June 2, 1999 6:30 PM PDT

Taipei dispatch from a moped dodger

TAIPEI, Taiwan--Computex, the annual high-tech trade show here, is only the third-largest computer trade show in the world, but it easily ranks as the most courteously insane.

A one-and-a-half-mile cab ride this morning, for instance, took approximately an hour. Politeness is strongly emphasized in Asian society. Complete strangers bend over backwards to help lost visitors, directing them through Chinese-only menus, cramped neon-lit alleys, train schedules, and the mysteries of street food.

Press representatives get treated to magisterial, multicourse banquets and Chinese opera. I keep speaking Spanish to the cab drivers ("Uh, convention center, por favor,") yet they manage to get me through and give me a thoroughly mysterious receipt with a smile.

So when someone almost runs you over on the sidewalk on a moped, it's tough to get angry. Four million people live here and they seem to sleep in shifts. The motorized hum goes on all night. It's best to get used to it.

The five-day event, which takes place in the Taiwan World Trade Center/Taiwan International Convention Center, exists to promote the island's growth into one of the central venues for the IT world. The country accounts for approximately $38 billion of the world's IT revenue and, despite the Asian financial crisis, continues to grow at approximately 16 percent a year.

Seventy-five percent of the world's motherboards get produced here, along with 58.2 percent of the monitors, and 39.3 percent of the notebooks, according to the Institute for Information Industry, the government's technology promotion arm. In the future, they want a larger part of the software game, said Victor Tsan, director of the agency's Market Intelligence Center.

Clearly, the country means business. And if you missed the point, there are screens featuring a near continuous video loop of Andy Grove telling you so.

Let's make a deal
Taiwan's rise to prominence in the industry can largely be traced to will power. The locals simply have a lot less qualms about cutting deals than other cultures in the world.

Under a freeway overpass near Cheinkuo road, street-store PC makers will sell you anything you need. Photo Stand Computer offers a Pentium III 450-MHz system with 64GB of 133-MHz memory, a 10.8GB drive, keyboard, mouse, Office 97 and a DVD drive for $25,900 in Taiwan dollars, or US$797. Too good to be true? Probably. 133-MHz memory doesn't go with a 450-MHz chip without some backyard engineering. But two doors down you can get what looks like a legit 450-MHz system with a 17-inch monitor and fancy speakers for $43,999 local, or US$1,354. The boss says he'll upgrade to 500 MHz, no cost.

This Super Computer, meanwhile, offers a 350-MHz AMD system for $8,888 local, or US$273. Next door a Celeron system with four months of ISP service goes for US$307. Can I get a bootleg copy of The Phantom Menace? Not today, says a representative of Itek CIE.Q, pointing at a store that might have it. Try them tomorrow, he recommends.

Pure capitalism
The Taiwan World Trade Center surely stands as one of the few places in the world where one can see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to capitalism. The marble is centered around a courtyard-shaped, trade-show floor surrounded by a gigantic, seven-story cone of office suites offering the unsung goods of everyday life.

True to Taiwanese fashion, it's organized logically. Floor one consists of exhibit space. The second floor is dedicated to a museum gallery of Taiwanese export goods, administrative offices, and clothing manufacturers, such as Char Wie Enterprises Company Limited, makers of the Magic Towel, the Gimo Zipper Company, and Dimple International. Floor three continues on with sporting apparel and accessories from the likes of the Yo Fu Umbrella Company and the Goldspark Industrial Corporation (they make dolls).

Floor four, the Freewill Plastics Corporation and the Yeo Ching Trading Company, among others, bring the auto enthusiast car wheels and auto parts. On floor five, one can buy jewelry (and the furry, neck-less heads on which the stores display the jewelry) from such purveyors as Noodable Flower Enterprises.

And on floor seven government is for sale. There one can find the Commercial Office of the Sultanate of Oman sandwiched next to the State of Hawaii Tourism Office, the Thailand Trade and Economic Office in the same neighborhood as the State of Florida, the ITI of Ireland, and the French Chamber of Commerce.

But my personal favorite: The Fortune Ocean International Company Limited, makers of tanker containers for flammable liquids. ("One foodstuff fleet. One Chemical fleet. Also chemical products with a low melting point," their sign reads.) In a word, all the products that one sees everyday but doesn't notice. It's the end of the world, or merely the 21st century version of the Silk Road.

No doubt a great place for a computer show.

 

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