Monthly Archives: April 2010

The cats of Houtong

Houtong is a small village some 20 miles north of Taipei in Ruifang township. A center of coal mining during the Japanese colonial rule in the 1900s, Houtong is now known for the hundred’s of wild cats that inhabit its streets. Local residents treat the cats like family members and feed them regularly.

Chien Pei-ling, who is a cat lover and the wife of a veterinary, used her camera to record the co-existence of people and cats. She set up a “Cat Lady” blog to post her videos. This drew more people to visit Houtong. Now tourists from as far away as Japan come to Houtong to see the cats.

Eight years ago, the villagers began feeding the wild cats with fish and rice. This attracted more cats to Houtong until they became a noticeable attraction which now includes ubiquitous cat indicators, cat road signs and visitor instructions on cat watching.

With her camera to capture the feline charmers, Chien published a photo book and postcards of the cats. She also held a special exhibition of cats, and won the top prize at a photo competition on the island of Tashiro-jima, Japan, where people worship cats as gods. Through her lens, Chien has helped to bring new life to Houtong by transforming the old mining village into a tourist attraction.

“In the decline and fall of this remote village, we have built up a model of peaceful relationship between people and animals to show the bright side of human beings. We kindly treat these little animals with an attitude of respect for life. Our love for animals has turned the street cats into a tourist resource. This is a positive direction of a virtuous cycle, and will encourage more people to love cats and animals,” said the Cat Lady.

Taiwan Insights
appreciates her kindness and foresight with the following photos.

Justice minister resigns over death penalty issue

On March 12, Taiwan’s Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng resigned after failing to win support to abolish the death penalty. She said abolishing capital punishment was not just her “personal, weird thinking” – it is a consensus in the international community. Appointed to replace her, Minister Tseng Yung-fu said his ministry would undertake a final review of the 44 current death penalty verdicts before carrying out the sentences.

Taking a stand

On March 10, Wang publicly expressed her attitude in an article entitled “Rationality and Tolerance: a moratorium on death penalty executions” on the web site of the Ministry of Justice. In her article, Wang said, as Taiwan keeps pace with the world with its economic and trade achievements, she hopes the island will also be a leader on this issue in Asia, showing tolerance rather than revenge and letting rationality win over fear. In the near future, “we can proudly announce no more capital punishment on this beautiful island.” Furthermore, the existence of the death penalty has not been shown to reduce criminal acts.

Wang told the media that she would not sign any execution orders for the current inmates on death row during her tenure. She received the backing of local supporters such as the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, and international advocates like actress Susan Sarandon. The London-based Amnesty International has also backed Wang, and its interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone urged Taiwan to set an example for Asia by doing away with the death penalty and canceling pending sentences.

In justifying her decision, she said “the government can’t take the initiative in killing. As the justice minister, I really can’t do it.” Taiwan has to think about this issue in a more reasonable way. It is very easy to kill, but society needs to ponder the reason behind the criminals’ actions, she pointed out. Why not give them a chance to repent? It has been a deeply rooted idea for thousands of years that killers must die. It is not easy to change. It takes time, Wang stressed.

Counter to popular opinion

According to polls conducted by the United Daily News, only 12 percent of Taiwanese respondents support Wang while 74 percent are opposed to the abolition of the death penalty, and 42 percent felt Wang should step down.

Since the justice minister must authorize all executions, Wang’s speech resulted in public protests from families of murder victims, such as Taiwanese actress Pai Ping-ping, whose teenage daughter was tortured and killed by kidnappers in 1997.

Pai blamed Wang for giving mercy to the wrong people. She feels sympathy should be shown not to the 44 criminals who have been sentenced to death by the court, adding that they killed others first and the Ministry of Justice is authorized by the constitution to enforce capital punishment. Legislator Huang Chao-shun also criticized Wang for her stance, saying it violated the dictates of her position.

The Liberty Times reported that Ho Hai-hsin, whose daughter was murdered in 2002, disagreed with Wang’s arguments. He said it is not fair for the Taiwanese people to pay for the living expenses of criminals sentenced to death. As a retired elementary teacher, Ho said he has taught students for 37 years to abide by the law. Now the government takes the lead in violating the law.

