In Taiwan, coconut-flavoured corn crisps are seen as good-luck charms that ensure high-tech machines co-operate. But why?
Crisps have a sacred role in office culture. They are the perfect mid-morning pick-me-up, the moreish side to a light sandwich lunch, or the fuel that keeps us going when meetings run past mealtimes.
But in Taiwan, one particular brand of crisps does more than keep hunger pangs at bay. Many of the island’s machines – from cash machines to radio transmission towers – seem to rely on the presence of green bags of puffy, coconut-flavoured corn crisps to stay in tip-top condition.
People see these crisps as amulets – or good luck charms – that, if used properly, will ensure that technology behaves well and doesn’t break down. They place bags of this humble snack, known as ‘Kuai Kuai’, on or around vital machines in many of the island’s laboratories, banks and even hospitals to ensure the machines continue to do their jobs.
But how did this savoury product end up assuming near-mythical protective properties and, in a technologically advanced society that supplies most of the world’s semiconductors, why exactly do people buy into it?
No one is entirely sure exactly when or how the green bags of Kuai Kuai crisps became seen as symbolic tech whisperers whose mere presence could keep electronics in line. The Kuai Kuai company was established in 1968 by Liao Jing Gang and his son Spencer, a team who needed to find a way to keep their main business, a pharmaceutical importing and manufacturing company, busy during slow periods, so they began making snacks and confectionery.
“Kuai Kuai were specifically created to be sold to children. Back then, there was nothing like that on the market,” says Irene Liao, who is Spencer’s daughter and the firm’s current general manager. But that all changed when the crisps, whose name means ‘behave’ or ‘be good’ in both Mandarin and Taiwanese, caught the eye of a graduate student.
The student was in IT, his story spread by word-of-mouth and the Kuai Kuai legend was born
“It apparently all started with this graduate student who was working on his thesis and his computer kept crashing. So, he had the idea that his device might have needed a talisman,” she says.
Lucky charms still play a significant role in Taiwanese society regardless of industry, so it is understandable that the student felt he needed one. And there would have been logic behind using a green bag of Kuai Kuai crisps; the name was right (‘be good’) and there is a general assumption that green is synonymous with ‘go’, as it would be on a traffic light – so the student put the bag on his computer. “Next thing he knew, the computer was working normally, and he was able to get his thesis done in time,” Liao says.
But even Liao says she had to track down the story of Kuai Kuai’s metamorphosis from children’s snack to technology-tamer online, because she had only heard it third hand. As far as she knows, the student was in IT, his story spread by word-of-mouth and the Kuai Kuai legend was born.
Lucky charms – or talismans – are relatively common in Taiwanese society, like this one in a car (Credit: Alamy)
The company says it hasn’t promoted the tech-protecting properties of its product. “The story grew and developed organically, [which means] different people from different industries are able to put their own interpretation into how they think the bags ought to be used,” says Liao. A case in point – as well as being used on cash machines, office servers and copying machines, bags of Kuai Kuai are also being used in hospitals across Taiwan to keep critical machines like ventilators going.
They can be found at radio transmission sites, too. Lionel Leng, an engineer who has worked at International Community Radio Taipei off and on since the 1990s, doesn’t remember when the practice began, let alone who started it. But he says he started using the crisps because he’d seen other people in his profession do it. “I saw what they did with the bags, and then I’d ask the other engineers what they were, and they would say, ‘oh those are Kuai Kuai’, which means ‘listen to me’ or ‘obey’, so the machines would do that.”
Obey the rules
Although Kuai Kuai’s role in the tech workspace evolved organically, the crisps’ use is governed by a set of hard-and-fast rules. Kuai Kuai bags may come in three colours – the other two are yellow for five-spice and red for chocolate – but everyone knows that only the green bags can be used on machines. “Both yellow and red are colours that signal caution and alarm,” explains Leng.
The bags also cannot be used as amulets beyond their expiration date, so Leng says they are usually swapped twice a year – once during the start of the Lunar New Year, which normally takes place around February, and again during the Ghost Festival in July. And lest you think you can get away with displaying empty bags of Kuai-Kuai, those in the tech world say the snack shouldn’t be consumed, otherwise you technically void its protective warranty.
The crisps have to be in the green packet – and you mustn’t eat them (Credit: Hope Ngo)
And it’s not just the tech sphere that relies on these good-luck charms; Irene Liao says bags of Kuai Kuai make their way overseas when performing artists go offshore and they need to make sure their equipment is protected.
While Peter Hsu, who has an advanced degree in photonics technologies, was working on his post-graduate degree at university, he said bags of Kuai Kuai could be found in the laboratories. “I really don’t know if people buy this [the idea that the bags keep tech from breaking down], but everyone does it because it doesn’t hurt,” he says.
The power of ambiguity
Kuai Kuai can even be found at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s premier research institute. Ting Jen-Chieh, a research fellow who specialises in social psychology, confirms that the institute’s technicians have been laying out bags of Kuai Kuai since 2002. To discourage rodents, the Kuai Kuai bags are themselves protected by being kept in their boxes.
We believe there is plenty of ambiguity between what is believable and what isn’t – Ting Jen-Chieh
Ting, who is attached to the Institute of Ethnology, believes the use of Kuai Kuai reflects several trends: that the practice was something that everyone wanted to try, that it was not viewed as illogical because everyone else was doing it, and that it was a ritual that everyone undertook because there was a genuine fear that without the bags, machines might actually break down. “Some people may believe it, some may not, but we believe there is plenty of ambiguity between what is believable and what isn’t, which is why it continues to be done,” he says.
Irene Liao is grateful that her father and grandfather’s legacy is so keenly appreciated by Taiwan’s workforce, especially since belief in the crisps’ power as a tech whisperer has helped the brand endure. “This is the only place in the world where a snack brand can become a cultural phenomenon. I cannot see that happening anywhere else,” she says.
And even though she believes that only a small portion of the crisps that are purchased are actually consumed, she is not tempted to skimp on the quality of the ingredients used to make Kuai Kuai because, as she puts it: “They’re meant to be eaten.”