The fertile fields surrounding Tainan, the former capital of Taiwan famed for its fireflies, food and hundreds of historic temples, were filled for centuries with lush rice paddies and huge stretches of sugar cane. But drive north from the city today, passing the National Museum of Taiwan History, and you find yourself surrounded by scores of drab, low-slung industrial blocks. In place of rural serenity, there is the bustle of building sites. Clusters of young workers smoke and chat in the shade of trees while others scurry along the street under the fierce sun, clutching lunch grabbed from noodle stalls. ‘This was very different when I was growing up,’ said a local man in his 20s. ‘Now it is all engineers, scientists and new buildings.’
For Taiwan has discovered a lucrative new cash crop: the manufacture of cutting-edge computer chips, the tiny silicon semiconductors which are the building blocks of modern society from national defences through to electricity grids, health systems, stock trading, transport and mobile phones.
Already this fast-expanding science park on the south of the island produces the world’s most advanced chips, 10,000 times thinner than paper. Soon it will churn out the next generation that are even smaller, faster and more efficient.
But such is Taiwan’s market dominance, dramatically outpacing China and the United States, there are fears over the devastating global impact if the Chinese government ever carries out its threat to seize Taiwan, the thriving island democracy on its doorstep.