Friday, September 30, 2011

Facebook in Taiwan: Lessons for Mainland China

When I recently arrived in Taiwan I didn't have a set agenda and was open to exploring a variety of issues relating to how it compares to Mainland China.  A discussion with some high school students in Hualien provided an opening to what I found to be one of the more interesting contrasts.  Unlike in Mainland China where Facebook is blocked, many youth I spoke to in Taiwan regularly use Facebook.  My experiences appear to have been reasonably representative.  Adaline Lau on ClickZ Asia notes that Facebook had caught up to its largest rival in Taiwan, Yahoo's, about one year ago.  And Paul Mozur on The Wall Street Journal shares that as of March 2011 about 40% of Taiwan's population had a Facebook account.

Susan Su on Inside Facebook last year examined the potential lessons that could be learned from Facebook's dramatic growth in Taiwan:
In short, Taiwan has become a Facebook country.

It’s not just the fact that the site has reached market saturation, however, but the rapidity with which it did so. It took a whirlwind three quarters for Facebook to jump from fewer than 400,000 total Taiwanese users in June of 2009 to its current 6.2 million. What were the factors that account for this rapid rise, and could they be replicated in Japan, Korea or mainland China (assuming Facebook were to become unblocked in that country)?
Su suggests that Taiwan serves as a valuable "hybrid" to examine since it shares a variety of characteristics with different nearby countries.  For example, its economy is comparable to South Korea, yet it shares a spoken language with Mainland China.  Because of this, Facebook's success in Taiwan may provide particularly invaluable insights for how Facebook could grow in nearby regions where it is relatively struggling.  While I think there are some issues in using Taiwan as an example this way, I think it's worth exploring what Su's conclusions about Taiwan may say about Mainland China.

In a nutshell, Su argues that "stagnant competitors" and social games were key to Facebook's growth in Taiwan.

Given that Mainland China already has a number of active social networking services, such as Renren, QQ, Sina Weibo, etc., that I wouldn't label as stagnant (at least not all of them), some may argue that the market there is saturated and doesn't offer the same opportunity to Facebook as Taiwan did.  However, as I noted in my earlier post about the potential value of Facebook (and some other global services) operating in Mainland China, I think there is ample space for services that can meet a key need that no Chinese company can now fulfill -- connecting Chinese users to the rest of the world.

Regardless, Facebook is most likely going to have great difficulty making any gains in China as long as it remains blocked there.  In this regard, it's important to consider how Facebook's impact in Taiwan may be influencing the Chinese government.  As I've shown before, it can certainly influence some Chinese people.  So, if the Chinese government is now viewing Taiwan as a test case does it believe Facebook is only a "safe" social gaming site there?  I doubt it.  Not only has Facebook been rapidly gaining popularity in Taiwan for its social gaming, but it's becoming increasingly ingrained into another area in which Taiwan greatly differs from Mainland China: politics.  Paul Mozur writes:
President Ma Ying-jeou opened his official Facebook fan page on Jan. 28, using the social network to disseminate videos of his speeches, provide updates on his activities and offer sometimes fiery responses to criticism from the local press. Other high profile politicians with official Facebook pages include Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Li Teng-hui, and opposition Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidates Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang. Meanwhile, groups from aboriginal associations to environmental activists and students upset about new mandatory Confucian curriculum use the space as a forum to plan activities and distribute petitions.

Far from being a force for revolution as social networking sites have become in the Middle East, Facebook in Taiwan is in the process of being fully integrated into its democratic system. But the myriad ways the site has proven a powerful tool for organizing people and Taiwan’s cultural and linguistic closeness to China is likely to give Chinese officials pause when considering whether to allow Facebook to enter China. Most likely that means any plan for Facebook would have to include self-censorship and cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party that would earn the company a healthy dose of opprobrium in the U.S..
I agree that Facebook's role in Taiwanese political issues is "likely to give Chinese officials pause".

As I argued in an earlier post, even if a company that offers global social networking services has to censor in order to operate throughout China, its availability can provide important benefits.  However, something I didn't discuss at the time is that companies such as Facebook may be blocked in Mainland China even if they offer to censor material.  Issues such as competition or social gaming are all beside the point if the Chinese government simply won't allow Facebook, censored or not, to operate unblocked in Mainland China.  I'll comment more on this possibility in a later post.

For now, I'll just express again that Taiwan's Internet environment serves as a important comparison to Mainland China's.  I suspect some Chinese officials would agree.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Scenes of Hualien City, Taiwan

I haven't done a "scenes" post in a while so...

