Hong Kong · Taiwan · Travel

Photo roundup-Asian airports

When you travel a lot, whether as a tourist or an expat returning home, airports become a familiar place. In Asia, there are a lot of modern, large, and sleek airports. It’s even better when they are attractive or have interesting features, like the ones below.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport might be small but the slanted latticed roof of Terminal 1’s immigration hall is a very attractive and welcoming sight for visitors, especially with the reflection on the floor. Every time I see this roof, I never fail to be impressed.

I’ve passed through Hong Kong’s airport, one of the largest in Asia, so many times but it’s still one of the best I’ve been too. The Terminal One departure gates as well as the newer and smaller Terminal Two check-in hall are attractive, especially the wavy ceiling of the latter.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is another large and attractive one in the region. But despite the throwback metal shed-like appearance of the check-in hall, the departure gate area is another story.

Beijing’s airport is one of the largest in the world but even then, it isn’t as modern as Hong Kong’s airport, as sleek as Bangkok’s, or welcoming as Taipei’s. As with a lot of things in China, size and grandeur take priority over actual convenience and warmth. It does have a cool red ceiling with a layer of stripes below it.


Kuala Lumpur’s airport features a unique brown, lumpy ceiling that is probably based on indigenous hut design.

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China · Taiwan

It’s China, not Trump who’s at fault in the Taiwan President Phone Call controversy

So Donald Trump hasn’t even become president yet but he’s already causing international scandals. Judging from some of the shocked and horror-stricken reaction in the media and from some people, it is like he almost caused World War III to erupt. If you don’t already know, what Trump did was to call the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, and have a conversation with her last Friday, December 2. It was a mere phone call, but it was unprecedented in American history, because it was the first time any US leader or president-elect had spoken directly to a Taiwan president since official relations were severed in 1979.

As expected, China reacted angrily though not as badly as many people expected, because they were probably as stunned by the seeming audacity out of nowhere from Trump. After all, this is a guy who many people in his own country don’t understand.
Now, I’m no supporter, fan or admirer of Trump and I think he is a vile, arrogant and pretentious person. But I can’t deny I felt a little bit of  for what he did. Many people don’t see it that way because they think this upsets the critical state of affairs between the US and China over Taiwan. Basically, Taiwan is a nation that China claims belongs to it, due to the losing government side in the Civil War fleeing to Taiwan, then a former Japanese colony that had been returned to China, in 1949 to govern for themselves. Since then, Taiwan has become a democracy and a relatively well-off country with its own government, army, currency, courts and schools, in short basically everything a country has. And China has never relinquished its view that Taiwan belongs to it, forcing all major nations and the UN to give up official relations with Taiwan. The US also gave up official ties with Taiwan in 1979, but remains Taiwan’s main ally and provides tacit support, including military arms albeit outdated and in limited quantities.

However, many people were annoyed or angry at what Trump did, because they think this might provoke China into declaring war on the US and starting a regional war in East Asia and the South China Sea. But while I understand these folks, including a few expat friends and acquaintances of mine in China, don’t support China’s regime, they are letting their anger at Trump overshadow the actual situation. They guess that Trump is a fool who made a reckless move (I doubt that though), or that he only made the call (Trump has since claimed Tsai called him) to discuss investment projects his associates had previously visited, as reported by the BBC. The danger though is that they end up supporting or giving weight to China’s position, as unjust and groundless as it is.

One person who I knew from Beijing, a very intelligent and knowledgeable writer, came out with this piece where he makes an interesting but in my opinion, groundless, argument. Basically, it is that the Communist regime has drilled into its people so successfully, that Chinese strongly feel that Taiwan belongs to them and is part of their country. If the government even appears to look weak by not constantly pressing its claim on Taiwan and allowing even the slightest international acknowledgement of Taiwan as an independent nation, there is a danger than an angry Chinese population could stir up and force the Chinese government into taking military action. The article does make good points to try and back up this argument, but there are a couple of big holes which ultimately make it a flawed argument. One is that what the Chinese government imposes on its citizens about Taiwan belonging to them is a lie, and one which has serious international ramifications. As foreign countries and the UN freeze Taiwan out (besides not being part of the UN or many international bodies, Taiwan participates in the Olympics as Chinese Taipei and flies an artificial flag that is not its own), this perpetuates the lie among many mainland Chinese. However China reacts, whatever it does, such as threaten or increase provocative actions near Taiwan, the fault is not Trump dared to talk to a Taiwanese president, but that the Chinese Communist Party has maintained a nonsensical lie for decades while attempting to bully and coerce a nation of 23 million people.
The second is that the writer stresses that the lie is so deeply ingrained that to mainland Chinese, it is “weird and taboo” to consider Taiwan as anything but a part of China. This is not true in my experience because I have met a number of mainlanders who are sympathetic or open to Taiwan being a separate nation.

