For years a popular pastime among distraction-hungry urbanites in Taiwan, this novel leisure activity might not exist in its current form if not for an American program to help solve world hunger and the research efforts of a Taiwanese scientist.
— by Emery Chen, Commonwealth Magazine
A quick checklist for whiling away the next weekend at your local prawn-fishing establishment: a fishing rod, a can of beer, and a handful of good friends.
Of all the leisure activities enjoyed by modern Taiwanese, prawn fishing is among the most interesting. We all likely have a few friends who absolutely adore casting a line for these distinctively large crustaceans, but have you ever wondered how it became one of Taiwan’s best-loved sources of weekend entertainment?
Shrimp cultivation is estimated to have as long a history in Taiwan as milkfish farming; the two creatures are usually produced in a polyculture. When fishermen catch milkfish fry in coastal waters, they usually end up also catching shrimp larvae, which are thrown into aquaculture seawater ponds, where they are fed until they reach the desired size.
In the early days of the aquaculture industry, however, Taiwan lacked the technology to cultivate shrimp larvae. Since all shrimp were caught from the sea, yield from seawater ponds was naturally rather low.
The world’s first artificial propagation of grass prawns (Penaeus monodon, also known as Asian tiger shrimp) was successfully implemented with the help of research funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1968. The organization hired Taiwanese aquaculture expert Liao I-chiu, who had just received his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in Japan, to perform relevant research.
From then on, grass-prawn farming boomed, making Taiwan one of the world’s top producers in terms of output. Grass prawns also became a popular item on the menus of moderately priced restaurants.
Even more important in laying the foundation for the subsequent massive increase in Taiwan’s aquaculture production were the efforts of Liao and his fellow researchers. Liao went on to head the Tungkang Marine Laboratory in Pingtung County, where he continued his scientific research, specializing in larviculture, aquaculture, and stock enhancement.
Before the 1970s, Taiwan had perfected several methods for the artificial cultivation of various shrimp larvae. Unlike prawns, these require saltwater, which means that such aquaculture farms normally must be close to the sea. Although this restriction does not apply to freshwater aquaculture, Taiwan’s freshwater prawns are not a lucrative product because of their generally smaller bodies. As a result, aquaculture farmers never really invested in developing this kind of prawn farming.
Imported freshwater prawns of the kind that you can catch in leisure prawn-fishing pools today are much larger and sport a distinctive pair of long, blue claws. The official name of these prawns is “giant freshwater prawn” or “giant river prawn” (Macrobrachium rosenbergii, also rendered in Chinese as 泰國蝦, or “Thai prawn”).
Due to their impressive size, giant freshwater prawns fetch higher prices at the market. After scientists with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) developed aquaculture techniques for this prawn species in the 1960s, farming them gradually became a major global industry.
Taiwan received some prawn larvae from the FAO in 1970. By the end of the following year, the Tungkang Marine Laboratory had perfected the artificial cultivation of giant freshwater prawns and began to promote the technique to local prawn farmers. Eventually these huge, lively prawns would make their way into Taiwan’s recreational prawn-fishing ponds, and from there directly onto your dinner plate.
However, when freshwater prawn-farming was still in its infancy, the crustaceans did not sell well because grass prawns, which were more competitive in terms of quality and price, had already conquered the market. Only when Taiwan’s production of grass prawns eventually collapsed in 1987 did the giant freshwater variety become the market champion.
On the other hand, the giant freshwater prawns did not sell as well as grass prawns in the early days because low-temperature refrigeration technology was not yet well-developed. The farmers needed to find a way out given that their product was not doing well in either the domestic or the overseas food market.
A new beginning
It’s generally believed that recreational prawn-fishing pools first appeared in the south of Taiwan in the early 1980s. A local magazine article published in 1983 observed that people in Pingtung were suddenly “enthusiastically fishing giant freshwater prawns” after local aquaculture farms had “opened their prawn ponds to the public for fishing.” The report might have documented the true origin of Taiwan’s indoor prawn-fishing pastime.
The idea of opening entire aquaculture ponds to fishing by the public is not really a new one. Some fish farmers were already running establishments for recreational fishing in cities as early as 1973.
