Kaohsiung Seafood

October 26, 2012

One of the first images that caught my eye when the world was finally allowed to see the amazing pictures of the earth generated by orbiting satellites was the plume of pollution spewing out of the mouth of the Takan River into the South China Sea; now coyly renamed the Love River; at Kaohsiung in Southern Taiwan. The image joined that of the Great Wall of China as things easily seen from space in my mental collection.

It was of course the industrialization of Taiwan and its rapidly expanding population in the years following the Kuomintang immigration that was the source. The success of Taiwan and it chemical processing plants had a price to pay; foul air, foul soil and foul water.

In the early nineties I was often in Taiwan visiting distributors who were marketing my company’s environmental monitoring equipment. And so it was inevitable that I would one day have to visit Formosa Plastics in Kaohsiung. They were probably the world’s largest producer of PVC at the time and still may be. A precursor in the manufacture of the ubiquitous PVC is Vinyl Chloride, one the most toxic and carcinogenic compounds known to man, and even cynical Taiwanese chemical tycoons were not going to risk poisoning a large city. We flew down from Taipei one morning and took a taxi to the local office of my distributor to get a review of the local market and the problems surrounding it. Problems, there were plenty. Of course, nothing is easy in this part of the world. I relied on my distributors to make some sense of the complex and almost labyrinthine process one has to go through to sell technical equipment.

Five of us jammed into the company car and drove off to the Formosa Plastics plant. On the way we passed other chemical plants all going at full tilt, belching smoke and fumes. Rice paddies, schools, shops and houses abutted the very walls of the factories.

At the gate there was a perfunctory show of security, and after few minutes we wandered off toward the Vinyl Chloride plant. I won’t go into the installed equipment debacle that I was trying to solve on this particular visit. Let’s just say that if there had been a Vinyl Chloride leak form this plant and it killed or poisoned the thousands of people living within a few hundred yards, it would not have been altogether the fault of Formosa Plastics. I was not actually a popular person on this trip.

After having my scheduled dressing down and some loss of face stonily administered, my distributor manager took us all off for lunch. This of course involved a huge amount of discussion; almost an argument, until a restaurant was chosen. Seafood. The lucky establishment was out on a spit of land reached by a road tunnel. It was the usual set up. Zero décor and harsh fluorescent lighting. A few faded pictures of Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen gathered dust next to advertising posters for Taiwan Beer. But there was a warm welcome from the owner who led us all to a concrete floored area where stood bucket after bucket and tank after tank of fresh living sea life. Pumps hummed and hoses snaked everywhere in this edible piscatorial zoo. As we walked down the narrow path between the containers my distributor’s local manager barked out his choices to the manager who was scribbling furiously. A crate of beer was ordered.

We sat down and started in on the spicy pickled cabbage and peanuts. The beer came, and the usual game of let’s get the ‘round eye’ tipsy began. I was an old hand at this and made boring speeches at each round that they recognized as a good time wasting defense. And then for an hour or so dish after dish of succulent and wonderful food in aromatic sauces arrived and conversation was slower. I recognized some of the creatures that I ate that day, and, as usual when dining in Taiwan, some of them I did not. I did not care. It was superb. In what amounted to not much more than a tin shed on a South China Sea dockside I had enjoyed some of the best seafood on the planet.

We walked out through the buckets and tanks, and the hoses and the pumps, my distributor loudly lamenting that he had not chosen from this one and that one. We did not return by the road tunnel. Instead we took a short car ferry ride back to the mainland. As I looked over the side of the ferry in the short ride I observed that the water through which we were passing was black and viscous. The usual frothy bow wave was absent. It had a foul odor and a scum of detritus and oil. It occurred to me then that the very food that I had so recently ingested may have swam in just this effluent. Diluted and some miles offshore, perhaps, but I felt certain that my mineral needs for some months had been seen to, and I speculated some very interesting organic chemicals were now introducing themselves to my metabolism.

Later that evening we sat at the almost empty airport lounge waiting for our flight back to Taipei. We drank more Taiwan Beer and competed in picking up peanuts with chopsticks. After two beers I got to three nuts in one pick. I asked my distributor if the day was a success or not. He said it was just another day. And was the food we had at lunch special? Not really he said. There are plenty of places where you can get the same.

Years later sitting in front of a computer staring at the exciting new satellite images this whole episode came flooding back as clearly as those images were telling me that my speculation as to what had entered my body in that restaurant was close to the truth.

And even more years later the local authorities in Kaohsiung claim that the river is cleaner. Renaming what was once an open sewer and waste disposal canal the Love River demonstrated their optimism and perhaps an unfortunate ignorance of a certain waterway in upstate New York near Tonawanda which was the scene of one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of America; Love Canal.

It has been over fifteen years since I last visited Taiwan, and I miss it; especially the seafood.




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