Taichung's Cultural Stage Lets Economy Shine
Shedding its seedy reputation of the past, Taichung is putting its best cultural face forward internationally, with a future full of imagination.
Taichung's Cultural Stage Lets Economy ShineBy Hsiang-Yi Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 398 )
Lacking the metropolitan feel and competitive pressure of Taipei, and stylistically unlike industrial Kaohsiung or historical Tainan, the first impression Taichung gives visitors is invariably one of a relaxed, casual lifestyle.
This sort of leisurely, comfortable lifestyle can even be exported, along with Taichung's other local goods and services, to China and the rest of the world. During a recent tour by a group of major Chinese real estate investors, the wealthy mainlanders' prior perceptions of Taichung were completely upended by the city's fine, family-style boutique motels. Goodies like bubble tea, pearl milk tea and sun cakes, craved by the Chinese diaspora the world over, are also all native to Taichung. Food and beverage chains Wang Steak, Springwater Pavilion and 85ºC, all born of Taichung, are readying themselves to enter the China and global markets.
According to statistics from the Executive Yuan's Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, per capita household income among Taichung City residents rose from NT$890,000 in 2002 to 970,000 in 2006, ranking third among the nations provincial cities and counties (behind Hsinchu City and Taoyuan County) and approaching that of the special municipality of Kaohsiung. Meanwhile, the labor force has grown 15 percent, and unemployment has declined steadily to 1.4 percent.
Prospects for the city are looking bright, as vigorous investment has led to rising property values, resulting in a windfall in land tax revenue for the city. Last year, Taichung city tax revenue reached NT$16.7 billion, a 47 percent rise from 2002.
'Small Potatoes' Fills Competitive Void
So how did Taichung craft such a vibrantly diverse and unique style that is consumed throughout Taiwan and, indeed, the world?
"Taiwanese have always come to Taichung for 'fun,'" says Landy Chang, executive director of Neuron Innovations.
Central Taiwan is economically completely different from northern and southern Taiwan, with few multinationals and little heavy industry; its economy is comprised mostly of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Amidst this milieu, the city of Taichung plays the role of entertainment center, where the leading lights of local business, the nouveau riche whose wealth arose from massive land rezoning, and ordinary office workers alike enjoy a life of leisure.
According to Professor Chu-Joe Hsia, director of National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, since Japanese colonial times the ruling class in Taiwan has never viewed Taichung as the potential focal point for political and economic development. Consequently, while lacking in central government "care," it was also relatively less encumbered, leaving the six million people and massive undeveloped land resources of greater Taichung, relegated to second-class status, to "walk their own road" in the future.
Precisely because of this lack of entanglements, lack of pressure and the potential of those massive undeveloped land resources and the six million-strong market of the central Taiwan region, the service industry, once regarded as "small potatoes," naturally filled the void in Taichung's competitiveness left as traditional local industries drained away to China. Further, with its longstanding role as a consumer center and relatively low land and human-resource costs, Taichung became a laboratory for new and innovative services.
Changing the Face of 'Culture'
Over the past couple of years, the Taichung City Government has crafted a "cultural face" for the city and brought together originally scattered energies to create explosive growth.
"My strategy was really quite simple, and that was to use culture as the platform upon which the economy could shine," says Taichung mayor Jason Hu, a former foreign minister and director of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in North America (Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the U.S.A.), who is well aware of the need for international cities to put forth a unique cultural visage to attract widespread attention if they wish to prevail amidst intense global competition.
Consequently, even after the bid to establish a Guggenheim Museum in Taichung fell through, Mayor Hu refused to give up. A slew of world-class performances now grace the stages of Fulfillment Amphitheatre and Intercontinental Baseball Stadium, as well as the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House, which was designed by world-renowned architect Toyo Ito. The city government has also organized a 10,000-strong corps of volunteer "cultural seedlings" to disseminate information about various cultural events to the general public at a moment's notice. Taichung has succeeded in raising its international stature. The best evidence of Taichung's transformation came last year when the U.K.-based World Leadership Forum honored the city with its World Leadership Award for Culture & the Arts.
The phrase "Culture is good business" as applied to Taichung is no overstatement. Once the city began using its world-class cultural infrastructure as its focal point, the long-term business and real estate investment funds began pouring in. According to statistics, overall investment in central Taiwan, with Taichung at its center, has now reached US$50 billion, and land in the city's Phase 7 Rezoning District has fetched record prices, as high as NT$2.2 million per ping (roughly US$2,000 per sq. foot). The growth in household incomes and decline in unemployment can clearly be seen in the vibrancy of the city's service industries.
Food and Beverage Industry's Midas Touch
The best illustration of Taichung's consumer culture of individualized style lies in its long lively food and beverage industry.
For example, Springwater Pavilion, founded 25 years ago as a Taichung street vendor, is virtually single-handedly responsible for the nationwide craze for bubble tea and pearl milk tea. Springwater founder and president Liu Han-chie deeply believes that new flavors are fleeting, but deep roots in tea culture and a vibrant artistic environment to match Taiwan's tea-drinking tradition are essential if one is to avoid being supplanted by lower priced competitors.
The most striking feature of Taichung's service industry is the broad public perception of sincere good faith in its human interactions and attention to brand image. Outsiders ordinarily see the multiplicity of flavors and boldly stylish decorations of Taichung's food and beverage industry, but in fact, operators have staked their own ideals behind each of these "experiments" with a real interest in the level of customer satisfaction. This sort of diligence akin to that of a Japanese shokunin is the real source of competitiveness for Taichung's food and beverage industry.
With the opening of cross-strait tourism and the public and private sector successes in transforming the city, individualized consumer culture in the "cool" city of Taichung offers unlimited potential as a center of Asian tourism and a city of arts and culture.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy