Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Taiwan Film Days

Cape No.7 -- Taiwan's all-time box office blockbuster. The story of a failed muscian's return to his hometown is entwined with a postwar tale of unrequited love.

Beyond the Arctic -- Veteran documentary filmmaker Yang Li-chou profiles a three-man Taiwanese team on the 2008 Polar Challenge, a multinational race to the North Pole.

No Peudo Vivir Sin Ti -- A poor, single father has his daughter taken from him by the government. His desperation to keep her leads to a showdown that draws worldwide media attention.

Yang Yang -- A intimate and beautifully acted drama about a half-French competitive runner for whom family, career, and love become a tangle of contradictions. The second feature by writer-director Chen Yu-chieh.

What On Earth Have I Done Wrong -- A mockumentary about Taiwan's film industy. A TV star (Doze Niu Chen-zer, playing himself) needs funding for his breakout film and tries to raise it by government and mob sources.

GOD MAN DOG -- The tenuous place of human beings links three disparate stories in filmmaker Singing Chen’s thoughtful second feature.

Taiwan films to screen in San Francisco, Nov. 6 – 8th

Although Hollywood films still dominate the theaters on the island, Taiwan-made films are beginning to find a broader audience, both abroad and domestically. During Taiwan Film Days, Bay Area audiences will undoubtedly be delighted by the breadth and diversity of the movies screened.

This weekend, the San Francisco Film Society along with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco, will showcase seven contemporary Taiwanese documentary and feature films. The films will screen at Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema (601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco) beginning Friday evening, November 6th to Sunday night, November 8th. An opening reception at Bambuddha Lounge (601 Eddy Street, San Francisco) will celebrate the start of Taiwan Film Days.

When martial law was lifted in 1987, the island’s new-found freedoms energized the film-making industry. Writers and directors alike had much to say and their movies began gaining international recognition. Since then, Taiwanese directors such as Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang are not only recognized in Taiwan, but have also gained a faithful audience abroad.

Still, Hollywood dominates the global box office and it is no different in Taiwan. From 1996-2006, Taiwanese films accounted for less than 2 percent of total ticket sales in Taiwan, with Hollywood movies taking more than 90 percent, and the rest going to movies from Hong Kong and China. Since 1990, the Government Information Office has promoted local films by giving incentives, in the form of a set grant and/or government-guaranteed bank loans of up to US$3.1 million. Although this has helped Taiwan films earn accolades at international film festivals, it has not always translated well into big box office receipts.

This changed in 2008 with Cape No.7. The film would go on to become the second largest grossing movie in Taiwan. This is also the opening movie for Taiwan Film Days with two showings on Friday, November 6th.

This movie really resonated with Taiwanese people of all ages. It is two stories entwined. After trying to become a singer in Taipei for ten years, Aga returns to his hometown a failure and takes a job as a mailman. He finds a cache of undelivered love letters, and pieces together a story of unrequited love from 60 years ago.

Starting off Saturday’s program will be Beyond the Arctic, a documentary about a three-man Taiwanese team on the 2008 Polar Challenge, an annual foot race to the North Pole. Endurance runner Kevin Lin, game industry CEO Albert Liu, and 22-year-old college student Jason Chen, come together to face temperatures as low as -41F, polar bear attack, frost bite, loneliness and the punishing trek towards their destination. Director Yang Li-chou and producer Michelle Chu will be at both screenings to answer questions from the audience.

Saturday’s lineup continues with director Fu Tien-yu’s Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, a sensitive story about Ah-guei and her equally restless and lonely cousin Ah-xian. With a big world map and a bookcase of traveling guides, they take imaginative journeys far beyond their small town. A coming-of-age tale that explores our sense of self and our place in the world. Director Fu will be at the screening to answer questions from the audience afterwards.

God Man Dog, a strange title for a movie, but appropriate when all three are thrown together. Lives are entwined and boundaries fall when three outcasts meet at the scene of an accident. Yellow Bull, gives shelter to deserted god statues, yet can’t afford to have his artificial leg fixed. Biung, an alcoholic aboriginal, transports peaches between a remote village and Taipei City, finds he is less valued than this merchandise. Ching, a depressed housewife mourns her dead child and hopes to redeem her marriage. These three lives collide in a fatal car accident caused by a stray dog. This movie shows at 7pm Saturday, November 7th.

Raised by her mother, Yang Yang knows neither her French father nor his language. She yearns for a family and believes she finally gets her wish when her mother remarries, only to be disappointed by her new family. She runs away to pursue an acting career, but discovers she cannot run away from family, friendship and love. Yang Yang will screen at 9:30pm on Saturday, November 7th.

