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China-Taiwan rivalry causes headaches for leaders of Los Angeles' Chinese community

Trying to navigate between the two sides without offending either can be tricky. Seating arrangements, even a karaoke performance, can cause tensions and walkouts at events.

January 23, 2011|By Ching-Ching Ni, Los Angeles Times

Derek Ma was feeling pretty good after successfully co-hosting a banquet for China's National Day with more than 600 guests, a 10-course dinner, a parade of entertainers and more than $10,000 in prizes.

Then he got a call from the top local representative of Taiwan, who put a damper on his mood.

"He basically said, 'We are supposed to be old friends. Why did you guys do such a nice job helping the other side? It makes us look bad,'" said Ma, a restaurateur who used to be president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., which is like being mayor of Chinatown.

Soon Ma had signed up to help throw an even bigger party — with 900 guests — to celebrate Taiwan's birthday.

In the world of Chinese Los Angeles, the choice between China and Taiwan once was simple. People supported Taiwan. Never mind that many of them had roots in mainland China and that Taiwan is a tiny island state, ruled separately since a civil war in 1949. Taiwan stood for freedom and democracy — and was friendly. China was a communist one-party state — and uninterested in wooing the local community.

But times have changed. China has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse. It's a major trading partner for the U.S. and economically important to the Los Angeles region. It also has started reaching out.

As the longtime conflict between China and Taiwan plays out on the world stage, Los Angeles Chinese leaders find themselves caught in the middle, trying to navigate between the two without offending either.

They attend events on both sides. They invite both sides to their events. But headaches are inevitable.

Autumn is the most treacherous time. Both China and Taiwan celebrate their national days in October. That means two separate flag-raising ceremonies, two separate national day banquets, two cocktail receptions. Each side uses these high-profile events as opportunities to outdo the other — with larger crowds, fancier spreads, more elaborate entertainment.

The two flag-raising ceremonies were held this fall at the same bandstand in Monterey Park. But the tone of the festivities was decidedly different. Taiwan went for a display of military strength — complete with color guard, salutes and a tightly choreographed flyover. China tried to downplay the country's size and power — with children dancing and an American high school band playing a traditional Chinese folk song.

Still, cozy image or no, China's stand on Taiwan is clear-cut.

Although economic relations between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan are warming, China still insists — and most major nations, including the United States, agree — that there is only one China and that Taiwan (which calls itself the Republic of China) is a part of it.

"Our protocol is you can't promote two Chinas," said Liwen Yue, an official at the Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Los Angeles. "Even the U.S. government recognizes there is only one China."

A couple of years ago at a dinner for Chinese American elected officials in Los Angeles, which happened to include fundraising for Taiwanese typhoon victims, a Chinese government delegation stormed out in protest while Chung-Chen Kung, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, was invited onstage to address the crowd.

"The mind-set on the other side is still very fossilized. If I show up, I don't have the right to speak," Kung said. "I wasn't even going to say anything about politics. I merely wanted to thank the donors on behalf of the flood victims."

But things were tense even before Kung stood up to speak, thanks in part to a seating arrangement that put both delegations at the same table. From the start, Kung felt a little slighted. He considers himself a higher-ranking official than his mainland Chinese counterpart, so he was upset to find her sitting on the right of the host — where he thought he should be. Then, he said, he tried to pour tea for her, but she politely refused and avoided looking at or talking to him all night.

"I've definitely heard often about these awkward situations," said Sue Zhang, president of the Roundtable of Chinese-American Organizations, a power broker in the Chinese community. "If both sides are invited, then we usually try to seat them far away from each other to avoid a confrontation."

Astute event organizers also try to avoid Taiwan's official name — the Republic of China — because those words could prompt the Chinese to walk out, she said.

But problems can occur despite the most careful planning.

At one banquet, said Ma, a guest got up to sing a karaoke tune. But he turned it into a pro-Taiwan statement by changing the words of a popular song to make reference to the Republic of China. Members of the Chinese delegation threw down their napkins and left.

In the competition for local recognition, China's size and strength obviously give it an edge. But in winning over hearts, community leaders say, it still has some work to do.

Chinese officials don't disagree.

"We come from very different systems," said Yue of the Chinese Consulate-General. "For historic reasons, maybe we are not as good as we should be in certain areas such as public relations. But we are learning, and we don't mind learning."

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