Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Made in Taiwan

I remember, when I was a child, I thought that every single one of my toys was made in Taiwan. And up until just a few years ago, that was all I knew about Taiwan - they manufactured A LOT of stuff. And indeed, they do - there is a phenomenon in recent history that is referred to as no less than the Taiwan Miracle. The economy of Taiwan grew so rapidly following World War II that it's almost unfathomable. It has risen to prominence and is now one of the Four Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan), four nations in Southeast Asia with a particularly skilled workforce and exceptional economic success. In addition to Taiwan's manufacturing prowess, it is also a leader in technology - it is well-known for its developments in biotechnology, laptops and Smartphones, and semiconductor devices.

Taiwan also has a unique history. Today many people know Taiwan only as its current incarnation, which is the Republic of China. I'll get back to that in a minute, though; let's start at the beginning. Taiwan's aborigines are genetically related to both the Malay and Polynesian people, but their populations (like so many other places) have been depleted so that only about 450,000 remain, or about 2% of Taiwan's population. In 1544 Taiwan was discovered by the West, and the Portuguese named it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Isle. (So that's why so many Taiwanese postcards say Formosa!) The real European influence on Taiwan, however, was with the Dutch, who colonized the island for about 40 years, and who brought workers from mainland China (Fujian and Penghu), many of whom settled there. The Dutch were expelled by conquerors from mainland China, who ruled the island for over 200 years. The Japanese defeated China in Taiwan and began governing the island in 1895. Although the Japanese were only on the island for 50 years, they had a profound effect. They began the process of industrializing the island by expanding the infrastructure, installing a sanitation system, and reforming the education system. According to Wikipedia, Japanese culture is still extremely popular with the Taiwanese.

After World War II, during which Japan used Taiwan as a strategic naval base, Japan was expelled from Taiwan and a period of martial law began under the Chinese government. When the Chinese Civil War took place in 1949, the Republic of China government fled Nanjing in mainland China and took refuge on the island of Taiwan, while continuing to claim sovereignty over all of China. Some 2 million people fled mainland China for Taiwan, taking with them many of the important businessmen, intellectuals, and national treasures from the Forbidden Palace. Up to the 1970s, most nations continued to recognize the Taiwan (Republic of China) government as the legitimate government of China.

Taiwan became democratized during the 1980s and elected its first ethnically Taiwanese leader (approximately 88% of the population is ethnically Taiwanese - a mixture of aborigines, descendants of the Chinese workers brought by the Dutch, and a handful of Japanese). In 2007 Taiwan adopted a resolution asserting a separate indentity from China.

An exciting and fascinating history! And what about Taiwan's culture? I think it's most important to note that one of my favorite beverages in the world, bubble drinks (aka milk tea) come from Taiwan - thanks Taiwan! On a more serious note, Taiwan's National Palace Museum is home to over 650,000 jade, bronze, calligraphy, painting, and porcelain items taken from
China's Forbidden Palace during the exodus - so much that they can only display 1% at any given time. Of course, Taipei is also home to the world's tallest building, the Taipei 101, which is on approximately 75% of the postcards I've received from Taiwan. :) Baseball is a very popular spectator sport in Taiwan. And apparently, one can find quite a lot of motor scooters and 24-hour convenience stores in Taiwan as well.

Lastly, it's important to note that Taiwan has a breathtaking natural landscape. The island is mountainous due to its location along a major fault line (sadly, resulting in frequent earthquakes), and it is also tropical. Most of its natural resources have been long since exhausted, but its natural beauty remains in many places.


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