Sunday’s program begins with What on Earth Have I Done Wrong? at 2pm. A mockumentary skewering local politics. Actor/filmmaker Doze Niu Chen-zer (playing himself) is trying to get money to make his movie. He hustles for actresses and drinks with potential investors, all the while his love life and career begin to unravel. He is left at a loss about what to do next.

No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (I cannot live without you), is based on a true story about a father’s struggle to keep his daughter. Li Wu-hsiung is a poor and single father who works at dangerous odd jobs, living on the fringes of society. When his daughter reaches school age, he tries to register her, only to meet with bureaucratic quicksand. Eventually his daughter is taken from him by the government in a desperate showdown. Filmed in black and white, director Leon Dai does an exceptional job of portraying the striking grittiness of Li’s life. This film is Taiwan’s official entry to the 2010 Academy Awards. It will show once on Sunday, November 8th at 6:15pm.

Background on Taiwan’s cinema

The first movie to be seen in Taiwan in 1899 was only shown in Taipei, which at that time was predominately Japanese. As such, it is doubtful that the early glimpses of cinema were seen by many non-Japanese.

In 1924, director-writer Liou Shi-yang made the first Taiwanese movie called Whose Fault is it? According to Fountain magazine’s special issue on Taiwan Cinema, foreign clergy played an important part in bringing non-Asian films to Taiwan. In the 1950s, popular cartoons like Felix the Cat and the comedies of Laurel and Hardy were often shown in church and temple grounds.

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his followers moved to Taiwan, but the military threat from China did not lessen. Chiang encouraged filmmaking and saw it as a tool for propaganda. Between the 1950s and 1970s, movies provided a form of escapism from the conservative and closed society.

In the early 1980s, Taiwan’s economic miracle began, increasing living standards and establishing a strong and stable middle-class. When martial law was lifted in 1987, a young generation of Taiwanese filmmakers, mostly educated in the United States, were ready to examine Taiwan’s history, society, and many of the subjects that were political taboos in the past. The bulk of the movies made in this era were called “New Wave.” Considered the Golden Age of the Taiwanese film industry, it was during this time that Taiwanese movies began to receive serious attention abroad.

In 1993, two Taiwan-made movies were contenders for the best foreign film at the Oscars. In 1994, Taiwan produced 29 feature films, which earned 54 nominations and 49 awards at international festivals. In as much as people in the movie business have received more media attention and appreciation in Taiwan, the late 1990s became a dark period for Taiwanese films, both internationally and domestically. However, in the last two years, the tide has turned once again for Taiwan-made films.

Won Fu’s Bay Area debut

On Friday evening, October 16th Won Fu delivered a high energy and fun performance at the University of California at Berkeley. They were there to help raise funds for Typhoon Relief/Red Cross Charities. Over 200 students attended the Taiwanese American Student Association benefit. During Won Fu's two rousing encores, the crowd stood up so they could better dance or move to the beat.

The following week, Won Fu played at Café du Nord in San Francisco. The Wednesday evening performance would be their first true test performing in front of an American crowd. If Xiao Min, the lead male vocal and guitarist, was nervous, he hid it well. His exuberance and playfulness came through despite struggling with certain English words. He carried on a light banter with the crowd and won them over easily with his infectious good humor. If he’s this funny with his somewhat limited English, one wonders how truly delightful he would be in Mandarin or Taiwanese. His playfulness was infectious.

During their hour-long set at both locations, Xiao Min introduced the songs. From time to time, Mami, the lead female vocalist often injected comments as well. With their playfulness, they did a great job on audience participation and in keeping the spirits high. Twiggy, the bass guitarist and Dupy, the drummer, seemed more than happy to leave the talking to Xiao Min and Mami.

The band has often said that they feel music should be a happy experience and they certainly delivered one at both events. Won Fu’s musical style ranges from pop to head-banging heavy rock. Singing mainly in Mandarin and Taiwanese, they played their hit “Do Re Mi,” one of their most popular songs by far, with its melodies reminiscent of Taiwanese folk tunes. The Japanese version won them a solid Japanese following.

Due to the tight schedule at Café du Nord and because they had played a request from the audience, Xiao Min explained that there would be no encores. However, since they could play two more songs, he suggested they think of the next song as the last and pretend the last song was the encore, thus satisfying his vanity. The “encore” was dedicated to a superstar and it soon became clear when Mami began belting out Michael Jackson’s “I want you back.” It was a thing of wonder that such a petite Taiwanese girl could sound exactly like the legendary Michael Jackson.

