When the Godfather‘s Sonny Corleone received a fish wrapped in brown paper from a rival mob family, he immediately interpreted the Sicilian message—his top henchman had been killed. Governor Greg Abbott certainly didn’t have sinister intentions when he gave the president of Taiwan a present this week, but his goodwill gesture—a clock with the Texas seal—is the Chinese version of “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” according to Foreign Affairs magazine.
Admittedly, few of us might have imagined that a clock holds such meaning in Chinese culture, and obviously Abbott didn’t realize the faux pas when he presented President Tsai Ing-wen with the clock. According to Foreign Affairs, “give a clock” sounds like “attend a funeral” in Mandarin, so gifting a clock is “highly taboo.” Tsai gave Abbott a vase, which as far as we know is not offensive in Chinese or American culture. The governor, however, isn’t the first person to make this mistake. According to Foreign Affairs:
In fact, in 2015, Baroness Susan Kramer, then-British minister of state for transport, gave Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je a pocket watch on a visit to Taiwan. Though Ko noted that he did not believe in such superstitions, he also joked that he might sell it to a scrap metal dealer. Kramer apologized, insisting that she did not know of the taboo. “I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive: In the U.K. a watch is precious — because nothing is more important than time,” she said.
Tsai’s meeting in Houston with Abbott and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz comes on the heels of President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s president, which upset China. China does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country.
Abbott’s office provided us with a letter from Patrick Ho, the Taiwan divisional director for the economic and cultural office in Houston, assuring the governor the clock was not an insult:
Regarding the clock as a gift, please rest assured that the President loves it very much because in our culture the word “clock” pronounced as “zhong” also means “zhong xin” (in English “wholehearted, heartfelt and cordial” or “best wholehearted wishes”). So it is no problem at all!
Texas has a long history of doing business with Taiwanese companies. Formosa Plastics has a plant located in Point Comfort, the Westinghouse electric motor plan in Round Rock recently changed its name to TECO-Westinghouse after a merger with a Taiwanese company, and the state does about $6 billion a year in exports to Taiwan.