Taiwan 1998-2001: Nick Bridge recalls his experience heading New Zealand's mission in Taipei.

AuthorBridge, Nick

This was a posting we both wanted, for it completed a China four card trick. We were--and still are--the only ones to have served in all four 'Chinas'. Not that Beijing would recognise such a feat. For, of course, it regards Taiwan as a province of China, and no country can recognise both China and Taiwan. Thus New Zealand, along with many others, ascribes to the fig leaf that its mission in Taipei is just a commercial trade office under the aegis of a chamber of commerce. Beijing goes along with that; but watches closely for anything that transgresses the line. And Taiwan presses you up against that line every day.

It turned out to be a highly dangerous assignment. We were lucky to come out of it alive. The house we inherited was some 40 minutes out of Taipei near the top of a high hill where the Japanese, during their 50-year occupation of Taiwan, had run an experimental snake laboratory. In 1945, when they left, they let all the snakes out as a parting gesture. These were among the most dangerous in Asia. In summer our house seemed to be an especial attraction for them. In that event, we had to contact the local village snake catchers. They would come--within minutes--in highly protective gear and skilfully catch the snake alive, its serum being highly valuable. Di's mandarin had long been an asset in our career. But it really came into its own on snake alerts. One particular night we spotted a snake on the stairs when we had dinner guests from the ministry in Wellington. The catchers found it on the upstairs landing outside our bedroom. Cleopatra would have loved living with us.

Wellington then wrote to say that we could move if we wished and they would meet all costs. Just a few weeks before, I had happened to tell old Delhi friends, in a letter, about these snakes and within days they rang to say the Indian remedy was to soak a long rope in a cauldron of boiling onions for 24 hours and then lay it right round the house. It did the trick. Snakes hate onions. So we stayed put.

Keeping Wellington abreast of all the twists and turns of the complicated and fraught Taiwan-mainland relationship was a priority for the post, along with managing the New Zealand-Taiwan relationship. This was, of course, principally economic, for Taiwan, despite its pariah status, was one of New Zealand's top ten economic partners--in trade, immigration, students and tourism especially. It was also a member of international organisations such as APEC and the WTO. We had to tread carefully at every step as regards the day to day activities of the office. The Taiwan...

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