1999 / 4月
Eric Lin /photos courtesy of Diago Chiu /tr. by Scott Williams
A short piece run in the March 8 United Daily News Supplement, entitled "Phones Are Everywhere," states:
"Over this Lunar New Year's holiday, I traveled to a quiet seaside campsite on Taiwan's east coast. When night fell, I prepared myself for a leisurely evening of listening to the surf and watching the stars.
"Little did I know that within a short time, the folks next to my tent would pull out their cell phones the moment they began erecting their tent. This family of five, each of whom had their own phone, would not shut up. They called to wish people a happy new year, to chat, to check up on this person or that, and even just to report on their own activities. . . . Each was having his own conversations with whichever friends or relatives he could track down.
"My ears were forced to celebrate their joys with them. From their conversation, I also learned that one particular company was offering one hour of connection time free to purchasers of cellular phones. Since not calling would have meant letting that free time go to waste, the entire family was doing its best to use it up. Even after they had exhausted that hour, they continued making pronouncements to friends and family about how they were getting something for nothing.
"When this family, which had come all this way to escape the city, weren't on their phones, they were talking about the various features of different phones. And I, who wanted to listen to the voice of nature, could only 'run away from home.'
"Then, walking around, I discovered that there was a phone in every tent. I laughed bitterly: Here I'd escaped the firecrackers and the television only to be surrounded by cellular telephones."
It has only been a year since the cellular phone business was opened up to private firms, yet cell phone ownership is already a nationwide fashion. What does this say about our society? Is there anything unique about Taiwanese people's use of cell phones?
The first cellular phones appeared in the US in 1983, and nine years ago they came to Taiwan. Those early years also happened to coincide with a period of popularity for Hong Kong cops-and-gangsters films. These movies and videos depicted triad bosses in scene after scene, often as follows: A triad boss in sunglasses and a black cape strides past groups of underlings. He is suddenly struck by a thought and coolly crooks a finger. An underling rushes over with a cellular phone, and offers it up to the boss with both hands, saying, "Boss, make your call." It was in this way that cellular telephones picked up the nickname dageda, "boss of bosses," in Taiwan. And because having one was so expensive-NT$70-80,000 for a phone, and as much as NT$100,000 in total once you added in set-up fees, a deposit and connection costs-people used to say, "You want to know how many cellular phones there are in Taiwan? Count the number of Mercedes Benz."
But in the blink of an eye, the social status the phones once conveyed has become a thing of the past. Though the phones are still generally referred to as dageda, if you take a look around Taipei's streets, you'll note that almost everyone seems to have one. Even teenagers are carrying their own "boss-of-bosses," letting everyone know who's boss.
Sweet rain after a drought
Chen Kwang-cheng, a professor in the Institute of Communication Engineering at National Taiwan University, says that the reason for the massive surge in the popularity of mobile phones in Taiwan is related to breakthroughs in telecommunications technology. The rising market penetration of cellular phones is a global phenomena, and Taiwan got a rather late start. Chen points out that when the Taiwan cell phone market was first opened, demand was already high. But because the Directorate General of Telecommunications only made a limited number of phone numbers available, as of the end of 1997 there were only about 1.5 million cell phones in use, while more than one million people were on the waiting list. But since the official opening of the market to private firms at the beginning of 1998, cell phone sales have really taken off.
The 21% market penetration of cell phones in Taiwan doesn't seem very high when viewed from a global perspective-it is 55% in Finland, about 50% in Sweden, 39% in Hong Kong, 35% in Australia, 30% in Singapore and 27% in Japan. However, Chen points out that market liberalization came to Taiwan much later than these other countries. In just over a year, market penetration in Taiwan has tripled, growing from 7% to 21%. Such explosive growth points to extremely high demand.
Tsui Mei-fen, who owns a cellular-phone shop, describes last year's liberalization of the market as "sweet rain after a drought."
Tsui says, "You can imagine those one million people who had been waiting for their own cell phone number suddenly rushing out to buy a phone." She says that people in a hurry to get their phones before the 1998 Lunar New Year's holiday rolled into the stores in wave after wave. Business was so good, she remembers, that shops ended up staying open late into the night on Lunar New Year's Eve.
In just one year, market penetration in Taiwan rose to the kind of level seen in other nations only after two or three years. Statistics released by Directorate General of Telecommunications in January show that as of the end of 1998, there were more than 4.7 million cell phones in Taiwan, compared to 4.2 million pagers. And Chen states that looking at the 50%-plus level of market penetration in Europe and North America, there should still be a lot of room for growth in Taiwan's market.
