the West, especially after those 38 years of martial law which ended in 1987.
Second, until 2002 in Formosa there were no grapes grown privately for wine production. The government had chosen all varieties to be planted and monopolized its distribution.
All in all, this state policy failed badly. On the other hand, considering the subtropical climate, the recent efforts by new winemakers have brought surprising and encouraging results.
Third, modern beer brewing was introduced by the Japanese colonial masters in 1922, when the Takasago brand was first commercialized by the Monopoly Bureau under the Governor-General of Taiwan.
Fourth, in the Chinese-speaking world there’s an unholy preference for strong liquor, like the notorious Kaoliang made on the islet of Kinmen near the mainland coast with a graduation of 58%.
Fifth, alcohol isn’t a must at social events and even despised by many. It isn’t difficult to have lunch or dinner with a dozen Taiwanese friends and nobody will drink or smoke.
I have been to weddings where tables of ten guests didn’t touch it and the bottles were removed by the waitress to help the newly-weds save money. Interestingly, when I a long time ago I occasionally did the first step and ordered a beer, others would follow. Blame in on the foreigner!
Six, often when Taiwanese actually decide to drink, they do it for the sake of becoming inebriated. Then it’s drinking only for the sake of it, without enjoying the taste of whatever they are consuming.
This attitude is reflected in the “Bottoms up!” routine. Not only at private gatherings, but also at more formal events, small glasses of a size unusual in the West are often emptied at once.
Seven, traditional women didn’t drink as it was considered a social taboo. This has slowly changed, though the percentage of females enjoying (and tolerating it) is still much lower than anywhere in the West.
Eight, due to their constitution, many Asians have a very low tolerance for alcohol, including Taiwanese. They like to have a few, yet get drunk very soon or at least get very red in the face. That’s somehow forms a “natural barrier”.
Nine, alcohol was and is quite expensive in Taiwan compared to Western nations. Whiskey represents an exception and can be purchased cheaper than in the countries that distill it, like Scotland and the United States.
Ten, the amazing number of convenience stores that 7-11 and other chains that exist in Taiwan offer a huge variety of alcoholic beverages, including beer specials every summer. Many foreigners therefore prefer to meet at parks, where on the other side smoking was banned some years ago.
Thanks to globalization, drinking habits seem to converge. On the other hand, there will always be distinctive differences due to social norms and genetic particularities. Visit Taiwan, savor the fantastic food and have a glass!