Season 1
Episode 13: Taipei: Supreme Master

Is the founder of the fastest growing vegan restaurant chain really the leader of a worldwide cult?

We’re off to Taipei to explore one of the world’s premier food cities and uncover what their thriving vegan culinary scene has to do with the bizarre story of a cult leader called Supreme Master.

Welcome to Taiwan, nicknamed Formosa – or beautiful island.  For hundreds of years influences from all over the world have created a fascinatingly rich culture and an equally rich cuisine. The food of Taiwan, and its capital Taipei, is some of the most delicious on planet earth. 

Recently, a food craze that took root in Taipei has spread across the globe: the plant based diet.  Vegan food has a long history in the region, but a particularly interesting story in Taiwan.  And as we began to explore this unique food scene we found a rabbit hole that none of us expected. 

Today on Passport, we’re heading to Taipei to find out how a restaurant entrepreneur and vegan evangelist may actually be leading a worldwide cult, with a following in the many thousands, a small fortune, and a truly bizarre origin story.  Also, she calls herself the Supreme Master. 

We’re going to walk the line between religion and cult and find out if the Supreme Master is responsible for the vegan craze that began in Taiwan and swept the world. And if you think this is just a Taipei story, think again – with over 200 locations and counting, you may already have one of Supreme Master’s restaurants in your city!

MORE TO EXPLORE

SAVED PINS

A can’t-miss mix of old and new, vegan and non-vegan.

  1. GUANGFU LOVING HUT
    Guangfu Loving Hut, a place where traditional Taiwanese dishes meet veganism. Also the OG of all Loving Huts.
  2. JIUFENAn overnight trip to Jiufen, part of New Taipei City. This stop is for Anime fans. Its view spans over the northeast coast, and you can get pleasantly lost wandering quaint Japanese-era streets. It’s said to have inspired the spirit world of Hayao Miyazaki’s, in spirited away. 
  3. SATYA VEGANISM
    Satya Veganism, a fusion of Sattvik Indian and Taiwanese cuisine. Sattvic means ‘truth’ in Sanskrit, and the sattvic diet means ‘pure’, ‘clean’, ‘honest’ or ‘good’. This one is for the Yoga lovers.
  4.  RAOHE NIGHT
    Raohe Night Market, is the oldest and most traditional market in the city. Live flame grills light these streets, a place you can find all of the food in this episode, plus meat eaters favourites too like pork buns and oyster omelettes.
  5. FLOURISH
    Flourish, a Japanese macrobiotic-inspired restaurant. Inspired by Zen buddhism, this diet attempts to balance yin and yang. It’s a quiet oasis in the middle of Taipei’s commercial area.

CONNECT WITH US!

On Instagram: @passportpodcast

On Facebook: @passportpod

On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web: frequencymachine.com/passport

Get The Ticket – the Passport newsletter with amazing new stories. 


CONNECT WITH OUR GUESTS!

Jessie Duffield on Facebook.

Sidney Hsu on Facebook.

This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Harriet Davies and edited by Harriet Davies and Neil Innes.

Huge thanks to Jesse Duffield, Sidney Hsu, David Lane, and Dave Asher for helping us make the show.

Our theme music is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Auracle, Enemy Silk Den, Greg Conway,

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski. Our Production Assistant is Eliza Engel.

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijanksy are now Supreme Master followers; they also executive produce the show.

Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who eats mostly vegatbles but somehow always smells of meat, Andres Bartos.

 

 

Banner image: Sunset over Taipei City, Photo by Thomas Tucker on Unsplash

EPISODE 13 – TRANSCRIPT

NEIL: If you’re a vegan who does CrossFit,

ANDRÉS: Oh God.

NEIL: Which of those things do you tell people first?

ANDRÉS: Oh, nice, nicely done.

[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]

ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.

NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

I’m Neil Innes

ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.

NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.

ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.

[END MAIN TITLE]

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Taiwan is a country of many names, but the most fitting of all might be the oldest. Formosa, the name given to the Island by Portuguese explorers in the 1500s. It means beautiful island.

NEIL: The Dutch, Spanish and Japanese would continue to use the name to refer to this lush green island off the southeast coast of China.

Taiwan’s democracy is complicated and young. Only in the last 25 years has it begun stepping out of China’s shadow. It’s a wild and chaotic history, but today on Passport, we’re going on a different trip.

One filled with flavor as we explore the bustling food filled streets of Taipei.

ANDRÉS: Taipei is a foodie’s dream filled with so many flavors and influences and more than 70 night markets. Eating in Taipei is an endless journey of its own, especially in one particular area: vegan food.

