Voters demand change in Taiwan through its elections. Now what?

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

As an American journalist living in Taiwan for the past 6 years, I have enjoyed the fruits of living on this diverse island, but its people have been struggling to recover economically after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Before that, Taiwanese people were recovering from another drain on their economy caused by the steady flight of manufacturing jobs from Taiwanese companies moving their manufacturing to China since before 2000. During that time, along with the flight of companies and skilled labor to China, Taiwan also lost access to foreign investment capital and international markets.

There have been some promising signs of future recovery, however. According to a November 16, 2014 article in the South China Morning Post, Taiwanese manufacturers are beginning to move their operations back to Taiwan. Even though mainland China workers earn a minimum of US $2,472 per year, compared to a minimum of US $8,481 per year for Taiwanese workers, growing risks in the Chinese business environment and benefits of the Taiwanese marketplace are attracting more companies to return. Taiwan has added 89,000 new jobs since 2006.

The signs are positive, although the recovery has been slower than expected. Expectations were set high by the promises of President Ma’s governing administration (2008-present). The ruling Koumingtang (KMT) Party touted liberalization of economic activity with China, which they promised would result in more jobs and increased prosperity for Taiwanese people. After 6 1/2 years of governance by the KMT administration, Taiwan’s economy saw some improvement, but the results fell well short of expectations, and the citizens expressed their disappointment during the local Taiwanese elections of November 29, 2014. The ruling KMT Party lost leadership positions in unprecedented fashion. Many people believed the KMT losses were a result of slow economic growth,  dissatisfaction with the growing disparity between the income classes during the past six years, and they questioned the legislation and negotiation methods of the trade and service agreements with with Beijing.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s cabinet, and Prime Minister Jiang Yi-huah resigned from their posts, and according to a recent article by the BBC, President Ma also resigned as Chair of the Kuomingtang Party, stating that the KMT had failed to reform Taiwan quickly enough to meet the public’s expectations. The people have spoken through their votes, and new leaders from the “Green Camp” (Democratic Progressive Party and other Independent Parties) prepare for the upcoming Presidential election in Spring 2016. It is an exciting time for the new leadership, but they have the challenging task of finding solutions to give people the change and improvements they are looking for.

I know thousands of people in Taiwan, and most of them feel very insecure and uncertain about Taiwan’s future. This past year, over 100,000 recent college graduates could not find a job. I can sympathize with the many parents who invested their savings to educate their children only to find no sign of hope for employment. As a journalist and business entrepreneur residing in Taiwan while observing and learning about Taiwanese society, culture and business, I have my own ideas and thoughts about economic reform that I would like to share for the people’s consideration.

Improved relations with China has been a positive development for Taiwan, as a more relaxed environment has produced more opportunities and cooperation for both sides. There is nothing to gain from political and military tension (except for the people who hold power and supply weapons systems.) What I hope to see is for economic and cultural ties to continue to improve between Taiwan and China, but most people would prefer to see the process of negotiations to be transparent and follow the proper legislative procedures, so the terms of the agreements can be as mutually beneficial as possible.

Taiwan should continue to pursue dialogue and participation in other international agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but because of the lack of transparency in the negotiations, Taiwan’s leaders should carefully analyze the terms and make its agreements in a transparent manner in order to ensure equitable benefits. Taiwan should follow the lead of New Zealand, which has been firm in negotiating for terms that are fair for the people of their country. I don’t recommend accept terms “as-is” in order to reap potential benefits before weighing what level of autonomy the Taiwanese people will need to give up to gain the benefits.

The Taiwanese leadership should also examine and evaluate its current international agreements and relationships and decide what policies need to be changed to strengthen these relationships. Of course, Taiwan has signed the controversial Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, but it has also signed the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinsmen and Matsu on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC). Taiwan also signed a free trade agreement with Singapore in 2013. I believe that continued efforts with these international partners can make Taiwan a more attractive trading partner.

I also believe that Taiwan’s tourism sector is widely underdeveloped for international tourists. Efforts by the Taiwanese government has been focused on Chinese tourists, and I have never really seen any substantial efforts to attract tourists from other countries.

