Chang Hsi-bin (張錫斌) has been keeping the same wakeup schedule for the past decade. He rises at 2:30am, and slides into a freshly ironed camouflage suit and boots before venturing out in the dark to start his day. And though Chang’s routine is fairly regimented, he’s no military man.
“I feel more vigorous when I am in camouflage shirts,” the 57-year-old sugar maker smiled timidly when asked about his eye-catching attire.
“Making black sugar from scratch is hard work and requires precision, skill and commitment,” he said, “At the end of the day, though, it’s all worth it because you know what you are putting into your stomach.”
Chang remembers that when he started his small black sugar factory in his backyard 11 years ago, few expressed interest in his labor of love. Consumers purchased sugar, as well as other condiments, based on price and his black crystals were just too expensive: NT$220 per 500g, almost 10 times the price of sugar made in large industrial-scale refineries.
CONSUMER FOOD SCARES
The odds were against him until a succession of high profile food scares that have consumers questioning the safety of artificially processed food. Now his product, which has no preservatives added, is winning the heart of shoppers as far away as China and Russia. Chang’s handmade black sugar factory has grown to become the largest in Taiwan, generating NT$20 million in revenue last year.
To ensure stable production growth and to revive the black sugar industry, Chang formed contract farming agreements with 20-plus farmers to grow eco-friendly sugarcane. After harvest, the fresh sugarcane is transported to the factory for more than 7 hours of squeezing, heating, cooling and packaging.
“The sugar you see here has no negative effect on our bodies or the environment,” Chang said, motioning to a pot of syrup he had been continuously stirring for an hour. “The most difficult part of the whole process is boiling the syrup to the right temperature. You want it to caramelize but you don’t want it burnt. This is all about experience.”
He added that machines could be used to stir the syrup and control the temperature of the woodstove, “but the taste won’t be the same.” Chang said the taste he is trying so hard to preserve is the taste of traditional Taiwanese sugar.
According to government statistics, Taiwan’s current demand for sugar is about 550,000 to 600,000 metric tons per year, of which 90 percent is imported. Things were very different a century ago, when sugar-making was the main industry. Japan, after claiming the nation as a colony in 1895, saw the lucrative possibilities in sugar export and established sugar refineries nationwide to process crops procured from local farmers.
By 1939, 30 percent of Taiwanese farmers were growing sugarcane, producing 1.4 million metric tons for 49 factories. At the end of World War II, Taiwan’s sugar export was said to have contributed to more than 50 percent of the export income, earning it the title of “Sugar Cane Kingdom.”
Chang’s father was one of the farmers who sold his crops to Japanese sugar manufacturers.
“Sometimes villagers would make black sugar for us kids and the taste was incomparable,” Chang said, adding that at the time sugar-making was a heavily restricted state-run industry. But because Kuanshan (關山) was located in the mountains and without roads, it was possible to refine the sugar in secret.