In a letter published in the United Daily News, Lu Chin-te, whose teenage son was murdered by kidnappers in 1987, said Wang should run for a legislative position and pass a law to abolish the death penalty. She is not qualified to be a justice minister. She is like a soldier who refuses to shoot an enemy, a traffic policeman who declines to issue speeding tickets, or a tax officer who does not hand out tax bills. Lu said there are 5.4 billion people in countries that maintain capital punishment. This means a majority of people worldwide accepts the death penalty.

Some premise for abolishing the death penalty

Taiwan’s news media have expressed differing views on this issue. In offering some support for Wang, the Taipei-based China Times said in an editorial that the legislators approved the law to implement two covenants of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and stipulated that Taiwan has to amend its current laws before December 10, 2012 for implementation. Therefore, Taiwan’s death penalty policy will need to be changed.

According to the paper, there are two regulations regarding the death penalty in the declaration: 1) The right for death row inmates to appeal for lesser punishment – Taiwan still lacks the legal procedure for reducing the punishment in individual cases, and 2) Any nation that supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but has not abolished the death penalty cannot prevent or defer the efforts to scrap capital punishment, and its justice ministry cannot refuse the deferment of executions. This shows Wang does have a legal foundation behind her argument.

No timetable for implementing the executions

President Ma ying-jeou’s office issued a statement saying that as a country ruled by law, there must be legal grounds to commute the executions of those who have been sentenced to death. If no such legal grounds exist, then the Ministry of Justice should handle the executions accordingly.

During his tenure as justice minister (1993-1996), the president said that the general public supported the penalty by 74 percent and very little has changed. After 15 years, about 72 percent still support the death penalty. While serving in that office, he signed orders to execute over 70 people. President Ma did emphasize that the United Nations has passed a resolution on a global deferment of the death penalty, but the resolution is different from a treaty because it is not binding. Still, he noted, Taiwan must not remain ignorant of the resolution given its desire to be involved in the international community.

Tseng, the new justice minister, has promised to make sure that the death penalty cases get a final review before the sentences are carried out. Beside the 44 individuals on death row, there are another 77 cases appealing their death penalty sentences. Tseng stressed, if all the legal procedures are completed, and no claims of legal remedies are necessary, he will implement the execution with no set timetable in mind. Taiwan’s last execution was in 2005.

Taiwan films at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This month, Sylvia Feng, the president and CEO of the Public Television Service (PTS) of Taiwan, will be one of the judges for the New Directors Prize at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). Beside Feng’s participation as a judge, this year’s festival will also feature three films with Taiwan roots.

Feng is well-known in Taiwan’s filmmaking community. She was instrumental in rallying support to pass the Public Television Act in 1997, which set aside government money to promote public broadcasting. In 1999, Feng created Viewpoint, the first and only documentary program in Taiwan. The program has been a pivotal force in the promotion and nurturing of documentary filmmaking on the island. To read more about the films she will be judging or to find out more about the festival, please visit the festival’s website at: .

Yellow Sheep River

One of Taiwan’s entries at the SFIFF is Yellow Sheep River. A beautiful documentary by director Liu Soung. Set in far Western China, the film explores life in a traditional Chinese agricultural society through following the routine of everyday life and the changing seasons. The sameness and the cycles of living are all seen against the backdrop of starkly beautiful and vivid scenes. Audiences will come away wishing for the bucolic beauty and meditative tranquility offered in Yellow Sheep River. To find out more about show times, please visit: .The director will be present for Q&A during the festival.

Empire of Silver

Also showing at the festival is Empire of Silver, a collaborative film drawing on talent from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Made by Palo Alto-based filmmaker Christina Yao, the movie is an epic love story-family drama centering on a powerful banking family during the waning years of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century. To find out more about show times, please visit: .

Sleeping with Her

Taiwan director Wen Chih-yi also has a short film in this year’s Golden Gate Awards competition for documentary shorts. Wen’s film focuses on an infirm Taiwanese woman who is lovingly cared for by an Indonesian woman. The short focuses on her caregiver’s stoic endurance of her lonely life and the verbal onslaught from her employer.

This year’s films will be showing from April 23 to May 6 in four locations in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Arvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei opens to sell-out audience at SF premiere

On March 18, Bay-Area filmmaker Arvin Chen premiered Au Revoir Taipei to a sell-out crowd at the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco. Selected as the closing movie at the 28th festival, it also opened at the San Jose portion of the festival the following day. Since opening in Taiwan on April 2, the film has gained an instant fan base there. After seeing the movie, Taipei’s mayor Hau Lung-bin, praised Chen for doing such a wonderful job of promoting the local lifestyle.

