Earlier this month, I stumbled upon a farm in the middle of Taipei:
It was surprisingly… pastoral:
Believe it or not, this farm is on the National Taiwan University (NTU) campus! I was heading to the student center for an appointment that day and the path Google Maps told me to take was under construction, so I entered through this gate instead:
Along the path, I came across this little old-looking house:
Curious, I walked in and as always, some nice elderly staff volunteered to explain stuff to me… like how this building which dates to 1925 is actually the oldest predecessor to NTU! And more importantly, this was where the research for the rice all Taiwanese people eat today took place.
My eyes were opened to that part of the meal I most take for granted– rice!
Rice has been cultivated in Taiwan for a long time. In fact, grains of rice have been found in prehistoric sites dating 3000-5000 years ago. But the story of the rice that we eat today starts with settlers from China in the 18th century and the long-grain, non-sticky rice that they brought with them and cultivated.
Unlike farmers in many other parts of Qing China who practiced subsistence farming, these farmers made a surplus, which they then sold back to the mainland. Taiwan became known as a “regional grain storehouse” 「閩粵穀倉」for this reason. In 1752, farmers in Pingtung (southern Taiwan) even developed a kind of rice with a shorter growing season, so they could grow it twice a year — double the annual yield! 💲💲💲
However, this kind of rice is not the main one Taiwanese people eat today at mealtime; it is used to make traditional rice-based snacks, such as radish cake 蘿蔔糕. The rice that people eat at meals (and the kind that is used to brew Taiwan Beer) is actually short-grain sticky rice, similar to the kind Japanese and other northeast Asian people eat. This rice grows in temperate climates.
Apparently, these are THE two subspecies of rice. In other words, ALL types of rice fall under these two categories 🤯 So Basmati rice, Jasmine rice, Mexican rice are all long-grain Indica rice 秈米 (Indica for India), and Japanese, Korean, and northern Chinese rice are all short-grain Japonica rice 粳米 . In Taiwan, these subspecies take the form of “the original rice” 在來米 and Ponlai rice 蓬萊米.
But wait, how did Japanese rice get to Taiwan?
It’s probably not surprising that Taiwanese farmers began to cultivate Japanese rice during the colonial period. But why was there a need to grow Japanese rice in Taiwan?
- Just as the industrial revolution in Europe was made possible by agricultural surpluses, Japan was then in the process of industrializing 🏭 and needed people to move from farms to factories, which meant they needed other people to grow their rice– Taiwanese people. This division of labor was called “Agricultural Taiwan, Industrial Japan” (農業台灣，工業日本)
- In the 1890s-1900s, rice shortages in Japan led to widespread riots. It seems that rice shortages occurred when Japanese troops were sent abroad (with large amounts of domestic rice). While the Japanese government tried to appease the people with rice from Korea, it wasn’t enough and also led to riots in the Korea. And the only other option was to spend huge amounts importing rice from Thailand. Clearly, an alternative, cheaper source of rice was needed.
We need to remember that rice was way more important back then than it is today. Back then, the average person wouldn’t have been able to afford much meat, so rice was the main source of calories.
Given the importance of rice, the imperial authorities began funding rice research just one year after taking control of the island. BUT there was one problem: Japanese rice did not adjust well to Taiwan’s environment. Crops died from the heat, were destroyed by pests, etc.
As a result, most R&D efforts were directed toward improving Indica rice to suit the Japanese taste. However, even after a decade of improvement, Indica rice still failed in this regard, so researchers had to figure out a way to develop a Japonica rice that that could withstand the heat, the sunlight, and the pests of Taiwan–and have high production yields.
The search for such a strain of rice took A QUARTER OF A CENTURY. (Keep in mind that Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years.)
Finally in 1921, researchers discovered that a strain of rice from Kyushu could be grown in an elevated part of Taipei known as Bamboo Lake (not actually a lake; apparently the word for ‘lake’ in Taiwanese also includes wetlands.)
But rice that could only be grown in higher-elevated areas wouldn’t be scalable. Fortunately, another breakthrough occurred: a researcher discovered that the rice grew better if you transplanted the rice seedlings from nurseries into the fields earlier. And that’s how, in 1928, Japonica rice finally saw the light of day in Taiwan.
The ID number of the rice was “Taichung No. 65” (#taichungpride) and named “Ponlai rice.” All types of Ponlai rice eaten today are improvements on it.
And in the past two decades, it was discovered that a lot of the research for this took place in the house on the NTU campus. It now exhibits a lot of the original tools used during the research:
They also grow some of the original strains of Ponlai rice outside:
Though one thing that makes me have mixed feelings about these sorts of memorials to great discoveries/economic progress is the fact that “the common man” is often left out of the story.
For instance, how was the life of the “common man” affected by this rice? In Japan, apparently, the more affordable Taiwanese rice flooded the local market, driving already suffering Japanese farming families bankrupt. (This was the time period when a lot of Japanese started immigrating to the Americas in search of a better life.)
And in Taiwan, farmer incomes did rise, but still not enough to afford the rice they were growing. I wonder if this was a factor in making it the rice so desirable after the Japanese left? (Apparently, the reason food in Tainan is so sweet is because the people who grew sugar cane under brutal, exploitative conditions could not actually afford it, so sweet food was a luxury.)
Since rice cultivation requires large amounts of water, the colonial government forced local farmers to build water-related infrastructure, which they then had to maintain and pay for later. On top of paying the government for fertilizer.
That said, I’m still really thankful to this little research lab for the enlightening afternoon and the lessons I learned by researching the topic online. I’d also recommend checking out Bamboo Lake. After Bamboo Rice became unnecessary for rice cultivation, it started growing cabbages (in fact we still saw many farms with cabbages there!). Nowadays, it’s most famous for lilies:
We lucked out and saw the lilies before peak season, when apparently all of Taipei heads there. But according to the leaders of the Bamboo Lake community, the flower business is easily replicated (there are indeed flower fields all around Taiwan that people go to take pictures with). So now they’re turning to its history as the “cradle of Ponlai rice” 蓬萊米的原鄉 to differentiate themselves.
There are now lots of decorations that highlight this past as well as a part of an original rice mill:
There’s also a little memorial-museum dedicated to the story of Ponlai rice and the history of Bamboo Lake. The NTU museum is a lot more interesting, exhibit-wise, but the staff at the Bamboo Lake museum give great recommendations for where to go and what to see in the area, so it’s a great place to start the trip.
It’s also a nice place to walk around in the afternoon:
And that’s the end of my journey through the history of rice!
- Taiwanese Rice Has Its Roots In Japan – Kyodo News
- Revival of the NTU Eikichi Iso Memorial House – NTU Website
- Rice Policies of Taiwan – Report to Joint Committee on Rural Reconstruction
- Interviews of Bamboo Lake residents and a farmer who was involved in the experimental rice planting