Taiwanese Americans use coronavirus as moment to create own narrative

Chris Fuchs

When James Chuang left Taiwan to study in the United States around 35 years ago, he arrived with nothing, relying on the goodwill and generosity of others to get him through.

Now he’s paying that back. With his successful catering business in New York City closed because of COVID-19, Chuang has used his free time to procure and donate medical supplies — and promote Taiwan as well-positioned to help in this global pandemic.

“We try to bring voice to let people know Taiwanese are good and helpful to the whole world,” Chuang, an adviser to Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council in New York, told NBC Asian America.

As the U.S. battles the coronavirus, Taiwanese Americans are among those stepping up to donate lunches, money and medical supplies.

Their philanthropy comes as Taiwan — the self-ruled democratic island that China claims as its own — receives worldwide praise for containing the coronavirus.

China, meanwhile, has embarked on an aggressive push to recast itself as eager to offer medical supplies and COVID-19 assistance — after initially mishandling its own response to the coronavirus.

Not to be outdone, Taiwan has set about donating millions of face masks to the U.S., European countries and its diplomatic allies, and chronicling its efforts under hashtags like #TaiwanCanHelp and #TaiwanIsHelping.

James Chuang, an adviser of Taiwan's Overseas Community Affairs Council in New York, and others load up a van to deliver supplies to Queens' hospitals. (Courtesy James Chuang)

Taiwanese Americans who have been donating to hospitals, organizations and people see their philanthropic work as an opportunity to showcase the best of Taiwan’s culture.

“Members of the Taiwanese American community are making Taiwan proud,” Lily Hsu, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, Taiwan’s de facto embassy, said in an email. “They represent the spirit of generosity that the Taiwanese people are known for, and they bring that spirit to their adopted home.”

Chuang, who lives in New Jersey, said he first got involved in late March by working his business contacts to secure masks for several thousand students from Taiwan who were studying in the tri-state area.

One of Chuang’s friends saw a social media post he made about the effort and reached out to see if Chuang could help New York-Presbyterian Queens. COVID-19 patients were pouring into the hospital, which is in a neighborhood with many residents of Chinese and Taiwanese descent.

Working with several other Taiwanese American groups, Chuang pulled together 10,000 surgical masks and assembled 200 lunches to donate in early April.

“They know we support them because they work very hard,” he said.

Joey Chiang, president of the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce of New York, presents a check for money they raised to donate to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. (Courtesy Joey Chiang)

Joey Chiang, president of the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce of New York, said he sprung into action because of his sister-in-law, a nurse on the frontlines at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

Moving quickly and using his connections, Chiang assembled two boxes of 3M N95 respirators and 2,000 surgical masks. Chiang also raised $20,000 in cash, which he donated to the hospital.

Chiang said he prefers to stay out of the messy politics between China and Taiwan.

“In this situation, everybody is affected,” said Chiang, who is in the construction business. “There’s no nationality, no race, no nothing. You just try to help whoever you help.”

Their philanthropy, Chuang said, sometimes leads curious recipients to ask about Taiwan, where the Nationalists retreated to in 1949 as they fled Communist forces amid the Chinese Civil War.

Since then, Taiwan, which China has vowed to reunite with the mainland, has transformed itself into a vibrant and thriving democracy, even legalizing same-sex marriage, a first in Asia.

“Because of this coronavirus, we get more recognition because we’ve done so well,” said Patsy Fang Chen, president of the Taiwan Center in Queens and one of the Taiwanese Americans involved in helping with donations.

The numbers bear that out. Taiwan, as of May 4, had just 438 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six deaths. China has recorded more than 83,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths. The U.S., by contrast, tallied over 1.1 million confirmed cases and more than 67,000 deaths as of Monday.

Per capita, that gives Taiwan the fewest deaths out of those three countries, roughly 0.25 per million, according to Our World in Data, a nonprofit based at the University of Oxford tracking COVID-19.

Experts credit Taiwan’s early proactive response with stopping the spread of the virus on the island. Having learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak, the government took such measures as quickly setting up its Central Epidemic Command Center, banning arrivals from most Chinese cities and deploying technology to fight the virus.

Yet the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, has declined to invite Taiwan as an observer to its World Health Assembly since 2017, after President Tsai Ing-wen, a China skeptic, won election the year before.

The snub has been seen as a reflection of Beijing’s efforts to limit Taiwan’s international space amid souring relations between the two sides.

Even as Taiwan, which lost its U.N. seat to China in 1971, remains shut out of the WHO, its government is still sharing its expertise with other countries.

In early April, Taiwan announced it would donate 10 million masks to the United States, European countries and its diplomatic allies.

Part of that included shipping 3 million masks to front-line U.S. medical personnel, including those in hard-hit states like New York and New Jersey.

Chuang and other Taiwanese American organizations have donated masks and protective gear to NYC Health+Hospitals Jacobi and Lincoln, both in the Bronx.

The American Medical Women’s Association, the New York Police Department and NYU Langone-Brooklyn were among those that also received mask donations from the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce of New York as well, according to Chiang.

“Their dedication deserves our respect, and I am sure it will inspire more people to do the same,” Hsu said.

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