Breaking Tourism Boundaries
How Tainan Attracts Japanese
For many overseas visitors to Taiwan, Tainan is not at the top of their list of destinations. But in this commentary, travel agency owner Yu Chih-wei explains why his experience in promoting Tainan has given him hope for Taiwan’s tourism sector.
How Tainan Attracts JapaneseBy Yu Chih-wei
I’ve run a travel agency for 13 years. It’s how I earn my living, but it has also given me the chance to experiment and get involved in many issues.
Three years ago, nonstop flights were launched between Tainan and Osaka, and Tainan authorities began thinking about how to attract Japanese visitors, especially those from the Kansai region.
The standard marketing model for Taiwanese public agencies has been for the local leader to fly to the target market, invite that market’s media and travel operators to participate in an event and then rely on media coverage to promote the Taiwanese destination.
But if you think about it, even if Tainan’s handsome mayor did go to Japan and shook hands with Osaka’s mayor and the news was widely reported in all major Japanese media, would our Japanese friends really want to come to Tainan just because they saw reports about such an event?
Consider this. If you were going to Japan for the first time, Tokyo and Kyoto would be your top destinations. You wouldn’t go to Fukuoka or Kumamoto. Similarly, when Japanese come to Taiwan, the first places that pop into their minds are the more popular Jiufen, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge.
So for Tainan to promote tourism, it first needed to figure out which places and people have stories that could connect with the Japanese and tempt them to visit the city.
This was especially true as independent travelers were starting to outnumber tourists who visited Taiwan in tour groups. If Tainan wanted to develop tourism, it needed to identify what it was that independent travelers really want.
To achieve this goal, we first pondered the venue to be used for our promotional event. In the end, we chose the Osaka City Central Public Hall because a similar public hall can be seen on Minquan Rd. in Tainan. They were both places where people would gather during the Japanese colonial era.
Next, we wondered what other ties existed between Tainan and Osaka beyond the central public halls. We discovered through research that there’s a well-known song in Osaka – the “Dotonbori March” – that is identical to an old Tainan song in Taiwanese called the “Tainan March,” so we played that song during the event.
These two features caught the attention of Japanese because they had never realized that the two places had so many things in common.
Getting a Standing Ovation
Once we settled on a venue, we had to identify people whose stories were worth telling to the Japanese or would move them emotionally. So we brought some people from Tainan to Japan to give talks. It didn’t matter if they could speak Japanese; what was important was whether or not their stories resonated with Japanese audiences.
For the first forum, we invited three people to make the trip. One was the co-founder of the TOGO Rural Village Art Museum Huang Ting-yao, one was Feng Cha teahouse (奉茶茶行) owner Yeh Tung-tai (葉東泰), and the third one was the owner of the Lily Fruit shaved-ice store Lee Wen-hsiung (李文雄).
Tainan is famous for its fruit, and the Japanese especially enjoy eating mangoes when they visit Taiwan. We therefore asked the boss of the Lily Fruit shop to show the Japanese how to select and eat mangoes and introduce the different types of mangoes grown in Taiwan. We encouraged them to come to Taiwan to eat mangoes because of how expensive they are in Japan – 3,000 Japanese yen (about NT$831; US$28.60) apiece. The more they ate in Taiwan, the more it would be worth their while.
Lily Fruit’s Lee has a unique story. To get more people interested in local fruit and Tainan’s cultural environment, he launched the Lily Fruit Monthly just over 10 years ago and put it out himself. With his camera by his side, he traveled around the Tainan area to do research for his features, and took photos, and wrote articles for his publication. Half of the content was devoted to fruits in season, the other half to cultural attractions in Tainan.
Mr. Lee printed 8,000 copies of each edition at his own expense and ultimately published 72 editions of the monthly in all, equal to 560,000 printed copies.
When we told our Japanese friends that Tainan has this fruit store owner who loves fruit and culture and printed 560,000 copies of the magazine and distributed them for free, the audience stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Mr. Lee told me that in the year after the speech, 28 Japanese in attendance that day visited Tainan and went to his store asking for him, all because they were moved by his story.
The Lily Fruit shaved-ice shop in Tainan (Image: BroAngel@flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Power of a Plastic Red Chair
Holding events or curating exhibitions in Japan is very expensive. Just the cost of renting and shipping tables, chairs and other equipment costs a huge amount of money. Armed with only a very limited budget, we had to get creative.
As we were brainstorming ideas, one partner said there were many red plastic chairs on Taiwan’s streets and alleys and thought we might be able to use them as displays. Every year since, we have used 100 red chairs to tell 100 stories.
How do we do it? We put an item on every chair, such as a rice cake used to worship the God of Land, and then tell everybody about Taiwanese folk beliefs related to the deity.