Austronesian Tourism in Taiwan: A visit with the Bunun Tribe

Austronesian Tourism in Taiwan: A visit with the Bunun Tribe

I have worked to promote cultural exchange between the indigenous (Austronesian) tribes of Taiwan and the 400 million Austronesian peoples in 30 plus countries of the Pacific and Southeast Asia, so I believe that another opportunity exists for Taiwan through its Austronesian cultural ties. The 15 recognized Austronesian tribes in Taiwan represent a minority of about 2% of the population, and their culture and language (and DNA) more closely resemble the cultures of Polynesia, New Zealand and Madagascar than the Chinese. Dr. Marie Lin has performed groundbreaking research to show this DNA link.  I believe that if more Taiwanese people could take DNA tests, they would be surprised to discover how closely related they are to the world’s Austronesian population. What does this mean for Taiwan?

As more Austronesian peoples are discovering their cultural and historic links to Taiwan, there is more interest in cultural and academic exchange. As awareness grows, there is also a growing opportunity for tourism from a marketplace of 400 million people. Indigenous tourism and ecotourism is already growing in Taiwan, but efforts to attract international tourists through Taiwan’s Austronesian cultural connection would accelerate that, and develop a type of tourism that has less impact on the environment.

Because of the ANZTEC agreement with New Zealand and the connection with the Austronesian Maori tribe from New Zealand, Taiwan is increasing its cultural activities with New Zealand. But, is anyone prepared to leverage this activity to produce more economic cooperation between the two partners? There may be groups in Taiwan who wish to develop and promote this type of economic development, but in my opinion, they need more recognition and support to create lasting results.

Lastly, I believe the people of Taiwan have a real opportunity in their hands. Being a player in a global economy can bring prosperity, but without self-sufficiency and authoritative self-regulation, Taiwan loses much of its leverage, and puts itself in a weak and vulnerable position with other nations. We can look at the multiple food scandals in Taiwan over the years and see how reliance on food products from Vietnam, China and other countries has put the health of the Taiwanese people in jeopardy. We can also see how lax regulatory oversight and light punishment has led to food industry executives to pursue profits over stricter standards to protect their customers.

As the future leaders of Taiwan start looking for solutions for the future of Taiwan, they should take the time for self-reflection. If they can enact policies that improve the lives of the Taiwanese people, and the environment, other opportunities will fall into place. Take care of the Taiwanese people, and they will happier, healthier, and more productive. In other words, make Taiwan a more attractive place in the world to live and to do business, and the opportunities will naturally come.

Kaohsiung (Taiwan) metro station rated as one of the most impressive in the world

Dome of Light in Kaohsiung MRT

Dome of Light in the Formosa Boulevard MRT Station in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Living in Taiwan, I have admired the cleanliness and efficiency of the railways, high speed rail, and even the metro rapid transit (MRT) systems. Public transportation in Taiwan has long been very impressive by international standards.

Recently, the Metro Station and Formosa Boulevard in Kaohsiung has been recognized by CNN as being one of the 11 Most Impressive Metro Stations in the World. I have visited this metro station a few times, and I have to agree with CNN’s assessment. The central terminal is bright and colorful, thanks to its one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a glass mural that comprises the entire ceiling of the center of the terminal, known as the “Dome of Light.” You can see a video of this mural here on Facebook.

Other notable MRT Stations on CNN’s list include:

  • Fulton Transit Center (New York, USA)
  • Westfriedhof (Munich, Germany)
  • Toledo (Naples, Italy)
  • Komsomolskaya (Moscow)
  • Olaias (Lisbon, Portugal)
  • Westminster (London, England)
  • Khalid Bin Al Waleed Station (Dubai, UAE)
  • T-Centralen (Stockholm, Sweden)
  • Various Stations (Pyongyang, North Korea)
  • Bockenheimer Warte (Frankfurt, Germany)
  • Fosteritos (Bilbao, Spain)
  • Palais Royal (Paris, France)
  • Admiralteyskaya (St Petersburg, Russia)
  • Plac Wisona (Warsaw, Poland)
  • Staromestska (Prague)
  • Universidad de Chile (Santiago, Chile)

Click here to view the article on CNN.com

Taiwanese collection of priceless violins to make a homage visit to Cremona, Italy

Wen-Long Hsu presents a violin to Carlo Chiesa.

