Taiwan’s millennials are known as the “strawberry generation,” and it’s not a compliment.
In their own eyes, the millennials are helping to turn the capital city Taipei into something hipper, a place that embraces creativity and innovation. Some have gone as far as calling the city Taiwan’s answer to Portland, Oregon.
But an older generation of Taiwanese, who helped fuel the country’s export-driven economy, sees the youngsters as soft and easily bruised. Hence, the “strawberry generation,” a disparaging way of saying they don’t work hard. You know, like their parents did.
But that’s not what Jimmy Yang thinks. He has a spacious, two-story independent bar, restaurant and coffee shop called Wooloomoloo, and that’s where you’ll find him on most nights.
“We used it because it was just a really funny, quirky name. It has lots of ‘O’s,'” says Yang.
A former architect, the Taiwanese-Australian Yang paid a lot of attention to design. At Woolomooloo, customers don’t sit in clusters. They share long wooden tables that stretch the length of the restaurant.
“This is part of my experiences having grown up in Australia where we have cafes with lots of sharing tables,” he says.
This kind of place — born of people-centered design — is at the heart of a boomlet of independent boutiques, cafes and restaurants opening in Taipei.
While typical Asian mega-cities race to build gleaming towers and lookalike shopping centers, Taipei’s millennial entrepreneurs are focused on unique spaces: Tiny tea houses on leafy streets. Shops selling hand-stitched notebooks. Old industrial sites turned into art parks.
Places For The Young And Trendy
“Suddenly there’s coffee shops [and] just an explosion of these really cool places,” says Ben Thompson. He’s a technology and business analyst who calls Taipei home. The numbers back him up. Taipei has seen a 30 percent jump in licensed eating and drinking spots between 2007 and 2013, according to city commerce data.
“What is so fascinating is that people in Taiwan, particularly the older generation, despair about this,” he says. “It is the strawberry generation that’s opening these things and their parents hate it.”
Thanks to the hard work of an earlier generation, Taiwan’s economy surged ahead and now ranks among the top 30 in the world, with a GDP per capital three times bigger than China’s.
Even China’s mega-manufacturing company — the iPhone parts maker Foxconn — is owned by a Taiwanese man. But from his ranks, you’ll hear the fretting about Taiwan’s economic future.
“There was the chairperson from Foxconn who says Taiwan’s ruined because all the youngsters wanted to open cafes. They had no bigger ambitions in life. I remember that bit,” Yang says.
A Service-Based Economy
But could the cafes be signaling an important shift?
During Taiwan’s Asian Tiger heyday, electronics and agricultural products all over the world carried “Made in Taiwan” labels. But this is a wealthy place now. And to keep growing, the economy has to evolve.
For most developed nations, this has meant a shift from manufacturing-driven exports to a consumption and service-based economy. It means creating meaningful products people buy because they desire them — not just because they’ll do the job.
“It’s the difference between Apple and Dell,” Thompson says. “One is utilitarian, you’re gonna buy the cheapest computer you can. The other is, you’re buying a computer, yes, but you’re buying something more. And if you think about how to shift that in the economy that doesn’t spring from a manufacturing economy. That springs from coffee shops and art shows. The sort of sensibility about people and who they are. That’s what creates cool products that people want to buy just because they’re cool.”
A look at thriving American cities such as Austin or Seattle shows an environment for innovation matters. Hip places to hang out could help Taiwan compete for creative talent, cultivate and then harness it.
“In your example, there’s a coffee shop. There’s a place for that community to appear in a way that it might not otherwise,” says Scott Patersen, a designer at the San Francisco design firm IDEO. He helps create environments for urban spaces to encourage community building and growth.
“A lot of the reasons people live in cities is because of the potential serendipity of running into other ideas or people who have ideas different than you. And through that the kind of invention you’re talking about could flourish,” Paterson says. “Seeing that stuff flourish means people feel like it’s possible.”
Back at Jimmy Yang’s Wooloomooloo, he says the possibility for younger generations here stems from designing places that put people first.
“These places help, help their minds work,” Yang says.
It’s too early to tell what will come for the Taiwanese economy at large. But the new places springing up are creating a kind of buzz here, enough to keep entrepreneurs like Yang in business, and cafes like his bustling.
Fanny Liu contributed to his story.