Thursday, July 3, 2008

Searching for Souvenirs (Taiwan Business Topics)

Taiwan can be a frustrating place to shop for gifts to take home to friends and family. But if you know where to look, you'll find plenty that's worth buying - and giving as presents.

Taiwan's "economic miracle" was always based on manufacturing. The country's prosperity stemmed from exporting practical consumer items like cheap clothes and shoes in the 1960s; motorcycle components, televisions, and cameras in the 1970s; and then, more recently, computers and other high-tech gadgets.These items have found their way to every corner of the world. This is something Taiwanese are rightfully proud of - but it means visitors to the island sometimes struggle to find charming and distinctive mementos that they can take home and share with their friends and relatives. Everything sold here, it seems, is available everywhere else.

Unlike, say, Bali - where tourists snap up paintings, woodcarvings, and even large pieces of furniture - Taiwan has not become known abroad for keepsakes. Several places are famous within the country for their distinctive local products. More often than not, however, these products are some sort of comestible that can't readily be packed in a suitcase. Stinky tofu from Shenkeng in Taipei County, for instance, does not travel well. Bottles of Kinmen Kaoliang travel fine, but few foreigners wish to drink this potent liquor to begin with.

Fortunately, interesting souvenir-shopping opportunities exist in the older commercial districts of Taiwan's big cities, in stores where few foreigners - and few Taiwanese under the age of 35 - ever go. These traditional shops, some of which have been in businesses for half a century, sell handmade items that accord with the customs and habits of a more conservative generation. For visitors able to overcome the language barrier, these shops offer far more intriguing options than do tourist destinations like Kending and Jioufen, with their T-shirts and trinkets, or the airport, with its scale models of Taipei 101.

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