TAIPEI (AFP) - A British minister was left red-faced on Monday after giving the mayor of Taipei the gift of a watch - a taboo act in Chinese culture - only for him to joke he would "sell it to a scrap dealer".
Ko Wen-je, a high-flying surgeon and mayor of Taiwan's capital, made the remark after he was handed the pocket timepiece by British transport minister Baroness Susan Kramer, who was visiting Taiwan on a trade exchange.
When asked by a local reporter to comment on the gift, Ko said he might give the watch to someone else or "sell it to a scrap metal dealer for some money, because it would be useless to me." Giving someone a clock or watch as a present is traditionally taboo in Chinese culture due to the similar pronunciation of the characters "giving a clock" and "attending an old person's funeral".
Mr Ko, who is a popular figure but known for his off-the-cuff remarks, drew a barrel of criticism from across Taiwan's political spectrum for his perceived rudeness.
In response, his British guest tried to play down the embarrassment.
"I'm sorry. We learn something new each day. I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive. In the UK a watch is precious - because nothing is more important than time," she said in a statement.
She also highlighted the significance of the watch, which she termed as a "very unique item" from the House of Lords.
Rosalia Wu, a city councillor from the major opposition Democratic Progressive Party, later lambasted Mr Ko on her Facebook page, saying "City diplomacy is critical to Taiwan, as the mayor of the capital, he should have taken greater responsibility."
Mr Ko presented Ms Kramer with a miniature model of Taipei 101, once the world's tallest skyscraper and an iconic feature of the city's skyline.
An independent candidate, Mr Ko, 55, was elected as the mayor of the capital in the island's local elections in November, thrashing Sean Lien, son of former vice-president Lien Chan.
Mr Ko sparked multiple controversies while campaigning for the post, including describing a female candidate from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party as "young and pretty and just fit to sit behind a (department store) counter".
Although he was labelled as "loose cannon" by some critics, he has been tolerated by supporters despite a string of such gaffes.
A recent survey showed his approval rating one month into office stood at a comfortable 70 per cent, as staunch supporters hail him for pledging to battle corruption and streamline bureaucracy.