Here are some photos from my recent visit to Hualien City in Taiwan.  It's a smaller city of about 110,000 people including the students who provided an example that there is a significant difference between Taiwan and Mainland China in the availability of online services such as Facebook.

The photos aren't intended to be representative.  Given that Hualien City is a common base for several nature sites popular with tourists, I tried to focus a bit on other aspects of the city.  A few capture daily life, a few capture some scenes that struck me as remarkable in some way, and a few show some of the retail & marketing that can be found there. 

One of the busier street intersections

van with large face of a happy baby with a chefs hat
Definitely the best van I saw in Hualien.

A street famous for its food

Just a regular street

Apparently Nike believes "Just Do It" does not need translating into Chinese.

I haven't seen a Blockbuster in Shanghai (easy to think of reasons why).

small lingerie store named Wal Mart with pink sign
Wal Mart went for the pink look.

Birkenstock stores appear to be common in Taiwan.

The Hollaback Girl hair salon - I believe walk-ins are welcome.

street sign in Hualien City providing direction and distance to Promised Land
Just what I was looking for

Not what the sign was indicating but this is good enough.

Some Hualien high school students who are excited to go shopping.  If they look familiar, they should.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

ObaMa Cakes in Taitung, Taiwan

In an earlier post I commented on the signs about Falun Dafa in Taitung, Taiwan.  I saw something else of note in Taitung that allows me to continue the recent food theme here.

In Taiwan I haven't seen anything similar to BlackBerry's use of Barack Obama's image in Southwest China, but I did see this:

ObaMa cake store

I stumbled upon the ObaMa Cake store as I was riding a bicycle around the city.  While the name may seem strikingly familiar, I should point out that the Chinese version of ObaMa's name, 欧巴螞,  is different from the Chinese version of Barack Obama's name in Taiwan, 歐巴馬.  They are pronounced exactly the same, though (interesting-to-me side note: Mainland China's version of Barack Obama's name, 奥巴马, has a first character that differs in both its written form and pronunciation from the first character in Taiwan's version).

Especially since I was a bit hungry, I decided I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the store.

This sign near the entrance highlighted two of their showcase items:

sign with images of a black layered cake and a white cake roll

Inside the store there was a number of customers purchasing various items:

inside of ObaMa Cake store

Notice the elegant chandelier and the ant logo.  According to an article (in Chinese) on TTNews the store is trying to create a minimalist and elegant environment with its decor and the ant logo represents diligence and sincerity.

They had an extensive selection of baked goods.  The items in this section mostly had meat, vegetables, and/or cheese included:

selection of Obama Cake baked goods

They also had many sweeter items and I found something that appealed to me because it had black sesame:

Later, I discovered that ObaMa Cake is clearly concerned about their web presence.  ObaMa has its own web site at where if you really want to show your support you're guided towards the ObaMa fan page on Facebook.  They also have a number of videos on YouTube, such as this one which begins at almost the exact same location from where I first noticed ObaMa Cake:

More English friendly information can be found on the Taitung County Government web site.  It shares some important facts such as:
Obama has broken the customary taste and stiffness of traditional bread since opening its first store in Taitung in 2010.
And enthusiastically adds:
When one tastes our products that fulfill hunger, one may get a sense of our attentiveness!
I can attest that the item I bought certainly fulfilled my hunger (it was rather large) and was very good.  In fact, I'm disappointed that I won't be able to visit the ObaMa Cake store again because it appears that's the only one.

So, if you're ever in Taitung I recommend checking it out after you've had a chance to sample some more traditional Taiwanese delicacies.

Where else would you have a chance to eat food cooked by ObaMa?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is the Restaurant Still There?: A Contrast of Taipei and Shanghai

The first time I visited Taipei was in 2002, and I spent more than two months there.  Since then, I've returned to Taipei several times.

When I think back to many of the places in Shanghai that most captured my attention when I first visited there in 2005 I realize that many of them no longer exist.  The huge bird market near West Nanjing Road -- gone.  My favorite place for a an inexpensive back massage -- gone.  The "old Shanghai" Wujiang Lu food street -- gone.  The various places I ate at -- of those I can remember so many are gone.

Experiencing a lot of change over a short period of time has been the norm for me while living in Shanghai the past 5 years.  So, when I visit Taipei I'm amazed by how many of my "old favorites" from 2002 still exist today.

While this is only my own personal experience, I don't think I'd be stepping out on much of limb to suggest that it reflects some truths about the relative amount of recent change in Taipei and Shanghai.  As far as what to take from that, well I think it depends on your perspective.  It calls to mind a campaign I noticed in Taipei several years ago that essentially said (I can't remember the exact words) "Taipei will progress, but we want Taipei to keep on being Taipei".

