A plant out of water: Taiwanese greens in Thailand

Written by Angel Chao (趙于萱), translated by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: photo provided by author.

In supermarkets in Thailand, you can find Thai hydroponic vegetables labelled as ‘Taiwanese greens.’ Why? Because these plants are grown in Thailand by Taiwanese businesspeople who brought Taiwanese hydroponic technology to Thailand, using Taiwanese equipment to grow crops in Thailand.

Yongshan, a Taiwanese company whose main business is producing furniture, entered the Thai market 30 years ago, making it one of the early participants in Lee Teng-hui’s “Southbound Policy” to invest in Thailand. At the time, the Taiwanese businesspeople operating in Thailand stayed connected with each other and helped each other out. However, in these Taiwanese communities that had emerged in Thailand, some started to notice a problem faced by many Taiwanese people in Thailand: you cannot buy the types of vegetables Taiwanese people are used to in Thai markets.

For Taiwanese people, stir-fried green or blanched green are essential parts of every meal, but eating vegetables raw or putting them into a stew or curry is more common in Thailand. Hence, markets stock salad vegetables and high fibre bok choy or celery varieties. In addition, Taiwanese people prefer vegetables with higher water content and thus a softer mouthfeel, such as the lettuce-like A-cai, sweet potato leaves or Komatsuna. So, when Taiwanese businesspeople realised there was a demand for these vegetables, a plan emerged to grow Taiwanese greens locally.

Because hydroponic crops have higher production costs than normal, the sales were initially weak, and the path for the continued operation was unclear. Thus, these products were promoted through Taiwanese businesspeople’s personal ties and networks. The Taiwanese business associations and Taiwanese schools in Thailand are their biggest customers. Although agriculture was a side-business for these people at Yongshan, the prohibitive costs and difficult production procedure required made many of those involved consider giving up.

After Thailand experienced severe flooding in 2011, the fact that hydroponic crops were resistant to this natural disaster and the fact they were located in an area relatively unaffected meant that their supply remained stable during this tragedy while crops in areas surrounding Bangkok had been destroyed. This unexpected turn of events led the Taiwanese businesspeople to sign contracts with large Thai supermarkets that needed vegetables, which opened up opportunities for large-scale expansion for the Taiwanese businesses. As production slowly increased, these Taiwanese crops became Bangkok’s biggest supplier of vegetables.

Although the contract had been signed, it was not all smooth sailing. The question of whether Thai consumers would buy Taiwanese vegetables was still unanswered. This is because Taiwanese cuisines are very different. Moreover, since these hydroponic crop varieties were completely new to Thai consumers, they differed in texture. As a result, Taiwanese businesses had to teach Thai consumers to use their crops before a local demand could appear.

During this period, Taiwanese businesses would bring woks and pans along to Thai supermarkets and workshops to hand out free samples to Thai shoppers.

As an increase in average salary in Thailand coincided with a renewed interest in nutrition, I noticed the massive potential for these hydroponic crops during my fieldwork. Displays of hydroponic technology were common at Thai agricultural exhibitions, and you could find many books on hydroponics in bookstores. This trend might be related to the ‘Thailand 4.0 policy” revealed in 2016, under which hydroponics became one solution to help tackle agriculture-related pollution.

As the market opportunities changed, so did production. Local Thai businesses started to set up hydroponic fields. These large-scale operations and the new products they brought to consumers created a serious challenge for Taiwanese involved in the hydroponic market. This led these businesses to start to reconsider their place within the market. Since it had been such a struggle to create an opening for Taiwanese vegetables in the Thai market, a new strategy would be needed to maintain their strengths in terms of production and ensure stable development. As a result, Taiwanese businesspeople started to grow crops more familiar to Thai consumers.

Thai crops are now marketed as “Taiwanese greens” in Thailand through a changing consumer base, market layout, and strategy. What started as an attempt to grow Taiwanese crops for Taiwanese businesspeople has now become a serious business selling to thousands of Thai consumers. This trip to Thailand for hydroponic technology shows something special about Taiwan’s food culture and Taiwan’s ability to export agricultural technology abroad. It also shows how the boundaries of cultures and cuisines get drawn and redrawn over time. The situation is also continuing to unfold: In addition to hydroponic vegetables, as far as I know, some Taiwanese businesspeople go to Thailand to plant flowers such as bellflowers and orchids. So perhaps new Taiwanese flavours will appear in Thailand in the future. Whatever new plants do appear, it is important to remember that none of this was a plan from the beginning, but rather an attempt at responding to an ever changing market and social context.

This article is part of a special series of translations from “Searching for Taiwan’s Flavour (尋找台灣味”). Each article is an abridged and translated version of a chapter from the book. Find all published articles here, and read the introduction to the special series by the book’s editor here.

Angel Chao is a middle-school geography teacher interested in Southeast Asian food, agriculture, and Taiwan

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