Wen-Long Hsu presents a violin to Carlo Chiesa.

On September 18, during a ceremony at the Chi Mei Museum in Tainan City, Taiwan, a collection of violins were displayed to the media and given a suitable sendoff by their caretakers before embarking on their journey to the Cremona Violin Museum in northern Italy. The heads of the Chi Mei Museum and the Chi Mei Culture Foundation attended the event. A string quartet performed on the antique instruments to set the mood for the occasion before a few notable speakers explained the significance of the collection’s return to their birthplace in Italy. The speeches stirred the audience, but the stars of the ceremony were the twenty-two priceless violins on display, which were famous Italian pieces produced in Cremona from the 1600’s and 1700’s.

Chi Mei Museum string quartet

A string quartet performed classical music on priceless violins from the Chi Mei Museum collection.

Wen-Long Hsu (許文龍), founder of the Chi Mei Museum recollected his childhood dream and reasons for collecting 1,350 valuable violins, violas and cellos, which date from 1566 to the 1700’s. After starting his collection in 1990, he has accumulated many of the best violins in the world. Mr. Hsu regularly shares his collection with violinists who dream of performing on them. As part of his ongoing commitment to share the culture with society, he has shared part of his collection with the Cremona Violin Museum for special exhibitions since 2005.

Carlo Chiesa, Curator of the Special Exhibition at the Cremona Violin Museum presented the historical significance of Cremona, Italy, home to the most famous violinmakers in the world. He explained that almost all of the musical instruments produced in Cremona have found their way to private collectors and museums all over the world, so the museum holds special exhibitions to bring the violins home to Cremona on a temporary basis. The Chi Mei Museum has provided part of its collection to Cremona Violin Museum since 2005, but this will be the first time that Chi Mei is the sole provider of violins for the special Italian exhibition. This occasion will also be the largest loan of violins ever made by Chi Mei Museum to another museum.

The collection of antique violins that will travel to Cremona, Italy.

The collection of antique violins that will travel to Cremona, Italy.

“I am here in Tainan because the Chi Mei collection is the most important collection in the world,” declared Chiesa, “What makes this occasion special is that Chi Mei Museum is providing the largest collection so far to Cremona Violin Museum for public study, play, and preservation.”

Traveling to Cremona, Italy with Carlo Chiesi and the collection will be a group of Chi Mei Museum directors and a camera team that will document the exhibition for a book and a short film. The special exhibition at the Cremona Violin Museum will open on September 21, 2013 and close on October 13, 2013.

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ANZTEC agreement between Taiwan and New Zealand opens new possibilities for the future

Taipei, Taiwan and Auckland, New Zealand

Taipei and Auckland, two of the most vibrant cities in the Pacific, will likely see increased cooperation and activities because of the ANZTEC.

World Indigenous Day on August 9, 2013 was celebrated throughout the world, as countries recognized the importance their indigenous people and cultures. This day provides annual recognition for the treaties signed by indigenous tribes, and promotes the building of alliances between indigenous peoples around the world. World Indigenous Day celebrations on the island of Taiwan are typically muted, however the Summer of 2013 provided Taiwan’s indigenous peoples something significant to celebrate.

New Zealand is an island nation over 8,000 kilometers from Taiwan, but the economic cooperation agreement known as the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (ANZTEC) 「臺澎金馬個別關稅領域與紐西蘭經濟合作協定(ANZTEC)」promises to make them closer culturally and economically. Signed in Wellington, New Zealand on July 10, 2013 by Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Wellington Representative Elliot Charng (常以立) and New Zealand Commerce and Industry Office Director Stephen Payton, this is Taiwan’s first trade deal with a country considered a “developed” nation. The significance of this development was touted by both governments as well as news outlets around the world.