Won Fu continued on their US tour by traveling to Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. For more details about the band, please visit them at:

Taiwan job fair comes to Silicon Valley, Nov. 13 & 14th

This month, Taiwan’s government and the private sector will join forces to stage an “Overseas High-Tech Talent Recruitment Mission.” The HiRecruit Job Fair was initiated by the Executive Yuan in 2003 to attract more IT professionals to work in Taiwan. Previous missions have attracted 12,503 professionals, and successfully matched 3,016 job-seekers with careers in Taiwan. This year’s 12-day overseas recruitment mission will include four US cities and arrive in Silicon Valley on November 13th and 14th (Friday and Saturday) in the hope of filling 1,532 job vacancies.

The group, comprising of 32 delegates, will conduct interviews with local IT specialists interested in working in Taiwan. In addition to one-on-one interviews with participating companies, other activities include a press conference, an opening ceremony, HiRecruit Services, assistance for those looking for substitute military service, or seeking work permits for Taiwan.

Thirty companies and research institutions will present participants with jobs in over 784 categories in the semiconductor, optoelectronics, telecommunications and informatics, metal materials, biotechnology, medical and green energy industries. Companies include Chi-Mei Optoelectronics, Delta Electronics, Chunghwa Telecom, Macronix, Etron, Gemtek, Brickcom, Hon Hai, Mediatek, Cadence, Davicom, Arcom, Asia Pacific Microsystems, Coban Asia, Everlight Electronics, LePower, PharmaEssentia, Shenmao, Parts Channel, Applied Materials, and Impax, among many others.

Jobs are available in different areas of corporate management, R&D management, engineering, and other R&D areas. Now more than ever, Taiwan’s government is making it easier for expats to work on the island. Instead of going through a multi-tier process involving different ministries, the government has simplified the process by issuing an Employment Pass.

In addition, skilled foreign workers can receive attractive incentives such as lower income tax as well as Taiwan residency. In order to advance Taiwan’s technological standing in the world, government subsidies are offered to professionals and experts in specialized fields. Incentives for qualified candidates include subsidized travel, a pension, and bonuses .

In addition to organizing overseas recruitment missions, HiRecruit Services seeks to connect international professionals with Taiwanese enterprises through its HiRecruit online portal (
http://hirecruit.nat.gov.tw). Currently, there are over 986 enterprise members and over 10,783 individual members listed in HiRecruit’s database, enabling HiRecruit to quickly identify and automatically process in excess of 42,404 job matches, with more than 1,532 vacancies targeting the US. In the first three quarters of 2009, 141 companies successfully recruited 247 professionals.

Come meet the movers and shakers of Taiwan’s hi-tech industries, along with government agencies, at the HiRecruit Job Fair. Join them at the Hyatt Regency Hotel (5101 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara) to find out about the exciting investment and job opportunities in Taiwan. If you would like more information, please email: hirecruit@taiwantradesf.org or register at http://hirecruit.nat.gov.tw/english/tour_JobList.asp.

The 60th anniversary of division across the Strait – Taiwan’s perspective

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) celebrated the 60th anniversary of its creation by mobilizing some 100,000 soldiers to stage a massive military parade in Beijing on October 1st. Watching the Chinese fanfare and parades on television, few Taiwanese were impressed. Instead of celebrating the 98th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan on Oct. 10th, the government cancelled all celebrations out of respect for those lives, homes, and livelihoods lost in the wake of Typhoon Morakot in August.

The United Evening News said in an editorial, that watching the tens of thousand of troops marching in unison was like watching a computer animation. “While the government and the people of China still admire the mighty force of collectivism, most Taiwanese feel more confident that they have got rid of the authoritarian rule and cherish more the diversity, autonomy and individualist way of life they enjoy now.”

The United Daily News also commented in an editorial that “With regard to a nation’s military force and weaponry, Taiwan is certainly not as strong as China. But in terms of freedom, Taiwan is way ahead of China. Only when freedom and democracy have prevailed, will all the Chinese people be really liberated from the images of holding huge portraits of leaders, placards of slogans and oceans of red flags.”

Taiwan’s democracy provides catalyst

When asked by the press about his impression of the large-scale military parade in China, Premier Wu Den-yih of Taiwan said “We are not in a position to comment on whatever style the PRC wanted to celebrate its founding anniversary, which we should respect. But both sides have reached consensus that only peaceful development is most beneficial to the welfare of peoples across the Taiwan Strait.”

Chang Jung-kung, director of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party's Mainland Affairs Division, said “It is not deniable that China is strong in its national power, but Taiwan’s soft power is superior because of peaceful competition, and its democratic system.”

Tsai Ing-wen, chairperson of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said “It would be more meaningful if China had stressed the need to review the development process of democracy on its 60th founding anniversary.”

More than one million Nationalist troops fell in the Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists before Chiang Kai-shek flew to Taiwan from Chengdu, Sichuan (China) on Dec. 10th, 1949. He came with about two million civilians and soldiers, building Taiwan into a “Bastion of Recovery” together with its four million local residents.