Set in Taipei, Au Revoir Taipei is a campy romance combining elements of film noir, classical musical and Taiwanese gangster films. The movie highlights Taipei’s vibrant nightlife as a lovesick boy and a bookstore clerk search for love in different pockets of the city.

According to Chi-hui Yang, the festival’s director, Chen first impressed festival audiences in 2006 with his short film Mei. Ever since, Yang has looked forward to screening another work by Chen. Growing up in Foster City, the Bay Area native had many family and friends in the San Francisco audience. Taiwan Insights caught up with Chen and asked him about the making of Au Revoir Taipei.

An obvious first question was to learn how Chen became fluent enough to write a full-length script in Mandarin, not to mention the sprinkling of Taiwanese. Chen explained, as a budding filmmaker, he studied with legendary filmmaker Edward Yang in Taiwan and also visited the island throughout his childhood. Even though fluent in Mandarin, Chen still wishes he was more advanced. However, when he begins writing a script, he first pens it entirely in English. “The English script serves as a template and then we fine-tune it,” he said. After he is satisfied with the English script, Chen will then translate it into Mandarin or Taiwanese, depending on which might have the greater impact. “Often I talk to my assistant director and actors and ask, ‘How would you say it? Which would have more meaning, Taiwanese or Mandarin?’”

This year, Au Revoir Taipei was selected as the Best Asian Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. With this honor to his name, Chen is now eligible for the NT$1.5 million (US$47,000) award from Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO), a reward given by the Taiwan government to promote the island’s films and filmmakers. The money will help Chen as he begins working on his second movie, a romantic comedy set in the 1980s at a time when Taiwan’s trading companies were experiencing rapid growth. Much of the dialogue will be in English to reflect the many foreign buyers coming to Taiwan at that time.

After the San Francisco premiere, Chen introduced some of his film crew. They were a diverse bunch, made up of Germans, Americans and Taiwanese. According to Chen, everyone felt really at home in Taiwan, which is unique for an Asian film setting. Chen attributes this to Taiwan’s openness and the fact that the country “doesn’t have a history of conservatism, so it’s a very open culture, compared to the rest of Asia. It doesn’t have a lot of baggage.”

When asked about the most difficult part of making the movie, Chen said it was the fundraising and the marketing, in essence, the beginning and the end. Both issues touched on the question of how well the film was likely to sell. Shooting and making the film, was not surprisingly, the most fun part, he said. Although an exhausting experience, Chen now says he is better prepared, so it should not be as difficult the next time around.

Nowadays, Chen’s time is spent mostly in Taipei, where he is teaching and working on his next film. Currently, Au Revoir Taipei has a Facebook fan base of more than 14,338 after opening a week ago.

Former premier addresses Monte Jade’s 20th anniversary conference

On March 27, Monte Jade Science and Technology (West Coast) held it 20th anniversary conference in Santa Clara, California. Taiwan’s former Premier, Liu Chao-shiuan, delivered an optimistic keynote speech on “How Taiwan Faced the Challenges after the Global Financial Tsunami.” The conference included several industry forums and panel discussions on the emerging mobile ecosystem, clean tech opportunities, and the evolution of computers. The newly elected chairperson, Lilly Chung, also officially took over the chairpersonship from Hu Yaw-wen.

Giving his keynote speech, Liu told the audience that, “Taiwan’s unemployment rate had dropped to 5.68 percent from 6.13 percent over the past five months. Its price index is now the lowest in Asia. The pain index is the lowest in six years. A large number of international funds have entered Taiwan.” Liu is a Global Monte Jade Honorable Chairman Emeritus and the Chairman of Taiwan’s National Culture Association.

Liu said cross-strait relations during his tenure reached the highest point of the past fifteen or twenty years. Communication and exchanges between the peoples, goods, and financial dealings of the two sides were closer than before, he said. Some economists estimate that Chinese visitors to Taiwan have contributed half a percentage point to Taiwan’s GDP.

In the area of energy saving and carbon reduction, Liu’s policy achieved an annual energy saving about equal to the consumption of Tainan County or 65 percent of Taipei City. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the implementation of the “three support policies,” meaning the government’s support for banks, enabling them to support the labor force, not only helped Taiwan weather the financial crisis, but also to retain 40,000-60,000 jobs.

