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Taiwan Indigenous: City Mascots—An Illustrated Guide

LIU(right) and Orin(left) think Mascots are meant for society and so require greater social consensus. Now the government has invested public resources, mascots will receive more appropriate care and enjoy healthier "career paths" Photo by Huang Pin-Wei © C-LAB
Public PolicyMascotDatabase

Taiwan, like Japan, has had a newfound obsession with mascots since the new millennium. In 2007, during the 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle, the helmet-donning snow-white cat, Hikoniyan, through a tale of an encounter with the lord of the castle, became a well-known city mascot. An explosion of mascots in Japan ensued, giving birth to world-famous characters such as Kumamon Bear, Funassyi, and CHI-BA+KUN. Starting in 2000, the business community and government entities of Taiwan also tried their hand at the creation of mascots, with characters such as Ximen-Walker, Happy Dragon, and recently, Milkfish Kid, Banana King, Bravo, and K.R.T. GIRLS. Together, they drive conversations, bring in tourists, and contribute to the success of events.

When it comes to mascots in Taiwan, everyone knows a thing or two. From the #mascot hashtags on social media platforms, group photos, the “so ugly it made me cry” jokes, news reports, to word-of-mouth, images and stories of mascots have fully entered our lives. However, it seems we have a myopic view of the cultural landscape, and there is a dearth of statistics and systematic surveys in either the official channels or the press.

To promote the Taiwan Black Bear mascot at the Taipei 2017 29th Summer Universiade, the Taipei City Government Department of Information and Tourism launched a month-long online naming contest for the mascot, listing five sets of corresponding English and Chinese names for the public to vote on.

2015-10-02 17:29 ETtoday News1

In 2015, as preparations for the Taipei 2017 29th Summer Universiade were underway, the Taipei City Government introduced mascots as a diversion. But unexpectedly, “Bravo” the bear, having received its designation via an online poll, became the highlight of Taipei 2017 and subsequent marketing campaigns in the city. Besides driving traffic to Taipei 2017, it was also one of the few examples of a mascot who successfully took on a new career path after the event, becoming the City Mascot.

“Bravo’s introduction during the first term of former Taipei mayor KO Wen-Je was a marketing strategy, introduced along with a lineup of other characters by the city’s Department of Information and Tourism. We’ve been following the developments since then,” says LIU Che-Wei. A longtime participant of the g0v (pronounced gov-zero) movement and an anonymous citizen, LIU was intrigued by Bravo’s rise to fame. With the g0v movement’s philosophy of promoting open access to government information and public participation, he decided to study the phenomenon, starting with the basics: “Since I was not in the industry, I started collecting data, a task that never really ended.”

LIU was intrigued by Bravo's rise to fame. With the g0v movement’s philosophy of promoting open access to government information and public participation. Photo by Huang Pin-Wei ©C-LAB

LIU's motive is to simply “see what the data tells us”

g0v is a social movement initiated by Taiwanese programmers at the end of 2012, in the free and non-proprietary nature of open source. g0v empowers contributors to develop the platform and devise networking tools that facilitate public involvement and discussion of government policies, so that everyone can voice their concerns and connect with potential collaborators. Through the coordination of LIU Che-Wei, a “mascot database” took shape. LIU used data exploration as the starting point of knowledge, transforming press releases, images, and references to the government mascot into structured datasets for the database. His motive is to simply “see what the data tells us”. In the process of building the database, he found out about Cai, a devotee who has published hundreds of entries on his own, and Orin, a professional costumed performer whose job description reads “the innards of mascots”.

“I came from the open-source community, but I chose another path, focusing on mascots, so I’ve become less involved in collecting data and making it public,” Orin says. The motivation to become a costumed performer came from an open-source community meet-up, where Orin by chance got involved in working with mascots and fell in love with the profession. He joined a costumed entertainment company, went into training in hand positioning and posturing, and finally started his practice which is now celebrating its fifth year. “Traditionally, people think anyone can wear a costume,” Orin says bluntly. Many in the public sector see performing in costumes as something trivial, but it can be quite challenging. “It’s like staring into a fog, and you can’t tell through people’s silhouettes how short or tall they are, or what they look like. When he is asked to dance, he describes it as doing aerobics while being wrapped in heavy blankets.