With a population of 23 million now, Taiwan is a democracy which enjoys astonishing economic power. In an editorial “The miracle created by failures,” the Singapore-based United Morning News praised Taiwan for its hard work and its political and economic achievements in the last 60 years. “The largest impact China will face in the future comes from the catalysis of Taiwan’s democracy.”

However, former DPP legislator Lin Cho-shui holds a more conservative view, saying “Taiwan’s democracy will not be a deciding factor in China’s future democratization, which will have to come from the internal power of the Chinese mainland.”

Transcending 60 years

On the 60th anniversary of cross strait division, the Commonwealth magazine published a special issue entitled “Transcending the 60 years” which included an interview with President Ma Ying-jeou. Talking about his feelings on the 60th anniversary, Ma said, “Many KMT party members consider the Communists as enemies of blood rancor. My family does too. But I can’t put my personal resentment above our national interests.”

He continued, “The mutual exchanges across the Strait aim not just at making money by attracting more mainland Chinese tourists, or just seeking more business opportunities for Taiwanese businessmen, but also at transforming freedom, democracy, legal systems and human rights into a common language among the peoples across the Taiwan Strait….In dealing with the Chinese mainland, my government vows not to betray the national dignity and sovereignty, nor can we do nothing merely for fear of being hurt.”

In an interview with the DPP chairperson on the same issue, Tsai said. “There has been enough heated argument and fighting on the issue of unification with China or Taiwan independence in our society. We should review what values we should insist on. Once we are certain about the core values, we shouldn't tilt too much towards China because the values in China are those we are not supposed to come near.”

Long way towards being a big family

The Taipei-based China Times published an article written by freelancer Chen Yi-ting noting that “in the last 60 years, the source of threats and fear for Taiwan did not come from the imperialism of Europe or America, but from Beijing. Now we see the Chinese standing up after hundred years of being humiliated by the West. And it was Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek who was defeated by Communist Mao Tse-tung. The humiliation of being defeated should not be carried onward by the living people of Taiwan.”

"A starting point for rapprochement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is to respect the existence of Taiwan’s entity. The Chinese government and people have always used the 'one China' policy to limit Taiwan’s maneuvering on the international stage, disallowing the use of Taiwan’s name. Every time we are denied in the international arena, we bear resentment and mistrust toward China, who still stubbornly believes that the solution across the Strait lies with military power."

“This is how one treats an enemy. If you think of Taiwanese as compatriots, you need to be more tolerant. Taiwanese are not stone-hearted. If you want us to join the greater Chinese family, please do something to touch our hearts, not threaten us with scare tactics as a way to force us into submission without an alternative.”

Today, Taiwan is confident enough to allow the live television broadcast of China’s military parade on its national day. When can we humbly expect the Chinese government to do the same by not blocking access to Taiwanese news media from it people?

Taiwan’s SMEs continue to prosper

Taiwan is striving to increase its competitiveness by relaxing current restrictions and attracting more foreign investment, establishing less complicated business regulations, and developing value-added service sectors, like healthcare, and cultural tourism. Although Taiwan’s competitiveness ranking has declined, its small to medium-sized companies have continued to do well.

In a speech on Taiwan’s competitiveness on October 13th in Taiwan, John R. Wells, the president of the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development (IMD), pointed out Taiwan’s strengths and weaknesses. As a result of the global financial crisis, the economic performance of many nations has fallen sharply. Taiwan has suffered particularly badly because of its export-oriented economy. In the IMD’s Competitiveness Yearbook 2009 released in May, Taiwan was ranked 23rd out of the 57 nations surveyed, dropping from 13th place in 2008.

Under closer examination, the small to medium-sized businesses in Taiwan did far better than large corporations. In the report, Taiwan ranked 14th in the efficiency of small to medium-sized businesses, better than Japan’s 36th. Taiwan ranked 7th in entrepreneurship and 11th in market reaction resilience, a stress test of how quickly economies rebound.

Wells said business health is the key to building a nation’s competitiveness. Even with the advantages of low taxes, complete infrastructure and innovation capability, Taiwan’s attraction to foreign investment fell far behind China, Hong Kong and Japan because Taiwan’s laws are too complicated and restrictive.

With its unique culture and fine craftsmanship, Taiwan can surely attract visitors from all over the world, he observed. “Taiwan can learn from Spain’s experiences in developing its tourism industry,” he said.

Echoing Wells’ points, Taiwan Institute of Economic Research president David Hong said that Taiwan’s economic growth in the past have relied on manufacturing. Although Taiwan still needs its manufacturing industries, it needs to grow its service sector.