The Chinese market
Dominic Wang, an American-born Chinese who has taught English in Taiwan, Japan and the US for a number of years, has seen cultural differences related to the cellular telephone fad first hand.
"It's interesting. People in these three countries all use cell phones very differently. In the US, people value their personal space and hate to get calls once they have left the office for the day, so they often turn their phones off. The Japanese are diligent workers, and employees of large corporations often work until 8 or 9 in the evening. Even after they've left the office, if they get a call telling them that something has come up, they rush right back to work without any complaint." He says that in Taiwan, however, people use their phones for business during working hours, and to keep in touch with friends after hours, fully exploiting the cell phone's potential.
Taiwanese tend to highly value interpersonal relations, and this can be seen in the way cellular phones are used locally. Chen Kwang-cheng says that when cellular telephones first came into use, it was widely predicted that given the Chinese emphasis on maintaining interpersonal contacts, the Chinese market would have more potential than any other. A survey conducted by Nokia supports this view, showing that in Taiwan, as many people have bought cellular phones for personal use as for business use. This contrasts sharply with survey results from other nations, which show most purchasers buying cell phones for business use. Manufacturers are therefore acting to meet the special needs of the Chinese market. For example, Scott Huang, mobile phones marketing manager for Nokia Taiwan, states that his company designs its cell phones with an extra-large screen which more easily displays Chinese characters out of consideration for Chinese consumers the world over.
In this most recent wave of enthusiasm for cellular phones, the larger Chinese markets, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, have all seen a significant rise in the number of people owning cell phones. In mainland China, although market penetration remains below 5%, its vast population means it cannot be ignored. And in spite of the fact that the cell phone craze got off to an earlier start in Hong Kong than in Taiwan, the buying frenzy there has persisted. According to one report, a series of March promotions by cellular phone network operators trying to increase their customer base in the Hong Kong market is expected to bring about another large increase in the number of mobile phone owners there.
In Taiwan too, mobile-phone sales just keep heating up. Mobile-phone-related products accounted for four of the products on the China Times' list of the 20 coolest products of 1998. Cellular phone pre-paid calling cards (regardless of network) were first on the list. Meanwhile, the Motorola cd928 phone ranked third, the Nokia 8810 phone was 11th and Ericsson's S868 was 19th. With sales of cellular phones ripping along here in Taiwan, let's skip over the issue of cellular-phone profits to local firms for the moment, and look at the many social changes these phones are bringing about.
Consume! Consume! Consume!
In analyzing this buying trend, Chuang Hui-chiu, who has been researching Taiwanese psychology for a number of years and is deputy editor-in-chief at Teacher Chang Monthly, says that maintaining interpersonal contacts is one of the particular characteristics of Taiwanese society. Looking at the cell phone phenomenon from the perspective of work, Taiwan is principally an industrial and commercial society, and people constantly stay in touch with their business contacts. Looking at it from the perspective of lifestyle, Taiwanese do not usually clearly demarcate their personal space, and are usually pretty comfortable with the idea of being contactable at any time of the day or night. The combination of these two factors means that mobile phones in Taiwan are usually on 24 hours a day, though for different purposes at different times. But Chuang feels that these are not the key factors underlying the current craze. Instead, she believes that the cause lies in consumer habits created by the island's rapid pace of economic development.
Chuang says that Taiwan's economy didn't really take off until the 70s and 80s, and that it has only been in the last 20 years or so that most of the island's middle class has come into being.
It used to be that only the wealthy could buy fashionable items, and these reflected their social position. Now, however, Taiwan has a middle class, defined as that class which has ample economic means without being rich. But this class arose in such a short time period here that it doesn't have a well-formed culture of its own, and therefore consumption, which demonstrates that wealth has been acquired, has become its most glaring trademark. It is very easy for such consumption-oriented class culture to generate widespread fads such as the red-wine craze of two years ago and last year's Portuguese egg tarts mania. The popularity of cellular phones following liberalization is a product of the same sort of consumer culture.
"I never turn mine off"
Wang Chi, a professor in the Institute of Telecommunications at Chung Cheng University, mentions another factor underlying the mobile phone's popularity. She says that although society has a definite need for mobile phones, the marketing measures and ads employed by competing cell phone companies after the market was liberalized also had a lot to do with creating the hot market for phones. Wang further states that by observing the changes in cell phone ads and marketing tactics over the last year or so, you can see changes in the target market.
