TOPICS readers are surely aware of the important role of AmCham Taipei, but may not realize that Taiwan also has two other American chambers.
Located in the ﬁnancial, commercial, and political capital of the country, AmCham Taipei is the oldest, largest, and most inﬂuential U.S. business organization in Taiwan. Since its founding in 1951, its membership of top business executives and access to top echelons of government gives the organization influence felt as far away as Washington, D.C.
For residents of central and southern Taiwan, however, the key concerns are more local challenges. To deal with such local issues, in the early 1990s American businesspeople in both Taichung and Kaohsiung decided to organize their own independent AmChams.
Although both are undertaking important roles in their respective communities, these two newer AmChams wound up taking quite different paths from each other and from the Taipei chamber in terms of outlook, identity and organizational culture. The current president of AmCham Kaohsiung is Brian Aiello, while this writer has the honor of serving as chairman of AmCham Taichung.
In what was then Taiwan’s second-largest city, the country’s second AmCham was founded in Kaohsiung on June 1, 1991. At that time the city was the world’s third-busiest container port. Considerable trade with the United States – then Taiwan’s number-one trading partner – passed through this thriving entrepôt, and there was a bustling American business presence.
Besides those involved in shipping, trade, and manufacturing, representatives were present from defense contractors (Taiwan’s Naval headquarters is in Zuoying) and businesses related to what was a largescale yacht-building industry.
The mission statement prepared at the founding remains relevant today: “To act as an advocate for American companies with a presence in the Kaohsiung area, to provide them with a forum to discuss the various issues seen as needing improvement for their businesses, and to create a signiﬁcant voice to those issues and their concerns.”
At a meeting attended by both the executive director of AmCham Taipei and the president of AmCham Kaohsiung, Taichung AmCham was launched on January 25, 1994. Though the published announcement of the founding boasted about the city’s rapid rate of growth, it would be some years before then sleepy Taichung would overtake Kaohsiung. At the time Taichung was one of the world’s centers for shoe manufacturing, making it home to a large number of foreigners from the major footwear companies, including Nike, Puma, Converse, and Adidas. Other foreign businesspeople were there because of the region’s bicycle, sporting goods, furniture, hardware, and aerospace industries.
The public announcement stated that “AmCham-Taichung is a fully independent organization whose purpose is threefold: to help American and foreign business people conduct business more effectively in Taiwan; to provide increased opportunities for interaction between Chinese and Americans; and to utilize AmCham’s international network to promote the relationship between AmCham-Taichung and the people and governments of Taichung and Taiwan.” Aside from the then-common usage of “Chinese” to refer to Taiwanese, this description – like Kaohsiung’s – is a faithful description of Taichung AmCham today.
From its beginnings until now, AmCham Kaohsiung has stressed its role as a strong advocate for American business in southern Taiwan. For its part, Taichung AmCham’s greatest strength has been in providing assistance to American and other foreign businesspeople, creating opportunities for interaction and promoting relationships across cultures between local citizens and foreigners.
The Kaohsiung chamber is more specifically American, while Taichung’s is more broadly foreign. Indeed, the Principles section of Taichung AmCham’s Articles of Association refers only to “foreigners,” not Americans.
Founded in the days of snail mail and when fax machines were the height of high-tech communications in Taiwan, both of the two smaller AmChams (the Taichung chamber currently has 53 member companies, while Kaohsiung’s has 48) have weathered challenges and undergone changes over the years, adapting and evolving with the times.
The two organizations have faced many of the same challenges, including the loss of major sources of membership. “When AmCham Kaohsiung was ﬁrst established, there were many more American businesses in the Kaohsiung area” and formation of the chamber “created a signiﬁcant value for the community,” says Aiello. “As American companies moved away, membership dropped, and we struggled to exist. We took on a more social character in order to attract new members.”
Following the relocation of several major American companies from Kaohsiung to China several decades ago, “we decided to open our membership to Taiwan companies as well,” notes Aiello. “This move has given our organization a deeper understanding and appreciation for the local perspective, as well as the issues that affect a broader spectrum of the community.”
“Our main goal since 2010 has been to raise the bar in terms of AmCham Kaohsiung’s place in the community in an attempt to regain its significance in southern Taiwan,” he adds. “Most recently, as Taiwan’s energy sector and the environment have both become critically important, we have shifted our focus to Smart, Clean and Green.”
In Taichung, the chamber has welcomed companies and citizens of all nationalities since the beginning. It has always also been a social organization, but the loss of major foreign companies (most notably the shoe companies) to China and the completion of the High Speed Rail project led to an exodus of expatriate professionals. That departure depressed membership revenue and attendance at events, and impacted the business of local service providers like restaurants and bars that were also members.
Some financial restructuring was required, as well as new initiatives to attract new members. Fortunately several trends worked in Taichung AmCham’s favor during this period. One was the fading away of the gender divide of the 1990s, when expat men tended to join AmCham while their wives were involved in other activities and organizations. Another was the rise of locally based foreign entrepreneurs, and in more recent years the establishment of production facilities in central Taiwan by major companies such as Corning and Micron.