Even though Taiwan’s ranking fell in IMD’s report, international news media like Dow Jones News Service, AFP, Bloomberg News Services, Japan Economic News, The Wall Street Journal Asia, and Singapore’s Straits Times, have all reported on Taiwan’s economic recovery. Furthermore, domestic indictors compiled by Taiwan's Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) in the last three months indicate a sustainable improvement around the corner. Optimism about the anticipated economic outlook is buoyant.

Newspapers offer differing viewpoints of Taiwan’s economy

Recently, three of Taiwan’s biggest newspapers addressed the nation’s economy in their editorials. Each focused on a different aspect of the economy. The Commercial Times expressed worries about the sharp decline of Taiwan’s imports this year, while the Taipei-based China Times took an optimistic view of the comprehensive cooperation in economic and trade links between the offshore islands across the Taiwan Strait. The Economic Daily News analyzed the positive and negative impacts of the upcoming FTA-like Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (EFAC) negotiation between Taiwan and China.

Warning signs of import decline

The Commercial Times said the statistics released by the Ministry of Finance shows that Taiwan’s trade surplus in the first three quarters of this year reached US$22 billion, an increase of 1.5 times over the same period for 2008. This was expected to reach US$29.2 billion by early October according to the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics. The Ministry of Economic Affairs revised this figure to US$30 billion – a record high for Taiwan.

The reason behind such a huge trade surplus is not because of a rapid growth in exports, but due to a sharp decline in imports, which are down 40 percent, another record. Compared with other trading nations, in the first eight months of this year, Taiwan led the way for import declines.

The decline is a reflection of the huge shrinkage in consumer spending and an enormous investment cut by businessmen. This situation is more serious in Taiwan than in any other nation. The average annual growth of Taiwan’s private business investments between 1999 and 2008 was negative 1.9 percent – far below the positive 12.4 percent enjoyed in the 1980s. Further analysis shows the reason for the stagnation of investment dynamics lies in the rigid business development model, one that has not adjusted to the changing environment. It is now the right time for both the government and businesses to undergo a thorough review and revamp.

Cooperation between offshore islands across the Taiwan Strait

In an editorial, the China Times linked the rejection of casinos by the people of Penghu Island (Pescadores), Taiwan, with the establishment of a comprehensive testing area in Pingtan Island, Fujian, China, to facilitate the exchange of goods from Taiwan.

The paper said Penghu has no other choice but to develop its tourism from now on. However, due to the limited physical space for market expansion, Penghu should promote external linked businesses in agriculture, industry and commerce in line with its environmental protection goals. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait lies Pingtan Island with a development plan, which is a pilot test area of China’s “Free Trade Harbor Zone” trying to cooperate with Taiwanese business in a comprehensive connection and exchange of all kinds of goods. Pingtan is one of the best places to provide Taiwanese businesses with mutual management and administration – as a new model of upgrading the economic and trade cooperation between Taiwan and China.

The paper struck an optimistic note saying that the development in Pingtan offers Penghu a new opportunity. If an economic and trade hotline could be established between these two islands – Pingtan lying at the northwestern corner of the Taiwan Strait,and Penghu, sitting in the middle of the Strait – they could tap into businesses such as tourism, trade and commerce, and technology research and development .

Besides Penghu and Pingtan, there are other islands on both sides of the Strait that could be linked, such as Kinmen (Taiwan) and Xiamen (China). Keeping in line with the peaceful development trend across the Taiwan Strait, these offshore islands, along with the new development in the economic zone on the west side of the Strait, could bring new opportunities - a topic for both Taiwan and China to discuss in the near future.

EFCA – roses with thorns

The Economic Daily News agreed with Premier Wu Den-yih’s description of the EFCA as roses with thorns, meaning it comes with opportunities and risks. Optimists see only roses while pessimists see only thorns.

Premier Wu noted, Taiwan’s signing of an EFCA with China, removing trade and investment barriers, will observe the three principles of “national requirement, popular support and parliamentary supervision” and two pre-conditions of “not opening doors to agricultural products” and “not taking mainland laborers.” The Taiwan government’s position is to maximize the benefits and minimize the impacts.

In Premier Wu’s eyes, the roses are the economic benefits, including lower customs duties in China. It would allow Taiwanese petro-chemicals and textiles to compete with those from Southeast Asian nations and allow them to expand and invest in Taiwan, potentially bringing 350,000 job opportunities. Recently, the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research in Taipei said the ECFA would spur Taiwan’s economic growth rate in 2010 to 1.65 percent. This would mean that one-third of next year’s economic growth rate would depend on the ECFA. More importantly, Taiwan would get more opportunities to sign free trade agreements (FTA) with other nations, thus avoiding being marginalized and isolated.

