The Treasure of the Empire, or Just Collective Housing?A look at one of the most recognizable symbols of wealth in Taiwan, and the legal problems faced by some of its residents
In October 2013, I sat down with my friend Tim for a bowl of ramen. I hadn’t seen Tim in at least a year, so I casually asked him, “What is it like to have prosecutors constantly at your building probing your neighbors?”
Tim lives in the prestigious, and according to some infamous, Di Bao (帝寶) in Taipei.
“Di Bao” means “Treasure of the Empire.” The Hong-Seng (宏盛) group has actually two “Di Bao” high-end real estate developments, and many other real-estate projects in Taoyuan, Shihzih and elsewhere, also use the name “Di Bao.” But those are built by other developers.
However, if you ask any Taiwanese “Where is Di Bao?” they will answer, “At the corner of Renai and Jianguo.” Because that’s the Di Bao.
Di Bao lies on prime real estate. It is in close proximity to a major transportation hub, main commercial areas, excellent public and private schools, and decent-quality medical care (National Taiwan University Hospital is about 10 blocks away). It covers an area of approximately 6,000 ping (19,843 square meters). After the Japanese colonial era, the location became the property of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Mayoral candidate Sean Lien’s (連勝文) grandfather forgot to buy the land, and instead China Radio was built on the site. The land was sold to Hong-Seng in 1999. The first unit pre-sales took place in 2001, and the housing project was completed in 2005. Di Bao consists of six buildings totaling 168 units surrounded by a concrete fence and state-of-the-art, 24-hour security.
Three types of units were built: 160 ping, 210 ping, and 260 ping. In 2005, each ping cost NT$850,000. Today, each ping is believed to be worth up to NT$2 million. Translation: with my current pay, I could own a closet in about four years — that’s if I don’t eat anything during that period.
According to Wikipedia, the total net worth of the residents of D Bao is rumored to be more than NT$100 billion, or US$3.34 billion.
As one of the fine residents of Di Bao, Sean Lien has constantly encouraged Taiwanese to forget just how rich he is, and has tried to downplay the luxury and value of Di-Bao (technically his residential unit belongs to his father, former KMT chairman Lien Chan [連戰]). Lin Ting-chao (林鼎超), one of Lien Jr.’s spokespersons, has referred to Di Bao as “collective housing” — in contrast with the residence of Democratic Progressive Party chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) as “luxury housing,” because “she lives in a solo building.” Facing public criticism, Mr. Lin changed his assessment of Di Bao as “an apartment building with an elevator.”
Evidently, the remarks caused many a laugh on the Internet.
One enlightened mind has chosen to break with popular opinion and to agree with Lin’s controversial statement: yours truly.
When people think of “collective housing,” the first thing that comes to mind is that some of the residents may have had run-ins with the law. Here are some examples of immediate relevance to Di Bao.
Case #1: Tainted oil
In October 2013, Taiwan was hit by one of the biggest food safety scandals in its history when it was found that Da Tong Co’s “pure 100% olive oil” was tainted with gossypol and copper chlorophyillin. Then food giant Wei Chuan, along with majority shareholder Ting Hsin, were caught: 21 of their oil products were tainted. Four brothers from the Wei family are the owners of Wei Chuan and Ting Hsin. It is reported that Ting Hsin has an annual net income of NT$40 billion.
At first, the Wei family denied all knowledge and involvement of their companies and products with Da Tong oil. Then prosecutors asked them a few questions. It turns out the Wei brothers knew all along that their products used Da Tong oil.
Wei Chuan chairman Wei Ying-chung (魏應充) got away with deferred prosecution and a NT$10 million fine. Other legal processes are still ongoing. Ting Hsin and Wei Chuan have sued Da Tong, claiming they were “victims” of the tainted products.
How is this relevant to Di Bao? The four Wei brothers all own units in the complex. In fact between them, the four brothers, own nine units. The best part: they took out mortgages worth 99% of the total equity. That’s right: 99%.
Readers who would like to live in Di Bao should go to a bank and ask for the “Wei family loan plan.” You should be able to pay off your loan — in about 2,000 years.