Liu mentioned in particular the distribution of food coupons to spur domestic spending in the early stages of the financial storm. At the time, a lot of people thought it unfeasible. But the coupons were not given out for purely economic reasons, but also for social reasons. Every Lunar New Year, the suicide rate in Taiwan rises, but in 2009 it fell, because people had money to spend. Unemployment rates have dropped over the past five months, proving that Taiwan’s economy is back on track.

With regard to the coming challenges, Liu said 70 percent of Taiwan’s economy depends on exports with a heavy focus on IT and the telecommunications industries. When an imbalance in international supply and demand occurred, Taiwan suffered greatly. Taiwan’s exports dropped 46 percent in just one quarter. To cope with this, Liu’s administration tried to find a way to restructure the nation’s industries. With the help of experts and scholars, Liu launched the “six new industries” program with a focus on biotechnology, healthcare, agriculture, energy, tourism, and the cultural industries, in a bid to revitalize Taiwan’s economy.

Monte Jade Science and Technology Association (West Coast) was established in 1989 by a group of Chinese-American executives in Silicon Valley. Their initial goal was to bring together high-tech experts from around the Bay Area and across the Pacific. After a gradual expansion, there are now 16 chapters worldwide.

Last month’s conference was attended by over 1,000 business, engineering, and other professionals.

Negotiations on FTA-like agreement with China closes in Taipei

The second round of official negotiations on the ECFA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement), a FTA-like agreement, between Taipei and Beijing drew to a close on April 1. After a day and a half of discussions in Taoyuan, not far from Taipei, China agreed not to export agricultural products or allow laborers to the island. The two sides will also work to ensure that Taiwan’s less competitive manufacturing and agricultural sectors are not adversely affected by the signing of the ECFA, according to sources familiar with the issues.

When finalizing their early harvest lists, both sides took into consideration the other’s concerns and pressing needs, and selected items that were easier to reach a consensus on, according to the Commercial Times. Petrochemicals, textiles, machinery, automobile manufacturing, components and parts, among others, were suggested by Taiwan to be included in the final lists.

Huang Chih-peng, Taiwan’s chief negotiator and director-general of the Ministry of Economic Affairs Bureau of Foreign Trade, pointed out that Taipei and Beijing have reached a high degree of consensus on the items to be included, though the final details will still require some fine-tuning. Despite this, he said, “the time is not ripe to make an official announcement.” Several items on Taiwan’s proposed list include sectors that the mainland regards as important or key developing industries, and towards which they currently feel they are in a disadvantageous position.

In considering the opposition party’s objections on the ECFA, President Ma Ying-jeou and the Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen have agreed to face off in a debate on April 25. “Through the debate, the government will help the public better understand the planned ECFA,” Presidential Office spokesman Lo Chih-chiang stated. For her part, Tsai said, “The ruling and opposition parties each have their own responsibilities” regarding controversial ECFA issues. The DPP has voiced strong opposition to the inking of such a pact.

During a videoconference hosted by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University on April 6, President Ma delivered a speech in which he reiterated the necessity of signing an ECFA with China, emphasizing that the agreement would spearhead Taiwan’s return to economic integration in the Asian-Pacific region and enhance the island’s competitive edge in the global market.

Taiwan’s highly acclaimed healthcare system confronts financial challenges

Universal healthcare has been a contentious issue in both Taiwan and the United States. Whereas the US Congress recently passed the healthcare reform bill after 14 months of debate, the rising cost of Taiwan’s universal healthcare has also caused major disagreements in Taiwan. The problem came to a head when Taiwan’s health minister Yaung Chih-laing, who insisted on raising the premiums, sought to resign over this issue.

NHI covers almost all citizens

Taiwan’s universal healthcare system, known as the National Health Insurance (NHI), is a single-payer compulsory social insurance plan administered by the government that centralizes the disbursement of healthcare funds. Launched in 1995, the NHI offers comprehensive healthcare to every person in Taiwan regardless of income. Currently covering 99 percent of the legal local residents, with citizens living overseas and foreign nationals accounting for the remaining one percent, NHI is mainly financed through insurers’ premiums based on the payroll tax and direct government funding.

US Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has spoken highly of Taiwan’s health insurance system. It has improved Taiwan’s general life expectancy and insurers’ health as well. However, the NHI faces the growing challenge of balancing its expenditure, which is rising at 5.5 percent, with revenues averaging 4.7 percent.

