Gift gaffe: UK minister accidentally hands 'death omen' to Taiwan mayor

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (Reuters / Pichi Chuang)
Britain’s minister of state for transport accidentally presented the mayor of Taipei with a gift which represents an omen of impending death in Chinese culture.

Baroness Kramer did not realize that when given as a gift, a clock or watch can symbolize the end of relationships or time running out for the recipient.

Ko Wen-je, the mayor of Taiwan’s capital, was so taken aback by the gift that he reportedly said: “I can just re-gift it to someone or take it to a scrap metal dealer and sell it for cash, because it would be useless to me.”

Kramer apologized for the misunderstanding, explaining that in British culture a watch is a precious gift.

Ko, who has been in the job for just one month, recently came under fire in Taiwan following his off-the-cuff remark with a city councilor saying he should take more responsibility.

Kramer, who is leading a trade delegation in Taiwan, made the faux pas on Monday.

She apologized immediately.

I’m sorry. We learn something new each day. I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive. In the UK a watch is precious — because nothing is more important than time.

Kramer added that the gift was high quality, as it was purchased from the House of Lords shop.

It is a very unique item. It was a huge honor to meet Mayor Ko. We look forward to working with him and his team in Taipei,” she said.

Susan Kramer, Minister of State for Transport (Image from wikipedia.org)

When spoken in Mandarin, the phrase “giving a clock” sounds like “paying one’s last respects” to someone who has died. As such, giving a watch as a gift is generally seen as taboo in Chinese culture.

Ko, however, has faced criticism in Taiwan over his reaction to the gesture.

Rosalia Wu, a city councilor from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, castigated the mayor on Facebook, saying: “City diplomacy is critical to Taiwan, as the mayor of the capital, he should have taken greater responsibility.”

The popular new mayor later apologized for his comment, Taiwan’s state-owned Central News Agency reported.

A city government spokesman insisted Ko was grateful for the gift, saying he “values the visit of the UK minister of state for transport.

Ko presented Baroness Kramer with a model of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world until it was surpassed by Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010.

The mayor, who was a successful surgeon before turning to politics last year, is known for making inappropriate comments.

During his election campaign as an independent candidate, he described a female opponent from the Kuomintang (KMT) party as “young and pretty and just fit to sit behind a [department store] counter.”

Back in the UK, the public is unlikely to take offence to Ko’s comments, given their own experience with gaffe-prone mayors.