A Half Century of TOPICS – Preserving the Chamber’s History

Robert Scanland, first AmCham chairman, in a photo taken in the 1970s.

If not for TOPICS, much of AmCham Taipei’s past – including the story of the Chamber’s founding – would likely be unknown to us. In fact, aside from what was later written about in the magazine, very little information survives about the organization’s activities and leadership from the period before TOPICS began publication in late 1970.  

Fortunately, details of AmCham Taipei’s origins were published in the July/August 1976 issue of TOPICS that commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Chamber. The first-person account was written by Robert B. Scanland, AmCham Taipei’s first chairman (the position was originally called “president”) and the driving force behind the organization’s establishment.  

As Scanland related in TOPICS, he came to Taipei in 1949 from Shanghai, just before the Communist takeover, as the representative of an American trading company, William Hunt & Co. Taiwan was then in the midst of post-war reconstruction, and William Hunt and other companies foresaw good business opportunities in supplying that effort with needed machinery, raw materials, and commodities. But there was a major obstacle: the U.S. General Services Administration was preparing to handle all such sales on a government-to-government basis under an offshoot of the Marshall Plan, leaving little room for the private sector.  

In Shanghai, Scanland had been an active member of the Shanghai Junior American Chamber of Commerce, open to those under 35 years old, and understood the benefits of collective action. He approached executives from two other American trading companies – Loris Craig, a former economic affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate in Taipei, who was vice president of Taiwan Trading Corp., and Frank Smolkin, proprietor of Pacific Commerce Co. – and got their agreement to jointly form an American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Two American oil companies – Caltex and Standard-Vacuum (the precursor of both Exxon and Mobil) – joined the project, and the five charter members applied for AmCham Taipei’s registration with the Taipei City government in early 1951.  

At the inaugural meeting that April, Scanland was elected to head the group. In the 1976 article, he recalled that the first order of business was to print stationery and start sending letters about the U.S. export restrictions “to everyone we could think of in Washington,” with copies to Taiwan government agencies and U.S. officials in Taipei. “I am happy to say that our move was completely successful,” and the market was soon opened to private companies, Scanland wrote. 

Scanland expressed pride that the Chamber’s very first advocacy effort had borne fruit, setting an inspiring example. “Over the years, of course, other causes have been fought by the Chamber or advocated by it, some successfully and some not so successfully,” he wrote. “But I like to think that the Chamber is still entirely business oriented and available to assist any group of its members who may think that the Chamber’s influence would be beneficial to the interests of such a group.” 

Keeping the story of the founding spirit alive, TOPICS repeated it in the September 2001 Golden Anniversary Issue and the September 2011 special edition on AmCham Taipei’s 60th anniversary.  

Responding to “derecognition” 

The heroic story of how the AmCham Taipei leadership responded to the U.S. break in diplomatic relations with Taiwan in December 1978 might also have been lost to posterity. Again, it was later coverage in TOPICS that provided a record, ensuring that future Chamber members would be aware of what was surely AmCham Taipei’s finest hour.  

The pending closure of the U.S. embassy in the spring of 1979 created a diplomatic vacuum and gnawing uncertainty within the U.S. business community in Taiwan. Under the leadership of AmCham Chairman Robert Parker, with help from former chairman Marinus “Dutch” Van Gessel and numerous others, the Chamber went into action. It appealed to the U.S. Congress to ensure that the new relationship to be developed with Taiwan provided sufficient security support as well as the legal underpinnings to assure the continued, unimpeded flow of trade and travel between the two countries.  

Parker testified at length before Congressional committees, and many of the provisions advocated by AmCham were incorporated into the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that Congress enacted, authorizing establishment of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).  

The February 1990 issue of TOPICS quoted former AIT Director David Dean as saying in a Chamber luncheon speech: “It was the American Chamber which took the lead in representing U.S. interests in the dark days following derecognition in 1979. It was the Chamber which insisted that the TRA give legal support to the economic and commercial interest of both sides.” 

The Chamber leaders in 1979 can also take credit for assuring that the various institutions serving the American community in Taipei were able to continue operating smoothly. In most cases, their legal status had previously been tied to the U.S. military. With the military’s pending departure, AmCham negotiated with the Taiwan government to set up new arrangements for the Taipei American School, American Club, youth programs, and an English-language radio station (the current ICRT).  

Parker was kept so busy with AmCham affairs during this period that for months he barely had time for his law practice. In recognition of his contribution to Taiwan-U.S. relations, President Lee Teng-hui later presented him with the Order of the Brilliant Star.