Guest Author: Joshua Samuel Brown
Each country must face its own test of fire. Every Briton, rich or poor, speaks in hushed tones of the London Blitz. Any American over 60 can tell you where they were on the day President Kennedy was shot. And No Taiwanese will ever forget the last week of February, 2018, a period that will forever be etched in national memory as The Great Taiwan Toilet Paper Panic.
It started as an ordinary week, with Taiwanese citizens preparing for the annual lantern festival marking the end of the Lunar New Year Month and the beginning of spring (which, thanks to global warming, now lasts for about 72 hours before giving way to the nigh-intolerable Taiwanese summer).
But everything changed for the normally easygoing people of Formosa when a news report was released stating that, due to a variety of circumstances ranging from lowered paper yields, forest fires in the traditional north American tissue regions from which Taiwanese bottoms traditionally rely for their cleaning, paper pulp prices might, at some unspecified point in the future, rise slightly.
In cities and towns throughout the nation citizens descended on sanitary aisles of supermarkets big and small, quickly wiping shelves clean of every roll of toilet paper, every pack of tissue. Even napkins and paper towel were not spared by a populace reasoning that when it came to post defecation hygiene they were better chaffed than sorry.
Local media, known for a propensity for sensationalism, especially involving subjects cute or slightly naughty, covered the story accordingly.
By the end of the day, the island’s 22+ million population was more divided than it had ever been, not along traditional political lines concerning (Formal independence from China versus the increasingly unsustainable status quo of let’s just not mention it and hope China forgets about us) but between a small group of Taiwanese now hoarding several years worth of toilet paper and a much larger group of Taiwanese now forced to ration whatever toilet paper they’d had before the whole thing started and hoping that the government would take care of this admittedly silly matter before their household supplies ran out.
But by day three, it was clear that the crisis was only deepening.
Supermarkets around the nation were bereft of tissue. In public toilets from Taipei to Kaohsiung, whether traditional squatty potty or western-style commodes, there was not a square to spare.
Real estate offices in Taipei saw a brisk uptick in walk in customers coming in to discuss the purchasing of apartment units, only to leave after stuffing their pockets with free sample tissue packets used to advertise the agent’s services.
As every armchair China watcher who pretends to understand Chinese (but doesn’t) is fond of noting, the Chinese character for crisis and opportunity are the same (they aren’t).
But sensing opportunity in the crisis, newly empowered Chinese President for Life Xi Jinping chose this moment to extend a tissue-bearing olive branch across the tumultuous Taiwan strait, declaring that if only the people of Taiwan would acquiesce to full and immediate unification with the Mainland, the party would see to it that each and every Taiwan comrade would be allotted “up to twelve rolls of toilet paper per year, as enshrined in the Chinese constitution.”
Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, seeing the offer for the iron fist wrapped in two-ply Cottonelle that it was, ignored the clumsy overture.
Still, a few in Taiwan’s freewheeling media community broadcast hoped out loud that Xi would respond to Tsai’s rebuke by ratcheting up cross-strait tensions, if only to knock the toilet paper story out of the current news cycle.
As one pundit put it:
A missile strike might be preferable to having the world think we’re a nation of toilet paper hoarders.
By the end of the week, things looked grim for the toilet paper loving citizens of Taiwan despite government officials repeated assurances that there was “seriously, plenty of toilet paper for everyone,” and that “the potential 20%-30% price increase was hardly the sort of thing that should compel any sensible person to use 50% of their living space to hoard toilet paper.”
It was then that Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je took to the airwaves, making a speech moved the nation to tears.
“全台灣人民是一個家庭” Said the Mayor. “就像是在家裡有人會占用廁所太久. 可是說真的，我們都只有一個屁股要擦。我們可以停止這衛生紙囤積的行為嗎？說真的，我們的鄰居都覺得我們瘋了！”
Translated from Mandarin, what the Mayor said was “Taiwanese people are one family, and like in any family, someone is always spending too long in the john. But we’ve all got one ass to wipe, so seriously people, can we just knock it off with the toilet paper hoarding? Because our neighbors are starting to think we’ve gone nuts.”
By the time Ko was done speaking, there wasn’t a dry eye on the island. Though the jury is still out on whether this was due to emotion or a reticence among the citizenry to deplete their precious tissues supply on non-essential usage, the speech marked a turning point in the crisis.
Over the weekend, tissue supplies began trickling back into stores across the nation, and by Monday the people of Taiwan were once again ready to be taken seriously by the international community as Asia’s number one champion of freedom, democracy, gender equality, churches shaped like gigantic glass slippers and exploding eighteen meter high rubber ducks.
“A Brief Report from the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2018” written for Funny Times Magazine, and posted at My Several Worlds with author’s permission.
Joshua Samuel Brown is editor in chief of Taiwan Scene and author of Vignettes of Taiwan, How Not to Avoid Jet Lag and 13 Lonely Planet guides.
His latest book, Formosa Moon (Co-written by Stephanie Huffman) will be available this summer from Things Asian Press. Follow him on Twitter @josambro, and visit him at www.josambro.com for information on purchasing his books or hiring him to bring you on a customized adventure around Taiwan.