In the case of the God of Land, we explained that people believe the God of Land is a relatively old deity and cannot chew hard things and therefore you cannot use anything hard, like peanut brittle, as an offering. When people in Tainan worship the God of Land, they offer savory rice cakes and green bean cakes because they melt in your mouth.
We also tell the Japanese about how Taiwanese businesspeople tend to worship “Emperor Guan” (Guan Gong), those wanting to get married seek help from “Yue Lao,” the god of marriage, and those hoping for children worship “Zhu Sheng Niang Niang,” the goddess of childbirth.
We never know before an event whether the audience will be young or old, or male or female. But whenever we tell these folk stories to a Japanese crowd, many of them consider heading to a temple in Tainan, depending on what they want to wish for at the time.
To be honest, Taiwan’s temples are great attractions because entering them is free, unlike in Japan where you have to pay an admission fee. These are things we want to communicate by using the 100 objects we put on the red chairs.
The red chairs saved us a lot of money. They only cost NT$90 apiece, so 100 are only NT$9,000. The problem was when the events ended the air freight to send them back to Taiwan would have been expensive, so we decided to tell people at the gatherings that the plastic red chairs represented the resilience of Taiwan’s people, that they’re not afraid of the wind, sun or rain, and that they can’t be damaged no matter how many times they fall over.
Our plan was to say if you like Taiwan, and believe in Tainan, please take the chairs home as a memento of this gathering.
Initially, our Japanese friends told us that Japanese would probably not take them for a number of reasons. They felt locals would be embarrassed to carry the chairs with them on a public bus or think it strange to have a red chair in their homes when most of them sit on tatamis. But we still decided to give it a try and asked the event’s host to invite those in attendance to give it a try. To our surprise, all the chairs were quickly snatched up. At events over the next two years, the Japanese side even repeatedly asked us if we could bring a few more red chairs so that everybody would have a chance to get their hands on one.
The Attraction of a Simple Bowl
At our most recent event in 2017, we expanded our promotional campaign to cover tourism in four cities and counties in southern Taiwan – the cities of Tainan and Kaohsiung and Penghu and Pingtung counties. Unexpectedly, NHK did a three and a half minute story on us on that night’s news, talking about exhibitions and events in those four destinations. It was amazing that NHK would devote so much time to us in a time slot when so many people are watching.
But everybody wondered what it was among the things NHK covered that really caught its attention. It turns out it was a big bowl in Kaohsiung.
If you’ve ever been to the Gushan Ferry Pier in Kaohsiung, you probably noticed the “Ocean of Ice by the Ferry Dock” (渡船頭海之冰) shaved-ice store. Japanese viewers thought it fascinating that a store in southern Taiwan would use such a massive bowl to serve shaved ice so that a group of people could eat it together, and it somehow became a focus of our campaign.
One Certificate, 1,000 Century-old Shops
The message I want to convey is that Taiwan really is moving forward, with changes constantly occurring. Everybody has expectations for the future, but the institutions best positioned to bring those expectations to fruition are actually public agencies.
The government clearly has not performed well in certain areas, but when it does do something well, we should give it encouragement and support. So when we work with public agencies, we try our best to direct the applause we get in their direction to let civil servants realize the importance of the roles they play.
When we move good initiatives forward, many changes will naturally occur over time. Here’s another example of that. We knew that Kyoto has more than 1,600 shops designated as “century-old shops.” It’s a number that leaves us feeling we’re lagging so far behind that there’s no way we can catch up.
But after talking with many of these venerable shops over the past two years, I was surprised to learn that Kyoto, an ancient capital boasting more than 1,000 years of history and culture, had only 100 “old shops” remaining 100 years ago.
That changed because of a program Kyoto authorities initiated at the time. They started issuing “century-old shop” certificates to encourage Kyoto merchants to embrace the idea and preserve traditional culture. By the same token, if we in Taiwan start to work together in a common direction, if the private and public sectors can join hands to do things well, then in 100 years people will look back and likely see more vintage shops and finer culture and art.
Don’t think that this cannot be achieved. Deep down in every Taiwanese, there exists the sense that “as long as I believe something can be done, nothing will stop us.”
Before Yani Tseng (曾雅妮) became the world’s top-ranked women’s golfer, not many people knew of her, but she believed she could stand on the world’s highest stage.
We’ve seen that not just in golf but also among people who bake bread or brew beer or coffee. In many fields, you can find at least one person in Taiwan who quietly believed they could climb to the top of the world. They were not afraid of toiling in obscurity, silently striving forward until they fulfilled their dream.
Translated from the Chinese article by Luke Sabatier
About the Writer
Yu Chih-wei often jokes that he never thought about opening a travel agency, but he is now the president of the Dream Travel Taiwan Association. He has been involved in promoting design, culture, experiences and sustainability in local tourism. For the past three years, he has worked with Tainan to market tourism in the city in Japan, and his experience with public agencies and Japanese associates has given him a different perspective on Taiwan’s tourism sector and opportunities.
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