Hike essential to NHI

Yaung’s original proposal called for hiking the premium from 4.55 percent to 5.09 percent, which would impact 41 percent of Taiwanese insurers, and generate an extra premium income of NT$45 billion (US$1.4 billion) a year. This would be enough to offset much of the existing deficit of NT$58.8 billion (US$1.84 billion) accumulated by the end of 2009. Without the rate hike, the NHI debts will likely reach NT$101.5 billion (US$3.17 billion) by the end of 2010.

This is one solution that both the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party are cautious of supporting for fear of the backlash come election time. Instead, the Executive Yuan favored a differential premium rate set to people’s income level, that would exempt 75 percent of the local people from the premium hike and have less of an election impact for the KMT.

Yaung’s frustration at the government for not addressing the problem led him to submit his resignation. He asserted, politicians catered too much to winning votes rather than seeing to needed reform, long term policy or national development.

Temporary measures

With President Ma Ying-jeou’s mediation, the Executive Yuan finally came up with a resolution to increase the premium to 5.17 percent effective April 1. This 0.62 percent hike, higher than the one Yaung originally proposed, marked the second rate hike since NHI’s inception. It would add NT$52.2 billion (US$1.65 billion) in annual premiums to help keep the NHI financially balanced for about two more years. This would also leave 78 percent of the insured unaffected due to the 100 percent government subsidy to people with monthly insurance payments of NT$40,100 (US$1,250) or lower.

In the announcement of the resolution, the Executive Yaun said the subsidy is a temporary measure only in place until the reform bill, the so-called second generation NHI, is instituted. With the increase in premiums, Yaung agreed to continue in his ministerial post to promote the second generation of the NHI passage in the Legislature and to carry out its implementation.

Still trouble ahead

Even with the hike, not all of NHI’s problems will be solved. According to the Taiwanese Association of Social Welfare, NHI expenditures have been getting bigger and bigger due to 1) an aging population and the increase of severe wounds and diseases, 2) high human costs characteristic of the medical health industry, and 3) new technology and drug development pushing up the costs.

In its article in the Taipei-based China Times, the association noted that Taiwan’s second generation NHI needs to include the following key points: 1) enlarging the premium base from the current payroll to include all income sources, 2) automatic adjustment of both expenditures and revenues to avoid a big deficit and only a minor adjustment of premiums every year, 3) changing the premium calculation from individual’s payroll to the total income of local households.

In the short term, the second-generation NHI will generate more income from the premium rate hike and improve the financial health of NHI. In the meantime, the NHI will cross over to achieve a more equitable redistribution of wealth from high-income classes to low-income classes. In the long term, it will establish better system integration between the NHI disbursement payments to service providers.

Even though the much-anticipated second generation health reform bill is not a panacea for all NHI issues, it is a must for Taiwan’s health reform, which needs not just a minor adjustment but a structural change.

Taiwan’s minister speaks at int’l healthcare meeting

In speaking to attendees at the Healthcare in Asia 2010 Forum, Taiwan’s Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang said there are four kinds of healthcare system in the world, each one with its merits and disadvantages. The March 30th meeting of Asian healthcare leaders took place in Singapore and was sponsored by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The Central News Agency reported that Yaung, who is promoting the second generation of healthcare insurance in Taiwan, was invited to speak at a closed session of the forum to discuss the problems associated with health insurance that Asian governments are facing. His remarks struck a chord with the attending representatives who wanted to know more about Taiwan’s successful experience.

Four types of healthcare systems

Yaung said among the four healthcare systems are 1) a national health service (NHS), adopted in the United Kingdom and the countries of the British Commonwealth, which allocates a certain percentage of tax revenues as a national health insurance system; 2) the social insurance system, such as the one in Taiwan, 3) a mix of patients paying their fees and private insurance systems; and 4) a combination of the above-mentioned three systems.

In describing the first example, he likened it to the UK’s NHS system. It is a type of single-payer public funded healthcare system financed through taxation from the government budget. Everyone receives the same level of coverage regardless of their ability to pay, their level of taxation, or risk factors. It is a very fair system and without moral problems, but the drawback is that as the health insurance budget is fixed, hospitals and doctors get fixed incomes. So there is no incentive for them to see more patients, and waiting lists can get very long, resulting in the government’s inability to meet patient demands.

With regard to the third type, Yaung said, this system is based on patients paying their own fees, but people with low incomes cannot afford to do so and the government does not want to take care of their medical needs either. Developed countries that have a private insurance system, such as in the US, end up creating a big medical gap between the rich and the poor.

