Taichung sets sights on becoming a boomtown

Taichung, which is three times the size of Singapore, is home to Giant Manufacturing, the world's largest bicycle maker by market value. The dream of Mayor Lin Chia-lung, who sees himself as the central Taiwan industrial city's chief salesman, is to
Taichung, which is three times the size of Singapore, is home to Giant Manufacturing, the world's largest bicycle maker by market value. The dream of Mayor Lin Chia-lung, who sees himself as the central Taiwan industrial city's chief salesman, is to transform Taichung - about 45 minutes from Taipei by high-speed rail - into a boomtown.PHOTO: REUTERS

'Salesman' mayor wants to draw more foreign investors as island embarks on Southbound Policy

As the cradle of Taiwan's major businesses, Taichung should take the lead in wooing more investments and partnerships to the island.

That is the pitch coming from its mayor, Mr Lin Chia-lung, who sees himself as the central Taiwan city's chief salesman. His dream: to transform Taichung, which is about 45 minutes from Taipei by high-speed rail, into a boomtown. His target: more foreign investors wanting to set up shop there.

"There are also so many opportunities in Taichung... We are the birthplace of many industries and we need to tell people that we are open to businesses," said Mr Lin, 53, who recently spoke to The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao.

Home to many of Taiwan's small and medium-sized enterprises, where there is abundant precision machinery and aerospace expertise and innovation, Taichung is three times bigger than Singapore.

A high-tech manufacturing hub which hothouses many research and development firms in Central Taiwan Science Park, it is also home to Giant Manufacturing, the world's largest bicycle maker by market value. All in, the firms produce half of Taiwan's entire industrial output.

But the city wants to build more industrial zones, said Mr Lin, who is offering subsidies and incentives to lure companies from near - Japan - and far - the United States and France.

Already, he has managed to snag such big operators as German industrial group Siemens and French software manufacturer Dassault. Both are setting up R&D centres and factories in Taichung. As Taiwan looks to grow its presence in India and South-east Asia under its new Southbound Policy, Mr Lin is also eyeing those regions.

  • Taichung's growth

  • POPULATION

    2016: 2.8 million

    2015: 2.7 million

    2014: 2.7 million

    REGISTERED COMPANIES

    2016: 92,069

    2015: 88,391

    2014: 85,159

    PRE-SCHOOLERS*

    2016: 72, 761

    2015: 66,700

    2014: 58,500

    TOURISTS

    (based on the number of those staying in hotels):

    2016: 6.8 million

    2015: 6.6 million

    2014: 6.1 million

    * Seen as indicator of rising birth rate and the number of young families settling down in Taichung.

As part of an ongoing tie-up with the Singapore Business Federation, Mr Lin is leading a group of 20 business owners to Singapore next month to discuss joining hands with Singapore-based firms to build industrial zones in Indonesia and India. As they expand their footprint elsewhere, Taiwan's enterprises also grow their businesses and create more jobs at home to handle more business.

"Singapore is a very cosmopolitan country and is well known to the region. Taiwan companies want to tap its knowledge and expertise to move into these new areas."

President Tsai Ing-wen recently launched five new projects to help India and Asean countries develop industrial talent and boost cooperation in medical care, innovative industries and regional agriculture.

This is an opportunity for Taichung to play a bigger role in Taiwan's new push, which in turn will make the city itself more of a business hub, said Mr Lin.

He is being backed by the central government, which is funding a slew of infrastructural projects, such as new roads, rail lines and a NT$4.2 billion (S$190 million) exhibition centre in Taichung.

Ms Tsai said Taiwan's economic development will allow "the world to see (its) technologies".

The growing interest also comes ahead of the city hosting the Taichung World Flora Expo next year, which is expected to draw more trade visitors.

With Taichung's growing prominence, more people who are attracted by more better-paying jobs are flocking to the city to live and work. Last year, the Taiwan Brain Trust think-tank found that the majority of Taiwanese said Taichung is the island's most liveable city.

This has led to Taichung recently surpassing its southern cousin Kaohsiung to become Taiwan's second-most populous city. According to the most recent statistics from the Interior Ministry, Taichung had 2,778,182 residents in July, just ahead of Kaohsiung's 2,777,873. New Taipei remained the most populous city by far, with four million residents.

With more companies heading to Taichung, more people will come, said Mr Lin, who added that the city has become a "grown-up". The resurgence has changed the city's decades-old reputation as a haven for crime and corruption, he said.

Since he took office in 2014, about 20,000 more people have called Taichung home every year, up from the 15,000 annually between 2011 and 2013.

Mr Lin said: "People find that they can enjoy a better life here, with equally good, if not better, access to housing, facilities and services, compared with Taipei."

For instance, housing costs in Taichung are about half those in Taipei, where it costs at least NT$40,000 to rent a three-bedroom apartment in the city centre.

Mr Lin has also made the place more attractive by offering more welfare benefits like subsidised childcare and eldercare.

In anticipation of the population growth, Taichung city government recently set up a housing development department, which aims to create 5,000 units of social housing in four years, and 10,000 in eight years. It has earmarked 13 sites across the city for development.

Among those who have moved to Taichung is software engineer Kenneth Chen. He uprooted his wife and three children from Taipei last year.

"It is a lot more liveable here as it is not as crowded and polluted as Taipei," he said. "Things are also not as expensive, so we get to stretch our dollar a lot more here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Taichung sets sights on becoming a boomtown'. Print Edition | Subscribe