Tsui Mei-fen says that just after liberalization, most people who bought mobile phones did so for job-related reasons. Therefore, most of the ads at that time depicted a business person, and the convenience provided by a cell phone. For example, there was Pacific Cellular's ad showing a resolute-looking sales manager in a business suit saying, "When I travel to Hong Kong, I never turn mine off." There was also TransAsia Telecommunications' ad with an experienced sales person showing a new guy the ropes. Such ads all stressed the convenience mobile phones provided, and the response to them was enthusiastic.
But once sales to business people reached a given level, marketing efforts refocused on consumers who viewed the phones as leisure items. Campaigns clearly directed at this market segment included the "Phone for a Buck" and the "Easy Talk" promotions, both of which featured prepaid calling cards. The "Easy Talk" ads even featured a pop star plugging the product. Now, singer Jen Hsien-chi acts as spokesperson for Hohsin's "Easy Talk," pop star Chen Hsiao-tung plugs FarEasTone's "Easy Payment Card," and singer Coco Lee pushes Pacific Cellular's prepaid card. All these campaigns feature pop stars, and all are clearly appealing to younger consumers.
Tsui says, "Cheap phones and no monthly fees mean that many people now feel that a mobile phone is within their grasp. Mobile phones now have two target markets. Both young and old are beginning to buy them as fashion accessories."
Kuo Pin-liang, a fourth-year student in the evening program of the Hwa Hsia College of Technology and Commerce's electrical engineering department, says that mobile phones are very common on campus, and that about a third of his classmates own one. He says that most night school students have full-time jobs during the day-thus a busy non-academic life-so phones are always ringing in class. He estimates that in one 50-minute class, there are an average of seven or eight calls.
Kuo says, "You just yell out to your teacher to let him know what's going on, and you can go outside to talk. The teachers are very understanding."
But the cell phone hasn't yet caught on among still younger consumers. Mandy Wang, who teaches English at a cram school, says that the phones aren't yet very common among middle- and high-school students because the phones themselves and the monthly bills cost more than most kids' pocket money. So, she says, most kids of this age choose to get pagers, which are cheaper. However, among vocational-high-school students, who often have part-time jobs, she finds that having one's own phone lets others know you're one of the "in crowd."
Mandy Wang says that if all your classmates except you have a phone, you look like you're "just off the boat." She mentions that not long ago her younger brother, a student at a vocational high school, had his phone cut off because he couldn't pay the bill. He was upset for quite a long time, always complaining that he couldn't go out and face people without his phone. "I'm not exaggerating. There are even some kids who, because they don't have a phone, get labeled as being 'behind the times,' and can't find girlfriends."
Saving those who skip class
Wang En-kuo, a fourth-year student in the department of tourism at Tamsui Oxford University College, says that his cell phone probably only rings once a day, but there's no doubt about the convenience it provides.
"It's really useful when your trying to 'get together' with a girl, and when your teacher suddenly decides to give a quiz, you can let everyone who was skipping class know that they need to get to school right away," he says. His girlfriend, Chen Hsiao-wen, sitting beside him, nods her agreement while playing with the receiver on a cellular phone that looks like a mahjong tile.
Yeh Cheng-fu, a fourth-year student in the drama department at Chinese Culture University, says that when he's bored he sometimes uses his phone's message function to send dirty words to his friends. It's a way of making contact and expressing their friendship. But Yeh hates those people who use the prepaid calling cards. He says that such people can't bear to part with their money, so when they call you, they are always rushing to get off the line and have you call them back.
"If they don't have the money to buy a phone, or can't pay the bill, they just shouldn't get one! These people are all going to be social outcasts soon."
Though the bills are high, young users feel that convenience and style are worth the money.
Wu Tsung-lin, a graduate student in linguistics at National Taiwan University, has a particular fondness for mobile phones. Over the winter vacation this year, she traveled to Turkey by herself. The only reason her mother was able to put aside her worries and let her go was because Wu agreed to call her every day.
"I haven't gotten the bill yet. I'm afraid to think how much it's going to be. But can you believe it? While I was in Turkey, bathed in the dawn's light while getting ready to go skiing, a friend of mine was on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, sharing the light sparkling off the waters with me via a cell phone. Who cares how much it cost, it was worth it!" says Wu.
Wang Chi says that she really didn't think she needed a mobile phone all that badly, but because she could get one cheaply with a newspaper subscription, she decided to go ahead and do it. After she got it, however, she discovered it was very useful in helping her check in with her parents.