Taiwan’s social insurance system

Yaung said that Taiwan’s social insurance system is based on the philosophy that government is responsible for the people’s health, and it takes into account the healthcare of the low-income class, which is why Taiwan adopted this system.

However, a shortcoming of this system is that it gives rise to “civic failure,” since the people have the government’s healthcare; they are not as pro-active in taking care of themselves. This wastes medical resources, resulting in rising healthcare costs. But Yaung emphasized that Taiwan’s healthcare system has a 70-plus percent satisfaction rating, meaning that the system clearly has its merits.

Not a one-size-fits-all model

Asked to comment on Singapore’s 3M structure (Medisave, Medishield and Medifund), Yaung said that Singapore’s system is basically one of compulsory saving accounts, that is, to take money from the people, equivalent to the concept of patients paying their responsibility without the government’s help. This system may not work in many other countries, because the system forces the people to maintain their own healthcare savings.

Those people above the poverty line, but not qualifying for social benefits, still struggle to meet the necessary healthcare costs. They have to dedicate part of their already low salaries toward health savings, which makes their lives more difficult. This is in violation of the spirit of social welfare and social care.

Many participants, including representatives of Indonesia and Malaysia, agreed that the Singaporean system works in Singapore, but not necessarily in other countries. China once tried that system, but it failed. According to Central News Agency, representatives of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia expressed a wish to learn from Taiwan’s national healthcare system.

“Shell-less Snails” protest Taipei’s rising house prices

While house prices continue to skyrocket in and around metropolitan Taipei, an alliance made up of mostly working-class people, known as the Shell-less Snail Movement, have threatened to stage a big demonstration unless the government takes effective steps to halt rising real estate prices by the end of this year. Leaders of the alliance held a press conference on March 26th on a former government owned lot recently sold to private developers for NT$780 million (US$24.3 million).

The group is known for organizing hundreds of thousands of people in spending a night on Taipei’s busy Zhongxiao East Road twenty years ago.They accused large developers of manipulating house prices and urged the government to ban speculation, in essence, to prevent real estate property developers from buying land and leaving it idle before reselling it. The alliance feels that state-owned land should not be sold, but maintained for public use. Furthermore, the groups want the government to implement stricter credit controls and clamp down on property tax evasion by investors.

Why the rise?

Except for dips in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, housing prices have continued to skyrocket in Taipei. Even when the subprime mortgage crisis burst the American housing bubble, Taipei’s housing prices just dropped a little before rising again. With declining birth rates, more people moving to China for business and work, additional housing in the suburbs, plus a higher unemployment rate after the economic downtown, there should be no reason for house prices to steadily rise.

Some have attributed the rise to Taiwanese businessmen thinking Taipei’s housing prices are still reasonably inexpensive compared to those in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Others might be optimistically, thinking Chinese investors will come to invest in the property market in Taipei.

According to Taipei-based China Times, the average price of a house in Taipei is NT$420,000 (US$13,100) per ping (about 35.5 square feet), compared to NT$1.63 million (US$50,780) per ping in Hong Kong, NT$1.46 million (US$45,500) in Japan, and NT$1.2 million (US$37,380) in Singapore. Compared in this way, home prices in Taipei are not expensive.

Though, according to the Interior Ministry, house prices in Australia are 6.8 times the average household income, 5.3 times in Japan, and 5.2 times in Britain. By contrast, it is seven times in the five metropolitan areas of Taiwan, and 9.06 times in Taipei City. Calculated this way, the average home price in Taipei is indeed more expansive than in many developed countries, China Times reported.

Other factors spurring the market

According to Wealth Monthly, contributing factors could also include favorable government measures to stimulate the housing market to offset the global financial downturn, the warming of cross-strait relations, the anticipation of “Chinese investors coming to town” by both the government and the private sector, and the lowering of estate taxes to 10 percent – all incentives attracting overseas money into Taipei’s real estate market.

“Taiwan’s low interest rate is the culprit in building up the housing bubble this time,” said former Finance Minister Lin Chuan. Even the insurance industry is attracted by the low interest and is investing in the housing market. Another reason attracting overseas money is the low foreign exchange rate of Taiwan dollars which have been kept at US$1 to NT$32, said the magazine.

