COVID? What COVID? Taiwan thrives as a bubble of normality.
By Amy Qin and Amy Chang Chien
As the coronavirus has upended lives and economies around the world, Taiwan has been an oasis.
Every day, droplets fly with abandon in packed restaurants, bars and cafes. Office buildings hum, and schools resound with the shrieks and laughter of maskless children. In October, a Pride parade drew an estimated 130,000 people to the streets of this capital city. Rainbow masks were abundant; social distancing, not so much.
Taiwan, an island of 24 million that has seen just 10 COVID-19 deaths and fewer than 1,000 cases, has used its success to sell something in short supply: living without fear of the coronavirus. The relatively few people who are allowed to enter Taiwan have been coming in droves, and they’ve helped to fuel an economic boom.
“For a while, Taiwan felt a little empty. A lot of people moved abroad and only came back once in a while,” said Justine Li, head chef at Fleur de Sel, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the city of Taichung, adding that the restaurant had been booked up for a month in advance since fall. “Now, some of those once-in-a-while guests have moved back.”
These COVID migrants are largely overseas Taiwanese and dual nationals. They have included businesspeople, students, retirees and well-known figures such as Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American restaurateur and author. About 270,000 more Taiwanese entered the island than left it in 2020, according to the immigration authorities — about four times the net inflow of the previous year.
Taiwan’s borders have been mostly closed to foreign visitors since spring. But highly skilled non-Taiwanese workers have been allowed in under a “gold card” employment program, which the government has aggressively promoted during the pandemic. Since Jan. 31, 2020, more than 1,600 gold cards have been issued, more than four times as many as in 2019.
The influx of people helped make Taiwan one of last year’s fastest-growing economies — indeed, one of the few to expand at all. There was a brief slowdown at the start of the pandemic, but the economy grew more than 5% in the fourth quarter compared with the same period in 2019. The government expects 4.6% growth in 2021, which would be the fastest pace in seven years.
Steve Chen, 42, a Taiwanese-American entrepreneur who co-founded YouTube, was the first to sign up for the gold card program. He moved to the island from San Francisco with his wife and two children in 2019. Then, after the pandemic hit, many of his friends in Silicon Valley, particularly those with Taiwanese heritage, began to join him — a reverse brain drain, of sorts.
He and colleagues such as Kevin Lin, a co-founder of Twitch, and Kai Huang, a co-creator of Guitar Hero, have traded coffee meetups at the Ferry Building in San Francisco for badminton matches and poker nights in Taipei. Taiwan’s leaders say the infusion of foreign talent has given a shot of energy to its tech industry, which is better known for manufacturing prowess than for entrepreneurial culture.
“That whole chain that you have in the Silicon Valley — the entrepreneurs who are willing to take a risk, the investors that are willing to write an early check — all of those folks have actually come back and are in Taiwan now,” said Chen, lounging on a couch at his office in a government-backed coworking space in Taipei.
“I feel like it’s a golden era for tech,” he said, “and it’s dawning on the government that they should really take advantage of this time now.”
The surge of returning citizens has put a squeeze on the short-term rental market. One property manager estimated that the number of dual nationals or overseas Taiwanese looking for apartments was twice as high in 2020 as in most recent years.
Not all of Taiwan’s industries have been flourishing. Those that depend on robust international travel, including airlines, hotels and tour companies, have taken big hits. But exports have been on the rise for eight straight months, fueled by shipments of electronics and surging demand for Taiwan’s most important product: semiconductor chips.
Domestic tourism is also booming. Taiwanese who had been used to taking short flights to Japan or Southeast Asia are now exploring their home. Sightseeing destinations such as Sun Moon Lake and the Alishan mountain resort area have been swamped with tourists, and at least one upscale hotel outside Taichung is booked through July.
Orchid Island, a small, coral-ringed island off Taiwan’s east coast, had so many visitors last summer that hotel operators started a campaign encouraging them to take 2 pounds of trash with them when they left.
Some aspects of pandemic life have permeated Taiwan’s borders. Temperature checks and hand sanitizing are common, and masks are required in many public places (though not schools).
But for the most part, the virus has been out of sight and out of mind, thanks to rigorous contact tracing and strict quarantines for incoming travelers.
Some returnees, including Robin Wei, 35, are dreading their eventual departure.
“We just feel very lucky and definitely a little guilty,” said Wei, a product manager for a Bay Area tech company who returned to Taipei with his wife and young son in May. “We feel like we are the ones who benefited from the pandemic.”
For many, coming back has meant a chance to reconnect with Taiwan.
After getting a master’s degree in computer science in Australia, Joshua Yang, 25, a dual Taiwanese-Australian citizen, decided to return in October. The job market in Australia was looking bleak, he said, so he took the opportunity to do the military service required of all Taiwanese men under 36.
Yang wasn’t the only one with that idea. When he arrived for basic training in December, Yang said, he found himself bunking with an assorted group of returnees and dual nationals, including an American, a German, a Filipino and an overseas Taiwanese who had been studying in California.
Since completing 2 1/2 weeks of training, Yang has been allowed to finish out his service by volunteering at an Indigenous history museum in a remote town in southern Taiwan.
“It’s something that I have always wanted to do, but I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity if it weren’t for the pandemic,” Yang said. “I’ve been able to understand my homeland in a different way through a different lens and learn what it’s like for the Indigenous people of Taiwan, who are the traditional owners of the land.”