"My parents are getting old, and I often have to make trips during winter and summer vacations, or for conferences. . . . Having a cell phone, if something comes up and my parents need to get in touch with me, they can, no matter where I am, with just one number. It's a kind of convenience," she says.
Tsui Mei-fen laughingly says that mobile phones can improve communication between parents and children, explaining that some parents come into her shop to buy phones for their kids to make it easier to keep track of them. And the kids are happy to let their parents rein them in if they can get a phone out of it.
New technology, old customs
People say this wave of mobile phone fashion is a "national movement" that involves people of all ages and has gotten tied up with traditional culture. Wu Tsung-sheng, who is currently performing his military service at Sungshan Airport, says that his father even went to see a fortune teller for help in choosing lucky mobile phone numbers for himself and the family. Even more over the top is that every time Wu goes home, he finds his father has a new phone, sometimes of a type Wu has never seen before.
He says that one time he was having dinner with his father in a restaurant when his father remembered something he wanted to tell his mother. "My father suddenly shouted 'home,' scaring me out of my wits. For a second, I didn't know what was happening. I just saw my father slowly lifting a mobile phone from the table, and, totally at ease, begin talking to my mother. Then I realized what was going on-my father had bought a voice-activated phone, and 'home' was the code word to make it dial our home."
Of this kind of situation, Weng Sheng-hung, who is in the mobile phone business, says that most of the profits in cell phones come from people who already have phones buying new ones. Every time a new model hits the market, people ask about it, and many buy it to replace their old phone. And this phenomenon isn't limited to kids.
Weng says, "Practicality is never that important. A new model may cost NT$30-40,000 and doesn't necessarily have more functions than the older models. But it's lighter and it's cool, and, most importantly, it's 'new.' It stirs up interest in buying. For many people, a mobile phone has become like a piece of jewelry or an upmarket car-they always want the newest one on the market." He says that when the well-known Hong Kong movie star Leon Lai became spokesperson for one particular model of phone last year, it became a status symbol. Suddenly everyone in the Hong Kong movie industry had to have one. The resultant buying spree sent prices through the roof as everyone tried to get their hands on one. Something similar happened in Taiwan, too.
Adults who follow fashion and enjoy spending have a strong influence on teenagers. Lai Cheng-fu, who also sells phones, says that kids don't have the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to replace their old phones with the newest models. So instead, when they buy a phone, they look for one that is cheap, fashionable and easily customized, and which has something different about its ring. For example, one Nokia model which has a shell that is easily replaced is hot with teenagers, some of whom even go so far as to spraypaint their phones to make them "different."
"You should go look around the Hsimenting area. They've got every kind of shell you can imagine there. Right now, ones with Hello Kitty pictures on them are popular. And besides shells, there are all kinds of accessories you can buy. For example, there are lights that attach to the receiver and flash when the phone rings, as well as headphones and cases. Teenagers haven't just created a new market, they've also created their own unique culture," says Cheng.
Chuang Hui-chiu says that in the past, people felt that replacing things often was wasteful, and thus had a negative view of fashion. But for modern people, keeping up with fashion is an important part of consumer culture. Fashion holds pride of place in this system of values, and he who possesses the newest things and the most up-to-date information is king of the hill.
Please turn it off!
Chang Hsiao-fang, who works for a media company, says that she doesn't much care how people analyze the mobile phone phenomenon, nor does she think too much about whether her reliance on her cell phone is reasonable. She simply feels that since technology has advanced to this level, people should just adapt to a new way of life.
"When you're out grocery shopping, you can get on the phone and tell your girlfriends who's selling white radishes cheaply today! The advance of technology is really exciting. I don't know how I could get by without my mobile phone," exclaims Chang.
In the short space of a year, what a mobile phone represents has changed several times-it has gone from being something for the rich to a national fashion. Will these phones influence our lives still further? Wang Chi says that the ubiquity of mobile phones should be viewed as one step in the process of technological development. Although she doesn't expect that the phones will change our basic way of life, the speed at which they have entered our lives necessitates that we establish an etiquette for their use in public venues. For example, cell phones can often be heard ringing in movie theaters and concert halls, disturbing others in the audience. Hospital emergency rooms recently took a first step, albeit for more serious purposes, by requesting that people turn their cell phones off to avoid disturbing patients and staff, and interfering with medical devices.
