As youngsters, Cheng Chin-ching (鄭錦卿) and Cheng Yu-yen (鄭玉燕) were tasked with picking pebbles out of the piles of rice and beans in their family’s small rice mill. Now in their seventies, the siblings quietly carry on their grandfather’s work at the 80-odd year old Hsin Ching Li Rice Factory (新慶利碾米廠), which is Taipei’s only remaining operation of its kind.
Although they’re glad that the city designated the two-story structure on Dihua Street (迪化街) as a historic site on Dec. 28, they also lament that none of the younger generation want to take over the business. There’s even trouble hiring workers, as they currently just have a family friend helping out when needed.
“The work is physically straining and the profits are low,” Cheng Yu-yen says. “No young people want to do this.”
Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times
Small-scale rice milling has never been a lucrative business, but things have gotten harder over the years as people consume less rice and large-scale rice mills in the south dominate the industry with cheaper land and labor.
“In the old days, a big family could consume 60kg of rice in a week,” Cheng Yu-yen says. “Now, a household doesn’t even finish 6kg in a month. But business is stable. We just need to make enough to feed ourselves.”
The Chengs seem to be unassuming, matter of fact people who don’t think much about how they’re preserving their heritage business and outliving their competitors. Nothing notable has happened over the years, they say; business just carries on day after day.
Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times
“The shop needed help so I came back after I finished school,” Cheng Chin-ching says. “It’s my ancestral business, so I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore.”
Before even entering the dimly lit shop stacked with rice bags, keen-eyed visitors might notice that the sign outside still shows a seven-digit phone number.
“I’ve been meaning to update that,” Cheng Yu-yen quips. Taipei switched to eight-digit numbers 23 years ago.
She sits hunched behind a desk next to the family’s money chest, which they have used since the shop opened. Above her, a 60-something year old wind-up clock ticks faithfully.
The current mill, which extends to the second floor all the way to the tip of the triangular roof, was installed in 1965. Cheng Chin-chung says it used to run nonstop from morning to night, but now they just turn it on when needed.
The siblings’ great-grandfather started the rice milling business during the Japanese colonial era, and their grandfather moved it to the current location shortly after World War II. Cheng Yu-yen says that in those days, the government restricted polished rice from crossing county and city lines, so rice mills popped up in the business districts of Dadaocheng and Wanhua to dehusk the grains before selling them. There were over 40 stores just on Dihua Street, she recalls.
After the rules changed and Freeway No. 1 was completed in 1978, rice growers in central and southern Taiwan had their rice milled in large, cost-efficient factories nearby and quickly shipped north, causing small mills in Taipei to shut down one after another. Due to land prices and scarcity in Taipei, the mills were unable to expand their operations to keep up.
Another blow to these small mills happened when the government allowed supermarkets to sell up to 300kg of rice per day without a grain dealer license. In the 1980s, supermarkets began selling rice in smaller plastic bags that were much easier to carry.
“Some just closed up shop, some reconstructed their buildings [for better value and use], and others couldn’t find any descendants to take over,” Cheng Yu-yen says.
Cheng Yu-yen says their customers mostly are shops who make rice products such as tangyuan (湯圓, rice balls), zongzi (粽子, glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) or rice wine, since they don’t need the rice to be as polished as the ones from the large factories down south.
They also have some loyal customers who trust the quality of their rice over supermarket rice. Rice merchants focusing on supermarkets prioritize reducing costs so they can sell the goods at cheap prices, often compromising the quality, while good rice can be quite expensive. With them, customers know what they’re getting at a fair price, she says.
After the revival of Dihua Street as a popular tourist and shopping area, curious visitors have been popping in. While they still seem rather shy, the Chengs say they are getting used to explaining the history and process.
“If they want to know, I’ll tell them,” Cheng Yu-yen says.
While the siblings tirelessly show people the machines and old knick-knacks around the shop, much of the conversation always comes back to the decline of business.
“People eat more meat and vegetables than rice these days, it used to be the other way around,” Cheng Yu-yen says.
They’re still hoping that someone will take interest in the operation, but so far there have been no takers.
“When we can’t do it anymore, we might have to convert it into another business model,” Cheng Chin-ching says. “I don’t know what, though. Maybe a cultural and creative shop. We’re still thinking about how to preserve it.’
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