TAIPEI, TAIWAN – Kuo Chih-wen moved to Taiwan in December. The former denizen of the San Francisco Bay Area had been working from home since March 2020, like people all across the United States trying to dodge COVID-19. Her parents thought it would be a good chance to return to a safer, un-locked down Taiwan, where Kuo was born.
The 27-year-old had planned to return to the United States this month, but now intends to stay through May. She can go out in Taiwan thanks to a low coronavirus rate over the past year. She works overnight hours at the same trading company that employed her in California, while enjoying movies, museums, restaurants and domestic travel.
“We’re very lucky to be able to come back to Taiwan at this time and live a normal life, since we’ve been locked for over 10 months,” Kuo said. “It almost feels like there’s no COVID in Taiwan. Life hasn’t really changed.”
Taiwan got a lid on COVID-19 about a year ago through early checks on inbound flights, a strict quarantine system and relentless contact tracing. The island of 24 million people has reported just 941 cases as of this week.
Kuo is just one of likely thousands of Taiwan-born foreign nationals who have moved back, often with family, to avoid COVID-19 and the lockdowns in countries where they normally live. Now Taiwan is getting a boost from the money returning Taiwanese spend traveling, eating and making longer-term investments. Some bring unique talents and hire local collaborators.
“You look at the big restaurants, the high-class restaurants over this past Lunar New Year holiday, and their business was extremely good,” said Liang Kuo-yuan, president of the Polaris Research Institute, a policy group in Taipei.
He believes wealthy returning Taiwanese made up much of the crowd during a holiday that already sets Taiwan abuzz with family dinners. The 2021 new year break ended this week.
Government offices in Taipei do not keep tabs on exact number of returnees, though one department says it noticed a surge in overseas Taiwanese who came in January 2020 for Lunar New Year and because of COVID-19 decided to stay on the island.
Liang cited estimates that up to one million among Taiwan’s total 24 million population live overseas, and he said they are coming back in high numbers. Many returnees are over 50 years old now and had left the island to escape political and economic uncertainty in Taiwan. They kept Taiwanese citizenship to smooth any returns.
Taiwan’s service sector, 60% of the $635 billion economy, gets a boost from people such as Kuo who go out and spend. They are buying up property, too, and Taiwanese financial institutions are making money on cross-border banking fees, Liang said.
Taiwan home prices grew 6.5% year on year in the fourth quarter last year and 6.1% in the previous quarter — the fastest rate since a 6% contraction in early 2016, according to figures compiled by the research firm CEIC Data. COVID-19 being “brought under control” explains part of the spike in late 2020, the Taipei Times news website says.
Younger professionals who are back after living most of their lives abroad bring capital, talent and the search for business partners. Many are staying on visas that are reserved for foreign citizens with economic promise.
A particularly well-known Taiwanese returnee, 43-year-old YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, said in April he was studying ways to boost the island’s start-up scene by establishing a “collaborative bridge” that would help other people like himself relocate to Taiwan from other parts of the world.
Taiwanese American actor-producer Welly Yang, 48, is working with the Taipei entertainment sector to put together international Broadway concerts in April and May. The leading figure in productions such as Aladdin and Miss Saigon arrived in August from Los Angeles. He lives now with his wife and two children.
Yang’s heritage sealed one professional relationship in a special, only-in-Taiwan way.
“The biggest promoter here, he wants to present my concerts and then it turns out my grandma was his music teacher, like that’s just crazy,” Yang said.