Don Shapiro: An Editor Looks Back

Accompanying Time Magazine's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, Sandra Burton, for an interview with President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1985.

Reflections on my over 50 years in Taiwan, including nearly two decades of service at AmCham.

It was 1969, the year of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing and the Woodstock Music Festival. Richard Nixon was in his first year as President of the United States, and “Watergate” referred merely to the office/apartment complex in downtown Washington DC.

As part of a Columbia University graduate program in journalism and East Asian studies, I headed that fall for Taiwan, with stops first in Japan and Hong Kong. The plan was to spend a year serving as part-time correspondent for The New York Times while continuing the Chinese-language studies I had started on campus.

Quickly coming under Taiwan’s spell, however, I kept extending my stay. Now, more than half a century later, I’m still in Taiwan, wrapping up an 18-year tour of duty as AmCham Senior Director and editor-in-chief of this magazine.    

Some people have asked how I could stay in one country for so long. One reason is that the main things that made Taiwan so attractive – the warm-hearted people, endless variety of luscious foods, and breathtaking scenery – have remained unchanged. At the same time, in other respects – politically, economically, socially – Taiwan has been transformed so much over the decades that it’s like having lived in several different places. Professionally, I have felt honored to be able to witness and help chronicle those developments, which were almost all for the better.

Politically, the Taiwan of 1969 was a tightly run one-party state. Chiang Kai-shek had been elected to repeated six-year terms as President, chosen indirectly by a now-extinct body, the National Assembly. Like the then Legislative Yuan, it was dominated by elderly representatives who had held office since being elected by constituencies in mainland China in 1947. The only suspense at election time was how close to 100% of the National Assembly vote the “Generalissimo” would receive.

Martial law was still in effect, prohibiting the establishment of opposition political parties, imposing strict controls on the media, and suspending such constitutional rights as freedom of assembly. It was the tail end of what was termed the “White Terror” period, and many of the stories I covered for the New York Times, Time Magazine, and other publications, were trials conducted by military tribunals of civilians accused of either pro-Communist or pro-Taiwanese independence activity. The proceedings rarely took more than a few hours before guilty verdicts were pronounced. 

Censorship was rigorous, and international publications often arrived with pages missing, passages blacked out, or photos of Chinese Communist leaders stamped with the character fei, for “bandit.” The predominant theme in government speeches was the prospect for “glorious recovery of the mainland.”  

For a political science major like myself, the political environment was frustratingly stagnant. But the dynamism in the economy – then entering the “take-off stage” of rapid (often double-digit) GDP growth – helped compensate for that shortcoming. In 1969, the year of my arrival, Taiwan’s export value reached US$1 billion for the first time. Today that level can usually be exceeded in a single day.

In that environment, I started to report more frequently about business and the economy. As editor-in-chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator during my senior year in college, I was nominally president of Spectator Publishing Co. Inc., but in fact my knowledge of business was extremely limited.

The author as editor of his college newspaper.

I got a crash course when AmCham commissioned me in the early 1970s to do a month-long research project on how U.S.-invested companies contributed to Taiwan’s economic development through employment, cultivation of talent, technology transfers, and other means. I interviewed a score of executives and came away with a new appreciation of the importance of business enterprises.

Some of those companies, including long-gone brands like Philco and Admiral, were assemblers of black-and-white TVs for export. The managers and engineers they trained enabled Taiwan to later move steadily up the technology ladder to become the world-class IT production center it is today.

Trade publications

The business connections deepened when I became editor-in-chief of a new weekly called Business & Industry Taiwan in 1973, and then jumped in 1975 to the competing Trade Winds Inc., where my title was president (as with many local companies, the real boss was the chairman). In those years, Taiwanese manufacturers were demonstrating remarkable skill in turning out quality products at attractive prices for the export market, but they were much less adept at marketing. Trade Winds was the best (in my purely objective opinion) of a spate of publications that sought to close that gap by introducing Taiwanese industry, companies, and products to a readership of importers worldwide.

At Trade Winds in the 1970s.

In the absence of a well-developed outsourcing infrastructure, Trade Winds was forced to perform many needed functions inhouse, including advertising copywriting, design, and the photography of product samples. At one stage, the company even operated its own printing plant.

At its peak it had nearly 200 employees and published two tabloid-sized weeklies, a monthly magazine, and around 10 annual directories, including a Taiwan Bicycles & Parts Buyers’ Guide of more than a thousand pages.

The government presented the Trade Winds Weekly with a Golden Tripod award for a series of reports on Taiwan’s “Ten Big Construction Projects” of the 1970s, which included the Taoyuan airport, North-South Freeway, and China Steel complex. And when the Taiwan government announced in 1980 that it was open to starting trade relations with five Eastern European countries that it had previously spurned as too Communist – but Taiwanese nationals were not yet able to obtain visas to those countries – Trade Winds took advantage of my U.S. passport to send me there on a fact-finding mission.

