Made in Taiwan

It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

By Jamie Elvidge, Photography by Jamie Elvidge

“They serve the food in these little toilets,” she says, “and it’s styled to look like poo!” This intriguing tidbit comes from the woman seated next to me on my flight to Taiwan. “You sit on real toilets while you eat it,” giggles her partner, describing Taipei’s Modern Toilet restaurant, whose motto is “A good place to let yourself go.”

I push back in my seat and try to nap on the long flight, but images of what awaits me in Taiwan keep swirling through my mind. I’m headed to the country’s annual motorcycle trade show to investigate its vast collection of homegrown scooters, small-displacement motorcycles and accessories.

My testing basis for Taiwanese products is as thin as my preconceptions are thick. The “Made in Taiwan” stigma goes way back. However, all of my experience with Taiwanese-built vehicles—both the organically branded ones such as Aeon, Kymco, SYM and TGB, plus the imported units that are built in Taiwan and then sold under well-known American and Japanese brand names—has been positive. Research backs up the idea that standards for quality here are at an all-time high, yet public perception of Taiwanese-built goods, especially in the U.S., remains stagnant.

Part of this muddled thinking stems from the confusion over whether Taiwan is part of China. The answer to that is open-ended: Taiwan and its neighbor islands—governed by the recently democratized, capitalistic Republic of China (ROC)—technically belong to Mainland China and its communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). It’s a bit like a forward-thinking kid who disowns his rigid parents, but only in practice, and not by legal procedure. Of course, China wants to hold onto prosperous Taiwan and eventually reunify. As one of the “Four Asian Tigers”—an elite group of potent economies that includes Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea—Taiwan is coveted. But reunification is the last thing Taiwan wants. Complete sovereignty would work better for the island, and go a long way toward shaking its manufacturing reputation loose from that of China.

Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, looks to be a bustling, clean and organized place with omnipresent scooters. The relentless flow of step-throughs turns the streets into rivers—I’m told there is a scooter for every two of the island’s 23 million people. In a land where gas is expensive and space is precious, the scooter rules the road.

The motorcycle show is small by Western standards, but the bikes are small as well, and hundreds of them are packed into the space. Though they don’t get as much attention, there are dozens of electric models and even some hydrogen-powered examples, reminding me that this is Ground Zero for the off-the-gas movement.

The next day we are taken on a guided tour of the show’s parts-and-accessory vendors. The stalls are bursting with innovative apparel and merchandise. The leather goods are exquisite—especially those from Exustar. Alongside the practical luggage solutions and passenger accessories I wish we had, there are novelty items to rival the most ostentatious American products: bedazzled, accessory-laden scooters and an illuminated, battery-operated visor wiper for your helmet, to name two. Odd translations (or simple misunderstandings) have led to some truly terrific bike names, such as the Usually scooter and the King of the Rider motorcycle. Out on the street, I swear I saw a medical clinic called “Please Don’t Die!”

By Jamie Elvidge
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