The following are some photos of my "old favorites" in Taipei as they appear today -- all food & drink related to keep with the theme of my previous post.  Some of these places have excellent food, some may be more typical but are special to me for other reasons.  I share them as a tiny window into Taipei and for posterity.

Where particularly helpful, I've included links to Google Maps Street View.  Otherwise, I've provided other details on the location.  Maybe someday in the future you can try to find some of these places yourself and see if they're still there.  Of course, I recommend trying the food.

My friend introduced me to this street stand famous for its rice, garlic, & sausage "wrap".
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

I found this simple place to eat in the center of the photo on my own.
A set meal of chicken, several side dishes of the day, soup, & rice for about US $2.50
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

My favorite vegetarian buffet -- just load up on whatever looks good and it's priced by weight.
The first time I ate there I didn't even realize I was eating mock meat (the informative signs didn't help since I couldn't speak/read Chinese back then).  When I later became suspicious I quickly lost any doubt.  After closely inspecting the food I looked up and saw a Buddhist monk sitting across from me.
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

Hui Liu -- a fancier (and pricier) vegetarian restaurant with very good tea.
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

This place famous for its mango-ice is often packed.  Not sure it has the same ownership as before, though.
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

My favorite place for spicy dumplings with peanut sauce is at the well-known Shilin Night Market.
(Shilin Night Market is easy to find.  This eatery is in a front corner of the main food building near the Jiantan metro station.)

One of the many cafes in the area near National Taiwan University.
Years ago I found it to be an excellent place to read some Goethe.
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

Sushi takeout at the Yuanshan metro station.  Nothing special, just thought it was interesting that it was still there.

"Bruma" - A very friendly family owns & runs the restaurant.
(Location on Google Maps Street View)

Typically during the lunch period it's full.  They also deliver to nearby places.

I'm a big fan of their sweet & sour fish (I ask for extra spicy).
This meal with soup, drink, and a small dessert is about US $5.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Taiwanese and Italian Food Culture

A variety of dishes set out for religious purposes in Tainan

Been "away from blog" a bit.  To get things revved up again this is a light post to serve as a segue into a few posts about a topic dear to me -- food (for you non-foodies, fear not, other topics such as China's Great Firewall are on the way as well).

I remember years ago when after I returned to the US from a trip to Europe my boss commented that she thought there was nowhere in the world where food was such an integral part of the culture as Italy.  I looked at her for a few seconds and said, "You really should visit Taiwan."  She was surprised by my response, and I'm pretty sure it was the first time she had ever heard someone compare Taiwanese and Italian food culture.  However, based on my experiences in Italy and Taiwan I was convinced there was something that they held in common.

One of my most memorable food culture experiences in Italy occurred when I stayed with a friend's family in Torino over 10 years ago.  His mother prepared a simple but wonderful meal for us and I happily ate everything offered to me.  However, my friend merely pecked at his food.  When I complimented the cook she said in way that made me feel as if I was part of an Italian drama, "I communicate with people through my food.  This is how I talk to people.  You eat my food so I am able to to communicate with you.  It makes me feel good that I can communicate with you."

This was great!  Obviously I had to eat more so that she could more fully communicate with me.  But I discovered that there was more she wished to verbally communicate when she suddenly turned to her son and in a raised voice said, "But you!!! You don't eat my food! How can I communicate with you?!?"  As my friend buried his face into his hands in embarrassment his mother turned back to me and asked, "My own son won't eat my food!  I can't communicate with my own son!  I can communicate with you, but not my own son?!?  What should I do?"

I pondered for a brief moment about what I should say.  And then I realized how best to communicate my thoughts.

I ate more.

In Taiwan I also met a mother of a friend who seemed to want to "communicate" through food.  I stopped by the friend's home mid-afternoon.  Although I had just had lunch, my friend's mother insisted on immediately preparing a wide array of dishes.  Given Taiwanese culture, refusing any of the food was not a great option because if I did it could cause great offense (and I certainly didn't want to replicate the role of my Italian friend).  Every dish that came out was delicious but I was so full that it was an incredible effort to eat even small amounts.  Anyways, as far as challenges in life go this was a good problem to have.

There's more I could add on Taiwanese food culture to make my point but I'll save it for later posts.  For now I'll just simply say that I have no doubt that both Italy and Taiwan have very rich food cultures.   I'm certainly not claiming that these are the only two places, just suggesting that when you think about food, don't forget the East.

To conclude this post I'll share just a "taste" of my recent food culture explorations around Taiwan.  My experience from sharing food photos is that some people will think, "Why would you take photos of food?" while others will think, "Please, more!".  For me, getting to understand a culture includes immersing yourself into its food.  When I look at my food photos it can help bring back to life both some key aspects of the culture and the "flavor" of wherever I've been.