The thorns of signing an ECFA are to open Taiwan’s market to China. It is estimated that industries such as ceramic tiles, household appliances and towels would see benefits of over 80,000 jobs created. Premier Wu said the Ministry of Economic Affairs would assign a budget fund of NT$35 billion (US$1.07 billion) to help the affected industries upgrade or reform.

The paper also pointed out that the ECFA has drawn attention from other nations, some with interests in signing FTAs with Taiwan after the completion of the ECFA. Is Taiwan ready to cope with the possibilities of negotiating more FTAs and opening up more of its markets once the ECFA is signed?

Looking for love in the Internet age

Whereas singles in both Taiwan and China use the Internet to look for a potential partner or spouse, priorities differ between the two countries. Twenty years ago, personal ads were frowned upon as a way of seeking a mate, however with the advent of the Internet, personals have become an acceptable way for young people to meet each other. Recently, the Want Daily, a newly founded newspaper published by the Taipei-based China Times, carried a series of reports on the subject.

In 1989, when Taiwanese writer Chen Yu-huei wrote The Personals, about the responses to her three ads, placing a personal ad was still a rare and embarrassing thing to do. Her book was made into a movie while most Taiwanese still considered personal ads a questionable form of meeting people. However, many of the men who responded were far from marginalized, and ranged from middle school graduates to PhDs, men seeking marriage, affairs or merely sex.

Another movie explored the male perspective twenty years later. In If You Are the One produced in 2008, Ge You, one of the most popular actors in the Chinese world, returns to China after studying overseas. He places a personal ad listing his short-comings. In the dating process, he met a wide range of women, and even a gay man, from those reluctant to have sex, to expectant unwed mothers, from sales girls to arrogant stockbrokers. In the end, he falls in love with a married woman.

These two movies both caused a ripple of discussions across the Taiwan Strait regarding the conflicts between traditional and modern societies, and marriage by way of the personal ads.

Taiwan’s personal ad users can include the rich, beautiful female nurses in their 20s, or teachers in their 30s, or even single mothers in their 50s. Whereas many personal ads in Taiwan are written by a web editor, those in China are often written by those seeking a partner.

Another major distinction between the two sides is that Chinese personal ads, although still focused on a pretty face, will attribute greater importance to a person of means. There are young beautiful editors who have their personal ad as part of their blogs. Even though they are independent and romantically minded, a big focus is placed on materialism. One survey of Chinese girls in their 20s showed their preference for men with the three basics – a car, a house and money.

Another website survey showed the big difference in the definition of a “good man” on both sides of the Strait. Whereas 39.53 percent of Taiwanese women considered “doing chores at home” as the top virtue, it was less of a priority in China. In fact, 72.83 percent of Chinese girls liked “smart, experienced and capable men,” while only 34 percent of Taiwanese females like this type of men.

Chen said in the preface to the second edition of The Personals that personal ads have moved from newspapers to websites and blogs. In the Internet age, we have virtual dating and virtual love affairs. The younger generations have less real social activities and are more prone to looking for mates via the Internet, she said.

According to statistics released by Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior, the number of marriages on the island totaled 50,612 from January to August 2009, showing a 18.5 percent drop, or about 34,000 people. During the same period, the number of divorces totaled 74,894, about 0.6 percent higher than 2008.

An interesting point revealed by the data is that 19.4 percent of the Taiwanese men married foreign brides, and the number of Taiwanese men marrying Taiwanese women dropped 21.6 percent, while the number of newly married foreign brides increased by 3.1 percent to 14,588.

Among foreign brides in Taiwan, mainland Chinese women accounted for about 60 percent at 8,714 persons, Southeast Asian brides totaled 27 percent (3,899 women), and other nationals made up 13 percent (1,975 women). Compared with the same period in 2008, the number of Chinese brides increased 5.6 percent, while the number of Southeast Asians marrying Taiwanese dropped 2.5 percent. The number of other nationals marrying Taiwanese rose 4.3 percent.

Overhauling Taiwan’s education system

Taiwan’s education system has produced students with some of the highest test scores in the world, especially in math. However, it has often been criticized for putting too much emphasis on scores, too much pressure on students, and sacrificing creativity in favor of rote memorization. Taiwan’s educational reforms have changed this, but not necessarily all for the better.

Until 2001, passing the yearly joint entrance examination was the only path to Taiwan’s colleges and universities. The test was critical since Taiwan only had 50 universities and colleges with space for 250,000 students in the 1990s. With only one way in, tremendous pressure were put on students to attain the highest possible score in the exams.

Change to Taiwan’s college entry

With the end of martial law in 1987, the Taiwanese people began asking for more democracy, and educational reform was a natural progression. They demanded reforms that would prioritize reason over memorization and reduce the emphasis on central control and standardized testing.