Yet the entertainment value of catching fish versus catching prawns is not necessarily the same. Catching prawns generally requires less strength but is usually met with quick success and pulling up a heap of shellfish within a short time span gives fun-seekers a sense of achievement.
Such a fast-paced recreational activity perfectly matches the busy tempo of city life. More importantly, since these large and robust prawns are raised in freshwater, they can be kept in concrete basins inside the city limits.
As a result, prawn farmers very quickly moved their operations to the city, opening establishments dedicated to prawn fishing. The activity initially became popular at private aquaculture farms on the outskirts of Taipei. Small prawn-fishing stalls appeared at night markets before larger indoor venues became the norm. During that period, prawn fishing became all the rage as an affordable leisure activity.
The indoor prawn-fishing craze also brightened the business prospects of giant freshwater prawn farmers. In the late 1980s, numerous prawn-fishing venues sprang up along the Gaoping River in Pingtung County as farmland was converted into aquaculture ponds for freshwater prawns. Quite a few novice aquaculture farmers made a fortune from the freshwater prawn boom. Nothing is meant to last, though, and such success stories faded as Taiwan’s prawn-fishing fad gave way to new, more fast-paced entertainment trends.
When I was little, I lived in New Taipei’s Sanchong District. Many of the area’s residents were transplants from other cities and counties around Taiwan and most were blue collar workers. Given the demographic, Sanchong also boasted far too many prawn-fishing places. In the early 1990s, when my parents were still young, they – like many of their generation – would visit these places for fun.
Back then, these venues didn’t sport the large countertop ovens that you see today. Rather, we would spear the prawns that we’d caught on skewers, season them with salt, and then throw them on a charcoal grill. Arcade games were also a feature of these places, and when we got bored of fishing, we’d go play those for a while. Thinking back, it was very unpretentious entertainment.
But precisely because it was such a simple pastime, recreational prawn fishing was able to fall in step with the times as Taiwan’s economy took off, dramatically increasing demand for consumption-oriented amusement. That’s how prawn fishing kept an entire generation entertained as it grew up, with countless young people sitting around the local pond as a way to kill time and fight boredom.
Eventually the craze began to fizzle out, and prawn-fishing sites lost their luster for local Taiwanese. In fact, many have openly expressed their disdain for the activity. In one of his books, Taiwanese essayist Lin Ching-hsuan once said that prawn fishing is “idiotic and does not achieve anything meaningful.”
In 1991, when prawn fishing was still flourishing, Strange Tales of Taiwan, a production by the theater troupe Performance Workshop also featured a section that derided the activity as being “all about fast fishing, fast killing, fast grilling, fast eating,” with instant gratification as the sole objective. Thirty years later, humans have many choices of consumerist entertainment – most of them probably faster-paced than prawn fishing – and no one seems to give them a second thought.
I’m actually quite curious as to whether Taiwanese people still hold specific views about the prawn-fishing business (although many foreigners find it quite novel). After all, this leisure activity seems to have mostly disappeared from the public consciousness. The last time people paid any attention to prawn-fishing pools was probably when American basketball star Jeremy Lin visited one during a trip to Taiwan.
Whatever we think about the sport, we can extract some interesting historical information from Taiwan’s prawn-fishing experience. For instance, the research on food production (including Taiwan’s aquaculture) that the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored more than half a century ago was meant to solve the food shortages facing mankind. The US$75,000 in funding that the foundation provided annually helped turn Taiwan into a grass-prawn-producing empire.
Later, the import, cultivation, and breeding of giant freshwater prawns spawned a completely unexpected product. These unique creatures, raised in freshwater pools, came to be seen as entertainment as well as food. As one prawn-fishing venue after another sprang up, a new kind of drinking establishment that served heavily seasoned prawn dishes along with cold beer was born. These places provided a much sought-after means of relaxation and distraction for working Taiwanese.
Who would have thought that an investment program aimed at solving the global food crisis would help relieve the depression and frustration of the island’s many office workers?
History sometimes unfolds in mysterious ways.
This essay first appeared on the website Opinion@CommonWealth, a subchannel of CommonWealth Magazine, in May 2017. It has been reprinted, with editing and updating, with permission from the publisher.