As the changed attitude toward Eastern Europe indicated, political winds in Taiwan had gradually begun shifting. A pro-democracy movement that led to the eventual creation of the Democratic Progressive Party had begun to coalesce, and partial Legislative Yuan elections took place in the 1970s.

In 1985, at a time when rumors were circulating that President Chiang Ching-kuo’s middle son was being groomed to succeed him, thus continuing the “Chiang Dynasty,” Time Magazine was applying for an interview with the President. The government wanted us to submit our questions in advance, and I agonized over whether asking one about the potential succession would be considered too sensitive and scuttle our chances for the interview. Supported by Southeast Asia Bureau Chief Sandra Burton, I not only included the question but put it at the top of the list.

As it turned out, Chiang seemed to welcome the opportunity to clear the air. He told us flatly that no member of the Chiang family would be considered to succeed him and that the process would follow Constitutional provisions. The statement made headline news in Taiwan. When Chiang passed away in 1988, Vice President Lee Teng-hui indeed acceded to the highest office, becoming the first Taiwan-born President.   

That moment was one of a series of milestones along Taiwan’s path to becoming a full-fledged democracy. Among many others were the termination of martial law in 1987, the total reelection of the Legislative Yuan in 1991, Lee Teng-hui’s election in 1996 as the first President chosen in a direct popular election, and the first transfer of political power following the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian victory in 2000.

In presenting Shapiro with a Friendship Medal of Diplomacy in November 2019, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu praised his “remarkable contributions over the years in strengthening relations between Taiwan and the United States.”

When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year presented me with a Friendship Medal of Diplomacy, Minister Joseph Wu especially cited my reporting in those decades on Taiwan’s political development, noting that it was among the resources he relied on in doing his doctoral research at Ohio State University.

Rather than deserving a medal, I consider it a privilege to have been present with my notebook as Taiwan made history through its peaceful evolution from authoritarian rule to democracy, and from developing-economy status to tech-driven prosperity.

AmCham beckons

When Trade Winds was bought out by Singaporean interests in 2001, I served for a while as Senior Editor of the government publication now titled the Taiwan Review. But on May Day, 2002, I was invited to lunch by then AmCham president Richard Vuylsteke, a longtime friend and fellow member of an eating-out group indelicately called the Wednesday Night Old Farts. Before the first dishes arrived, he had offered me a job as editor-in-chief of TOPICS and by halfway through the meal he had my commitment.

One reason I was quick to accept is I had previously been an AmCham member through Trade Winds, which besides publishing its own periodicals was also the Taiwan agent for various U.S. trade magazines and exhibitions. Beyond that, I had greatly respected AmCham’s role at the time of U.S. “derecognition” in 1979-1980, when the Chamber helped frame what became the Taiwan Relations Act and ensured the smooth survival of U.S. community institutions.

I will always be indebted to Richard for bringing me onboard at AmCham. This will be the 222nd issue with my name on the masthead, and it has been a magnificent experience – working with a team of talented colleagues on the AmCham staff, getting to know the dedicated business executives in the Chamber membership, interacting with key officials in the Taiwan and U.S. governments, and participating in a total of 17 “Doorknock” missions to Washington, D.C. TOPICS was already an excellent publication when I took the helm, and I hope that I was able to make it even better. Among the changes: addition of the annual Wine & Dine and Travel & Culture special issues, a change in name from the overly generic TOPICS to the more descriptive Taiwan Business TOPICS, and the launching of TOPICS Online to help spread the magazine’s reach more widely.

The annual Taiwan White Paper issue, presenting the Chamber’s recommendations to the Taiwan and U.S. governments on how to improve the business environment, grew thicker and thicker over the years – not because of increased regulatory problems but reflecting the increased number of AmCham committees. In fact, we were able to make significant headway on a number of issues of concern to our industry members.

In terms of content, the monthly TOPICS has sought to provide readers – Chamber members and non-members alike – with well-researched, readable information that helps them better understand the workings of the Taiwan economy and the status of the U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship. One of the subjects we have focused on most intently in recent years has been Taiwan’s transition away from nuclear energy and whether renewable sources such as wind and solar power would be able to fill the gap in time.

Other important topics have included the demographic challenge posed by Taiwan’s aging society, the strengths and weaknesses of Taiwan’s universal healthcare system, and the government’s initiative to promote the development of innovative industries. A frequent editorial theme has been the potential benefit for both the U.S. and Taiwan of entering into a Bilateral Trade Agreement.

One of my proudest moments was at the 2018 Hsieh Nien Fan banquet when I heard President Tsai include the following in her keynote address: “Don Shapiro and his team at Taiwan Business TOPICS have been fantastic. The in-depth articles on a range of Taiwan economic issues – whether it’s healthcare, labor, or finance – have been influential and insightful. They have been a valuable source of feedback for our policymakers.”