In 2002, Taiwan finally modified the joint entrance exam, adopting a new “multi-track admission program.” One choice involved taking the General Scholastic Ability Test at the beginning of the year or the Department Requirement Test held in July. After the first test, students received their scores and then pay to apply to individual universities. On the “Selection of Universities” track, applicants were also interviewed by professors to gauge additional abilities on top of the test scores. The second track involved taking the test and being notified of admission based on the test scores.

On average, there are 140,000 students taking the general scholastic ability test, 110,000 taking the department request test, and another 180,000 taking the joint exam for the two-year junior colleges and four-year vocational colleges. The new multi-track admission program was not without its critics

New system favors the well off

Professor Chu Hao-ming of National Cheng-chi University wrote an article in the United Daily News saying that the government has adopted this multi-track admission program with the intention of correcting the shortcomings of the old system by giving students more choice, but this also has limited the admission of students from poorer families to universities.

Students from well off families can spend more time and energy trying to maximize their scores. They can attend cram classes or take extracurricular lessons on the piano or violin, go overseas to study a foreign language and need not worry about the cost of application fees. These are luxuries that are out of reach for students from poorer families, who have to work to help support their families. With less time and money, their acquired skills are also different, more likely to take up the guitar or play basketball.

Professor Luo Chu-ping of National Taiwan University expressed a similar view in the Taipei-based China Times. From his experience interviewing students applying for admission to the agricultural economy department last year, he saw a troubling trend. Of the 50 applicants, 70 percent came from rich families in Taipei City or County and they graduated from the better-known schools. Their parents were university professors, medical doctors, private business owners or mutual fund managers. None were from farming or blue-collar families. He urged the government to pay closer attention and to take corrective measures to help offset this disparity.

Current system not sustainable

In 1994, the Ministry of Education began allowing new schools to open and some colleges to become universities. This eventually led to an overabundance of colleges and universities on the island, now numbering 162. Taiwan cannot sustain 162 universities, according to the United Evening News.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s declining birthrate has had a severe impact on the vacancy enrollment of universities in the last couple of years. High school graduates still struggle to enter the prestigious schools, like National Taiwan University, and ignore the lowend schools. The universities with less than 50 percent enrollment rate have increased from 11 in 2008 to 25 in 2009. Based on a 2 percent increase rate per year, the Ministry of Education predicts the enrollment vacancy will reach 71,000 in 2021.

It will only get worse with Taiwan’s declining birth rate. The number of universities will be further reduced to around 100, meaning about 60 schools will be closed due to a lack of students. Education Minister Wu Ching-ji said the ministry has been engaged in planning an exit strategy and transition for those schools.

Not all bad

Associate Professor Hsieh Kuo-rong of I-Shou University in Kaohsiung saw a new opportunity emerging from the potential closure of colleges. He wrote a column in the China Times about Wenzao Foreign Language College in Kaohsiung, which has bucked the bankruptcy trend. In fact, its enrollment has increased exponentially.

Wenzao has continued to invest in campus construction. At the reading rooms of the library, they use Chinese living room design. They provide power wheelchair access for disabled students – the first of its kind in Taiwan. All the departments there are equipped with resource rooms, including small libraries and satellite televisions. There is an “English Park,” “European Union Park,” “Asian Language Park,” “Chinese Park” so as to present an international learning environment. Teachers’ enthusiasm and dedication also contributes to the rising enrollment rate, according to Hsieh.

There is also some good news about Taiwan’s higher education. For the first time, National Taiwan University is listed among the top 100 universities in the world by the UK’s Times Higher Education. It jumped to 95th place from 124th in 2008. Education Minister Wu said this might be the result of the NT$50 billion (US$1.53 billion) budget in five years allocated to Taiwan’s universities.

Behind the GDP numbers, critical social problems are hidden

The gap between the rich and the poor has widened in Taiwan over the last decade according to the Finance Ministry. In studying 2007 income reports, the top 5 percent of tax payers earned NT$4.28 million (US$131,7000), while the bottom 5 percent earned NT$69,000 (US$2,123). The Taipei-based China Times reported the gap between the richest 5 percent and the poorest 5 percent as being 32 times in 1998 and has jumped to 62 times in 2007. This is the highest in Taiwan’s history.

Although income tax information is comparatively complete, it does not include capital gains and overseas income, which account for much of the income of the wealthy. Furthermore, the poorest households in Taiwan will usually not file an income tax return, thus making data collection incomplete.

Economic disparity grows under both parties

Generally speaking, two factors contribute to the deteriorating trend: 1) globalization and technology innovation, and 2) the wrong policies leading to an unfair tax system and thus enlarging the gap between rich and poor. Although the past ten years have seen both the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in power, neither party has paid attention to this burgeoning issue.