In fact, Taipei was named by PETA as the vegan capital of Asia. I know what you’re thinking. Great, veganism again. And to be honest, we get it, but this story is different.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: This story involves a spiritual leader who calls herself Supreme Master, silenced cult members, a president of the United States, an international restaurant chain and a multimillion-dollar Hollywood musical based on vegan poetry.

NEIL: Today, we’re sending Passport producer, legend and resident vegan, Harriet Davies to find out what the hell all of this means.

HARRIET: My friend in Vietnam, um, told me about this vegan restaurant that is around the corner from where she lives. And it’s this woman who is basically leading a vegan movement across the world. And I found out Taiwan was actually one of the top vegan places in the world. And it’s like, got the highest population of vegetarian and vegan eaters.

ANDRÉS: In the whole world?

HARRIET: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, and then I found out that the Supreme Master.

ANDRÉS: Wait, the Supreme Master?

NEIL: I know. There’s no, there’s no the either.

HARRIET: I know. I add the, the.

ANDRÉS: Okay.

NEIL: It’s like, that’s when you know, when you don’t even need, you don’t need the, the.

ANDRÉS: You don’t need the, the.

HARRIET: So I found out she started up her cyber sect from there. A cyber sect is an online following, which makes you have the ability, I guess, to connect to way more people.

ANDRÉS: Right.

HARRIET: And then it went from there, like discovering why Taiwan is such a vegan and vegetarian hub. Did she have anything to do with it? Or was she just kind of like someone who set up shop there and also who she is, why she’s doing what she’s doing, and also, what is the definition of a cult? Because it’s a, it’s a fate, like it’s a hazy one, you know?

ANDRÉS: Totally.

NEIL: And it’s one that’s kind of, is it leveled at vegans ever?

ANDRÉS: I was going to say, I would imagine that Neil would consider veganism to be a cult.

NEIL: No, no, no, no. I mean, it’s weird.

[Laughter]

NEIL: It’s never going in there.

HARRIET: Taipei is surrounded by mountains and forests. It’s a condensed city set in a narrow bowl-shaped valley. A city that never sleeps, shadowed by the enormous 46 floor Taipei Sky Tower.

It’s a shiny, modern skyline. From afar, it looks like a thoroughly modern city, but in the hectic streets below, you’ll find a crazy mixture of people and cultures combined, a melting pot forged over time by wars between Japan and China and the influences of Western powers like America during World War Two.

As we often find on Passport, a history that involves a lot of different influences creates a fascinating place, and nothing reflects that more than food.

[Song playing]

[Sizzling of pan sound effects]

HARRIET: Most people here eat their meals out. This is by necessity because often Taipei apartments don’t have kitchens. As a result, street markets flourish here. If you’re wondering down at Taipei market street, you can smell the most marvelous cacophony of food cooking.

Modern Taiwanese cuisine is infused with handfuls of basil, garlic and green onion, cilantro, chili pepper, soy, black bean, radish, and sesame oil.

You can find almost any flavor on any street on any given day. There is a huge seafood culture, fresh oysters, quality meats, and poultry, influences from Thailand, China, Japan and Europe. In nearly every dish, there are tastes from a combination of indigenous ideas and modern influence.

Taiwanese food is more popular than you think, but not many people can name a dish. Stinky tofu, best serve fried, most Taiwanese believe the smellier, the better.

Taiwan invented bubble tea or boba tea, a cold, shaken tea drink loaded with chewy tapioca balls to sweeten.

Beef and noodle soup, the modern national dish of Taiwan, a dish that wouldn’t exist without America because beef and wheat were imported during World War Two as rationing for the troops.

Even more flavors were brought over by the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese going back centuries.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: But today we’re going to explore the newest and most revolutionary development in Taiwan’s food scene. For about 10 years, it’s been the vegan capital of the world, and I wanted to know why.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: I called up Jesse Duffield, a food journalist living in Taiwan.

JESSE: Chaotic streets with scooters roaring past, and it’s going to be polluted, and yet there’s an incredible amount to offer travelers and residents here. It’s actually a great place to live and to be, but the city itself is dirty and ugly.

HARRIET: Maybe not the most flattering picture of the city, but Jesse’s describing its architectural history. Settled in the 1700s by the Chinese, the city was ceded to the Japanese after the Sino-Japanese war just short of the 20th century.

JESSE: Say when Taiwan became part of Japan basically, about a hundred years ago, then the Japanese government planned the old administrative center of Taipei. So, it looks almost like Japan. It’s wide, wide streets, old trees, beautiful parks.

HARRIET: Daan park, like central park in New York, cuts a green stripe into the high rises of the city. During World War Two, the island had been an important strategic base for the Japanese Navy and a staging ground for operations in the Asian Pacific.