It is time more mainlanders become aware that the world isn’t what their party forces to tell them. They need to know that Taiwan is not a part of China, but a separate nation, and just because their government claims it is, that is not true. If a lot of Chinese can’t accept that and get their “feelings hurt,” so be it. But I doubt all 1.3 billion Chinese, especially not the ones I know, are rabid, mindless, nationalist maniacs intent on forcing Taiwan into being part of China. This situation is still causing consternation with both China and Trump, with Trump responding with some bold (but not exactly untrue) tweets about China after Chinese state media criticized him.

So whether Trump’s motives were, the result is that it has brought Taiwan’s plight into the open, and put some pressure on China. I’m still not certain or ready to accept he could be a decent president, but I certainly don’t share a lot of people’s anger over Trump and I grudgingly give him a little credit for talking to Taiwan’s president on the phone.

Hong Kong · Taiwan

Taiwan number one for expats?

A couple of weeks ago, a major expat website released a survey of the best countries for expats to live in. You know which country topped it? Taiwan. On the InterNations Expat Insider Survey, Taiwan placed first due to quality of life and personal finances (affordability), both areas of life that it is very strong in.
In contrast, Hong Kong and mainland China dropped down the rankings, with HK falling 18 places to 44th. That certainly looks dire, but it is not that surprising given all the issues that HK has been coping with.

So did I make the wrong choice to move to Hong Kong to work? Well, no.
Because while it’s great to see Taiwan holding down the top spot on that survey, that doesn’t mean Taiwan is ideal to live and work in. To live in, yes, but to work in, not quite. Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that most of the respondents to this survey may be well-to-do professionals who get nice expat packages such as housing subsidies and so on. In that case, Taiwan would be great to work in. However, as an expat in a more regular job with slightly higher-than-average salaries and the same benefit packages as locals, working in Taiwan isn’t that good.

First though, why is living in Taiwan so good? The reasons are many – an affordable and accessible health system that covers everything from doctors to dentists to surgery, public safety, low cost of living especially in transportation, food and the aforementioned health system, and very polite and helpful people. Expats, even those who can’t speak Mandarin, can live relatively comfortable lives, save money, and enjoy good food and so on. The local health insurance system is extremely affordable (monthly premiums being roughly US$40) and provides coverage for both private (not all) and public hospitals and clinics and even Chinese medicine clinics. There is no need for foreigners to get expensive private medical insurance because as long as they are working in Taiwan, they are covered by the health insurance.
All of this is why I’ve said several times to people who asked, Taiwan is a comfortable and convenient place to live, especially compared to China and even Hong Kong.

However, when it comes to work, there are several factors that mitigate how great Taiwan is. Salaries are extremely low, the job market is limited, and so are opportunities to rise in companies. In addition, Taiwan is not a very international place, though Taipei is quite decent, and there is a very local mindset and not much knowledge or awareness of the wider world that constrains how Taiwanese companies operate.

Salaries haven’t budged much from many years ago, and fresh university graduates can earn starting salaries even less than those from 17 years ago. Things are somewhat better for expats, who by law have to receive at least about NT$48,000, which is still only roughly US$1,600 (and my first job’s wages didn’t even reach that). Fortunately, aspects of daily life like eating out and transit and apartment rents, even in Taipei, can be ridiculously cheap, especially again, compared to Hong Kong.

However, if low salaries can be bearable, there are not that many different type of jobs available for foreigners with English teaching, technical writing, and marketing making up the vast majority. Meanwhile, in the workplace, it is difficult for foreigners to get promoted, because of language and local working culture. There is no corporate ladder for expats to climb in local companies. Many Taiwan companies that operate in overseas markets are focused on China to a very heavy extent. Even at larger companies that are very active in many international markets, like a networking company I worked in, there were roughly 10 expats and only two, including my boss, were managers, and even then it was only one level above.

Taiwan could do much better when it comes to being more internationalized and attracting more expats.
Improving relevant work and immigration policies for foreign professionals would be a good start.
Unfortunately, Taiwan seems to continue to want to do things on the cheap. One proposed measure to attract more expat white-collar workers is to lower the requirements, including scrapping the NT$48,000 minimum salary. Now while this might sound like it will be easier for companies to hire foreigners, the question is why would expats be lured by even lower salaries than those being offered now? Perhaps those from less developed countries like the Philippines or India might be ok with low salaries, and this would indeed be beneficial to Taiwan. Though I’m not sure that engineers or IT specialists, for example, from those countries would indeed be satisfied and willing to relocate to Taiwan for salaries less than US$1,600. Even a government minister said earlier this year salaries were too low to attract expats, though the unspoken question is what is the point of lowering the salary requirement in the first place.