In Taiwan, most places that currently ban the use of mobile phones do so for reasons related to safety and the carrying out of official business. An example is the Judicial Yuan, which strictly forbade the use of cellular phones within the courts in order to maintain order and dignity. Those with phones must now turn them off before entering a courtroom. Changes are taking place at some schools, too. Shih Hsin University, for example, has made it school policy that students must turn off their phones during classes. If they do not, their teacher may ask them to leave the classroom.
Safety concerns have inspired even more stringent rules. The Civil Aeronautics Administration of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) has strictly decreed that cell phones may not be used on planes in flight. And China Petroleum has recently posted signs at its gas stations reading, "For your safety, please turn off your cellular phone." The company fears that a static spark from a phone might ignite gas fumes in the air around a station, causing an explosion.
Whether for reasons of courtesy or safety, the idea that there are times when a mobile phone should be turned off is not very widespread in Taiwan. Given the difficulty of forcing people to turn off their phones, the MOTC will soon begin accepting applications from the private sector to install mobile-phone signal disrupters. This will stop the phones from functioning in areas where their use is restricted, thus resolving the problem of their use in public venues.
Other controversies still exist. Not only is there the courtesy issue, but now debate is also raging about the effect of mobile phone radiation on the health of users. In a report in the British Sunday Times, a professor of physiology at Oxford University stated that there was strong evidence that use of cellular telephones negatively affected people's ability to recognize objects, as well as memory and concentration, resulting in short-term memory loss. An Australian scholar has also warned that cellular telephone use may give rise to pathological changes in the brain and brain cancer, and recommends against using them for extended conversations.
With regard to such concerns, Chen Kwang-cheng says radiation is all about us in our modern lives. According to Chen, radiation from a microwave oven or computer far exceeds that emitted by a cellular telephone or the transmitters set up by cellular telephone service providers. Since radiation cannot be avoided, Chen simply reminds companies to fix their transmitters firmly in place so that they cannot be blown down by the wind and hurt somebody. He also reminds users not to cradle their cell phones while whispering sweet nothings to a loved one. He says a cellular phone is a tool meant to make communication more convenient when out of doors or on the road.
A fridge in the living room
The cellular phone fashion has whipped through Taiwan like a whirlwind. And now, after more than a year, this whirlwind has not only not blown itself out, but seems to be getting stronger. Last year there was a case of a university student who, lacking the money to buy a mobile phone, resorted to mugging. Though it was only an isolated incident, doesn't it clearly illustrate Taiwan's herd mentality when it comes to consumption?
Chuang Hui-chiu says, "When refrigerators first came to Taiwan, those families that had them liked to put them in the living room so they could display them to guests. The situation with cell phones isn't identical, but the cultural content revealed by the desire to display one, to let other people know you have one, or the use of a phone as a means of identifying yourself with a group, is the same. This is a response of Taiwanese people to acquiring wealth after years of poverty." Chuang therefore optimistically predicts that once Taiwanese have experienced wealth for three generations, they will develop more practical and substantial ideas about consumption.
Will things really turn out this way? Are cell phones a genuine necessity in technological society, or are they just a fashionable status symbol? Right now, it's still too early to say. All we know is that on the Public Radio traffic report we often hear messages something like: "Last night, three cell phones and a purse containing a cell phone were found by taxi drivers. . . ." In Taiwan, at least, "cell phone fever" still burns.
A mobile phone slung at his waist, headphones on his head, the Jade Rabbit grinds his medicines and chats with Chang-e in her distant lunar palace. The cellular phone craze has reached the point where even the centerpiece of this year's Taipei Lantern Festival was wearing one.
In the business world, where seconds count, the mobile phone has made many tasks more convenient.
Have you ever been at the end of a long snaking queue of people waiting for a public phone? One of the mobile phone's greatest appeals is its ability to "make life easier."
When cellular telephone operations were formally opened up to the private sector in early 1998, network operators and phone manufacturers threw themselves into the fray, each looking to carve out a large share of the market for themselves. The photo shows a 1998 telecommunications show in Taipei.
Chen Hsiao-tung, Coco Lee, Sun Tsui-feng-TV and movie stars of different generations are all doing cell phone ads. Mobile phone networks are looking to identify their systems with the stars to grab market share.
When people buy a cellular telephone, they aren't just looking for good reception, they also want one that is new and cool.
The negative consequences of the huge increase in the number of people using cell phones are becoming apparent. Gas stations are now reminding patrons to turn off their phones to avoid causing an explosion while filling up.
"A-chih, come on out and see a movie! Everyone's here but you." Hsiao-wen says that on the streets of Taipei you now often see people using their cell phones to persuade their friends to "come out and play."