So, when Japan surrendered, the Chinese American Alliance demanded the return of Taiwan to China, but Chinese rule was not peaceful. And shortly after they took over, China experienced a massive civil war that ended with the nation embracing a new communist government.

JESSE: After World War Two and the Chinese Civil War, most Chinese monks who survived it came to Taiwan. So they sort of brought their vegetarian Buddhist culture to Taiwan after World War Two. And they needed some way to house their soldiers and so they knocked up thousands and thousands of cheap, ugly, concrete apartments, many of which are still there.

HARRIET: Also an important historical point for our story, when the Chinese monks and the refugees flooded the island, they also brought with them the concept of fake meats, a Chinese innovation that dates back thousands of years.

JESSE: They traditionally would have been vegan because they were made from taro, soy, wheat, gluten.

HARRIET: Many people date the invention of fake meat to the Chinese Tang dynasty, all the way back in the 600s. And this heritage of imitation food, not just vegan, but one food pretending to be another food, is going to play a big role in the future of the Taiwanese food scene.

But before we get there, let me show you around the city a little more.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: The eating culture around Taipei is a special one. These tiny compact apartments which Jesse mentioned earlier, are almost all without kitchens, which means eating out a lot.

As a result, Taipei developed these amazing night markets. There’s about 30 in Taipei alone, spanning across the city. Many of the streets are occupied by traffic during the day and filled with food by night. You’re basically in the middle of an overcrowded, neon lit, food heaven.

[Night market sound effects]

HARRIET: Walking through the market stalls, you can find Mongolian barbecue, Fuzhou noodles, Sichuan, Japanese braised beef noodle soup – dishes that despite their names, were created in Taiwan.

JESSE: In Taipei, the entire city is like a dormitory in terms of its population density. So it would be impractical for everybody to have their own kitchens.

So you have communal kitchens and everyone just goes there to eat.

HARRIET: Shaved ice carts, a creation from Japan, pineapple cake developed by a Russian baker from the 1950s, you can try fruits and vegetables, oyster mushrooms, tofu pudding, and Konjac jelly, made from an Asian plant with basically no calories, a snack that resembles flubber on an ice cream stick.

The list is endless.

ANDRÉS: I don’t know if this is going to turn into a thing in Passport, but I’m going to, I’m going to pause it a theory, which is the places that have the most influences from different and at times like confusing cultural sources make the best food.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Like if you combine, what is it, Dutch?

NEIL: Dutch.

ANDRÉS: Chinese.

NEIL: Chinese, Portuguese,

ANDRÉS: Portuguese, and Japanese, too.

NEIL: Japanese.

HARRIET: Yeah and indigenous from the island.

ANDRÉS: Stinky tofu.

NEIL: Stinky tofu.

ANDRÉS: Stinky tofu.

HARRIET: Stinky tofu.

ANDRÉS: Have you had stinky tofu?

HARRIET: I have never eating stinky tofu.

NEIL: Where does the stinky come from?

HARRIET: No one’s ever been able to precisely describe the smell to me. But you can smell it from very far away.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: That’s funny.

HARRIET: That’s a good enough description in itself.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, that’s recognizable.

NEIL: Is smelly worse or stinky worse?

ANDRÉS: Stinky, stinky is good for food for some reason. Are you hungry? I think Neil just got hungry.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: So the food culture in Taipei is certainly unique. The cuisine here is developed along with the spirited rebellion to the Japanese and Chinese rule. And it is certainly influenced heavily by the Buddhist monks that fled communist China. Maybe all of this is how we end up with the food of Taipei that we see today.

A city that many considered the vegan capital of the world.

[News reports about veganism]

HARRIET: The word vegan actually comes from the UK 70 years ago, invented by a non-dairy society that rejected other names like dairyban, vitan and benevore and landed on the word vegan.

Buddhism, the leading religion in Taiwan, traditionally holds as one of it’s core tenants a meat-free diet. Here’s Jesse again.

JESSE: The Mahayana, the branch of Buddhism popular in Taiwan has always promoted a vegetarian diet that traditionally been heavy dairy.

HARRIET: But they consider themselves sort of a pure vegetarian in a similar way to Hindus and Sikhs and other religious groups in India.

JESSE: And now Taiwan is really the vegan sort of hearts who are leading the vegan movement in Asia. So I’ve seen a phenomenal growth in the decade or so.

HARRIET: The vegan revolution, as people view it, in Taiwan is pretty recent, less than 10 years old. So at this point in my vegan detective story, I understand the foundations for the revolution, but I still don’t really get why or how it happened.

