In Taiwan, a Negative Restaurant Review Can Get You in Hot Water

Restaurant bloggers of the world, and Pulitzer-winning food critics of Los Angeles and Manhattan, be very careful when you come here

Movies about food fetishes, chefs, and food bloggers make for popular fare worldwide, from Mexico to Manhattan.

And when "Julie & Julia" hit the silver screen across the country and overseas as well, foodies across the globe were in some kind of seventh heaven.

You remember the story, of course, about a New Yorker named Julie Powell, a blogger who spent a year cooking every recipe from Julia Child’s ''Mastering the Art of French Cooking'"

The Nora Ephron film takes Child’s memoir, ''My Life in France'' and magically and seamlessly merges Julie's blogging life and Julia's real life into one funny, laugh-out-loud flick.

But laugh no more. You might be shocked to know that on the other side of the planet, a blogging food critic in Taiwan has been jailed for posting a ''lousy'' review about a cockraoch-infested beef noodle restaurant and that her ''conviction'' is going viral now in the Chinese-language media all across Asia, from Taipei to Tokyo, from Sinapore to Shanghai.

I'm based in Taiwan, and have been for a number of years, and I love it here. Living on this newly democratic island nation sometimes feels like being on another planet, where the rules of the road apply, but in a very different and novel way.

But, whatever, it makes life interesting here, and sometimes comical and always relaxing.

Case in point, is this gone-viral story about a blogging food critic who was recently thrown in jail for 30 days and fined a hefty little sum — $6,000 — for writing a bad review. I am not
making this up.

The fine is to compensate the eatery's owner for lost business.

It happned like this: On her popular Chinese-language blog, a 30-something Ms. Liu wrote that a particular restaurant's food was "too salty", the place was "unsanitary" due to a few cockroach sightings, and that owner was a “bully” who let patrons park their cars every which way on the street outside, leading to, yes, you guess it, "traffic jams".

Of course, the blogging foodie posted all those words in Mandarin, but I am sure you can smell the odor that her stinky review caused in some quarters here.

The legal upshot was more or less routine: A local branch of the Taiwan High Court sentenced Ms. Liu to "30 days in detention with two years of probation for posting a nasty review and ordered her to pay $6,000 in compensation to the restaurant. I repeat, I am not making this up.

While this malodorous sentence was just recently handed down, the brouhaha all took place in 2008. When the restaurant’s owner, a Mr. Yang, learned about Ms. Liu's post, he filed charges against her, accusing her of defamation. Three years later, here we are.

As a result and under the circumstances, in a land that is as colorful as it is sometimes chaotic (and I say this in a very nice, loving way), the court ruled that the blogger's criticism "exceeded reasonable bounds" and sentenced Ms. Liu to 30 days in detention, a ruling she has appealed and might be able to overturn, if international public opinion comes to her aid.

Repeat: if international public opinion comes to her aid!

The ''cockroach rant'' was ruled to be ''a narration of facts'', and not intentional slander, according to local media reports.

But the judge said that the foodie blogger should not have criticized ''all'' of the restaurant’s food as ''too salty'' because she only sampled one dish on a single visit.

Enter some local health officials, who duly inspected the restaurant and said that the joint was clean and not unsanitary at all. And get this: The $6,000 fine was imposed to compensate Mr. Yang for lost revenues due to Ms. Liu's pan post, the judge said.

Even though Ms. Liu later apologized to the Mr. Yang, he told reporters that while he accepted her public apology, he nevertheless hoped the legal case would help teach her a lesson.

Now enter the lawyers. A Taipei lawyer unconnected to the case told reporters that online bloggers who post food reviews should strive to be ''truthful'' and make sure to post photographs of the food dishes in order to protect themselves from accusations of ''making things up''.

Got that, restaurant bloggers of the world, and Pulitzer-winning food critics of Los Angeles and Manhattan? When you come to Taiwan, be very careful and what you say and to whom.

Someone might take issue with your taste buds, and you could end up inthe slammer.

Is there a movie here? I doubt it, unless it's an Itami Juzo slapstick comedy from Japan and he's dead now.

BIO Dan Bloom

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Asia since 1991. During a five-year stint in Tokyo, he covered the triumphs (and occasional failures) of Hollywood movies in Japan and interviewed American actors passing through Tokyo on film promotion tours, including Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Kevin Costner.