Case #2: Tainted Bread/False Advertising
Actress, singer, and controversial talk-show host Dee Hsu (小S) and her husband Mike Xu (許雅鈞) are probably the two most famous residents of Di Bao. Dee is known for asking tough and provocative question on her show Kang Xi Lai Le (康熙來了). A good example of this occurred in 2004, when she asked her neighbor, the senior Lien, during his second presidential campaign, “What kind of underwear do you wear?”
In 2010, a group of investors, which included the Hsu couple, opened the Top Pot chain of bakeries, with stores in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The chain was marketed as an organic and healthy bakery, promising to use all natural products. With an enticing product line, reasonable prices, polished storefronts, and a giant celebrity spokesperson such as 小S, the bakery was a great success.
Except that in 2013, it was revealed that Top Pot used artificial additives in their products. They would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for those pesky bloggers.
小S was eventually subpoenaed as a witness, and denied all knowledge of wrongdoing. Prosecutors eventually (yes, again) deferred her prosecution. She is also currently involved in a NT$20 million class action lawsuit over her involvement with top pot bakery.
Case #3: Insider Trading
It’s the same bread company and the same people, but a different crime, so it gets a separate section.
Investigators found more wrongdoing with the Top Pot Bakery. In May 2013, the CFO of Top Pot Bakery sent a line message to 小S’s father in law, Xu Ching-hsiang (許慶祥). Top Pot Bakery was hemorrhaging money, with accumulated losses of more than NT$50 million. Over the course of the next several months and using multiple accounts, prosecutors claim, the Hsu family ditched the majority of their shares.
小S was subpoenaed as a witness and was granted deferred prosecution, but her husband and father-in-law have been indicted for insider trading and may face up top 10 years in prison and fines of NT$10 million.
Case #4: Sale of Banned Substances
This one involves the Lien family. In May 2014, Lien Hui-hsin (連惠心), the sister of mayoral candidate Sean Lien, was investigated for her role in the sale of a banned substance. She was spokesperson for a health product named 威力纖Plus, which was supposed to help people lose weight and, for male customers, enlarge their penis. It was later discovered that the product contained celistat, a banned substance.
When investigators first questioned Ms. Lien, she, like all the fine people mentioned above, denied all knowledge of any wrongdoing, and claimed that the nature of her involvement with the company was limited to her role as spokesperson.
Then this happened: Investigators found inconsistencies in Ms. Lien’s statements. At first she denied being employed by the company. She then changed her statement, claiming she was “executive in name only.” Later on, she claimed to be a shareholder, but added that she was not involved in decision-making. Investigators eventually determined that Ms. Lien held 70% of the company shares and made day-to-day decisions for the company.
Given such evidence, we would assume that Ms. Lien would have faced the full weight of the law. Here’s what happened instead. The Taipei District Attorney’s Office ruled that since Ms. Lien did not had past convictions, was willing to plead guilty, had had a good attitude after her criminal behavior, and agreed to donate NT$6 million to the National Treasury, she would receive … delayed prosecution.
Welcome to Taiwan.
Symbol of Wealth, or Class Warfare?
Much has been said about Sean Lien’s residence in Di Bao. Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), his opponent in the Taipei mayoral race, has gone on the offensive on this topic, asking, “How can Sean Lien afford to live in Di Bao? What businesses do the Liens own?”
Lien has spoken about the matter. After the “collective housing” argument failed, Lien Jr. spoke on radio with talk show host (and former mayoral candidate) Chao Shao-kang (趙少康). Lien described the questions about his residence at Di Bao and his family’s overall wealth as “class warfare.”
We can certainly empathize with Mr. Lien’s concern with security. However, I will conclude this article with a reassurance to Mr. Lien: Rest assured, there is no class warfare. If there were, the have-nots would be completely wiped out. And such a war would not be called the Seven-Day War, because it wouldn’t last that long. It would probably be a Seven-Minute War. After years of ingesting tainted oil, non-natural breads, and taking health supplements with banned substances, us plebs just aren’t healthy enough to fight off the 24-hour security at Di Bao or climb the two-meter concrete walls that surround it.
Tony Chiu is a geriatric psychiatry attending in northern Taiwan. A graduate of the National Taiwan University of Medicine, he advocates for the independence of Sanchong District in New Taipei City and the paving of the Taiwan Strait. You can reach him at email@example.com. He comments on the PTT board under the handle “IronChef.”