I called Sidney Hsu, who started vegan frenzy, the first vegan themed food festival in Taipei to see if she could help me find out more

SIDNEY: About five years ago, I became vegan. And then that was also, I think that was also the same year I started the first festival in Taiwan.

HARRIET: Sidney, in a way represents the new wave of veganism in Taipei.

She was born here, but studied in San Francisco. She returned to Taipei and started a vegan themed food festival, which has helped popularize the movement.

SIDNEY: So basically, it’s a two to three days event where there’s mainly, these are food vendors, vendors not limited to food.

HARRIET: A life festival is a celebration of arts and culture with music and food. A tradition from China, sort of like a music festival, but Sidney’s comes with a vegan twist.

SIDNEY: The festival was like only a, a trigger. Because maybe there were a lot of young people who also wanted to do the same thing, but they didn’t have a reference. Nobody started and I felt like I was just the first person to really step up and do something.

HARRIET: Creating a big event was natural, but important for Sidney, a space to express herself and allow others to do the same. Like in a lot of places, there was kind of a stigma around veganism in Taipei, mainly among the younger generation.

SIDNEY: You, you want people to know that this is a thing that everyone can do. It’s not a special cult or something that’s weird or something that only old people or outer people could do or only religious people could do.

HARRIET: Sidney was saying that for Taiwanese people who aren’t religious, it can be difficult to connect to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. People kind of feel uncomfortable with it and that’s because a lot of ideas of vegetarianism and veganism are associated with traditional religious groups of some kind like Buddhists or Sikhs. But here is where my trip gets a bit weird.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: The desire to separate vegan food and religion in Taipei doesn’t come from nowhere. That concept was actually made incredibly popular by one person, one person who launched veganism into the stratosphere, the Supreme Master.

Except instead of separating church and state, so to speak, instead of removing veganism from the religious world, she just created an entirely new religion along with a vegan food empire.

And, you know, you might call it a cult. So picture this, a woman coated in gold jewelry, draped in silk robes and a 24 hour broadcast of her vegan poetry, prayers and news reports, which polarizes a vegan future. Here’s an example of one of her poems:

Once upon a time, a true peace lover wandered around the many worlds in search of eternal happiness.

She walked over the face of the earth, the suns, the moons, and the clouds. At last, she found that it was all the while hidden in her very heart. And then she sat down and was about to enjoy the new found bliss, but suddenly she looked down and saw countless beings were still groveling in the darkness, for they’re searching for happiness without.

Just Google the Supreme Master and you’ll find it in seven different languages.

ANDRÉS: Oh man.

NEIL: Vegan poetry.

ANDRÉS: I was going to say she’s not the finest of poets. Maybe something’s lost in translation.

NEIL: On my desktop, my computer, there is a photograph of Supreme Master.

ANDRÉS: Is there? Oh, I would very much like to see her. Oh my god, yes.

NEIL: That’s quite a modest.

ANDRÉS: So, I’m seeing like flowing blue robes, long sleeved down to her ankles. She’s got a glowing light that has been photoshopped behind her as though she’s some sort of Catholic Saint in a kind of karaoke bar of some sort.

NEIL: And because, uh, she’s incredibly smart and she can see the future, it also looks like she’s carrying a facemask in her right hand.

ANDRÉS: There’s also a kind of proportion problem where the flowers are gigantic or she’s very small, depending on how you look at it.

NEIL: She’s huge, she’s blocking out the sun.

[Laughter]

HARRIET: Taipei obviously is just like also this amazing hub, which has changed so much since 1996 that, you can’t even imagine and it’s actually probably one of the most progressive places in the world. Like, it’s not just tied in religion now, like, as Sidney was saying, you know, she’s like started up her own thing, but also the government’s putting in like meatless Mondays. I know, as a country.

NEIL: Meatless Monday, just another Meatless Monday.

[Neil and Andrés singing]

ANDRÉS: I don’t think we’re going to be able to license that.

[Neil singing]

ANDRÉS: People tend to think of vegans as a cult. And then in, in the history of veganism, there is a religious component built in, but from a very kind of millenary side. And it’s, it’s funny, I don’t think people think about that too much. They think more about this kind of like current day relationship between vegans and non-vegans.

NEIL: Yeah.

HARRIET: I mean, people mainly think it’s just millennials complaining about the world around them.

ANDRÉS: Exactly.

HARRIET: But actually people have been talking about this shit for generations, just they didn’t, it wasn’t within their spheres, so they were kind of ignoring it, but it’s always kind of been there, these ideas of eating vegetarian or vegan, whatever you want, like, it’s not new.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: Supreme Master Ching Hai doesn’t really affiliate with any religion, but rather all of them. Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism, and more. Her messages are of world peace and harmony. A form of meditation called the Quan Yin Method.