The motivation to become a costumed performer came from an open-source community meet-up, where Orin by chance got involved in working with mascots and fell in love with the profession. Photo by Huang Pin-Wei ©C-LAB

Orin is a costumed performer whose job description reads “the innards of mascots”.

Knowing how databases are set up and collectively managed, Orin understands the benefits and convenience they bring: “In our industry, we often need to research potential roles, then make some business connections,” he says. Orin also recalls an instance where the customer asked his company to prepare more than 30 mascots for an event. To summon such an entourage on short notice, he had to remember which mascots he had worked with before, find the ones the customer wants, and apply for necessary licenses. Official mascots are a good choice in this situation. “For example, if a friend organizes a beverages event, he might invite characters who like drinks, selecting ones that fit the image of beverages to produce a flamboyant event. With such a database, the right characters can be identified and called upon for the event. Orin believes that such collaborations can revive characters who have been consigned to the storage bin: “Because each character has a different life and personality, it creates new stories when the characters meet. It’s like when people with different personalities get together, it creates a lot of sparks.”

Compared to launching new characters, inviting mascots from various agencies in the public and private sectors can be a more affordable option. The reason is, “mascots are high-maintenance personalities”. Besides upfront development fees, costs for costumes and logistics quickly add up. “The production cost starts around NT$100,000 (US$3,000), going up to NT$200,000 (US$6,000) for more complicated designs,” Orin emphasizes. “Mascots can’t be shipped via freight because of the potential for damage, and shipping companies find it hard to assess damages.” Since most shipping insurance policies cover only the material value of the item and not the associated labor costs, damages rarely cover the cost of repairs. For safety, mascots are transported on hired rental trucks, which costs nearly NT$10,000 (US$300) for a trip from Taipei to Taichung. Licensing the official mascot not only helps to share the costs but also helps increase exposure and fan base for the mascot—a mutually beneficial arrangement.

According to law, mascots for government use are created and maintained through “small procurements”, referring to purchases of less than NT$100,000 (since increased to NT$150,000 as part of last year’s amendment), or perhaps as part of a yearly budget in larger organizations. Mascots made through small procurements are often “starved” of funding and spend the rest of their lives locked away in warehouses. Mascots with even shorter shelf lives are those modeled after political figures: whenever a new party or party faction comes into power, the person in charge would either kill it off or leave it out to pasture.

Mascots are meant for society, and so require greater social consensus. I want to see if we can find a mechanism for the governance of mascots ,LIU says. Photo by Huang Pin-Wei ©C-LAB

Looking at the government’s public bidding data, LIU Che-Wei found that the annual spending for mascot-related marketing is between NT$30 million (US$1M) and NT$50 million (US$1.6M). When a mascot falls into neglect, the sunk costs are laid to waste. Throwaway mascots should not be the norm for government entities, and instead of a life in obscurity, mascots should be given increased exposure. “Mascots are meant for society, and so require greater social consensus. I want to see if we can find a mechanism for the governance of mascots,” LIU says. He looks up licensing data among government entities, noting whether the owners allow the sale of licensed merchandise or the creation of derivative works; next, he establishes a common licensing platform that accommodates the licensing terms of each government entity, providing access to private entities and creating opportunities for inter-governmental cross-marketing. So far, mascots such as Taipei’s Bravo, Tainan’s Sasaboy, Taoyuan’s Tao & Yuango, and others can be commercially licensed through the platform under set conditions.

For an official mascot to receive long-term support and sustained media coverage, a change of mindset among government entities is necessary. LIU Che-Wei says, “The mascot is an important form of public communication, but the support system seems rather incomplete. If the staff of a government entity receives an assignment from his superiors to introduce a new mascot, what would the best course of action be? That’s probably not a part of the orientation training for today’s civil servants.” As existing government assessment methods can hardly indicate campaign results and actual reach, he believes that we should incorporate keyword searches and other Internet popularity indicators, using the data to plan different marketing strategies. If these concepts are extended to local and central government entities through education and training programs, mascots will receive more appropriate care and enjoy healthier “career paths”.

