Monday, 19 December 2011

Feature: Interview with Meat-free Monday founder, Alex Su

Alex Su, Meat-free Monday Founder, at home.

NOMM met today with Alex Su (蘇小歡), founder of Taiwan’s Meat-free Monday (周一無肉日) campaign group. 
[Interview was undertaken in mixture of English and Chinese, the following is a translated/edited version.]

NOMM:  Briefly, about yourself, what was the cause of your conversion to vegetarianism and what led you to launch the Meat-free Monday group in Taiwan?
Alex Su: I chose vegetarianism about 15 years ago out of a desire not to kill or hurt animals unnecessarily. I gave up working fulltime about a decade ago, and withdrew to my home here [between Xindian and Wulai in New Taipei City]. My wife calls me a hermit. But as global warming has become more urgent, I decided to re-engage with the world, and so with a few others established the Meat-free Monday group.

NOMM: I remember hearing of Meat-free Monday being launched in Taipei in 2009, what has it been up to since then?
AS:  Over the last two years we have undertaken a three-stage evolution.
That would have been the press conference we held to announce establishment of our association in September 2009. Our main purpose at that time was to raise public understanding that reducing meat consumption is a major environmental contribution through reduction in climate-change emissions.
In November 2009 we held a street parade, which as well as environmentalism, also focused on the health benefits to be gained from vegetarianism.
In October 2010 we promoted vegetarianism as a tasty option, since many people held the misconception that meat is both necessary to diet and also tastier.

NOMM: And over the last year?
AS: We are like a duck floating on water. On the surface little seems to be happening, but beneath we are paddling away with determination. We have little money, and have no wish to apply for government grants or sponsorship by commercial companies. This means that when we speak, people know what we say is said with sincerity. Our main activities are lobbying and a twice-monthly (formerly weekly) newsletter to disseminate information.

NOMM: Who do you lobby?
AS: We continually contact government agencies and members of the legislature to keep vegetarianism on their agendas, our members and supporters in organizations like the Rotary Clubs raise the issue of vegetarianism whenever possible, and I use my contacts from my former occupation in the media to keep the issue in the public eye.

NOMM: What response have you received and, in particular, has there been any noticeable increase in vegetarian numbers in Taiwan?
AS: Before the activities of groups including ours, the number of vegetarians in Taiwan had been stable at around 8 percent for a couple of decades (equivalent to around 2 million people). These figures came from government and academic organizations such as the Ethnology Institute at the Academia Sinica. Although there are no exact new figures, it is apparent that there are more vegetarians, more vegetarian restaurants, as well as more people having meat-free days or meat-free meals.
        If seven people follow the idea of a meat-free Monday, that is equivalent to one extra fulltime vegetarian; if 21 people only follow the meat-free idea for one meal per week, that too is equivalent to one extra fulltime vegetarian.

NOMM: Has there been any change in the reasons people are vegetarian, if only for a day or a meal?
AS: Vegetarianism in Taiwan was originally a religious matter, promoted primarily by Buddhist organizations such as Tzu Chi (慈濟) and Foguangshan (佛光山), but also unbeknownst to most people, [the syncretic religion] Yiguandao (一貫道), whose followers operate around 60 percent of Taiwan’s vegetarian restaurants.
       Recent converts to vegetarianism, especially young people, tend to be more motivated by environmental concerns. Also, traditional organizations such as Tzu Chi, whereas they previously advocated vegetarianism, are now pushing it much more strongly among their followers. There is also the Loving Hut (愛家) chain of 28 restaurants run by the Supreme Master Ching Hai organization, promoting a strongly environmentalist veganism, even though it started as a religious organization.

NOMM: What is the role of celebrity vegetarians in this rise?
AS: As I said, our organization is not rich, in fact we are an association (協會) not even a foundation (基金會), which needs a substantial “fund,” so we have to make a little money go a long way. The media and high-profile figures can be important in the process of disseminating ideas and practices, therefore.
        Having said that, I would like to mention one government official whose influence is probably greater than others’ but whose contribution largely passes below the radar. This is Vice Minister of Education Lin Tsong-ming ( 林聰明), himself a vegetarian and former school teacher, who has promoted meat-free days in public schools throughout Taiwan. Around 70 percent of schools now have meat-free days, mostly Mondays but sometimes Fridays.

NOMM: What is next for Meat-free Monday (Taiwan) and for Alex Su?
AS: Having set up the group and got it started, I hope now to pass the running of it to others and return somewhat to my “hermit” life. Having said that, three recent developments will come to fruition early next year.
First, is the launch of “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (2)” (飲食男女二), with which I am involved. The first Oscar-nominated film, made by Ang Lee (李安), dealt with meat dishes, this second one is about vegetarian food.
Second, is a Chinese translation by my wife Caddy Lung and myself of Will Tuttle’s book “A World Peace Diet.”
And third, will be publication of a book of a selection of the information provided in our newsletter over the last two years.

NOMM: Doesn’t sound like much of a return to being a hermit! Good luck with your projects.

Text and photos © Jiyue Publications 2011

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