Sat, Nov 09, 2019 - Page 13 News List

A coffee-lover’s guide to Taiwanese cafes

Drink in the history behind your cup of coffee

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

San Coffee exclusively stocks locally-grown coffee beans.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

You can hardly walk down a street in Taipei without seeing a cafe these days.

In the capital alone, there are 869 cafes. More than 40 percent of the poplation drinks at least one cup of coffee a day, with lattes the beverage of choice, according to a recent survey by Food Next (食力) magazine.

Next weekend, Taipei will host the World Coffee Roasting Championship at the Taiwan International Coffee Show. The nation’s love for coffee runs deep, but before Taiwan came around, cafes here had a much more storied, even sordid, history.


Cafes first started appearing in Taiwan just over a century ago, influenced by lifestyle trends from the Japanese metropole. The earliest on record, Cafe Lion, opened in 1911 next to Taipei New Park (台北新公園), precursor to the 228 Peace Memorial Park (二二八和平紀念公園).

Before World War II, present-day Hengyang Road (衡陽路) near Ximending (西門町) was a hub for Japanese-owned cafes. Locals who had spent time overseas also opened their own establishments further east, on Dihua Street (迪化街).

The defining trait of a cafe at the time was a place with Western-style drink or food and furnishings. This meant a loosely-defined group of businesses that encompassed coffeehouses, bars serving other beverages and full-service restaurants. In the 1930s, more than 400 such establishments were listed in Taiwan. One of the oldest in Taipei, Bolero (波麗路), opened in 1934 and is still in operation today as a steakhouse.

But aside from electrical lighting and Western furniture, Japanese patrons also favored a particular aesthetic for cafes, with indoor plants that showed off the colony’s sub-tropical climate and created an air of exoticism. Yongle Cafe (永樂咖啡館) became famous for its ferns, according to a 2008 exhibition on Early Taiwanese Coffee Culture by the National Museum of History.

Over time, cafes became symbols of modernity and Westernization unto themselves. In Becoming Taiwanese: Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City, 1880s — 1950s, historian Evan Dawley writes that in 1933, a newspaper in Keelung sponsored a contest to pick the most popular cafe waitress in the city.

The contest drew 107 women from 24 cafes. The winner, who went by Emiko, received more than 18,000 votes and appeared in pictures as the embodiment of a “modern girl” — the Japanese term for a Westernized woman — with a flapper-style bob haircut.

For many decades, servers in cafes were exclusively female and served a function akin to that of a bar hostess or geisha, serving drinks, accompanying the mostly male customers and occasionally performing. A key difference was that the position drew a fixed salary, instead of unreliable tips, attracting many young women who wanted to work in the city.

“Yanping South Road (延平南路) became a place where girls went after their dreams. Many girls who came from the countryside with nowhere to go — bus ticket sellers, salesgirls — they all went there to find a job as a waitress,” said Hsieh Chin-lan (謝金蘭), who started working in a cafe in 1930, in an oral history of Taiwanese women.

From the 1950s to 1970s, cafes grew into disrepute as they became embroiled in crimes of passion by jealous patrons, which often also revealed the mistreatment of young women who had run away from home to work in cafes. More innocently, cafes were also a place where young people could get away from the confines of home and explore romantic possibilities in relative privacy.

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