Whatever the reasons for the rise, the government has come under increased pressure from groups like the Shell-less Snail. In response, the Ma administration has halted the sale of government-owned land and is building more low cost public housing near mass rapid transit stations in the suburbs of Taipei. The government has also tightened credit procedures with the Central Bank and the Financial Supervisory Commission, asking lenders to provide more details of their mortgage operations and real estate investments.

But, upon announcing a halt of government-owned land sales, the stock price of private developers shot up due to the decrease in the supply of land.

More government control of the market is urged

Chang Chin-oh, a land policy professor at National Chengchi University, said this wave of housing price distortion comes from the demand side. Therefore the government’s policies trying to affect the housing market from the supply side by halting land sales and building more low cost public housings is useless. The effective way should come from the financial side by tightening mortgage operations.

Lin Cho-yu, a colleague of Professor Chang, blames the government’s housing policy for not being publicly directed, but aimed towards stimulating the economy and stabilizing the financial markets. From the perspective of providing resident rights to the general public, Chang, Lin and others all agree that the government should provide housing to the public “for lease, not sale.”

They believe the government should have more foresight in urban planning and implementation of housing policy. For example, if the government had a better mass rapid transportation system and balanced development, people wouldn’t have to live in the crowded city and could spread to the metropolitan suburbs. Thus the issue of rising housing prices in a centralized area would not be such a problem.

The Shell-less Snails have urged voters to examine the campaign promises of candidates who are running for the Taipei Metropolitan mayor and New Taipei Metropolitan magistrate at end of the year, and to take note of their housing policies.

Taiwan chef wins 2010 Master Baker in France

On March 10, Taiwanese pastry chef Wu Pao-chun won the title of Master de la Boulangerie in the bread category at the Europain and Intersuc (aka the World Cup of Baking). According to the Central News Agency, Wu was able to beat 24 candidates from 17 nations in the competition. Within 8 hours, Wu was required to bake breads such as baguettes, sandwich loaves and a specialty bread representative of Taiwan. Among the ingredients in Wu’s specialty bread were Taiwanese millet wine, dried lichee and organic roses.

Rising to the challenge

The competitors were assured their place this year by being a part of the winning team in the 2008 competition. That year, Taiwan competed for the first time and won a silver medal at the World Cup of Baking. It was a tremendously difficult competition. Six weeks before, the rules went out asking the bakers to make 11 kinds of baguettes in 8 hours. In total, that meant 251 baguettes – something that usually takes 12 hours to complete. The Taiwan team toiled away for the entire 8 hours without water or bathroom breaks and became the first team to finish. Out of the 12 teams, only 6 met the deadline.

Launched in 1992 by Christian Vabret, the World Cup of Baking was Vebret’s idea to revive the art of baking. Considered one of France’s top bakers and a great promoter of the industry, he wanted to reverse the decline of French baking as more small bakeries fell into the hands of big business. The event is now part international trade show and part competition.

Bakers compete in individual categories and also as national teams. The French teams dominated the competition for years, but in the last decade or so, they have not done as well. The United States won in 1999 and 2005. Japan won in 2002. In 2008, the French team finally took back the title after a 12-year drought. This year’s Master for Artistic Creation went to Francois Brandt of the Netherlands and the Master in the Viennoiserie category (yeasted pastry) was won by Frenchman Thomas Planchot.

The pride of Taiwan

Wu’s win was unique coming from a country that has little artisan-style breads. Heavily influenced by Japan, the Taiwanese people enjoy pantry-type breads which use heavily processed flour to make softer and richer bread. However, Wu’s specialty bread really impressed the judges.

Wu has spent years perfecting his specialty bread. First, he made sure his special dough could withstand the temperature changes he might face in the competition, than he began experimenting with the perfect blend of lichee, rose and wine. Along the way, he ate a lot of failures. And in the end, it was his “multitude of flavours” that he had spent a lot of time devising that won over the jury and the public.

In a Europain press release, Wu said, “During the competition, the hardest thing was the isolation as I didn’t speak the language: I couldn’t share my feelings with the other candidates. Luckily, the members of the Taipei Representative Office in France gave me active and enthusiastic support over the five days and I saw the pride in their eyes when the results were announced: a very fine gift…”

At the award presentation for the 2010 Master Baker, Taiwan’s representative to France, Director-General Lu Ching-long jokingly told the audience, “If you want to enjoy good French bread, come to Taiwan!”

Wu currently works in a bakery in Taipei and plans to open his own bakery in four to five months.