The Chinese characters Quan Yin means contemplation of the sound vibration. The method includes meditation on both the inner light and inner sound. These inner experiences have been repeatedly described in spiritual literature of all the world’s religions since ancient times.

She also promoted veganism. I had to know more. I messaged a food journalist in Taipei. We spoke off the record about the podcast, discussed some ideas and agreed to an interview in the coming week, but then at around 4:00 AM the next morning, I started receiving a lot of messages from this journalist.

Attached to the messages are links to articles. The articles were all in Chinese, but the journalist wrote one message to me in English. It read, I’m afraid I don’t want anything to do with her because of the scandal and the totally negative consequences on Taiwan.

NEIL: After the break, Harriet goes deeper into the rabbit hole with the Supreme Master.

We’ll be right back.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: So this journalist from Taipei who refused to talk to me out of some kind of fear of the Supremes Master had sent me seven articles. They enfolded as stories about how the Supreme Master’s dojo was raided in 1996 by Taiwanese authorities, that she was under investigation for money laundering, tax fraud and possibly arson. And that arson was just hours before she fled the country.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: But it doesn’t stop there. That same year, 1996, the Supreme Master made contributions to the U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Legal Expense Trust.

DAVID: What happened was, 500 to $600,000 she donated to President Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign in 95, 96.

HARRIET: This is David Lane. He is a walking encyclopedia on religious groups. He actually wrote one.

DAVID: The CIA, FBI, LA Times, New York, all these different newspapers wanted to know who she was. Now, this is in the early days of the internet. So they type in the name, Ching Hai in their, in their search engine, which was probably AltaVista back then.

And only one person pops up, that’s me, because I had written some stuff about her religious background. And so they contacted me to find out who she was cause they had no idea.

HARRIET: I called David up to ask about this bizarre donation to an American politician.

DAVID: Oh, I think she did it for publicity reasons, you know, to kinda, you know, ingratiate herself in the American press and, and also to ingratiate herself to the American audience cause obviously she wanted to have some inroads in America cause that’s where she could get a bigger following and probably get more donations.

HARRIET: After an investigation, the Clinton campaign realized they couldn’t accept the money. So they returned it. Here’s a quote from one of the few interviews that exist, where she simply said, I would have given the Americans more if they’d let me.

But it turned out, David knew a lot more about the Supreme Master. His research in India had led him to the Supreme Master, but while teaching philosophy in California, his students started following her. So, he went deeper. The Supreme Master in the early nineties was living in California,

DAVID: It’s just that she came to my attention when a number of my students at Mount San Antonio college who are Asian, started following her.

And they said, well, who is she? It turns out that in my research, I found out that Ching Hai was initiated by a guru named tuck RC in Delhi, India, but had denied it because she didn’t want anybody to know her association.

HARRIET: Initiation is acceptance into the community. Meaning from that point onwards, you must agree to keep the five precepts for the rest of your life if you choose that path and follow rules like no killing, no alcohol and no smoking. Then you traveled to Taiwan and receive your spiritual transmission.

Why wouldn’t she want anyone to know of her association with him?

DAVID: One is she claims that she got initiated by this 400 year old Himalayan guru named Kuda G, which nobody’s ever nobody’s ever seen, nobody’s ever met, nobody’s ever read about. So it gives her a sense of mystery.

HARRIET: So in the mid-nineties, Ching Hai is living in the States, practicing some form of Hinduism and maybe lying about her Hindu background in order to amass a growing number of followers.

ANDRÉS: Whoa, nelly. Wow. That took a turn.

[Laughter]

NEIL: I remember when you had that interview lined up and you got those messages,

ANDRÉS: Ting, ting, ting

NEIL: And Harriet was, Harriet called me and she’s like, this is a weird, like, I don’t know what the fuck is going on.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, what’s going on? Like, we’re talking about veganism.

HARRIET: I mean, I kind of turned around and expected this woman to talk to me about vegan food and then she was like, I don’t want anything to do with the, that’s it, I’m done

ANDRÉS: You started out trying to get some good vegan food recipes, and then you find yourself in The Pelican Brief or something.

[Laughter]

NEIL: Another really lame Denzel Washington movie.

ANDRÉS: I was gonna say, very old reference.

NEIL: A really shit, Denzel Washington on the other end of the phone just going, he’ll be fine, just keep going.

[Laughter]

HARRIET: And then this was the point where I was like, how is she a cult then?