Professor Lin Wan-i of National Taiwan University said the previous DPP government had adopted several tax reduction policies favorable to the rich, allowing incomes for the wealthy to grow faster than incomes for the poor. The current government also pushed tax reduction policies to counter the global financial crisis that favored the rich, further widening the disparity between the rich and the poor.

Taiwanese work ethics have been an underpinning reason for the island’s strong gross domestic product (GDP), but life has not improved much for theTaiwanese people over the last decade, according to Commonwealth magazine. Much of the reason can be attributed to the limits of using the GDP as an economic indicator.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said, "We look to the GDP as a measure of how well we were doing, and that doesn't tell us whether it's sustainable… What began as a measure of market performance has increasingly become a measure of social performance, and that's wrong." As Taiwan awakens to the inadequacies of GDP in measuring society's well-being, the Commonwealth is pointing to three critical problems of Taiwan’s society that have gone undetected by this major economic indicator.

Problem No. 1: No place to live for Taipei worker bees

The output generated by the city has risen consistently, but residents have moved out of the city. Since 1991, Taipei's population has experienced a steady net emigration. “Taiwan's capital Taipei is a prime example of growth and development not moving in tandem," says Lio Mon-chi, an associate professor at National Sun Yat-sen University.

"Each individual who commutes to Taipei to work is like a worker bee for the capital. Worker bees are only responsible for working for the queen bee, but they can't live in the center of her hive," Lio says. Mortgage burdens have struck fear in the hearts of many. According to statistics released by the cabinet-level Council for Economic Planning and Development, mortgages have gone from accounting for 29 percent of Taipei residents' income in 2004 to 43 percent in 2008.

The latest data on types of income from the Ministry of Finance shows that families living in Taipei do not have the highest wages and salaries in Taiwan, but they make up for it with the highest level of unearned income, such as rental income, royalties and dividends. Landlords do not have to work since collecting rent can usually afford them a luxurous lifestyle.

On the other hand, no matter how hard the people in the middle class work, their salaries cannot keep up with soaring housing prices. Taipei's real estate market is increasingly a tool for people with money to make more money. One broker said that in the first eight months of 2009, 45 percent of prospective homebuyers were investors, a far higher ratio than the 20 percent estimated by the Ministry of the Interior.

Problem No. 2: World’s fifth longest working hours

Another GDP blind spot often challenged by economists is that it provides no way to measure the value of leisure. In Taiwan, long work hours and unlimited overtime have become another crisis. According to the 2008 World Competitiveness Yearbook published by the Lausanne-based business school IMD, Taiwan's working hours were ranked as the fifth longest in the world in 2007, behind Mexico, Hong Kong, South Korea and India. Each Taiwanese employee worked an average of 2,256 hours during the year.

The impact of long working hours on quality of the life can be seen most clearly in the reduced time people have to spend with their families. Along with the lack of time, workers are reluctant to take further professional training.

Problem No. 3: Growing proportion of low-income households

Aside from looking at economic growth, one also must consider income distribution. The proportion of poor people have become an important focal point in many countries. Minister without Portfolio James Hsueh says two indicators – the difference in income between the highest- and lowest-earning households and the number of low-income households as a percentage of the total – both provide a warning that poverty is worsening.

In 2007, the wealthiest 20 percent of Taiwan's households earned an average income 5.98 times that of the poorest 20 percent, but the disparity grew to 6.05 times in 2008. Nearly 30,000 more households have officially registered as low-income households since 2001, and their number as a proportion of Taiwan's total households has risen 0.3 percentage points.

"When the economy is growing, the wealth of low-income earners grows more slowly than that of high-income earners, but when the economy is weak, the wealth of low-income earners contracts the most," Hsueh explains. In other words, regardless of the state of the economy, the poor receive a relatively smaller share of the benefits of economic growth.

Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) believes, that using the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest households to measure the income disparity is not completely accurate since the survey only records regular income earned in a particular year, rather than a household's overall wealth. Many individuals in the bottom fifth income tier are actually retired people who do not have incomes, but "they are not necessarily poor," a DGBAS official says.

Still, at a time when the number of low-income households is clearly growing, the government has begun providing social subsidies and professional training to disadvantaged groups to help narrow the rich-poor divide. Another major element in addressing the problem should be to reform the tax system to help redistribute wealth, but one official revealed that with the current mindset geared to lowering taxes in order to drive GDP higher, pushing such tax reforms would be extremely difficult.

As has long been the case, many of society's problems are hidden behind the GDP numbers. As a single economic indicator, the GDP is inherently limited and cannot fully reflect society's many facets. The question many are pondering now is what blend of indicators should be used to replace the long-dominant GDP.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.