“Is it popular among Hongkongese to move to Taiwan?” It seems to be a common topic between Taiwanese and Hongkongese. So what’s the answer? In 2015, there were 6,900 Hongkongese moving to The U.S. and Canada; meanwhile, there were 7,500 Hongkongese applying for residence in Taiwan (an increase of 62% compared with 2014)*.
While we searched for more information about the increasing immigration trend, a blog caught our eyes, featuring “Guide for Hongkongese and Macanese / Foreigners Aiming to Immigrate to Taiwan.” It’s a series of articles blogged by a Hongkongese couple, recording their own experience of applying for investment residence and immigrating to Taiwan, without the help of immigration consultants.
The authors are Sanford Poon and Michelle Chan. In 2013 they moved to Taiwan together with their handmade bag brand, Misala. They have been selling their creative clasp frame bags and purses in 48 countries around the world. After three years of hardwork in Taiwan, they said firmly, “We would have regretted if we didn’t start our own business.” Even though they still think “a lunch box over NT$80 ($2.3) is too expensive” for them, they feel content as dream chasers.
Business started with tears. Misala took off in the online marketplace.
Michelle and Sanford met each other as colleagues when they were working at Thales, the French electrical system company. In 2009, Sanford was sent by the company to Dubai, and Michelle moved to Dubai with him as an expatriate wife. Out of frustration in adapting to the life in a foreign country, she started to make handmade bags as a hobby, and accidentally discovered her talent in the art of bag-making. Michelle smiled and said, “My first bag is a piggy bag, because my husband’s Chinese zodiac sign is the pig!” (Later on the “Misala Piggies” also became the brand’s best-selling collection.)
As many of her friends admired her bags, Michelle was encouraged to participate in the ARTE market in Dubai. She worked overnight and created 50 bags, and asked two of her friends for help to set up the booth. Although she excitedly looked forward to visitors’ favorable responses, it ended up with only one bag sold in the whole day. “I burst out crying right after I got home,” recalled Michelle.
Of course, she didn’t give up that easily, despite the frustrating first experience. Encouraged by Sanford, Michelle started to sell her bags on Etsy in 2010, and successfully drew the attention of Western customers, while gaining exposure in design magazines. She continued to design her bags using vibrant colors and expressive shapes, and Sanford worked on online marketing for her, explaining the design concepts and telling the stories of each piece of work. Stitch by stitch, word by word, they raised their brand hand-in-hand.
As Misala’s sales continued to grow, they started to consider devoting all their time to the brand. Almost reaching the age of 30, they thought it would be great if they could work and live for themselves, and didn’t have to move around at the company’s request. However, “Back to Hong Kong? The living cost was far too high. Before moving to Dubai, we lived in an apartment of around 40 sqm with the rent of HK$7,800 ($1,000). But four years after we left Hong Kong, the rent doubled, and it was impossible for us to make a living by selling handmade bags,” said Sanford. Michelle searched on the Internet, and found PPT (the largest BBS based in Taiwan), via which she learned that Taiwan could be a good place for her to settle down with a fair living cost and mature handmade product market.
Taiwan should find its own position to distinguish itself and attract foreign entrepreneurs.
“We actually made a ‘field survey’ twice before we decided to move here. In terms of immigration issues, online information was rather limited, and we didn’t find good immigration consulting firms. So I relied on myself and recorded all my experience and shared all the information I collected on my blog,” recalled Sanford. Although his articles were posted at the end of 2013, as more and more Hongkongese have been moving to Taiwan, there are still a number of people emailing him to ask immigration related questions, even until today. “But honestly,” continued Sanford with a serious tone, “I think many people are overly positive about starting up in Taiwan. It’s not easy to make big money here. The good thing is that the cost of living is relatively lower (than Hong Kong), so you can chase your dream without starving to death.”
Many foreigners are fond of Taiwan’s lifestyle and people’s friendliness. For handmade designers, they can find manufacturers with good quality at low cost. Like Michelle, she found many skilled smiths. Their handmade clasp frames are useful and durable; more importantly, they often accept customization (like logo engraving) with reasonable pricing despite having a low quantity on a single order. This is very alluring for a small handmade design brand.
However, after living in Taiwan for three years, Sanford and Michelle also have to say, the market is not internationalized enough, and it is not easy to find international partners either. If entrepreneurs are aiming at the global market, countries like Singapore might be a better choice.
Just like many foreign designers that Beyonder Times has interviewed, Sanford and Michelle are attracted by the relatively low cost of product development, but they also know well that they cannot rely on the local market in Taiwan, or their brand will not continue to grow. While having the development center based in Taiwan, it is inevitable that they will need to expand their international sales channels. In the global ecosystem of the design field, Taiwan should make use of its strength, find its position and distinguish itself from other countries to attract entrepreneurs from all around the world.
Coming to the end of the interview, Sanford and Michelle concluded that they are glad that they have made the decision of starting their own business. “Instead of being an office worker for the whole of our lives, now we meet new friends everyday, and have control over how we want to live. We don’t regret it at all,” they said and smiled at each other.
About Sanford Poon and Michelle Chan:
Michelle had accidentally discovered her talent in the art of bag-making when she moved to Dubai from Hong Kong with her husband in 2009. She hand-crafted her first bag out of boredom with being an expatriate housewife, and it was her husband Sanford who encouraged her to pursue it as a trade. Seeing the small success they had from selling the handmade creations to customers from over 40 countries on Etsy and having her work featured in publications in the US, UK and Australia, the couple decided to move to Taipei in 2013 to try taking the business to the next level.
The two set up a workshop in the city, hired assistants and traveled to craft shows in Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany. The story of their lives has been filmed and also appeared in local magazines and newspapers.
Michelle has won first prize in a handcraft competition in Hong Kong (“Show Me Craft” 2015) and has been running a tiny pop-up booth at Huashan since February this year.