How to Do Business in Taipei
Doing business in Taipei? Bring your sense of adventure, an open mind and plenty of business cards.
Editor’s Note: A correction was made to this article on September 26, 2012, which is not reflected in the print edition.
Despite its prominence in technology and manufacturing, Taiwan remains relatively unknown in the U.S. Many assume the teardrop-shaped island off of mainland China’s southern coast is actually part of China, or confuse the island with Thailand, and the island receives few Western tourists. But experienced business travelers in Asia know that Taiwan is more than just a center for manufacturing. From stunning beaches to steep mountains draped in lush jungles to a warm and welcoming people that many count as the friendliest in the region, Taiwan offers a thriving export-oriented economy and fascinating leisure opportunities.
Officially known as The Republic of China, the little island of Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Considered a bulwark against Maoist expansionism, Taiwan became a major recipient of U.S. military and economic aid. No banana republic, though, Taiwan developed considerable footprints in electronics and petrochemicals and is now a center for not only manufacturing but also R&D.
Taipei, located at the northern tip, is Taiwan’s political and economic center. The city of 2.5 million is modern in many ways, with a clean and efficient subway (MRT) system and lots of familiar brands occupying space in luxury shopping malls and department stores. But the city, spared the ravages of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland, retains its traditions. Taoist and Buddhist temples permeate the island, and few Taiwanese would consider making a major decision without first consulting a fortune-teller. For business travelers, this means the city is at once familiar and exotic—comfortable in many ways, but rarely boring.
And the city continues to go from strength to strength.
In 2008, Taipei and Beijing signed long-awaited treaties that for the first time in 60 years allow direct cross-strait shipping and liberalized trade. While this doesn’t sit well with Taiwanese independence activists, the two economies have become ever more entwined. With a stable political system, an educated and reliable workforce, and strong legal and financial institutions, Taipei effectively serves as a gateway for businesses looking for opportunities in China. Under the stewardship of President Ma Ying-jeou, reelected to a second four-year term in January, the economy recovered from a deep trough in 2009 to post over 10 percent annual growth in 2010 and another 5 percent in 2011.
Still, it’s not all smooth sailing for the island, and the economy faces headwinds as lingering doldrums in the U.S. and EU weigh on exports. But Taipei’s agile industrialists have found success by diversifying into emerging technologies; Taiwan dominates in LED production, and its solar PV makers now account for nearly 20 percent of the global markets.
U.S. businesses have had long-standing and thriving relationships with Taiwanese firms, and the business cultures are very similar, notes Don Shapiro, senior director and editor in chief for the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Taipei’s Taiwan Business TOPICS magazine. Shapiro says many Americans enjoy doing business in Taiwan because “Taiwanese simply love to do business.”
Stewart Haston, marketing specialist with Taiwanese PC hardware manufacturer Gigabyte, notes that Taiwanese have a more “mature” attitude toward business than their Chinese compatriots. Unlike those in less-developed China, “many Taiwanese are educated, they’ve traveled and they’ve been around the block,” he says. “They know how to do business with foreigners.”
Nevertheless, differences exist, and cultural misunderstandings can imperil even the most well-intentioned exchanges. Bill Bryson, partner with international law firm Jones Day, says Taiwanese and American business cultures diverge on the relative weight given to personal relationships and legal contracts in business exchanges. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, for whom a legal document “seals and defines” a business relationship, Bryson says, Taiwanese consider a document as “a sort of a guide for how a certain part of the relationship is going to run, but as the relationship changes, the document might, too.”
With personal relationships taking priority, the trick for doing business in Taipei is meeting people and fostering friendships. Bryson advises newcomers and old hands alike that when seeking new business partners, “The simple expedient of a mutual friend is really, really useful for creating a favorable relationship.”
AmCham’s Shapiro concurs, but also notes that institutions such as AmCham and the European Chamber of Commerce Taipei can help newcomers gain these introductions in Taiwan. Taiwanese governmental agencies such as the Taiwan External Trade Development Council can also be instrumental in setting up meet-and-greets between U.S. and Taiwanese companies.
One blunder to be avoided is to decline a social invitation. Even at the end of a hard day of negotiating, Bryson says, “When your Taiwanese counterpart asks you to join him for dinner, it’s a sincere offer to go to dinner and you should look at it that way.” While turning down the invitation might not be seen as a snub in the American sense, nevertheless, he cautions, “the relationship is going to get harder.”
One question that business travelers will likely encounter is, Who pays for a dinner out? Bryson agrees there are some “face” issues involved—“that’s why it’s always a discussion. If you can find a good reason to be the one who pays for the first dinner, then your Taiwanese host will accept that without any loss of face,” he advises, noting that the polite thing to do is to argue about it. “At one point,” he adds, “someone has to say, ‘Okay, I’ll get it next time.’” Generally, that’s the foreign businessperson.
And be prepared for some unique dining experiences. Taiwan is infamous for several dishes that have made it on the gross charts; congealed pig’s blood on a stick and fermented bean curd, aptly dubbed “stinky tofu,” are national favorites. While trying either can be an exercise in extreme dining, “you have to show a willingness to be adventurous,” says Bryson. “You don’t want to offend your host.”
