Jack Magazine

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I was contacted by the good people at Jack Magazine in Italy last year – they look for ‘influential bloggers’ in obscure locations around the world to contribute articles. The angle is in the T3/Stuff orientation, featuring a flotilla of gadgets, babes and other manly things … and I was rather surprised and flattered to have five full pages dedicated to me, and a mention on the cover!

… it’s all quite surreal to not be able to understand the final version in Italian though!

Update: I have added the English text below for the people who have asked me for a translation. I am also assured that the Italian is a direct translation of the original.

“Made in Taiwan”

Jonathan Biddle

16th November 2007

Somewhere off the coast of China, floating at the far end of the Eurasian subcontinent is the small Pacific island of Taiwan. Dubbed ‘Formosa’ by Portuguese sailors as they passed by, the island had an inauspicious early history, inhabited by little more than a few tribes of Polynesian settlers. Indeed, the Portuguese did not even think to stop.

Since then, the island has been run by the Dutch, Chinese and Japanese, and in the melee after the Second World War, no one was quite sure who owned the place. Sadly for the Taiwanese, the situation persists to this day, and its identity is still hotly disputed; especially by their old friends across the water. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the most lively, dynamic democracy in Asia, or the dangerous ‘renegade province’ of southern China.

As a result of this rather turbulent history, the island has an entirely unique set of cultural characteristics. Nowhere else in the world can you find a blend of South Pacific, Chinese and Japanese cultures, topped up with influences from Europe and America. Travelling around the country you’ll be confronted with Buddhist temples and transported on Japanese bullet trains, all set against a backdrop of lofty four thousand metre high mountain peaks, shrouded in mist.

And it’s this amazing set of features that punctuates the country at its most northern point in the capital city of Taipei. Nestled in a bowl of mountains and dormant volcanoes, home to the world’s tallest building and the epicentre of the globe’s high-tech industry, Taipei is wealthy, hard-working and developing with a pace that would leave any European city out of breath by comparison.

Tourism is hardly big, and perhaps it is a little unfair that the island shares a similar name with the more well-known Thailand. Most people who do arrive come for the huge technology trade shows, usually in the cavernous halls surrounding the ‘Taipei 101’ skyscraper. From there, they are shuttled to shopping malls, hotels and plazas that seem to come from the same Lego set of any other Asian downtown municipal ‘urban’ area, sporting the usual brand names from Milan, Paris, London and New York.

It’s a shame, because Taipei offers some of the warmest people you are likely to meet, astonishing scenery, and food that offers the best of Japanese and Chinese elements. Moreover, as Chinese culture becomes increasingly dominant, and the tide of Globalisation turns, it will be places like Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing that increasingly inform Western popular culture. With every year that passes, the city becomes more and more relevant.

The kids in Taipei are fluent in global urban style, and happily absorb, assimilate, re-mix and restyle other countries’ trends just as they breathe. This often results in all too naive fads as they spew out hip hop without the attitude, rock and roll without the rebellion and see punk as a mere tartan blip in the Vivienne Westwood boutiques. It’s unfair to judge too harshly, however, as The West has been cultivating an underground culture for many decades, with a foundation built on centuries of ‘bucking the system’. In many ways, the youngsters in Taiwan are the first, or perhaps second generation of teenagers, and as such sometimes the uncool enthusiasm on display is more akin to a British youth in the late 1950s hearing Elvis Presley for the first time.

Where it really gets interesting is when they begin formulating their own cultural concoctions. Wait at a traffic light near one of the universities on a Friday night and within a couple of minutes the front box will have filled up with dozens upon dozens of scooters, guys desperately attempting cool on the front, impossibly hot girls hanging precariously off the back, all the while chatting away into their cell phones – themselves a testament to the invention of the LED.

Any time you stop at lights it feels like a steroid-enhanced Vespa owners club rally, and it’s no secret that the highest motorcycle ownership per capita in the world is on the roads of Taiwan. The scooter is where young families of five are transported, dogs surf with tongues flapping in the air, gas tanks are delivered to the restaurants, and the old guys go to die, cigarette forever burning and firmly glued between withered lips.

Taiwan has been making things for other people for fifty years ago now. Of course, it has become synonymous with the phrase ‘Made in Taiwan’ and the association of poor quality and knock-off goods, but this is rapidly becoming a faded memory. The fact is, Taiwan is losing its jobs to the main land and has exactly the same anxieties about manufacturing and innovation as we have in The West.

As companies such as Apple and Sony come to Taiwan for their manufacturing, so the expertise and knowledge has filtered across. The iPod may have been designed by Apple in California, but the accumulated innovations of a thousand Taiwanese technology vendors has allowed it to become ever more thin and dense. Bicycle companies too come to Taiwan for their skill in manufacturing world-class frames and components. Visit the carbon fibre production facility of Giant in the middle of the island and you’ll see frames from the very best of Italy and America passing by. For a cyclist like me, it is like being a child in a (very expensive) sweet shop.

Taiwan is the first and last stop for those creating the latest innovative gadgets. Indeed, in my role, running the industrial design team at DEM (www.dem.com.tw), we work with clients such as Intel, Sony and Motorola to access and exploit this local expertise, and we assist local companies like Giant access global markets with products that are tuned for Western tastes.

Walk through one of the bustling technology markets in the city and you can sense the shift from purely Wes
tern companies providing the advertising spaces. Taiwanese companies are now also becoming increasingly ambitious themselves, and their brand recognition is growing rapidly, as companies like HTC, Acer, Asus and Mio take on rivals in Europe and America. They are increasingly leveraging their potent mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Western cultures to make devices that taking on the very best in the world.

People back home often ask me what I think about the threat of China. Of course, it is ever present, and the thought of hundreds of cruise missiles aimed at my back yard is of course a little disconcerting. However, while the two countries continue to make money – Taiwan is the biggest foreign investor in China, after all – the threat of conflict is slim. In many ways, the posturing between Japan, Korea and China is more worrisome.

Taipei, capital city of the country that at once refuses to fit in, and yet yearns for recognition and ‘normal’ status is a thrilling, bustling, multi-cultural hub that stubbornly remains off the radar of even the most hardened traveler. Don’t make the same mistake as the Portuguese traders; come, and you’ll pleasantly surprised.

4 Comments

  1. Posted 2008/02/19 at 01:01 | Permalink

    Hi Jonathan, thanks for stopping by my blog! Hey, do you have an English version (or your draft) of your article. Would love to read it!

  2. Posted 2008/02/19 at 11:05 | Permalink

    Hello – I just dropped in the English version at the bottom of the article. Hope you enjoy!

    Thanks for coming by.

  3. Posted 2008/02/25 at 16:09 | Permalink

    Blimey….you’re famous!

  4. Posted 2008/08/24 at 22:33 | Permalink

    Nice summary of Taiwan, was gonna write about it myself but now I will just link to your piece!

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