Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cheap Taiwan part 1

I mentioned the rice box in an earlier post, and I want to elaborate on this idea a bit. Rice boxes are the common lunch fare for many, if not most, Taiwanese. They are literally boxes, with a bed of rice, and the meat and vegetables of your choice. Sometimes they come with an egg, and they always come with free soup and tea. We were introduced to them during our first days in Taiwan, and have been rice box eaters ever since.

So what is it about the rice box that is so appealing? I think, first and foremost, it's the price tag. How does a well balanced lunch for $1.75 sound? Granted that's the cheapest one on the block, but I have never seen a rice box cost more than $3.00. Now, many of you may be wondering how in the world it is possible to eat such a great lunch for so little money. I never really thought about it in the beginning, I just paid my $1.75 and happily went on my way. But after time I began noticing that it wasn't just the rice boxes that were such a steal, but many things we bought or services we used were often obscenely cheap.

I started looking at the way day to day business is done here, and I realized that the Taiwanese have a pretty good idea of how free market economics work to bring a good product and a low price. Many restaurants are just the first floor of people's homes, opened up onto the sidewalk. The kitchen is outside, and it's small. There are no rules (that are enforced anyway) about where the sink needs to be, or how many refrigerators someone should have based on business volume. Down the road there is a blue pick up truck selling green onion pancakes off the back. Sometimes it parks here, and sometimes it parks there. Sometimes all the people waiting on their scooters for the pancakes cause a traffic hazard. But nobody complains (or beeps) and the police usually look the other way.

A small local restaurant, kitchen outside

some food and bettlenut stands near my apartment

Want to sell something? Go for it. If there's a demand, you'll be successful. If the people like it, you'll become "famous" and they'll line up in the heat and wait just to get what you have (even if your neighbor sells the same thing). If not, it'll be over fast and maybe you can try your hand at something else. The Taiwanese don't need a government or regulations to protect them from their neighbor's food stand. Even the regulations they do have are only enforced to some degree. They know those people and trust them. They know that someone selling bad food would be shut down due to lack of business (word of mouth is a powerful tool, especially when combined with the internet) faster than a government regulator could even get over there. And they know that the laws of competition will keep the best products coming to them, fresh and delicious.

cake shop (left) noodle shop (right)

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