Companies also need to consider other markets beyond the local one and China, and with the government’s new “going south” policy which supports firms in expanding into Southeast Asia and India, there may be a greater need for expats and hence, more jobs.

It is good that Taiwan got some recognition for being a great place for expats but it’s still got some ways to go.Still, getting more expats to come to Taiwan would be beneficial. Taiwan itself is not a very diverse society, and neither is the expat community, which is mostly Western and male. In this sense, Beijing and Shanghai have much bigger and broader expat communities. So yes, Taiwan is very convenient and rather pleasant for expats, but it isn’t the land of honey that being termed the best place in the world for expats might cause one to think it is.

Taiwan

Taiwan to inaugurate President Tsai

Tomorrow, Friday, May 20, Tsai Ing-wen will officially become Taiwan’s President. Tsai, a former cabinet official and university professor, will also become the first female leader of Taiwan and in the “Chinese” world. Having won the election back in January, Tsai has had to endure a daunting four months. The main reason is simple – China.

Because Tsai hails from the DPP, the pro-Taiwan and more localized party which maintains that Taiwan is its own country, and not the KMT, which came from China and was the traditional party in power who officially believes that Taiwan is part of the Republic of China and is pro-China. Also, because Tsai has never promised to affirm the “1992 Consensus,” which the KMT and China’s CCP have stressed previously. She shouldn’t, because while the KMT said that the “Consensus” is an agreement to disagree in the form of differing interpretations about whether Taiwan is part of China, the CCP believes that it simply means Taiwan belongs to China (for more on this fake “consensus,” see here).

As Tsai has not caved in and promised to follow the “1992 Consensus,” Beijing has put heavy pressure on her by issuing veiled threats, making Kenya and Malaysia deport Taiwanese criminals arrested there to China instead of Taiwan, and even running large military exercise this week. But Tsai will have other big problems to face other than China acting like a bully and baby. Taiwan’s economy has serious problems including low salaries, low growth and brain drain; and she will have to find new ways to resuscitate it.

While I have a few serious criticisms about Taiwan and its society, I believe in its destiny as a country and a democracy and I believe it has the right to determine its own fate and not be dictated to by another country claiming it for itself. I hope that President Tsai will be a big improvement from outgoing President Ma and that she will not be intimidated by China and can also lead Taiwan into a new and more positive era.

Taiwan

Taipei travel and farewell (again)

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When I moved to Hong Kong in March, I said goodbye to Taipei for a second time. But unlike the first time when I moved to Beijing, my move this time happened abruptly and deliberately because I’d been job-searching from Taiwan and decided to move once I’d gotten an offer. Coincidentally I’m writing this from Taipei, which I went back to for the Labor Day weekend. But whether it’s because I only left only two months later, or because Hong Kong is close to Taipei and arguably more developed, I don’t feel as much relief or gladness to be back. Taipei seems very quiet (admittedly it was rainy and I stay in a peaceful residential area) and a bit dreary compared to noisy, crowded Hong Kong.

Anyways, before I left for Hong Kong, I went to a few places I hadn’t been to.

A monument to one of Taiwan’s worst tragedies, the 228 Peace Memorial Park occupies a spot right in the middle of Taipei, next to the NTU Hospital and near Taipei Train Station. The 228 incident in 1947 resulted in several thousand, perhaps even over 10,000 as the actual death toll is not known, civilians were killed by ROC soldiers in an effort to contain disturbances sparked by a riot over a vendor being arrested and beaten. The mass killing was covered up for decades until finally the government publicly addressed it in the nineties and later declared a public holiday to commemorate it. The monument features a steel sculpture of two mounted cubes mounted on their edges and fused together facing a large concrete structure featuring two blocks also fused together crowned by a towering steel spire. In the midst of the concrete structure is an underground fountain that flows downward.

See further down for Ximending and Huashan Creative Park.