Other challenges encountered would be familiar to many small organizations. Douglas Habecker, an original member of Taichung AmCham, chairman in the late 1990s, and a current board member, notes: “As a relatively small organization, Taichung AmCham has at times struggled to define what its primary mission and focus should be, given its limited resources. As almost all of its human resources are provided on a volunteer basis, there is always the potential for overreach and exhaustion if it tries to fulfill the functions of a larger organization. This means that the board of directors is constantly re-evaluating what Taichung AmCham should, or should not, realistically be doing.”
In addition, Taichung AmCham was conscious of the need to strike a balance in terms of its demands on board members’ time. Too little and the organization withers. Too much and board members burn out and leave when their term ends, taking institutional knowledge, organizational experience, and skills with them. Since the late 2000s, Taichung’s boards under several chairpersons have explicitly addressed this issue.
Taichung AmCham faced one unique challenge: the 9/21 earthquake in 1999 that left over 2,400 dead, over 11,000 injured, and over 100,000 homeless in central Taiwan, with a high percentage in Taichung. In reaction, the early 2000s saw the rise of Taichung AmCham’s KIDZ charity to raise funds for local orphanages, with those recently orphaned by the earthquake particularly in mind. The charity continues to this day.
Making a continuing impact
Today both organizations are as important, or more important, than they have ever been. Though there is considerable overlap in what they do, the two organizations in other respects operate quite differently.
One area where they take a strikingly different approach is in working with local government. In recent years, AmCham Kaohsiung has made a considerable effort in this regard and achieved some noteworthy success. Since 2010, for example, it has produced an annual white paper. At first TAIWAN BUSINESS the document focused on business conditions in Kaohsiung only, but the coverage has gradually been expanded and now includes Pingtung, Penghu, Tainan, and Chiayi as well.
“While we used AmCham Taipei’s outstanding White Paper as a template for our own edition, we wanted ours to be complementary and not in competition,” Aiello explains. “The AmCham Taipei White Paper deals heavily with policy issues, and that is certainly very important. AmCham Kaohsiung’s white paper serves to put a southern perspective on the issues and their execution, since very often the situations in the north can be signiﬁcantly different from those in the south. We have been fortunate in receiving great feedback from local and central government ofﬁcials in Taiwan as well as U.S. government and business communities.”
At 97 pages, the 2018 white paper, entitled “Smart, Clean and Green,” looks at many issues facing southern Taiwan, but with a particular focus on sustainable development. It features an in-depth analysis of a wide range of topics including smart machinery, green energy, water conservation, and air quality.
Kaohsiung AmCham has also been active in the last two years in seeking collaboration with local governments. It has secured two memorandums of understanding. “The first was with Tainan to open access and opportunities in clean energy and infrastructure projects to American companies,” says Aiello. “The second was with seven southern Taiwan cities and counties for cooperation with U.S. companies in smart technologies.” These efforts received ofﬁcial recognition by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Taichung AmCham’s dealings with local government are more relationship driven. City government officials from the mayor to major department heads are frequent guest speakers at chamber dinners and join key chamber events. Frequently Taichung AmCham serves as consultant or liaison for various government departments on issues relating to the Taichung foreign community or in relations with foreign businesses.
These relationship networks sometimes are highly useful in enabling local foreign businesses or organizations to accomplish something innovative. For example, they recently helped a foreign-run charitable organization gain necessary city government support to host an international synchronized swimming competition for both physically able and physically challenged swimmers.
AmCham Kaohsiung also stresses its close relations with the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) branch in Kaohsiung. “We often work in concert on a variety of events and topics,” says Aiello. “One of the key advantages of this relationship is that while expat AIT officers rotate on a regular basis, AmCham Kaohsiung has been around for decades. We can assist new AIT ofﬁcials in getting up to speed, offering background and understanding into the local nuances that they might not have exposure to in their normal day-to-day activities. As a long-time resident of Kaohsiung and an eight-year member of AmCham Kaohsiung, serving in my fifth year as president, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a close relationship with AIT over the years.”
Taichung AmCham shines in areas that in diplomacy are referred to as “soft power” – mainly holding activities and events and engaging in charitable activities. Since the 1990s, Taichung AmCham most years has held a large American Independence Day festival (held on the closest weekend to July 4) featuring bands and many vendor booths. The event attracts around 1,000 people when the weather is clear (torrential rain depressed turnout this year, however).
In addition, each year the chamber holds several Book Exchanges with bands, artists, and vendors taking part and 100-200 people in attendance. Other unique events include a recent Fun Run, a family-friendly charitable activity held in a local park.
While the Book Exchanges and the Fun Run raise money for the KIDZ charity, the main fundraiser is an annual charity Gala held in early December. In each of the last few years the fancy dress event has attracted over 250 guests and raised well over NT$1 million in charitable donations. The charity covers the full-time salary and necessary equipment for a physical therapist at a local orphanage for physically and mentally challenged children.
Taichung also holds two regular monthly events: a dinner event and a happy hour. The dinners generally feature a speaker, usually a department head or higher government official, or someone from the business community. Wine dinners are held twice a year. The happy hours are usually more boisterous and social. Both events normally draw between 20 and 40 people.
Down south, AmCham Kaohsiung has not one, but two Gala dinners per year. The spring Annual Gala dinner corresponds to the annual launch of the white paper, and a Charity Ball is held in the fall. In total Kaohsiung raises about NT$1 million a year for charities. The Kaohsiung chamber also holds up to 10 social mixers annually.