On Linsen North Road in Taipei, among the very brothels frequented by kamikaze pilots before they took off to fly themselves into who knows what during World War II, are the men of the night. Coming from very traditional Taiwanese backgrounds, they are the purveyors of fine wild boar sausage. They are the sausage gamblers.
Foreigners might not think that a roadside snack served by questionable men in dark alleys could be amazing, but if you’ve been to this side of the world, you’ll know different: meatballs on dirt roads in Cambodia, corner dumplings in Hong Kong, huge plates of noodles for less than a dollar on the streets of Thailand.
I took a stroll down Linsen North Road with C.K. Hugo Chung—my Taiwanese interpreter and fellow member at my art studio ColorWolf, which translates to “pervert” in Chinese—to find out where the men and their meat come from. There, I spoke to two gamblers, Mr. Kuo and Mr. Chen, about their very different methods for making sausages.
Mr. Kuo is a purist. He makes all of the sausages himself and serves 400 to 500 of them a night. His process involves snaring wild boars in the mountains of southern Taiwan and bringing them into the city for preparation. From there, they’re cut down, ground up, and processed with massive amounts of garlic and a bit of five-spice—a combination of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, and Sichuan pepper. After that, Mr. Kuo stuffs the links, packs up, and heads out to gamble at around 9 PM. He’ll stays out until about 4 in the morning.
Mr. Chen is far different, and embraces the efficiency typical of modern Taipei. When I asked him about the origins of his sausages, he admitted, “I get them from a factory.” He’s on the frontline of dealing and shares his profit with the sausage dealers at the top of the game.
One thing both men agreed on is that sausage gambling is a deep part of Taiwanese tradition. The process of making the sausages, according to Mr. Chen, dates back over 1,500 years. The gambling is more recent, appearing during World War II as a way to sell sausages to Japanese and American troops who otherwise never would have tried them. Both gamblers agreed that it’s still a great way to raise business from the travelers in the international hotels of the area. Early in the night, people try out of curiosity; as they stumble out of the bars and brothels later on, they begin dropping big money on some fine meats.
We were part of the early crowd, but we were also a few bottles of wine in, so we started dropping hundreds. (I know, it sounds baller, but a hundred New Taiwan Dollars is about $3 US.) You can play for as little as 30, and if you win youho have a chance at two or three more, depending on the dealer. But if you lay down a hundred, you can win five sausages up front and go double-or-nothing. The goal is to roll a higher number than the dealer on four dice in a plain kitchen bowl on the side of the sausage cart.
Right off the bat, we had our buddy Madison roll, as he was visiting from out of town. Mr. Kuo warned him that he had his own method and an out-of-towner couldn’t win, but he dropped the first hundred and landed five right off the bat. We were excited to give it a try at that point, but it turned out to be the only victory of the night. Feeling galvanized by his luck, Madison asked to go double-or-nothing, and, like an alcoholic in Vegas, he ended in tears. Feeling sorry for the guy, Mr. Kuo let him keep the five sausages. Same deal with Mr. Chen. We ended up buying a few non-gambling sausages partly to thank the gamblers for their time, but mostly because it was cold and we were drunk.
While we waited for the sausages to cook, Hugo recalled that he had grown up seeing sausage gamblers everywhere. The practice migrated into the brothel districts, however, when other forms of gambling became taboo, and it’s now a sizable subculture there. Basically, many locals consider it a hobby. I’d believe it.
After the sausage smoke cleared and we began to eat, I asked Mr. Kuo a few questions about himself. He’s been retired for 15 years, and is spending his retirement making and selling sausages to stave off boredom. That’s a common thing among retired people here, especially the elderly. I know of a flower lady who sells to pass the time; some people pick up trash because they’re bored. They also say it keeps their minds fit and their bodies in shape being out at late hours.
Prior to this, Mr. Kuo was an office worker, taking a 9-to-5 for a salary—but he said he’s enjoying sausage life a lot more. “I enjoy the freedom,” he said, lamenting his decades confined to a desk. He added, however, that Linsen North Road used to be better. There were more businessmen on the streets before the Kuomintang—the ruling party that was voted out of office for the first time last week—“sent Taiwanese money to China,” he said.
The two gamblers also enjoy the freedom of not being part of the Taiwanese night market scene, noting somewhat haughtily that the smells and smoke of the other food would taint their product. No doubt, these guys are serious about their sausage, and about the game, too.
When all was wrapped up, we realized—about ten sausages deep—that we were going to be in trouble if we finished them all. I asked if we could cash in our leftovers like chips at a casino. From both men, unsurprisingly, I got a resounding “no.”