And then there will be some, especially Taiwanese living abroad, who will almost be in pain due to their desire to eat some of these dishes.  You've all been warned.  Scroll at your own risk.

My friend's dinner in Taipei (she gave me a fish, though)

Selection of items from a vegetarian buffet in Taipei

An icy mushroom-based (Tremella) dessert with a very slimy texture in Taipei

Vegetarian soup with mock chicken in Yuli

Fried rice, snails, and fried oysters in Yuli

Curry dumpling and black soy milk in Taitung

Stinky tofu in Taitung -- sufficiently smelly

Fried oyster rolls, fried shrimp patties, and oysters in black bean sauce in Tainan

Oyster omelet in Tainan

A taro dish, dumplings, and "coffin toast" filled with seafood in Tainan

Seafood soup in Kaohsiung

Shrimp and pork dumplings in Hualien

Healthy fresh drink in Hualien

Partially eaten ice dessert in Hualien

So, which one would you want to try the most?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Outdoor Musical Performances in Tainan, Taiwan

I haven't done a music related post in a long time, so I'll share some of the outdoor musical experiences I've had during the past several days in Tainan, Taiwan.  They help capture some of the diverse styles of music that can be heard across Taiwan.

For example, there was this Chinese opera being staged across from Lady Linshui's Temple ( 臨水夫人廟):

And in another part of town I stumbled upon a large group of 10-12 year olds performing traditional music as seen in this video:

Sometimes, it is the visuals accompanying the music that can be most striking.  The following video of a concert in front of a restaurant on Zunwang Road is an example of such a case:

Maybe even more than musical performances with SpongeBob SquarePants in the background, what has most caught my attention in Taiwan is that Western art music (often referred to as "classical music" -- a term to discuss another day) seems to be more infused into the culture than anywhere I've seen in Mainland China.

For example, in Tainan this past weekend there were several performances outside the historic Chikan Towers (赤崁樓):

Western art music has also impacted Taiwan's culture in a way that has been experienced by many people who live in or have visited Taiwan.  Garbage trucks will loudly play music to announce their approach and often the musical selection comes from a piece of Western art music (or is similar in style).  The trucks play the music so that people know when to bring out their garbage.  The net effect is that garbage doesn't need to be sitting outside on the streets or sidewalks.

Often the music will be electronic but in Tainan I came across a garbage truck with music that didn't sound like it came from a simple synthesizer.  Capturing a scene that to me feels somewhat like a piece of performance art, here is a video:

Where else can one be serenaded as one takes out the garbage?

There is of course more to Taiwan's musical scene then just the above and this doesn't touch on many of the more popular styles.  However, those weren't featured in any live outdoor performances I came across in Tainan.

And no garbage trucks were playing them.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Opportunistic Explorations With a Dog in Yuli

Not only do I enjoy exploring but I also enjoy finding new ways to explore that may open me up to things I may have not otherwise discovered.  For an example, I'll share an experience of mine from last week in the small town of Yuli in Southeast Taiwan.

While I waited for my laundry to dry outside this convenience store:

convenience store with laundry machines outside in Yuli, Taiwan

I walked to this nearby park which had a kiddie play area similar to the one I saw in Qibao, Shanghai:

small park in Yuli, Taiwan

As seen in the photo, there was a dog roaming around in the park.  The dog seemed friendly although it wouldn't let me near enough to pet it.  At some point, I sensed that the dog was interested in hanging out.  The dog ran ahead as I began to walk away so I decided I'd follow it:

dog walking down road with palm trees on the side

And follow it:

dog walking down road in Yuli, Taiwan

And follow it:

dog walking down road next to rice paddy field in Yuli, Taiwan

And follow it:

dog walking on grass near some apparently abandoned building in Yuli, Taiwan

And follow it:

dog walking next to rice paddy field near a church in Yuli, Taiwan

The dog brought me to some places in the more rural side of Yuli that I likely wouldn't have seen otherwise.  I was particularly intrigued by finding a church in this area (there was also a Buddhist temple nearby).

This is of course a light example and I don't typically follow dogs around towns, but it highlights some aspects of how I explore the world around me.  For some types of discovery, there are advantages in being semi-random and opportunistic.  It can be amazing what you'll find, even when you're in an area you think you know.

Finally, the dog was kind enough to even escort me back to pick up my laundry (minus some breaks the dog took to jump into rice fields filled with water).  Outside the store I also came across this cat:

However, the cat didn't appear to be interested in taking me on any further explorations at the time...