Around the dinner table, many foreigners will be surprised at the bluntness of some questions they might hear (“Are most people in your country as fat as you?”). Bryson advises being open-minded and recognize that no one is trying to offend. “They’re asking a question because they really want to know you,” he explains. “The problem is they are thinking in Chinese but speaking English, and some of it isn’t translating well.”
Avoid local politics in conversation, warns Shapiro, as Taiwanese can be passionate about their politics and relations with the mainland. Instead, sports is always a safe topic—particularly American major-league baseball and the NBA. Several Taiwanese players have earned great respect in both leagues over the years, including Chien-Ming Wang, former star pitcher for the New York Yankees, and more recently basketball sensation Jeremy Lin.
As for the business of business, Shapiro says Taiwanese are “tough negotiators but also fair. By and large they aren’t out to nail the other guy or get all the advantage for themselves,” he says, noting that a relationship-driven business culture can work in the foreigners’ favor. Rather than shooting for the quick buck, Taiwanese business leaders “believe in developing a relationship that will work over the long term.”
With all the socializing going on, it’s no surprise that food and drink have a particular prominence in the city. Taipei might be called a foodie’s paradise, with culinary influences from around China and the world. Don’t be afraid to eat local; night markets and roadside vendors offer some of the tastiest dishes in the city, but having a Taiwanese guide will definitely help you find the more accessible options (deep-fried chicken anuses on a stick, anyone?). Chris Fay, managing partner for advertising agency Leo Burnett, suggests getting a group to get foot massages together. “I know it sounds crazy. But it builds esprit de corps.” The golfing here is great, says Fay, and company cycling is becoming more popular. “The roads here are beautiful for that sort of thing.”
Taipei is surrounded by mountains on three sides, and Yangmingshan National Park, located in the northern end of the city, offers challenging hikes and stunning vistas. The Beitou hot springs district lies just below Yangmingshan and has been a favorite leisure spot since the pre–World War II Japanese colonial era. The district’s luxury hotels feature hot spring tubs in each room along with more social tubs catering to Japanese tourists who still flock to the region. Not to be missed on any trip to Taipei is the world-renowned National Palace Museum. The museum contains the world’s largest collection of Chinese antiquities, and interested visitors can spend a full afternoon exploring the many halls. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is also worth a visit.
The Chungxiao-Dunhua shopping district offers lots of upscale shopping and downscale eating that can make for a nice adventure.
With twisting dragons and spooky effigies, the Taoist and Buddhist temples of Taiwan are rightly famous. Longshan Temple is a favorite and is easily accessible by subway.
Taipei Travel Guide
Where to Eat
Din Tai Fung
No. 218, Section 4, Chungxiao East Road, Daan District
+886 2 2721 7890
This remains an essential stop on any visitor’s itinerary. The restaurant has several branches and is world famous for its dumplings. Avoid the Xinyi Road branch as it’s overwhelmed with bused-in tourists from Japan and China. Instead, try the Chungxiao branch for a more comfortable experience.
No. 145, Section 1, Anhe Road, Daan District
+886 2 2702 7011; chinapa.com.tw
Travelers will find not only delicious fusion Chinese cuisine, but also a puzzle—how to actually open the door. No secrets given here; visitors will just have to watch and learn.
No. 7, Section 5, Xinyi Road, Xinyi District
Diamond Tony’s: +886 2 8101 0016
Shinyeh: +886 2 8101 0185; taipei-101.com.tw
What until recently was the world’s tallest building also features two exceptional dining experiences. While no one raves about the food, the atmosphere is glamorous and the views stunning.
Where to Stay
No. 10, Section 5, Chungxiao East Road, Xinyi District
+886 2 7703 8888; wtaipei.com
A newcomer to the city, the W is located in the trendy Xinyi District of west Taipei and has the city buzzing with wonderful restaurants, poolside lounges and excellent rooms.
Shangri-La Far Eastern
No. 201, Section 2, Dunhuà South Road, Daan District
+886 2 2378 8888; shangri-la.com/taipei
Located on the top floors of the 43-story Far Eastern building, this venerable hotel has legions of bright young attendants who take service to a new level for well-heeled guests.
No. 2, SongShou Road, Xinyi District
+886 2 2720 1234; taipei.grand.hyatt.com
The granddaddy of luxury hotels in Taipei, the Grand Hyatt features a wide variety of lounges, restaurants and amenities for business travelers, including the locally famous Ziga Zaga nightclub.
Taipei has a modern and convenient subway system, called the MRT, that spans the city and features clear maps with English language directions. Taxis are also amazingly abundant and indeed present a road hazard as drivers compete for passengers. In most of downtown Taipei, a taxi can be obtained within seconds with just a hand raise. Be warned, though, that many taxi drivers have little to no English. Before getting a ride, visitors should have the telephone number of a Taiwanese friend who can be called to speak with the driver. Buses are numerous and convenient; however, as few of the signs are in English and even fewer drivers can communicate to visitors, they are better avoided.
Timothy Ferry is a freelance writer based in Taipei.