It is not surprising that New Zealand pursued this relationship with Taiwan. New Zealand has been actively pursuing stronger ties with Asian nations, with trade agreements with Thailand, Singapore and Brunei (2005), China (2008), Malaysia (2009), and Hong Kong (2010). However, there may be another factor influencing New Zealand’s choice to forge a relationship with Taiwan. Their cultural connection does play a role in the agreement, as part of ANZTEC mandates the development of cooperative ties between New Zealand’s indigenous peoples known as the Maori, and the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. The indigenous people of both areas belong to a language family known as the Austronesian (南島語族) family. Scholars and scientists have presented considerable evidence in the past 10 year that the Maori settlement of New Zealand 700 years ago was part of a wave of Austronesian migration throughout the Pacific that began over two thousand years ago in Taiwan. Even today, the similarities between the distant cousins can be seen in the culture and language.

What does ANZTEC mean to the future of Taiwan? Although bilateral trade is relatively small, economic analysts and government officials have predicted millions of dollars in increase in trade, and thousands of new jobs. New Zealand should be able to increase its seafood, agriculture, dairy and meat exports, while Taiwan should be able to increase its exports of electronic components, chemicals, and agricultural products. While the most obvious benefit of the agreement is increased direct trade, there are other potential benefits that may have more long-term impact on the future of Taiwan.

Indigenous Taiwanese and New Zealand Maori carvings

Indigenous carvings from Taiwan and New Zealand.

The section of ANZTEC regarding cooperation of the indigenous peoples can produce unexpected benefits for the relationship between the citizens of both sides. With initiatives for cultural collaboration and media cooperation, people will be able to deepen their understanding and appreciation of their shared ancestry and culture. The sharing of a common culture could be a more effective means of strengthening the bonds of the bilateral relationship than the economic benefits. Learning how much the peoples have in common with each other can shorten the perceived distance between them.

An increased awareness of the cultural similarities has the potential to lead to increased cultural tourism. With the New Zealanders more interested in the rich diversity of Austronesian culture throughout Taiwan, indigenous communities on our island could see the most benefit from increased tourism. Indigenous tourism is good for Taiwan, making low environmental impact, and more importantly, giving Taiwan’s indigenous peoples financial incentive to teach their traditional culture to their children. Giving a boost to the sales of indigenous products can provide sustainability to a culture long-suffering from a low level of interest and appreciation. Increased cultural pride and self-reliance will make it easier for indigenous communities to preserve their languages and culture and reduce their tax burden on society. Increased activity between the Maori and indigenous Taiwanese can be a catalyst for increased cooperation with other non-indigenous groups in Taiwan.

Taiwan and New Zealand are two of the most important Austronesian territories. It is possible that other Austronesian nations may want to join Taiwan and New Zealand in an economic partnership that is inspired by their shared cultural ties. There are 400 million people living in 38 Austronesian nations, including Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Brunei, Fiji and Madagascar. Individually, they may not be wealthy nations, but together, they offer an abundance and diversity of resources, including oil and technology. With Taiwan’s ECFA agreement with China, these countries may eye the island as a doorway into the Chinese marketplace. Taiwanese people should recognize that their ancient Austronesian heritage can offer something to the world that China cannot duplicate of replace, and can inspire international cooperation. If Austronesian nations increased their economic activities with Taiwan, its value would increase as a trading partner to China, and give Taiwan a better position for future negotiations. Who in Taiwan would not want a stronger economy? The key to a brighter future in Taiwan may be found by looking to the past.

Bunun Ear-Shooting Festival (Mala-Ta-Ngia)

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A Bunun tribal elder showing golden millet grain, their staple food.

A tribal event showcasing physical strength and strengthening family bonds

After getting lost in the mountain roads of Yanping District, in Taitung County, Taiwan, I had almost lost hope that I would find the Bunun Ear Shooting Festival in the village of Yongkang. This two-day festival at the beginning of May had a reputation of being the biggest Bunun festival in the Taitung area, and I didn’t want to miss it. The  GPS wasn’t working well in the mountains, and I couldn’t find the flags indicating the location of the event. With persistence, I finally located the festival by catching the steady chorus of the Bunun voices singing their world-famous “Pasibutbut” songs. These songs, which resemble loud, clear chanting, are prayers to the gods and ancestors for a bountiful millet harvest. I am thankful the voices were so clear and loud, as they led me over a great distance to the festival.