“People pass away, but characters don’t.” Having worked with mascots for many years, costumed performer Orin has mixed feelings. Some mascots are born with a simple purpose, such as characters that entertain people at amusement parks, bringing a smile to the face of visitors. They are figments of imagination who patiently await your next visit, keeping watch over a place. “A mascot ideally provides spiritual sustenance. It conveys warmth.” In his work, he often sees staff members overjoyed at the sight of the mascots they created, confiding in them like a child and in turn receiving healing and strength. Orin believes that in the context of social policy communications, ideal mascots bring warmth to a topic. “There may be public issues that are quite uninspired, such as paying one’s taxes, which is hard to encourage action or bring up. But through the mascot’s actions, when it is transformed into a story or a living process, it will become quite interesting, becoming more than a message.”

LIU Che-Wei, on the other hand, is enamored with mascots with local roots. “Shiding has chosen a crocodile as its mascot, due to the resemblance to local landscape,” LIU says. Shiding is next to the Feitsui Reservoir, and if you look from Shiding towards the reservoir in a bird’s-eye view, a large peninsula resembling a crocodile, known by the name of Crocodile Island, can be seen crouching calmly and freely. Therefore, the local business circles have borrowed its image and created the mascot “Chilling Crocodile”. Mascots with local characteristics not only appeal to people’s life experiences but also demonstrate the solidarity of the district. In Miaoli, “Miaoli Meow” takes on the image of the leopard cat, a once-protected species found in the county. The mascot’s quirky expression and rounded body were so popular that its namesake was chosen in 2019 by online voters as the title of a new government-run family theme park. When the mascot image can be used by any government entity or even become the name of a public facility, LIU Che-Wei believes that it not only enhances the public’s identification with the mascot but also increases the online presence of the place, which is a more meaningful affiliation.

Whether Liu builds a database or Orin works directly with mascots, they examine and discuss how public resources are used in mascots in different ways. Photo by Huang Pin-Wei ©C-LAB

While studying the contents of the dataset, he also found an interesting phenomenon. Though there are more than 150,000 species of animals in Taiwan, 30% of which are endemic or subspecies, there is still a great chance that mascots share the same look. The Taiwan black bear, for example, is a popular choice for a mascot. To date, bear mascot look-alikes featuring a V-shaped symbol on the chest include the Tourism Bureau’s “Oh Bear”, Kaohsiung Tourism Bureau’s “Kaohsiung Bear-Hero”, Taipei City Government’s staffer “Bravo”, and Taiwan Railways Administration’s “Hospitality and Tourism Bears Teru and Hana”. “There are many mascots based on the Taiwan black bear, but while they take on its appearance, they hardly touch on the core issues,” LIU points out. “Basically, there are no copyright issues in using an animal as the basis of a character, so of course, anyone can use the Taiwan black bear. But when you use the image, there’s no obligation to address the associated conservation issues surrounding the Taiwan black bear.” The most direct way to incorporate environmental concerns is to have the mascot show up and participate in the activities of conservation groups, using the exposure to publicize policies. “Currently, the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association advocates donating part of the mascot’s proceeds towards conservation work.” LIU believes that this type of public feedback supports conservation efforts, and the mascot also serves as a focal point that draws the public closer to the land.

The mascot database has to date amassed more than 1,300 personalities, of which 938 were created by government entities belonging to 372 affiliated groups (comprised of central government ministries and affiliated entities, state-run businesses, county and municipal governments and affiliated entities, village/township/district offices, farmers’ associations, universities and colleges, national senior high schools, junior high schools, and elementary schools). As the founder of the project, LIU Che-Wei is still weighing his next steps, finding laws pertaining to the sponsorship of mascots, soliciting the opinions of experts and scholars in new fields, and to advertise the mascot’s potential role in disaster prevention, energy-conservation efforts, and reducing carbon emissions. He also meets with the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Cultural and Creative Development to explore their potential in intellectual property industries. For LIU, organizing databases is just a start: “you’re welcome to subscribe to the open-source channel, see what we discuss, and discover the ways you’d like to participate!”

Public PolicyMascotDatabase
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