ANDRÉS: And what has she done that makes people terrified, it seems like. Terrified and or angry.

NEIL: She seems so nice.

ANDRÉS: I mean, in that picture, she looks, she looks tough. You wouldn’t want to get scolded by her.

HARRIET: All of her imagery looks super nineties. It’s all windows paint, but that doesn’t make her a cult leader.

ANDRÉS: No, and it doesn’t inspire awe and fear necessarily, Windows paint.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: In 1996, the landscape in Taiwan changed dramatically.

NEWS REPORTER: March 21st, 1996… Wins two U.S. Naval battle groups now in the South China sea, the war of nerves intensified…

HARRIET: 1996 was a very significant year for Taiwan. A year where the country finalized a transition to a democracy. Taiwan finally broke free, or free enough, from the Chinese government rule and held its first ever presidential elections.

NEWS REPORTER: With tomorrow’s elections on their minds, the Taiwanese are in a defiant mood.

[Crowds cheering sound effects]

HARRIET: Out from under the thumb of an oppressive China. But it wasn’t without friction.

[Bomb sound effects]

NEWS REPORTER: Beijing has the capability to force Taiwan essentially to surrender.

HARRIET: China started practicing its weaponry.

NEWS REPORTER: Beijing has remilitarized the Taiwan Strait, taking us back to the tensions of let’s say, 1958.

HARRIET: Firing missiles within 35 miles off the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung, causing a panic in Taiwan. This prompted President Bill Clinton to deploy a carrier into the international waters, very close to Taiwan.

Somewhere along the way, as Taiwan wrestled with its new identity as an independent democracy, the Supreme Master found a way back to Taipei.

Jesse, our New Zealand journalists from earlier, witnessed her return.

JESSE: There’s a group here led by the name of Supreme Master Ching Hai, who teaches are sort of mix of basically applies, I would say applies traditional Buddhist effects to the 21st century in a way that a lot of Buddhist leaders here don’t.

And so she insists that her followers are vegan, I can’t say she insists, I guess she encourages her followers to go vegan. And as they follow her, they do.

HARRIET: So the Supreme Master is cultivating a following in Taipei. And one of the rules is a vegan lifestyle and she’s becoming more and more popular. By 2007, the Supreme Master had a new entrepreneurial venture.

JESSE: About 10 years ago, she encouraged them to open restaurants and started the Loving Hut chain, which is the world’s largest vegan restaurant chain. I still remember when the first one opened and slowly it spread around the world and became the largest vegan restaurant chain.

HARRIET: So this is a little over 10 years ago. The Supreme Master opened the very first vegan restaurant in Taipei. She recreated classic Taiwanese dishes like hotpots, but just made them vegan. Along with that, a whole brand of fake meats, similar to those from China, which was sold worldwide.

If the Loving Hut sounds familiar, it’s because it’s now one of the most popular vegan restaurant chains in the world. There are over 150 locations. There are in Australia, England, Germany, Mongolia, there are at least 16 in California alone and there’s even three in Texas.

The Supreme Master’s face was plastered all over the city of Taipei. Banners, quotes of poetry and vegan slogans for the environment. It was a metric rise and in only five years, the Loving Hut was worldwide. And so was the Supreme Master.

No one has ever managed to calculate her net worth. And from what I found out, she’s bought buildings in multiple locations in multiple different names, spending millions of dollars and on the formation of an illegal Island off the coast of Florida. This island was created by followers, dropping cement blocks into the sea of Biscayne Bay National Park.

A local in Miami stated in an interview with The Independent, the police can’t locate her. She seems to be everywhere, but nowhere. In 2011, there was over 4 million in contributions made to the Los Angeles Ching Hai organization. It was all starting to sound completely insane.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: Just Googling the Supreme Master and you find articles like, we visited the restaurant run by a cult or human watch, the Supreme Master. Cults explained, Ching Hai.

You know, when we think about cults, we think of the Manson family, heaven’s gate, Scientology and Jonestown, a charismatic leader and fanatic followers, and a narrative that usually ends in death.

Here’s David the professor again.

DAVID: The word cult actually, if you go to the definition of the dictionary, it’s simply means to focus or center or concentrate your attention around a given person or idea.

HARRIET: I received an email from a follower. I have no idea how they managed to get my email address, but this is what it said:

If you know about me, I have been initial for over 25 years, who have been through ups and downs with the group, through laughter and sorrow, then let me know. Believe me, you are so lucky to be in this confused situation. It’s time for you to break through to a higher level.

Until then, if you’re interested to know why, let me share with you my spiritual journey. I hope not to disappoint you. I have no right to share what is not true and helpful.

ANDRÉS: That was amazing.

