It was already an uncomfortable feeling, standing next to a custom motorcycle in the middle of a restaurant I didn’t know the name of, in a country I’d never been to, talking with a man I couldn’t understand. And then he fired the damn thing up.
When traveling with a tour group in a foreign country, often your meals, destinations and logistics are already planned for you. It’s supposed to remove the stress of organizing your travel and leave you with the sole job of enjoying the trip.
About four days into my Taiwanese journey with My Taiwan Tours, I had grown so accustomed to this pre-planned practice that I felt like a zombie: walk into a restaurant, sit down, eat what is in front of you, don’t bother to ask what it is, get back on the bus, and repeat.
When we pulled up to Lee Garden restaurant, the establishment looked just like any other. Unbeknownst to me, this restaurant would change my perception of two-wheeled culture in Asia forever.
Like any other eatery I visited during my 10-day stint in Taiwan, I moseyed up to the front doors ready and willing to inhale whatever meal was put in front of me. But once the doors slid open I was stopped in my tracks—one of the most outrageous, gaudy, and insane American-styled choppers I had ever seen in my life lay right in front of me, in Taiwan, in the middle of the restaurant.
I was so shocked that the doors had cycled through their open-close procedure three or four times before I could actually enter the place.
“Hey Roselli, there’s another one,” one of my fellow travelers exclaimed from across the restaurant. When I looked towards his direction I was entranced by a massive wheel hilariously mounted to the front of yet another chopper.
Now, imagine my scenario for a second—I’m somewhere in Taiwan touring with a group of people I had never met before eating at a restaurant we never knew existed, and I randomly stumble upon two of the most modified choppers I have ever seen. In a country where Harleys are few and very far between. And they’re sitting next to me, in the middle of this restaurant.
It wasn’t the fact the motorcycles were so modified—I’ve seen plenty of examples way more outlandish than these two—but it was the surprise of the bikes that had me losing my shit. I was thousands of miles away from home, from America, from anything remotely resembling a Hard Rock Cafe. And somehow these two iron horses, in all their chrome and airbrushed glory, are here too.
The only description I have of this restaurant is that, according to our guide, it’s “very famous.” It lies somewhere in the Hengchun Township of Taiwan, and that the cuisine was predominantly fish-based. I think this was sea soup, or at least something like it.
I’m normally never one to miss a meal, but I had to sit this one out. Not for the unattractiveness of the food, but because my feeble mind simply could not comprehend the bikes in front of me. My tour guide noticed how flabbergasted I was and told the owner to come down in case I had any questions.
I had several.
Why does he have motorcycles? What draws him to Harley-Davidsons? WHY DOES HE HAVE THEM IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS FAMOUS FISH RESTAURANT?
Ten minutes later the owner arrives, a 5’4” soft-spoken, bald Taiwanese man walks through the back door. Immediately, I berate him with questions. I’m getting them translated through my tour guide second hand, but here’s how it went:
The owner—I never did learn his name, unfortunately—is a chef by profession who always had two dreams since childhood: own a restaurant and own a Harley, in that order.
It’s not uncommon for those who call Taiwan home to grow up with scooters and motorcycles (practically the entire country runs on them), but in my 10 days there I never saw a single Harley-Davidson on public roads. My tour guide explained to me later they’re more popular on the weekends. Sounds familiar.
Considering their significance in Asian culture, it was not shocking to find out the owner had a colored dragon tattoo spanning his entire back. What was surprising was to find out that a New York-based tattoo artist did it for him, and that seven years later the owner had that same dragon painted by a different artist onto the rear fender of his custom chopper dubbed “the dragon.”
Upon closer inspection the choppers looked to be preserved, almost mummified in an attempt to protect the paint and chrome finish. Ridiculous? Ridiculous.
What happened next, I simply could not handle. The owner walked up to his “dragon” bike, turned on the ignition, and then engaged the starter. This chopper fired up, running during lunch, with patrons mid-bite inside the restaurant, and nobody was saying a word. I was then thoroughly freaking out inside. And outside. Sorry for the cussing.
What surprised me the most about this whole ordeal, is that this was business as usual for all the locals in the restaurant. They looked at me with my camera the same way I do to any tourist in Times Square. A few patrons whipped out their cameras after seeing me with mine, but to most people there, the running Harley was just no big deal.
The blue chopper gets ridden occasionally by the owner. The green one, never. He ordered both of them from a builder named Hsing Lun located in Taipei for the sole reason that they’d be his works of art, and not something that you’d find on a local street. He keeps them in the restaurant because of this reason, and explains a lot of people “like seeing them” there.
He said he thinks Harleys are the ultimate form of expression for a motorcycle rider in Taiwan because of the endless customization combinations and inherent encouragement to do so. The “pad-pita-pad-pita-pad-pita-pad” of the exhaust is the appeal, not showing wealth or status.
After talking with this man at length for the duration of our lunch, and having gone back over my notes before writing this piece, I realized that his reason for having these motorcycles is not too dissimilar from why us Yankees made them in the first place. Harleys aren’t about flash, or brash, or status, though they can be. It’s about having something unique, something you can call your own, and having something that (hopefully) everyone else will enjoy too.
In this place far from my home country, I came to understand them too.
So now wrapping them in saran wrap for preservation purposes didn’t seem too far-fetched. Start the bike in the restaurant during lunch service? Sure, so long as the patrons don’t mind. And why not display them in your famous fish restaurant? If I could, I’d do it too.
Hopefully one day I’ll be back in Taiwan but next time, I’m coming prepared. I’ll bring my helmet.
Photo Credits: Michael Roselli