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City in the US Hosts Bubble Tea Festival, Becoming Honorary Member of Milk Tea Alliance

Author: Maxwell Wappel


The city of Rockville, Maryland hosted the third annual Bubble Tea Festival in cooperation with their sister city of Yilan, Taiwan, on September 25th, 2021. The festival aims to broaden the strong people-to-people ties that Yilan shares with Rockville, and had a turnout of approximately 5000 members of the community.


The Rockville-Yilan sister city relationship has been at the forefront of a strategy for international engagement for Taiwan, namely, that of focusing on people-to-people ties. The relationship formally began in 2019, the Bubble Tea Festival being only the latest example of the cultural engagement that has been fostered under the sister city relationship: just prior to the COVID pandemic, a delegation from a local high school’s Jazz Ensemble visited Yilan for the International Arts Festival there.


Mayor Bridget Newton said of the event, “this is a fabulous opportunity to bring many diverse communities together in the city of Rockville and show the representation that we,” she continued by describing the importance of people to people relations: “it's about developing those relations that then will spawn the commerce and the industry because when you know someone you can find that common ground.” This strategy was a recurring theme from interviewees during the festival: first develop friendships and familiarity, commerce will follow.


The event had a panel of speakers that included the city mayor, city councilmembers, a county councilmember, a state Representative, as well as Congressman Jamie Raskin (D), Ambassador Bi-Khim Hsiao (蕭美琴), and prominent members of the Taiwan advocacy community Dr. Hung-Bin Ding, President of Taiwan Sister Cities organization and Dr. Minze Chien, president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA).


Ambassador Hsiao noted in her opening remarks for the event, “the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan have such a strong bond, that in our moment of crisis, the Taiwanese people donated masks and PPE to the people of Rockville, and the American people donated vaccines to Taiwan. I believe that is the spirit of being friends as freedom-loving people, as democracies, that friends need to help each other when they are in need, right?”


Hsiao went on to say, “TECRO is proud to be part of supporting our Taiwanese-American community here, and I am so proud of that community for being active in contributing to the diversity, and the vibrancy, and the energy and resilience of Rockville!”


Jamie Raskin, representing the 8th District of Maryland (which includes Rockville) in the House of Representatives, echoed Hsiao’s remarks saying “the solidarity that was shown to us by the people of Taiwan by sending us so many masks at the beginning of the crisis was extraordinary, and we were happy that we were able to reciprocate in some small way, by sending vaccines over to Taiwan. The democracies and the democratic people of the world will stick together.”


Both Ambassador Hsiao and Representative Raskin stayed at the event after their remarks and spoke casually with the city residents who were attending the festival.


The event featured multiple stands where visitors could purchase local bubble tea and Taiwanese treats, like “gua bao” (刈包), a kind of pork sandwich. Long lines of eager revelers waiting for their food crisscrossed the city square as local rock band “Taiwan Republic Band” played famous hits from Taiwan and Japan. The festival also featured Taiko drummers of Japan and a yo-yo performance from students of Northern Virginia Experimental Chinese School -- drawing together an eclectic group of performers who entertained the crowd.


Drew Powell, President of Rockville Sister City Corporation, sat down for an interview on the event at the Rockville library -- just a few steps from the main event. Powell is a long-time advocate of strengthening sister city relations and was deeply involved in the founding of the Rockville-Yilan sister city relationship.


When asked about the role that these bottom-up initiatives like sister city agreements play in international relations, he said, “I’m a real big believer in what Dwight D. Eisenhower did with the Sister City Initiative back in 1956, it was brilliant to speak about how sometimes you’ve got to let governments go to the wayside and have citizens step in with the people-to-people diplomacy, community-to-community, I believe that’s very powerful, good stuff. It’s not just Taiwan, it’s for everyone.”


Powell continued, referring to Rockville’s sister city relationship with Pinneberg, Germany, one of the oldest sister-city relationships in the world: “In 1957, I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of people, twelve years after World War II, that were not really thrilled with having relationships with a city in Germany.” So, it’s about healing, it's about getting people all over the world together, to relate as friends and understand each other a lot better.”


When asked about the level of engagement the sister-city relationship gets from the local community, Powell replied emphatically, “The most important thing for an organization like ours is that there be a high level of citizen participation. We can’t do it all; there have to be people within the community that are willing to step up and put in the sweat equity to make a relationship like this work.”


