Trailblazer knew nothing of mainland

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am


A keen dog-lover, Tsai Eng-meng derived the company name and brand Want Want from the Chinese rendition of the sound of a dog yapping - the name also sounds like the pronunciation of the Chinese character for 'prosperity'. A giant portrait of his dog, Happy, hangs at the group's headquarters in Shanghai.

Tsai registered the Want Want trademark on the mainland in 1989, and the company officially entered the mainland market in 1992. He is believed to have maintained strong relationships with officials at central government and local levels.

With no knowledge of the mainland market, Tsai chose Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, over likelier coastal cities such as Shanghai to start his business empire across the strait.

As the first Taiwanese enterprise to invest in Hunan, Want Want enjoyed preferential policies from the provincial government, but still faced a learning curve.

'Government officials always gave us vague messages in the early days,' he told The Washington Post. 'One phrase such as 'the problem is not big' could lead to a two-day meeting to find an interpretation.'

In January, shortly before Taiwan's presidential election, Tsai, who spends most of his time on the mainland, was reported by The Washington Post to have jumped in his corporate jet and flown home to cast his vote, along with 200,000 other Taiwanese businessmen based on the mainland who rushed back, contributing to victory for President Ma Ying-jeou, who is committed to rapprochement with Beijing.

Tsai has said closer links with the mainland were not only his dream, but the dream of tens of thousands of Taiwanese entrepreneurs who had operations on the mainland.

'I'm delighted with Mr Ma's victory because it will bring life to Taiwan's economic development,' he said in the article in The Washington Post. 'The three links will bring much more convenience for businessmen like me,' he said, referring to Ma's priorities of direct trade, transport and communications.

The article - the same one that triggered outrage over Tsai's alleged remarks that unification was 'inevitable' - also noted that among Taiwanese businessmen, only Tsai had poured so much money into trying to shape opinion through media that, according to his critics, often echo the views of Beijing.

The Post article also noted that when China Times, the Taiwanese newspaper that Tsai purchased in 2008, 'published an article that described Beijing's top negotiator on Taiwan as 'third rate', the editor was promptly fired. Want Daily, a tabloid Tsai launched in 2009, provides a daily digest of mostly upbeat stories about China and the benefits for Taiwan of closer co-operation.'

The report also quoted him as saying journalists were free to criticise but 'need to think carefully before they write' and avoid 'insults'.

Tsai denied the reporter's suggestion that his media empire took an obsequious line towards mainland officials to boost his business. 'I don't stroke the horse's bottom,' he replied, using a phrase for flattery.