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NTU Hospital, one of the city’s better hospitals. This is the old wing, which was built under Japanese occupation in the early 20th century.
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Shin Kong Life tower, the second-highest tower in Taipei

Ximending
This is a busy shopping and entertainment area that is popular with young people. I don’t usually come here (the last time being when I was a university student visiting Taiwan) but I had to go to the nearby Immigration Department for paperwork so I decided to go here out of curiosity. The area features the Red House, a renovated historic building that is full of artist shops.
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Art for this age- a statue of two youngsters taking selfies. It’d be meta to take a selfie in front of it.
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Huashan 1914 Creative Park
This art park used to be a winery that was built in the early 20th century. It’s got theaters, galleries, shops and an upside-down house, which you can see for yourself below.
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Taiwan

Taipei rocked by brutal murder of child

Taipei is normally one of the safest cities in the world, whether in the daytime or night, but it was shook by a horrifying murder took place earlier this week in broad daylight. A four-year-old girl, riding a bike alongside her mother on her way to meet up with her siblings and a grandparent Monday, was suddenly attacked by a deranged man with a cleaver, chopped, and decapitated.
That is not an exaggeration or a typo.

The murder was also completely random, adding to the senselessness of the crime. The killer, a 33-year-old unemployed man, had bought the cleaver earlier and was actually walking around the neighborhood before spotting the girl and attacking her, whilst pushing off the mother. The crime infuriated Taiwanese so much that a crowd gathered around a police station and attacked the killer as he was taken out to be transferred to another station.

The mother had to be severely traumatized to not only lost her daughter but actually see it happen in front of her, but incredibly she had the mental and emotional strength to issue a poignant plea for the government to deal with societal problems so that people like her child’s murderer would not exist, rather than issue any cries for vengeance.

Suspects in these kinds of random killings lose their minds temporarily, and no law can resolve this, the mother said, urging the government to address the problem at its roots.
“I hope that we can address family and education issues so that people like this will disappear from our society,” the mother said. “I hope our children and grandchildren will never see someone like this again.”

There is another dimension to this crime regarding the death penalty. Because the public has been so incensed by this murder, many people have started agitating for the death penalty, which Taiwan has, and a civil society organization is planning to hold a rally to push for enforcement of the death penalty later next week. I feel that mass outrage might cloud the issue and make Taiwanese, especially the media, fall into the trap of simplistic thinking without really understanding the bigger picture. Taiwanese media is notoriously sensationalistic and there is a risk they will over-sensationalize this crime.

What makes this terrible act more stunning is that it happened in my old area Neihu, a relatively well-off district in the north of Taipei with a mix of quiet residential neighborhoods and tech and business companies. It is incomprehensible that a street I had walked on many times was the scene of such a ghastly act. Being in Hong Kong now, there’s some distance between me and the crime scene but I’d feel worse if I was back in Taipei.

The senselessness of this crime didn’t just end with the murder because two supposedly copycat attacks took place the very next day, with a policeman getting stabbed on a subway station by a guy who was walking around with a steak knife in his hand and a maintenance worker slashed with a hacksaw by another guy. Then in 2014, there was a savage knife attack on the Taipei subway train when a guy stabbed four people to death and wounded 24 others.

What is frightening is that the attackers were all seriously disturbed individuals or suffering from mental illnesses, like the murderer who killed the little girl. These weren’t hardened criminals or gang members but people who were alienated and seething with rage. I’m certainly not defending them of course, but it is clear that more policing and harsher crime punishments is not exactly the only solution. Sentencing them to death may seem understandable and feel “good” to some people in terms of seeing justice done, and there might be a deterrence factor, but they may still not prevent future attacks by similar people. The mother of the poor little girl was right. What is needed is for the authorities to work on and support measures to improve society so that you won’t have men running around with hate and murderous intentions in their hearts and cleavers in their hands.

Taiwan

“New Year” quake hits Taiwan’s south

First, I’d like to wish everyone happy Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. Those of us in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan will be enjoying at least one week’s holiday. It has been unusually cold this year, in both China and Taiwan, with temperatures going below 10 in Taipei this weekend! This upcoming year, which begins Monday, February 8, will be the Year of the Monkey, and not surprisingly, people born in these years (2004, 1992, 1980, 1968) are supposed to be lively, mischievous and curious.

However, it won’t be a happy holiday for people in Tainan, Taiwan’s most historic city, which experienced a destructive earthquake early Saturday morning. Measuring in at 6.4 on the Richter scale, the quake caused several buildings to topple over including apartment buildings, and at least 8 are dead so far, with hundreds injured. Rescue attempts are still underway as of now (Saturday evening Taiwan time). Hopefully the death toll will not climb too much, as more people are still being rescued. The manner of the destruction of the buildings, some of which toppled over and saw upper levels crumble, raises questions about their construction. As it is, they aren’t that old and were possibly less than 30 years.