Powell also added, “The level of participation, for all of the cities but certainly for Yilan city and Taiwan, has been overwhelming. The sheer numbers of people, over the last two to three years, who have gotten involved with the sister city program here in Rockville and beyond, it spread actually -- it is phenomenal. We are talking about hundreds and hundreds of people who are actively involved in the giving of their time, in some cases their money, but in most cases their time -- to make sure this relationship works.”


While sister city relations have existed for quite some time between the US and Taiwan, Powell explains that there has been a shift away from government involvement towards truly citizen-led organizations. “What they were finding (previously) was that the relationships were kind of going stale, and people would complain often about the funding,” Powell says.


He further explained that the Rockville Sister City Corporation has established bi-laws that the organization must have a foreign counterpart that is citizen rather than government led. As this mode was adopted, Powell described an explosion in the vitality of sister city relationships with Taiwan: “there’s many more cities now that have citizen organizations working in conjunction with their local governments to make these relationships work.”


“Broadening the information level, broadening the understanding of people in Rockville, for example, about Taiwan and Yilan city, has been wonderful.” Powell further emphasized the focus of the relationship as being local, not national in nature: “As far as specifically American-Taiwanese relations, I think that there is certainly a side benefit in that, but our focus is in working with our sister city.”


“I happen to also be the Maryland Representative for Sister Cities International, they’re really big believers in not focusing on the national level, as a matter of fact they don’t even allow national flags, so you’ll only see city flags!” Powell pointed out that the sister city brochures at the Bubble Tea Festival featured only the flags of Yilan and Rockville.


The citizen-led nature of these organizations is what allows them to create meaningful engagement between localities without the burden of national politics and international diplomacy. However, it can be difficult to fully compartmentalize these initiatives from international politics, even when that is the goal.


When asked about the role of sister city events in strengthening US-Taiwan ties, Dr. Hung-bin Ding, Associate Dean at Loyola University Maryland, and President of Taiwan Sister Cities unapologetically described the positive externalities in national-level politics, saying of subnational engagement, “with the subnational relationships, especially when it comes down to the city level, you can really connect with people who are constituents of the federal government representatives, and when you win the hearts of people at this level, there is no way the people they elect are going to move away from this position.”


He also pointed out that this kind of relationship can be more durable and long-lasting through political changes, “although it may seem these things are small, tiny, limited scale sister city activities, but it goes a long way and we are creating relationships that can not easily be ended or overthrown by whoever the next mayor is.”

President of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), Dr. Minze Vincent Chien, who is also a Director on the board of Taiwan Sister Cities, said of the Rockville-Yilan sister city relationship, “When we tried to push for a relationship between Rockville and Yilan, we faced a lot of resistance from other groups that were pro-China. Even up until we signed the agreement, the Chinese Embassy said we can’t talk to City Mayors, and protested that. But we had very strong support from the Mayor and Councilmembers.”


Chien continued, “That kind of relationship is the foundation because all politics still starts at the local level. If we can build these people-to-people relationships it actually will enhance and make people aware of the issues, and if we face any challenges in the future we have friends in many cities that will help us get our voice out and provide us support. This is something we really want to continue to see grow, and that’s why I got involved.”


The high turnout of the event during a time when citizens remain cautious about COVID transmission demonstrates that Rockvilles affinity for Taiwan will not be abating any time soon.


Vanessa Calaban, a volunteer at the event, has recently returned from living in Taipei:


“My husband was working at a university there. I fell in love with it! It’s a great country and a really wonderful place... I chose to live in Rockville, partially because I knew that Rockville had a relationship with Taiwan.”


She continued, “I think that relationships with foreign cities give people like me who have spent time abroad something to hold on to. That was three and a half years of my life that I spent living in this foreign country, developing this really important part of myself, this is kind of a way that I can continue having Taiwan be a part of my life.”


When asked about the level of awareness fellow Americans have of Taiwan, Mrs. Calaban commented on how many Americans used to have trouble identifying it. She elaborated, saying that with increased exposure and Taiwan’s competitiveness in key industries such as semiconductors, the awareness problem is less of an issue than it once was. Of Taiwan, she said, “I think now people recognize it.”

Maxwell Wappel is a Research Associate at Taiwan NextGen Foundation.