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Visitors are encouraged to try the Bunun traditional customs, like archery.

The annual festival is named after one of its important competitions. The archery contest sharpens the hunting skills of the warriors and teaches the young boys. The traditional target was once the ears of the pigs or deer. Now, they are animal-shaped targets drawn on cardboard. I tried my hand at shooting the bow and arrow after waiting in line with the other tourists. I wasn’t as good as the Bunun warriors, but I think I could shoot a large cow if it was not too far from me.

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Most of the tribal participants and spectators wore the colorful traditional Bunun costumes of their village.

There were many Bunun from several villages around the district, as well as tourists from all over Taiwan. The two-day event brings people together in the spirit of friendly competition and strengthens family bonds. It is an important time for the adults to teach the younger generation survival skills. Like the other tourists, I relished the opportunity to learn the special characteristics of the 4th largest tribe in Taiwan. These included their special singing style, which could be heard for miles around in the mountains. Another notable item in Bunun culture is their thousand-year-old written calendar. It is the closest thing to a written language that existed in Prehistoric Taiwan.

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The millet grinding competition uses a traditional mortar and pestle, and requires synchronized teamwork.

For the Bunun, there is nothing more important than feats of strength and endurance. The men and women traditionally lived a hard life in the rugged mountains, and needed these qualities to survive. The competitive activities that I witnessed centered around their hunting and millet cultivation activities. The performance groups sang for divine blessing, before the contestants showed their skills at millet planting, weeding, harvesting, and grinding. The teamwork displayed with the pounding of the grain with mortar and pestle was impressive, while the women threshed the millet. Only the men were allowed to compete in the archery contest. They showed their strength in the wood-carrying, pig-catching, and wrestling contests. The wrestling matches made the crowds go wild, as short, heavy men with large bellies tried to pull each other to the ground.  I heard that the Bunun women consider the portly physique of their men to be sexy. “The larger the belly, the better,” I was told with a wink.

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Wrestling is a popular competitive event at this festival.

I looked down at my growing stomach, which was quite large after stuffing myself with millet and smoked muntjac meat, which was from a small species of deer. I thought, perhaps this was the one place on earth where soemone with my physique would fit in very well. Especially after the hosts shared their millet wine and offered so much cultural enlightenment and hospitality to all of their visitors, I felt quite at home.

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The Bunun elders made me feel like part of their family.

Kindergarten graduation in Taiwan

Xander during one of his kindergarten graduation performances. His costume is a Scottish theme to match the dance and music he performed.

Xander during one of his kindergarten graduation performances. His costume is a Scottish theme to match the dance and music he performed.

Parents around the world love to watch their little boy or girl get acknowledgment for their accomplishments during their kindergarten graduation ceremony. It is fun to watch very cute kids take the stage with their classmates and teachers. But there is nowhere in the world where kindergarten graduation is taken to such a level of significance by the schools and the parents as it is in Taiwan.

In Taiwan, the birthrate os the second lowest in the world (behind only Japan), which means parents are having fewer children. Class sizes are shrinking and schools are closing. This means parents are spoiling their precious child more than ever, and the kindergartens and finding it more competitive than ever to attract new students. Concerned that parents in Taiwan are choosing to have fewer children because of economic considerations, the government subsidizes all or most of the cost of kindergarten in Taiwan.

Kindergartens in Taiwan teach basic education, including math, and “be-pe-me-fe,” the basic building blocks that teach children how to read and write Traditional Chinese language. They also learn Taiwanese, because of a government mandate to help preserve the language nationally. Because of this mandate, kindergartens are not allowed to teach English, but many choose to do so “unofficially.” Children also get physical education, and a good dose of playtime. Nap time is an important part of kindergarten, and there are 3 years of kindergarten. The first two years are practically daycare services, as most parents work and need a place to drop off their little ones.

