Taiwan's artisan scene - Using traditional handicrafts to revitalize rural economies
Since the start of civilization, Taiwanese women have been the driving force behind the nation's familial economic welfare, often sharing the demanding farm work with their men and utilizing any precious pockets of spare time to craft trinkets for sale. Since 1956, the Council of Agriculture (COA) has launched a series of nationwide campaigns concerning home economics, with earlier topics ranging from public health and personal hygiene, to modern-day issues such as female entrepreneurship, elderly care and individual wellbeing. The recent revival of traditional handicrafts in particular, has been touted as a sign of the contemporary transition made by Taiwan's rural villages. With the assistance of COA officials and related authorities, traditional handicrafts have made their way from rural homes to urban boutique shops, highlighting the success of the government's policies and the entrepreneurial potential of these highly skilled women.
Given the embarrassment of running into another person clutching the same purse or sporting the same shirt - incidents that regrettably occur quite often when it comes to mass-produced goods - the unique individuality of handcrafted items have garnered a devoted following in recent years. In recognition of this market niche and its promising economic returns, the COA's regional consultants have stepped up their efforts in assisting rural craftswomen refine and diversify their product portfolios. From its line of home economics courses, the COA has selected several groups of seasoned students for additional training this year, in which experts are brought onboard to share critical business know-how such as methods for controlling operating costs and expenditures, launching new products for commercial success, relaying business history and increasing production volume. Take, for example, the never-fading "Spring Flowers" produced by the Changhua County Farmers' Association. Made of metal wires, cardboard bits and a whole lot of cotton threads, these traditional wedding accessories take half a day per piece to make; division of labor, however, from crafting the separate petals to assembling the complete floral ensemble, has helped save labor hours and ramp up production volume.
In last year's Top 100 Agricultural and Fishery Products Expo, an annual fair featuring the best of Taiwan's produce, the COA specially roped off a section for traditional handicrafts. Staffed by graduates of the COA's regional home economics courses, many of whom were stranger-shy mothers, their stalls were visited by many curious bystanders. When the 3-day event drew to a close, these mothers-turned-saleswomen were able to fully embrace their entrepreneurial roles, surprising even themselves with their new-found ability to confidently converse with guests from all walks of life. According to the Taichung makers of jute-dyed specialty products, shoppers' inclination to buy surged after hearing their genuine explanations on the cultural and industrial importance of the mallow plant, the source of the natural fiber jute. It is this personal connection that sets handmade wares apart from machine-made merchandises, the COA pointed out.
Samples of these new-age handicrafts are currently on display at the Taiwan Handicraft Promotion Center, where they have proven to be the most popular souvenir items among both local and foreign tourists. Pledging to uphold the decades-long outreach and consulting program, COA Minister Chen Bao-ji expressed his hopes of one day seeing these traditional wares housed in the prestigious National Palace Museum itself.