AmCham Taiwan at 70: The Early Years – Getting Started

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

With the help of some key leaders from over the decades, the Chamber recollects developments that led to the organization’s current influential role regarding the Taiwan economy and U.S.-Taiwan trade relations.

Over the decades, AmCham Taiwan’s role in communicating its members’ ideas for improving the business environment to the Taiwan and U.S. governments has been central to the organization’s mission. In fact, the need to create that advocacy voice was the principal impetus behind the Chamber’s establishment in the first place.

Back in 1951, the Taiwan economy was in shambles. The island was still recovering from bombing damage during World War II, which had ended a mere six years previously, bringing to a close half a century of Japanese colonial rule. In addition, the trauma of the 228 Incident in 1947 was still fresh, and the arrival of some 1.5 million troops and refugees from the China mainland in 1949 had placed further stress on the society and economy. The population was quite poor, with per capita income of only about US$200 a year. 

Most of what we know about how the Chamber came into being stems from an article written by the first Chairman, Robert B. Scanland, published in Taiwan Business TOPICS in 1976 to mark AmCham’s 25th anniversary. As Scanland told the story, American-owned trading companies then operating in Taiwan were frustrated by their exclusion from the potentially most profitable business at the time – the supply of machinery, equipment, and materials needed for the island’s economic reconstruction. Existing U.S. regulations reserved most of that trade for government-to-government transactions through the General Services Administration in Washington.

The heads of the Taipei offices of three trading companies – Scanland of William Hunt & Co., Loris Craig of the Taiwan Trading Co., and Frank Smolkin of Pacific Commerce Co. – met to discuss strategies for overturning the U.S. restrictions. They decided that forming an American Chamber of Commerce could help provide the leverage they needed. By the time they were ready to submit an application to the government to establish the organization, two oil companies – Caltex and Standard Vacuum (a precursor to both Exxon and Mobil) – had joined the initiative. The five stars in the logo that AmCham has used for many years represented the five founding members.

The government approved the Chamber’s application on September 14, and Scanland recalled that immediately “we printed some stationery and started writing letters to everyone we could think of in Washington,” with copies to appropriate Taiwan officials. The campaign was successful in getting U.S. policy changed to enable private companies to engage in the export trade.

Over the next several decades, as more U.S.-invested companies set up in Taiwan, the advocacy focus shifted mainly to the Taiwan government. Robert H. Morehouse, the chair in 1965 and part of 1966, wrote at the time that “battling the bureaucracy is our biggest and constant headache.” But in the era before White Papers, Doorknocks, or a broad selection of committees, the social and networking aspects of Chamber played a bigger role than advocacy.

Morehouse, now 93 and living in Tokyo, recalled in an email to TOPICS that the AmCham he found in 1964 when arriving to open the first foreign bank branch in Taiwan (First National City, now Citibank) was far less dynamic and organized than the Chamber he had known in Japan. “It would be flattering us in 1965 to say that we had an ‘office’ in the Friends of China Club. In that old building we had a beat-up wooden desk and a spavined chair. A woman on a very part-time basis would come in to deal with mail and send out notices of meetings. Meeting minutes and communication with members in general were de minimis.”

AmCham by then had 60 member companies, healthy expansion from the original five but a long way from the current more than 500. The general atmosphere was also quite different from today. The U.S. corporate world was then a male bastion, especially overseas, and no women were included in the Chamber leadership, with the result that some board meetings resembled Animal House, Morehouse says. In recent decades, female executives have been active on the board and make up a sizeable proportion of committee co-chairs.