There are different levels of kindergarten. Some are attached to public schools and many are private schools. Some private schools still give out corporal punishment to the kids. For example, they may get a swat on the back of the hand if they forget their homework. Some schools offer specialized classes such as art, music, dance and rollerblading. Some even have piano or violin classes. It depend on the which area the kindergarten serves.

Xander performs during the Scottish routine.

Xander performs during the Scottish routine.

The graduation ceremony, marking the conclusion of 3 years of attendance at the kindergarten, is prepared for well in advance. Schools purchase cute costumes, create set designs, arrange choreography and start training the students a few months before the big day. With all of the parents, their relatives and friends in attendance, kindergartens must rent large auditoriums from a junior high or high school. It is a chance for the school to show the parents that their tuitions were put to good use. It is also a time when they can show off to the community, and attract new students. It is the biggest marketing opportunity that the schools have.

I experienced the kindergarten ceremony with my first son, and recently with my second son Xander. It was very cute and memorable. It is a great acknowledgment for them and a memorable way to send the children off to bigger and better challenges in elementary school, where singing and dancing are no longer part of the curriculum.

Taiwanese benefactor on Forbes’ List donates new cultural landmark

An artist's rendering of the new Chimei Tainan Metropolitan Park Museum.

An artist’s rendering of the new Chimei Tainan Metropolitan Park Museum.

On Thursday, May 17, 2012, a ceremony at a construction site in Tainan Metropolitan Park (台南都會公園) marked a significant step in the realization of a dream. The dream began with the aspirations of Wen-long Hsu (許文龍), founder of Chimei Industrial Group (奇美實業集團), to provide free access to fine art and culture from around the world to ordinary citizens in Taiwan. The dream will be complete when construction of the new Chimei Museum (奇美博物館) is complete sometime in August 2012, and when the doors open to the public in December. In preparation for its eventual opening, Chimei’s Founder Hsu and current Chairman Frank Liao (廖錦祥) presided over a ceremonial donation of the museum building worth NT1.3 billion (US$43.88 million), which is built on city land. Accepting the museum building for Tainan City was Mayor Ching-de Lai (賴清德). The Chimei executives presented the mayor with a painting and unveiled a golden statue titled “Angel of Glory,” which will be housed on top of the main dome of the museum.

Another artist's rendering of the new Chimei Tainan Metropolitan Park Museum.

Another artist’s rendering of the new Chimei Tainan Metropolitan Park Museum.

The new Chimei Museum will be a major attraction for culture in Tainan, a city already known as the center of culture in Taiwan. It will have 40,000 square meters of floor space, and its manicured grounds will cover 9.5 hectares. There will nothing quite like the building in Taiwan when it is complete, as it will resemble the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, but only slightly smaller.

A photo of the construction site in March 2012.

A photo of the construction site in March 2012.

The new museum will replace the current Chimei Museum, which currently occupies the 5th through 8th floors of the Chimei Headquarters Building in Tainan City. The current museum houses an impressive display of Western art and culture, with one of the most outstanding collections being the over 1000 celebrated stringed instruments, many of which are priceless. Since 1990, the collection of violins has been made available to famous musicians for special performances. Expansion is necessitated because the current facilities cannot house the current collections of over 10,000 pieces, and its limited size restricts access to people who make appointments only. Mr. Hsu believes in unrestricted public access, so he put the idea of a permanent museum in 2005. The approach of the new museum will be redesigned to make the displays easier to understand and appreciate by the masses.

The original Chimei Museum at the company's headquarters.

The original Chimei Museum at the company’s headquarters.

Mr. Wen-long Hsu is an amateur violinist and avid art lover who, early on in his successful career, believed in giving back to society and providing cultural enrichment to the masses. In 1977, he established the Chimei Cultural Foundation, which supported the Chimei Museum and other cultural projects in Taiwan. His diligence and decisions made Chimei one of the largest companies in the world, and has placed him on the Forbes’ World’s Richest People list. His commitment to giving back and enriching the lives of human beings through art and culture will certainly provide a lasting legacy.

The donation ceremony at the construction site. Mayor Ching-de Lai (left) accepts a painting from Wen-Long Hsu (middle) and Frank Liao (right).

Click to read this article on CNN iReports.