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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

800 lb. GIANT Gorilla?

An interesting little article appeared in the Taiwan-based China Economic News Service aka Taiwan Economic News Service the other day.

According to the article, the Taiwanese bicycle mega-manufacturers Giant and Merida are poised to see substantial growth in the China market this year. The article states:

"Giant is now the No. 1 bike brand in terms of sales value and with the highest the average selling price in the Chinese market for bikes. To cash in on the growing demand for leisure bikes in the market, the brand has launched a new sub-brand, Momentum, this year, which, bolstered by Giant`s solid brand recognition among Chinese consumers, is expected to help to boost the brand`s overall share in the market in the future.

With the aforementioned marketing strategies, Giant confidently expects steady growth in its sales volume and value of own-brand bikes in the Chinese market in the coming years. Presently, the brand runs three manufacturing factories in China, which have totally achieved annual output of over 3.7 million bicycles, with a majority of which for sale in the domestic market."
It is no revelation that growing affluence in China is driving many sectors of Chinese society to consume on levels that may match and even outpace their global counterparts in terms of their desire for the prestige of consumer goods.

What really interests me about this article is what this trend means to the old Fei-Ge or "Flying Pigeon" brand of bicycle and even the Taiwanicization of Chinese culture.

In Taiwan we are used to understanding culturalization programs from the receiving end of different state centered programs to colonize and transform the people of Taiwan into something more desirable to the state. Over the past 60 years Taiwanese have been subjected to the Chinese Nationalist culturalization program that positioned Taiwanese people and cultures in terms of "inferiority", "backwardness" and "weakness" in consideration of the Taiwanese willingness to cooperate with the Japanese colonization program. Beginning in the 1950's the R.O.C. government on Taiwan instituted several items of culturalization legislation aimed at transforming Taiwanese people and cultures to conform to the ideals of the highly centralized state culture of the R.O.C. -- to transform Taiwanese into Chinese.

Taiwanese are used to seeing their cultures under assault from the "other" and Taiwanese have also sought out and adopted many new cultures into the dynamic discourse of "Taiwaneseness". It could be argued that The United States served as Taiwan's cultural center for much of the post WWII period as strong Americanization filled the gaps left by Japan. It is through the process of local interpretation that these symbols and meanings became "Taiwanese" culture rather than the mysteriously applied and poorly defined measurements of "mainly Chinese with Japanese and American influences". I would go so far as to argue that "Chinese culture" is a bogus term outside of the current nationalist construct. Still, there is a continuing battle between the constructed "sinicization" promoted by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and "localization/indigenization" of people who view Taiwan as the center of their world and their culture.

From Taiwan we still, and rightly so, see China as a potential hegemon. As China's economic power increases, the Chinese will be more able to project their interests beyond China's borders and attempt to draw the periphery closer to the center. Of course the periphery can never occupy the same space as the center and will always remain "peripheral". Still, the questions raised by the CENS article ask us to consider the possibility of and response to the "Taiwanicization" of China. It turns the equation on its head and begs us to examine the impact of Taiwanese culture on the Chinese.

Giant and Merida are Taiwan's two largest bicycle brands. Giant is the "kleenex" of bicycles in Taiwan. I do not know how often I am asked if my Salsa branded bicycle is a Giant. But beyond simple brand recognition there is a real sense of national pride in Giant. It represents the "Taiwan Miracle", it validates the sense of Taiwanese accomplishment and acceptance in the world to help counter the Taiwanese tragic lack of self-confidence that has been cultivated through a failed Chinese nationalization program and Taiwan's shameful diplomatic isolation (and the appeasement policies that have been promoted to avoid defacto Taiwanese nationalism). Giant has become an expression of Taiwanese economic and leisure cultures.

Now Giant is poised to take over the Chinese market, which has been dominated for decades by the ubiquitous Flying Pigeon. The Flying Pigeon is China's major domestic supplier of bicycles. Although it was originally founded in Tianjin by a Japanese businessman, the Flying Pigeon was taken over by the state following the Chinese Civil War and it essentially grew into China's national bicycle in much the same vein as Hitler's Volkswagen-- a cheap form of transportation for the masses.

The Flying Pigeon virtually became a part of daily life for Chinese. It pervaded Chinese cultural life as it transformed China by providing not just physical, but economic mobility for millions of citizens. Much like Giant in Taiwan, the Flying Pigeon symbolizes something greater than just the bicycle in the imaginations of the Chinese people. It is an icon of Chinese cultural life and of the Chinese experience that most people who live outside of China can not really understand. The Flying Pigeon is the type of shared symbol that breeds culture and now Giant is poised to replace it.

It makes me wonder at what point Chinese people will begin to develop a sense of nostalgia and start to seek to protect and retain the contemporary symbols of Chineseness rather than simply promoting the silly myth of "5000 years". Will they resent Taiwanese (and others for that matter) for their own cultural hegemony as Taiwanese bring their culture with them to China and inadvertently engage in replacing Chinese culture with Taiwanese ways of doing things? Will the Chinese cultural pendulum eventually swing back as they fight to hold on to the symbols of their unique and special experience?

It makes an interesting scenario.


  1. Very interesting. I didn't know that Taiwan bike brands were becoming popular in China.

    Are all of the bicycles of the big Taiwanese bicycle brands still actually made in Taiwan? Or do that have their factories in ShenZhen and DongGuan like most of Taiwan's other big companies?

    What I am curious about is to what extent (if at all) Chinese consumers associate a particular brand with Taiwan, and to what extent that might influence their choices, and to what extent that association determines how that product is marketed in China.

    My assumption is that Giant and other brands are trying their best to prevent consumers from associating their brand with Taiwan, for a number of obvious reasons.

    I know that in USA (and probably the whole world) Taiwanese brands do not want consumers to associated their products with Taiwan.

    About a year ago in Taiwan, I met a guy visiting Taiwan from California. He was an avid biker, and had spent quite a bit of money on both his roadbike and his mountain bike. While on the subject of biking, I asked him whether any of the Taiwanese brands were popular with the biking crowd in California. He said, ", I doubt it." I mentioned that Giant and KHS were some of the most popular Taiwanese brands among Taiwanese cyclists.

    He said, "Giant and KHS are Taiwanese brands??? Are you sure about that???" He thought I didn't know what I was talking about.

    He said, yes, those were both popular brands in the high-end bike shops in the States.

  2. A few years ago I can imagine some confusion. Taiwan is now better known as the world's largest producer of quality frames. Now, American cyclists try to figure out if their Italian branded frame is made in Taiwan or China as it makes a difference in trust and quality. Taiwan has a great reputation among cyclists in the US.

    I am pretty sure Giant is known as a Taiwanese brand in China. Cannondale, which once had the distinction as the last big brand Made in the USA... has just finished relocating to Taichung.