Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je got an earful from foreign affairs experts after he’d received a gift from a British official and jokingly commented that he was going regift it or sell it as scrap metal.
Ko made the remark on Monday after he was presented with a pocket watch by British transport minister Baroness Susan Kramer, who was visiting Taiwan on a trade exchange, AFP reports. When the press asked him to comment on the watch, Ko said, “I can just regift it to someone or take it to a scrap metal dealer and sell it for cash.”
It’s traditionally a taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock or a watch as a present because the phrase “giving a clock” (送鐘) sounds morbidly similar to “bidding farewell” to a deceased person at a funeral (送終).
This aside, political pundits in Taiwan deemed Ko’s cheeky remarks about regifting (the ultimate taboo in gift-giving culture, some might say) as offensive. Stephen Chen, a former representative to the US, said that the comments were “as bad as they could possibly be,” while DDP Taipei City Councilor Rasalia Wu said she didn’t understand Ko’s “humor”.
Kramer, probably left red-faced after the whole ordeal, pled ignorance in the matter and apologized for breaking a cultural taboo.
“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 U.K. a watch is precious — because nothing is more important than time,” she said, adding that it was a “very unique item” from the House of Lords.
Ko, who’s been described by critics as a “loose cannon”, gave his British guest a mini model of Taipei 101, previously the world’s tallest skyscraper.
He later apologized for his remarks and added, while smirking, that he ought to “take a lesson” in diplomacy.
“I would like to apologize to Mrs Kramer for what I said, which was inappropriate from the diplomatic protocol and etiquette perspective,” Ko said.