Update: The death toll has risen to 14 with 132 still trapped according to the BBC. Here are some photos of the devastation.

Taiwan

Taiwan takes to the polls for new leader, legislation Saturday

This Saturday, Taiwanese will go to the polls to select a new president and legislature.
The outcome of the former may not exactly be a mystery while the result of the latter might bring on a new dawn. The presidential race has been lopsided so far and a potential humiliation may be in store for the ruling party, the KMT, which has lagged since the start and had to replace its candidate halfway through the campaign.

If the DPP wins, Tsai Ing-wen would make history by being the first female Taiwan/ROC president. What would be more momentous though is that DPP victory would mark the triumph of a growing pro-Taiwan movement and the resounding rejection of a pro-China strategy undertaken by the KMT that over the past eight years has striven to boost ties with China.
Ties have increased yet local salaries have stayed stagnant or even fallen as the economy has all but shriveled up and lost much of its competitiveness while growing in dependence on China. Tsai was also the DPP candidate in the last election in 2012, but lost by a small margin to the current president Ma Ying-jeou. As such, since her defeat, she has grown and continued to attract more support. It is no surprise as the bookish, low-key Tsai has stayed on point whilst refusing to buckle under pressure or indulge in negative tactics. In contrast to the former president Chen Shui-bian, the first from the DPP, Tsai is less charismatic and confrontational, which has reassured the US and made it hard for China to attack her.

Tsai’s likely victory will not please Beijing, which is ok. The more serious issue is that Beijing’s displeasure often raises the chances of tension and conflict, something which is forgotten because a lot of media and observers give the impression that Taiwan is to blame. Here’s a good article about how silly it is to deem an island of 23 million as the provocateur regarding relations with the giant, authoritarian country across the straits.

I don’t expect anything drastic to happen from China’s side soon, if Tsai wins, but I can’t say for the future. Even still, the tide is turning for that country as evidenced by its slowing economy, stock market woes, and its increased censorship and persecution, not to mention its blatant South China Sea provocations.

The decline of the KMT, who some even forecast may lose the legislative elections as well for the first time, illustrate the folly of their pro-China strategy. They believed that Taiwan’s prosperity would be gained by fostering close ties with China and being utterly dependent on China for trade, tourism, investment and so on, whilst engaging in relatively foolish spats with the US, the Philippines and even Japan. Indeed, mainland trade and tourists have increased significantly but with little effect on the overall economy.

It is time for Taiwan to look to the future and stand up for itself. There is no need to turn its back on its Chinese heritage, but there is no need to bow down to its giant bullying neighbor and tie itself down.
I hope that the elections will be fair and peaceful, and that the right person will win.

China · Taiwan

The historic and hollow Ma-Xi meeting

History was made on Saturday when the presidents of China and Taiwan for the first time ever. Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping shook hands, had a private talk, then had dinner in Singapore in a first for the heads of the two countries. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the meeting provided no outcome other to reaffirm the prevailing state of affairs – China claims Taiwan is part of it, and peace and cooperation will only happen if Taiwan accepts that.

This is what Xi had to tell Ma: Nothing can separate us [Taiwan and China]. We [China and Taiwan] are one family, we must work to rejuvenate the Chinese nation.

While the Chinese side agreed on a protocol where both presidents greeted each other as “mister” and no national flags were displayed, there was no conciliatory gesture. Xi basically reminded Ma that China still claims Taiwan and there is no room for Taiwan to be an independent body in the international arena. Ma put forward a five-point proposal, one of which was to revitalize the Chinese nation. If there was any doubt about China’s stance, the Chinese state media cleared it up in unambiguous terms.

The good thing is the general Taiwan public were not taken in by this charade and will not have their views shaken by Xi. Taiwanese online media outlet Ketagalan had a few good editorials on the meeting, specifically that the meeting represents a fading sense of reality for China and the pro-China elements in Taiwan. Xi Jinping can go on and on however much he likes about Taiwan being in the same family as (belongs to) China, but Taiwanese for the most part have moved on from that and are increasingly willing to assert their own identity.

After the two leaders met, Ma held a press conference with the media. China blocked this on their broadcast. Meanwhile, Xi didn’t even bother, delegating an official to address the press conference by reading from a lengthy speech.

There is still time to go before Taiwan’s presidential election take place in January, and Xi is set to stay in office until 2022. But it would be interesting if, as the Ketagalan article suggests, rather than mark the existing state of affairs, this meeting heralds a new era – that of Taiwan being confident of its own identity and going on its own path.