HARRIET: The weirder side of it is when I was trying to find out more about her, there was this whole thread of people trying to expose the Supreme Master. People were getting divorced because of her, because of people falling in love with her, they were giving up all their money because they were buying her amazing poetry and clothing lines and jewelry. So I was like, okay, you want to expose her?

ANDRÉS: Let’s expose her. Passport exposes the Supreme Master.

HARRIET: No one.

ANDRÉS: Nobody wanted to.

HARRIET: Nobody wants to.

ANDRÉS: What is she, what hold does this woman have on people?

HARRIET: Yeah. Or it’s just like people hiding behind their keyboards. I don’t know.

ANDRÉS: You know, as far as we’re going there doesn’t seem to be the horrendous stuff you expect from a cult. It sounds more like people that change their lives, but don’t necessarily lose their lives in the process.

It’s curious.

NEIL: More self-healthy than self-meddlery.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: After going around in circles with followers, centers and the strange side of the internet, I came back to David for an explanation. I wanted to know if he could tell me a little more about who she really was.

DAVID: If you’re just meditating, becoming a vegan, you know, watching TV, big deal. But the closer you get to Supreme Master Ching Hai, I guarantee you the more corrupt it gets. I think for the massive, the massive amounts of people following her now, they don’t know anything about her.

That is, they don’t know how she is personally.

HARRIET: Have you ever met anyone or spoken to anyone that was close to her during the time you went looking into that?

DAVID: Yes. She has a temper, she’s controlling, manipulative, uh, she likes to play disciples off other disciples, you know, who’s in the in group, who’s the outgroup. She tends to pick out young men as her boyfriend and flirts with him. I don’t, I don’t know anything beyond that.

HARRIET: Did you ever see that there was like a four-hour production on her poetry?

DAVID: Oh my god.

[Laughter]

DAVID: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Was this insomnia, wait, if you’re suffering, suffering from insomnia…

HARRIET: How to get to sleep.

DAVID: That’s right, oh my god.

HARRIET: Yeah. It was in LA. There was a red carpet. There was people screaming.

DAVID: Oh my gosh. I know. I didn’t hear about that.

HARRIET: That’s right, you can find a four-hour musical, multimillion dollar performance based on the Supreme Master herself.

You can find it on YouTube. I hate musicals, but it’s kind of incredible, and a room full of people uploading their own veganism.

[Applause]]

HARRIET: So, is the Supreme Master a cult leader? I don’t know. But without talking to anyone on the inside, there was no way to really know. And just when I thought we weren’t going to be able to speak to an insider, a member, this happened.

DAVE: That was my starting point and it was September, 1997. I was 22 years old and I was at the problem of my, my youth of enjoyment, you could say. I’m doing pretty much everything that a young, young man does in those days.

HARRIET: This is Dave Asher, a Supreme Master TV contributor, and a 20 year follower. What followed in the phone call was nearly a two-hour conversation about religion and the planet’s future. He’s from South Africa, but he really discovered the Supremes Master in the USA.

DAVE: I felt so strongly about it. It resonated so strongly with me that it didn’t feel like there was anything else really worthwhile, um, to do or to pursue in this world anymore.

HARRIET: He spoke of an ashram that he stayed in, a place he wanted to stay longer until his U.S. visa ran out. A place which the Supreme Master would every now and then appear.

I wanted to know more about where she was, but it seemed elusive, even to those who follow her.

DAVE: Mostly she’s pushed, pushed around or moved around because of negative energy that requires her to move, you know, or for her to be somewhere to dissolve and remove the negative energy at a place. I mean her power and what she’s able to do from on a spiritual level is kind of not, we can’t really fathom that too much. So, but the actual reason I can’t tell you.

HARRIET: And he tells me her life has been threatened before.

DAVE: If someone in this world is doing the utmost to bring about positive, you know, positive change, um, is going to be an opposing negative force, um, to that. So I can’t speculate as to whom, but I know that physically, visibly, and invisibly, spiritually, her existence here on earth has been threatened multiple times and she’s had to react accordingly.

HARRIET: Dave went on to tell me a story that he feels exemplifies the lengths that the mainstream industrial food complex will go to, to take out its competition.

DAVE: I don’t know if you know of a company called Just Mayo or Just, they make vegan, they make vegan egg now, but they started with vegan mayo and the dairy industry literally tried to have him assassinated.

HARRIET: Yep. Vegan assassination.

DAVE: People were caught and they all came out into the open. And that’s just a minor, minor example of the establishment, trying to react to what they feel threatened by.

HARRIET: Dave is truly dedicated to the Supreme Master and passionate about veganism, but he also sees the world as an incredibly negative place.

