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Yilan County Commissioner Lin Tsung-hsien

Cultivating the Good Life

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What does well-being taste like? The residents of Yilan seem to know. More than 90 percent of people living there say they are happy. What has their chief executive done to make them feel so satisfied?

Cultivating the Good Life

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 505 )

"Simply coming back and breathing the air means my move here is paying off," remarks Chen Shun-hsiao, associate professor at the Department of Journalism and Communication Studies of Fu Jen Catholic University in New Taipei City, as he contemplates the lush green surroundings outside the Yilan Museum of Literature, one of the county's many restored buildings from the Japanese colonial era. Chen grew up in Yilan, helping his parents work the fields in Jhuangwei and sell produce from temporary stalls. Now he has bought a home in Yilan City and moved back.

Without a doubt, the people of Yilan are proud of their county. In the latest CommonWealth Magazine City Happiness Survey, 91.9 percent of Yilan's residents – a higher percentage than in any of Taiwan's other 21 counties or cities – declared themselves to be happy where they live. (See Table)

County Commissioner Lin Tsung-hsien's efforts to create a "Happy Yilan" also appear to have produced results. In CommonWealth Magazine's Local Leader Approval Survey, Lin won second place, behind only Tainan mayor William Lai.

In terms of competitiveness, Yilan moved up from 4th place to 3rd among Taiwan's counties and cities, not counting the five special municipalities.

Japanese economist Kenichi Ohmae has proposed the concept of a "great nation of livability." He believes that Taiwan should focus on creating a comfortable, safe and attractive living environment. With a population of 460,000 people, fewer residents than New Taipei City's Banqiao District, Yilan clearly is closer to being a "great county of livability."

Two years ago Taiwanese film director Cheng Wen-tang relocated to his native Yilan County after living in Taipei for three decades. Cheng, who grew up in Luodong, made himself a name with films like Summer's Tail and Tears. When asked why he is so fond of Yilan, Cheng responds: "I like to walk around in the Old Town and enjoy life." Old Town refers to the center of Yilan City.

We take a walk in the city center to get a feel for its charm. The Luna Plaza shopping center is located in an urban redevelopment area, which also includes the colonial-era prison building. On the third floor of the shopping mall is the Eslite bookstore. The shop's interior and bookshelves are painted in various shades of green, paired with some raw red brick walls. Full-height panorama windows provide a full view of the Lanyang Plain. Miraculously resonating from the past, a cultured atmosphere permeates every corner.

Lin Tsung-hsien seamlessly took over the core platform of his three predecessors Chen Ting-nan, You Hsi-kun and Liu Shou-cheng: a sustainable environment. Standing on the shoulders of giants, Lin has also opened a new era for Yilan.

Minding Administrative Affairs, Skipping Festivities

Lin, who started out as a secretary in the Yilan City Government, told Yilan residents right after taking office as county commissioner that he would not attend funerals, weddings or other private festivities. "By going around rubbing shoulders with the constituency, you sure can build up your individual political standing, but it doesn't help the development of county affairs," notes Lin.

The most pressing problem for Lin is unemployment – it's hard to make a living without a job.

He encourages local companies to hire local youngsters and advises young people on how to start their own businesses, while at the same time promoting downstream and upstream integration and assisting conventional industries in transforming into tourism attractions. The county government also brings together local universities and vocational colleges to train the talent that local commerce and industry actually need.

Lin has made tourism services the county's flagship industry with the aim of developing an in-depth tourism experience that appeals to all the senses. Such tourism encompasses gourmet food and hot springs, but also typical Yilan life. The county promotes a distinctive "Yilan House," designed to withstand the county's rainy and windy climate and blend into the landscape, and proudly shows off its public architecture.

Lanyang Museum, completed in 2010 after more than two decades of planning, centers on the entire Lanyang Plain as its theme. Since the museum opened less than three years ago, visitor growth has exceeded 40 percent.

But while promoting tourism services, Yilan has not forgotten about the mainstay of its economy – agriculture. The county emphasizes spatial planning. The areas along Provincial Highway No. 9 – the Yilan City periphery, Luodong and Sansing – and the upper reaches of the Dongshan River have been listed as an agricultural belt.

"Given that we're promoting an organic, new Yilan, we have to retain a production base, and keep it from getting polluted," declares Lin. The county is also in full control of water management along the upper, middle and lower reaches of the river.

But lurking at the back of happy Yilan is still a giant shadow. And walking out from under it will not be easy.

Per capita income in Yilan stands at less than 60 percent of Taipei incomes. Given that average annual income has declined from NT$470,000 to NT$406,000, Yilan is Taiwan's poorest county alongside Nantou and Jiayi counties. On top of that, unemployment crept back to 4.4 percent last year, slightly above the nationwide average of 4.39 percent. Moreover, the Yilan International Children's Folklore and Folkgame Festival, which is held during the summer break, does not draw as many visitors as before. While some 800,000 attended the festival at its peak, just 440,000 people came this summer.

As a local government leader, Lin has given citizens a clear vision for the future and has lived up to their expectations regarding education, the environment and municipal administration. But he still needs to make extra efforts to achieve tangible results on the economic front.

But which is to take priority, the economy or the environment? The Yilan people have already made their choice, but it's not that they don't harbor certain expectations for the future. When one asks experts as to which policies need to be strengthened, the virtually unanimous answer is: "Employment opportunities."

However, Professor Chen, who recently went to Toucheng to attend a lecture at the local farmers' cooperative, relays the following story: Although the topic of the lecture – the consumer market and media literacy – sounded quite academic, several dozen white-haired senior citizens, collectively totaling more than 3,000 years of age, had shown up for the event. Clearly civic society continues to thrive in Yilan.

"You want to know whether I'm satisfied with the job situation in Yilan? Of course I'm not. But would I give up my current life for job opportunities?" ponders Chen, while taking a sip from a glass of mulberry juice. His response is clear-cut: "I'd rather be a little poorer. After all, my present life is very good."

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

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