Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Made in Taiwan...And Proudly So

In the not-too-distant past, I've seen several references to Taiwan's old reputation as the font of all consumer junk. You know, the way Taiwan used to be, with it's clogged skies and sooty factories, turning out cargo ships worth of Barbie dolls, second-rate microwaves and vacuum cleaners, cheap clothing and plastic items - basically all the stuff that's now Made in China, busy across the strait ensootening China's air.

There's this post on Regretsy: "Eventually. Hot Topic starts making their own version in Taiwan, and the circle of ****ery is complete".

There's this post, clearly confusing "Made in China" with "Made in Taiwan" - a recurring theme I saw when planning my wedding - people either praising or complaining about knock-off items "Made in China" or "Made in Taiwan". I've seen this on older forum posts, including in private forums (from which I don't feel comfortable taking quotes - if people prefer to keep their forum private I will respect that).

Here's the thing - all of us who've been to Taiwan, or even follow global economics, know that while you can still find consumer products Made in Taiwan, really, the vast majority of them are now Made in China, or Made in [Insert Southeast Asian Country/India/Bangladesh Here]. Taiwan's gone from making the world's cheap pens and plastic dolls to making the world's semiconductors, research and development heavy ODM computer products, high-end whiskey (I'm not sure it's as good as they say it is, though) and top-rate tea.

So...what is it with people back home still associating Taiwan with, well, cheap pens and that Dustvac they once had that broke after six uses? Is it that they're just not aware that little bits&bobs and shoddy electronics are no longer made here, or do they not care, or worst of all - do they think that Taiwan and China are basically the same place? Do they really think that all of their super-fancy computer products are made in the USA and that Taiwan is stuck with flashlights and knock-off handbags? Heck, the super-fancy computer products are often designed in Taiwan and yet, like your umbrella, also made in China (not always, though - some Taiwan design manufacturers do have Taiwan-based fabs).

I don't really have an answer to that, but wanted to comment on the phenomenon.

And in Taiwan I'm seeing a move in the opposite direction.

There are tons of indie designers here that are gaining a lot of local support, both for their talent and for the fact that they are Taiwan-based. The weekend market at the Red House Theater is packed, and a similar (but pricier) marketplace set up in a building at Kaohsiung's Pier 2 was equally crowded when we were there. I'm a big fan of the handmade soaps, locally-designed and made earrings and necklaces, reprinted vintage advertisement postcards and locally designed and printed postcards and notebooks to be found all about, as well.

I've also been hearing more and more, as my years in Taiwan march on, from friends and students that they purposely buy and prefer to spend their money on products Made in Taiwan - that rather than treat the label with derision, as many in the West still do, they treat it as a source of pride. As the quality of Taiwan-made products has increased quite a bit, this makes a lot of sense. If you look around, it's rarer to see "Made in Taiwan" stamped surreptitiously on the underside of something, a little half-embarrassed mark in plastic where it's hoped that nobody will catch a glimpse.

Now, you see it sewn right on the side of hiking boots (my old pair, which were worn through due not to lack of quality but simply how much I wore them, had just this label prominently displayed). You see it stamped on the front of food products in proud sans serif. You see it on stickers announcing that these batteries or that scarf were made not in a dodgy factory in China - which is fairly often run by a smarmy Taiwanese boss, but we won't go there today - but produced in Taiwan and therefore of superior quality.

I have students who always buy I-mei sweets ("guaranteed to be made in Taiwan", said one), who give their college-bound children, nieces and nephews Datong electric cooking pots ("it's kind of a tradition. Every college student has one. It would be so sad if they stopped making them"), purposely choose a Chimei TV even though other brands seem more prestigious, and are happy to say they own an Acer computer - which, while not as durable as the competition, do make up for it in price. The other day I was given an ice cream sandwich (probably I-mei, but I'm not sure) in class - they had hundreds of extras in their freezer, left over from a trade expo - with "MADE IN TAIWAN" printed in huge white letters in a black circle on the front.

"Made in Taiwan is a sign of quality," one student remarked, "although I'll buy imported products as long as they're not..." (shudder)..."made in China. Of course sometimes I can't avoid it, but I try."

I'm no social scientist, but I'm going to put my neck out there and say that this feels like a trend to me - just like the old "Made in the USA" or "Buy USA Made" hullaballoo back home.

I, for one, am happy to see it.


Catherine Shu said...

What a great post! I saw that comment on Regretsy and I wanted to be like, "Dude or dudette, you are sooooo stuck in the late 80s. Taiwan is where it's happening now." (This is a tangent, but though I love reading Regretsy, I can't stand a lot of the comments. Some of them are just plain sexist... like if a female seller earns enough to quit her day job, it must be because she has big boobs and a rich husband. For a site with so many people calling themselves feminists, I find some of the conversations that go on there highly misogynistic).
Thanks for linking to my post and Pinkoi. I really love being a style and culture reporter here because it means I get to talk to all these cool indie and emerging designers. Sure, what I do gets labeled "fluffy" journalism, but I interview people who have very thoughtfully considered how they are going to use this country's complicated history (politically, culturally, economically, and in terms of personal identity) to create something that is uniquely Taiwanese. They want to construct a visual vocabulary for Taiwan that embraces all the influences that have reached this country instead of rejecting them. They're selling ideas and promoting the value of Taiwan's culture, not just a throw pillow or pendant (though, obviously, they'd like to sell those pillows and pendants, too, in order to survive).
And to get back to the main point of your post, MIT definitely stands for quality here. The government is currently plugging a MIT program to promote local manufacturers as a way to quell anger over ECFA. Looking beyond government plugs, there are of course all those stores and events -- Lovely Taiwan, Booday, Simple Market, Good Cho's, 248 Farmer's Market -- which focus on items made or grown in Taiwan.
It's a lovely counterpoint to the lust for imported luxury goods that still exists here.
My goal as a reporter is to get across to people that not only does Made in Taiwan stand for quality, it also stands for thoughtfulness, beauty, usefulness, growth and just plain awesomeness.
Sorry, it's late, I'm rambling and I hope I made sense. Tatung Rice Cookers for the win!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I love Regretsy too, though I think they go a little too far sometimes - I didn't understand why there was all that hate for the seller who makes clothing out of neckties. And yes, there is a lot of making fun of women in ways that I find quite inappropriate - lot of comments on well-regarded sites can be that way. But then, I love Etsy too and yet am so saddened to see how many resellers, rip-off artists and people using it like it's an eBay tag sale are on there.

Catherine Shu said...

I just wanted to add that from what I've been told it's actually very pricey to manufacturer in Taiwan now. Most of the designers I talk to either make their items themselves, work with one or two craftspeople, or order things in small quantities from tiny factories they can work out good rates with. Bigger companies usually outsource to southeast Asia or China, like you noted, because it's simply not cost-efficient to manufacture domestically. That's another one of the reasons companies are labeling their MIT products more prominently -- they want consumers to know they are paying extra to make sure they have more oversight on quality control.
So, yeah, whatever Taiwanese factories are making nowadays, it's definitely not crappy plastic knick-knacks and cheap electronics. I also really wish people in other countries would realize that.

John Scott said...

Re. branding, an interesting example is bicyles. Taiwanese companies have the biggest share of the mid- to high-end bicycle market in Europe and North America. Of these, the cheaper models may be made at Chinese factories or subsidiaries, but the better quality models are still made in Taiwan.

However, you can understand why Trek, Giant and Merida do not put "Made in Taiwan!!" in big letters on their ads, at their stores, on stickers on the bikes, etc.

Anonymous said...

*blink* By and large, if something is well-made, I don't understand why its country of origin should be subject to ridicule. I can understand why someone might choose to purchase/not purchase goods from a given country due to ethical considerations (of whatever nature), but that's a different matter from ridiculing the country of origin.

andri said...

It's a great post, so nice to read this article....