Another was when former U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce Frank Lavin, speaking at an AmCham luncheon, recalled that whenever he was asked for advice by AmChams around the world on how to promote their policy agenda, he would hand them a copy of the AmCham Taipei White Paper and say “This is what you should be doing.”

I am also gratified that in a market that has never received sufficient international media attention, TOPICS has been instrumental in providing information to the world about this vibrant economy and society. In the process, we have helped sustain a community of freelance writers who are also available to write for other publications.

Although December 31 marks my formal retirement, I will continue to be involved with AmCham and TOPICS in the capacity of Senior Adviser. I look forward to a new chapter in assisting the Chamber in its mission of making Taiwan an ever-better location for investment by U.S. and other multinational companies.

Some Input from Well-wishers

Under Don Shapiro’s leadership, Taiwan Business TOPICS has long been the go-to place for detailed, objective information on the Taiwan economy.
— Richard Bush, The Brookings Institution and AIT Chairman (1997-2002)

One of my best decisions when president of AmCham Taipei was to hire Don as editor-in-chief of TOPICS. For decades, Don has been an accurate, insightful, and reliable journalistic resource for information about Taiwan’s social, political, economic, business, military, and cultural developments. In an era where “fake news” is in the ascendency, Don is a pole star to guide other journalists who take the highest standards and traditions of journalism seriously.
— Richard Vuylsteke, East-West Center president, AmCham Taipei president (2000-2008)

We’ve all heard that Don knows everyone in Taiwan, and everyone in Taiwan knows Don, but years ago, while we were in Washington, D.C. on Doorknock, I learned just how wide Don’s circle of influence really is. If you walk around Washington long enough, you’ll pass a famous person from time to time. As our Doorknock group was walking down the street, we passed a world-famous Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. I kept walking (not wanting to stare) until I heard, just over my shoulder, “Don, how are you doing? What are you doing in Washington?”
— Paul Cassingham, AmCham Chairman (1999-2000)

In the early 00’s when I was scrounging to make a living writing mostly forgettable reviews and travel articles for English-language papers in Taiwan, Don Shapiro was publishing my longer, more personal (and by-and-large funnier) articles in TOPICS. Some of those early stories would eventually find their way into my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan, which led to my being hired to write two Lonely Planet: Taiwan guides (and a slew of others). Don always encouraged my sense of humor, so if you like my work for TOPICS, he’s the one to thank. (But if you don’t, blame me – I can take it.) To call Don Shapiro the most formative editor in my career as journalist and writer is no exaggeration.
— Joshua Samuel Brown, TOPICS contributor

It is difficult to find words strong enough to express my gratitude to Don for his encouragement and friendship over almost two decades. Perhaps one short anecdote will suffice. Like many writers, I suffer from bouts of doubt about my craft, and during a worse-than-usual episode, I woke one morning to find that the previous evening I’d printed 20 A4 sheets with a single sentence of encouragement from an email from Don and stuck them to every wall in my home. I immediately started to feel better.
— Mark Caltonhill, TOPICS contributor

Don has been so valuable to AmCham for so long, and made such outstanding contributions to Taiwan, that it is gratifying to know his retirement is only partial for now. Even before Don joined AmCham, as a journalist he helped spread AmCham’s message to the world. I first met Don in January 1979 when he arranged for me, as AmCham’s newly elected chairman, to be interviewed by the American TV network ABC, giving us an important early opportunity to advocate policies that ultimately were included in the Taiwan Relations Act.

Don Shapiro has made TOPICS the gold standard for bilingual publications of international business organizations. More than that, Don is the chronicler and true historian of the American experience in Taiwan. Those of us who have known and worked with Don will always be grateful to him.
— Robert Parker, AmCham Chairman (1979-1980)

Don, I am grateful for the advice, encouragement and insight that you shared so generously for so many years. Your life and work are an inspiration. You’ve shown how a passion for Taiwan can translate into a lifetime of contributions, as you’ve boosted the bilateral relationship for decades in so many ways. 

Your willingness to step up to any challenging task made AmCham’s work shine year after year, one initiative after the other. You’ve done this quietly, behind the scenes, but for those of us who’ve seen what you do and how dedicated you are, our appreciation is limitless.
— Dan Silver, AmCham Chairman (2016)

Don is a true storyteller who always articulates with insight and has helped capture key events related to the development of U.S.-Taiwan relations and Taiwan’s miraculous economic growth. He is regarded by many government officials in the U.S. and Taiwan as a reliable source for gaining an insider’s view.
— Andrea Wu, AmCham Chairman (2004) and President (2008-2017)

Don, thank you for your tremendous contribution to U.S.-Taiwan ties over so many years!  Personally, I’ve looked forward to every issue of TOPICS since I left Taiwan over a decade ago because it has kept me connected to my favorite Foreign Service post and reminds me of friends like you.
— Robert Wang, Deputy Director of AIT (2006-2009)