Made in Taiwan

It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

“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!”

In addition to products looking for distributors, the show was attended by dozens of companies looking for parts contracts. Among them are Ducati and Harley-Davidson, two staunchly nationalistic brands that have jumped on the outsourcing bandwagon. The global economic crisis has created a big moment for Taiwan. While the country’s manufacturing quality has improved, costs have remained low. That has prompted established brands to look to Taiwan for parts, while introducing their own technologies and demand for higher quality, elevating the industry as a whole. While the country produces parts for European, Japanese and American brands, it’s clear from the number of new brands on the showroom floor that Taiwan someday hopes to see its own machines on the main stage.

That would be a tough row to hoe, especially when you consider how brands like Ducati and Harley-Davidson are embedded in the consumer psyche. Ironically, on my third night in Taipei, I help celebrate the first anniversary of the city’s only Harley dealer. The facility is absolutely palatial—totally hip and glamorous—and overflowing with bikes and revelers. We spit-roast a hog right on the sidewalk, and people honk wildly as they drive by. There are also plenty of pig’s feet—a Taiwanese staple—to go around. I’m down with Hogs, but not hog’s feet!

Having toured several motorcycle plants in America, Europe and Japan, I’m curious to see the Taiwanese factories in action. So in the morning I jump on the high-speed railway and head to the island’s largest manufacturing hub, Kaohsiung, to visit TGB and Kymco. The volume of production is massive, especially at Kymco, and the facilities are stringently run. Though the assembly workers are under intense pressure to perform and pace quota, there’s a feeling of calmness similar to that in the Japanese factories. I return to Taipei impressed with the cleanliness, efficiency and precision of the facilities. Any lingering preconceptions about the quality of Taiwanese manufacturing have evaporated.

On my last night in Taiwan, I hire a car to take me to the Modern Toilet, where I do indeed eat tasty curry from a cute little potty. But the place is so phony that I’m embarrassed to be there. It’s a tourist trap, and has nothing to do with the aspects of modern Taiwanese culture that I’ve grown to respect and enjoy. Like other presumptions Westerners may have about this country, Snake Alley is a totally conjured notion. What’s being “Made in Taiwan” today deserves the world’s full attention and open-minded enthusiasm.

Well, everything except the pig’s feet.

A relentless flow of step-throughs turns Taipei’s streets into buzzing, beeping rivers. There are some 10 million scooters on the Island, one for every two people.
Forget the ring, get her some real traffic-stopping bling. Bedazzling kits were popular at the show, but you have to glue all those rhinestones on yourself!
Kymco’s factory in Kaohsiung is a fine example of how far Taiwanese manufacturing has come. On the other side of the building they build BMW engines.
The food at the Modern Toilet Restaurant in Teipei does indeed look like excrement. But it’s actually quite tasty once you get over the gag factor.