“Be An Unicorn!” proclaims a brightly floral poster adorning the wooden posts that delineate the entrance to the Meimen cultural center across the street from National Taiwan Normal University, affectionately known as “Shida.” Like the multicolored poster (or DM, as they are oft referred to in local slang), the crowd is a diverse mix from all walks of life. Taiwanese from all corners of the island, students from Shida, mothers, hipsters, mingle as the foreign scent of Mexican spices permeates the entrance area — Sophie’s Vegan Mexican Food! Two takoyaki stands out back compete for customers.
A film crew is inside, lens panning over the offerings of three of Taiwan’s vegan bakeries: vegan pineapple cakes in cylindrical containers by Sweet Vegan, luscious chocolate ganache on a tiger cake by Green Bakery, and blueberry tarts by the aptly named Bluesomeone, who brought her goods up from Taichung. Across the walkway a tattoo artist works her craft, and native ice cream brand Mori Vegan is set up, offering a selection of their newly launched flavors.
Taiwan boasts one of the largest population of vegans and vegetarians in the world (14% by most polls), due in part to its Buddhist population. A portion of the general populace also follows the traditional baibai system of ancestral worship, which prescribes vegetarianism for certain days of the lunar month, as well as for certain events, such as a relative passing. Government support for Meatless Monday (or at least a meatless day of the week) has also bolstered the number of plant-based restaurants; with over 6,000 vegetarian restaurants and vegetarian options available at many restaurants, the island is a well-known haven for plant-based eaters everywhere.
However, common criticism of the traditional veggie fare include greasiness, blandness (likely due the Buddhist prohibition of Allium plants which includes onions, garlic, and leeks) and a reliance on artificial meat substitutes.
In recent years secular vegetarianism has gained a following on the island as more people are becoming health-conscious. Dubbed Shūshí 蔬食, a play on traditional sùshí 素食, this new vegetarianism eschews the latter’s avoidance of pungent plants. Restaurants like Sufood 舒果, established in 2010 by the Wowprime restaurant group, have introduced many people to a delicious plant-based diet without the religious overtones. The emphasis here is simply on fine, affordable vegetarian dining.
Sufood’s early foray into secular vegetarianism drew some criticism, however. Many of the dishes are heavy on cheese or milk, which runs counter to the healthy image they are trying to promote. Furthermore, animal rights have become a concern among forward-thinking youth and many are concerned with the animal agriculture practices used to derive such products.
Enter new veganism, touted mainly by expats and young Taiwanese who spent time abroad. Endemic veganism is rare, as most religious vegetarians avoid egg but still eat dairy products, and native vegans are usually of the more strictly religious type. New veganism, like the new vegetarianism that came before it, is secular, focused more on animal rights, health, peace, and environmentalism. It also has a very different look and language.
Sidney Hsu, founder of Taipei Vegan Frenzy (草獸派對, or TVF), studied fashion design in San Francisco and works as a translator on the side. Her winged eyeliner, colorful tattoos, and crop-top tee emblazoned with a multi-colored “Vegan Rocks” are very much part of the new wave aesthetic, a sharp contrast to the traditional Sino-centric backdrop of the Meimen center, which itself is a spiritual center that touts a plant-based lifestyle.
Her fashion line is comprised of cropped tees and studded dresses in a palette of bright and pastel floral grounded in flat black. She shares a booth with The Good Makeup, which is importing vegan cosmetics focusing on alternative staples like Lime Crime and Urban Decay. In the sweets corner, a vendor is set up selling Iron Fist clothing, a PETA-certified girly-punk brand from L.A. which features motifs like zombies, skulls, guts, and more zombies, superimposed on sweet peter pan collared shirts and heeled shoes.
Hsu purposely uses the word ‘vegan’ in English when describing the event and expats comprise a relatively large portion of the participants.
“Veganism is from the west so it makes sense that a lot of expats would take time to come, and that’s one of the features of TVF. We want to make sure it doesn’t look like anything related to the local Taiwanese religions.”
The first TVF event was held just last year in December of 2015 at Dihua St. One of Hsu’s friends has a gallery-type space in a restored historical house, which they used as the venue.
“I started simply because I thought we really needed one. I knew some vegan friends and restaurants but veganism is still pretty low-key here. I actually didn’t understand why no one was doing it, and so there I went!”
At the end of the day, the vendors are exhausted. It’s been an exuberant three days with over a thousand in attendance. Stragglers wander the halls as the exhibitors break down their displays, gifting leftovers and taking inventory.
Looking at what lies tomorrow for the vegan movement, if we can call it that, there are promising signs. As the second installation of TVF comes to a close, many have been asking when the next event will be. The next TVF won’t be ‘til December, says Apple, one of the volunteers. Luckily, the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale is at the end of the month (June 26th) with Taipei’s iteration at Red Room, so revellers will have something to tide them over until the next unicorn party. Hsu’s vision for an explicitly non-religious vegan movement in Taiwan is definitely showing signs of catching on. Here’s hoping for a cruelty-free Taiwan.
(Feature photo of Bunny cone, by Mori Vegan. The ears are made of monaka wafers, a mochi cracker. Photo by Scarlett Song)
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