I wanted to take the conversation back to Taiwan to see if the Supreme Master was really responsible for the changing food landscape in Taipei.

DAVE: Whether people were aware of it or not, the influence has been huge and not just on Taiwan, but across the world as well. I mean, just think about all the restaurants that were opened, you know, 15 plus years ago, there to promote veganism.

And I spent some time in Taiwan, in Taipei in particular, and I mean, there’s, there’s some huge vegan restaurants there that only do vegan food and huge buffets and I mean, it’s, it’s phenomenal.

HARRIET: So yes, it certainly appears that the vegan revolution in Taiwan, the vegan capsule of the world, owes a lot, for better or worse, to the Supreme Master.

The Loving Hut was the first official vegan restaurant in Taipei. But what happened after that was an explosion of new restaurants, flavors, and ideas. Taipei, which had already had an innovative food scene, took hold of this movement and really made it their own.

Food can take you on a journey of its own. It can lead you down a cultural and spiritual exploration of how a city eats differently and why. Then it can take you to veganism, what it means in the city and as an individual.

By following that it can also lead you halfway around the world, talking to people about a Supreme Master.

[Song playing]

HARRIET: This story may have started with vegan food, but it’s only a small part of Taipei’s story. Taiwan continues to evolve as a democracy. Its press is now ranked more free than that of the United States.

Taipei is a modern metropolis, which thrives on new ideas and innovation with a sympathetic view towards the world, a safe place to live and a delicious place to be.

ANDRÉS: When, when, when I came into this hot dark booth, thinking that I was going to hear an episode about veganism and Taipei, I didn’t think we were going to be in the most morally ambiguous episode of Passport to date.

NEIL: Yeah, yeah.

ANDRÉS: The problem with all of this is that we’ve labeled ourselves carnivore, vegetarian, vegan, microbiotic, etc, etc.

HARRIET: Plant based, whatever you want to be called.

ANDRÉS: And it comes back to your CrossFit joke, basically. It’s like, I am a CrossFit person.

NEIL: Which should I be more proud and how quickly can I tell you? Hold on, stand back, what is it going to be?

ANDRÉS: And in the end, it’s the era we’re living in, which is we don’t talk about the stuff that actually matters.

We just talk about that surface stuff, the label, we don’t actually go into the real discussion about what we should be eating, how we’re eating and what the future is gonna look like.

NEIL: Wow. That was good.

ANDRÉS: Thanks

[Laughter]

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: This week’s saved pins show the influence of other cultures on Taipei food, cinema and spirituality.

Number one: Guangfu Loving Hut, a place where traditional Taiwanese dishes meet veganism. Also, the OG of all Loving Huts.

NEIL: Number two: An overnight trip to Jiufen, part of New Taipei City. This stop is for Anime fans. Its view spans over the northeast coast, wandering quaint Japanese-era streets. It’s said to have inspired the spirit world of Hayao Miyazaki’s, Spirited Away.

ANDRÉS: Number three: Satya Veganism, a fusion of Sattvik Indian and Taiwanese cuisine. Sattvic means truth in Sanskrit, and the sattvic diet means pure, clean, honest or good. This one is for the yoga lovers.

NEIL: Number four: Raohe Night Market. It’s the oldest and most traditional market in the city. Live flame grills light these streets, a place you can find all of the food in this episode, plus meat eaters favorites too like pork buns and oyster omelets.

 

ANDRÉS: Number five: Flourish, a Japanese macrobiotic-inspired restaurant. This style is inspired by Zen Buddhism. The diet attempts to balance yin and yang. It’s a quiet, simplistic oasis in the middle of Taipei’s commercial area.

Hey there guys, the Podcast Awards 2020 are coming and we’d love your vote. Head to podcastawards.com and register to nominate us, Passport Podcast as your favorite podcast. Thank you. We love you.

NEIL: Next week on Passport, it’s a new MisInfoNation. This time, we’re going to Iran, perhaps one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, to talk about oppression, nukes, garlic shampoo, and Persian twitter.

We’ll see you then.

[Song playing]

NEIL: This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Harriet Davies and edited by Harriet Davies and myself.

Huge thanks to Jesse Duffield, Sidney Hsu, David Lane, and Dave Asher for helping us make the show. We’ll have all of their details in the show notes if you want to check them out.

Our theme music is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Auracle, Enemy Silk Den, and Greg Conway.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are now supreme master followers; they also executive produce the show.

Which is hosted by myself and a man who eats mostly vegetables but somehow always smells of meat, Andrés…

[Laughter]

NEIL We’ll see you in the next place!

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.