Wed, Dec 10, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Madame Chiang’s club, six decades on

Formed in 1951 by then first lady Soong Mei-ling, the Taipei International Women’s Club began as a way for the KMT to restrict women’s participation in the public sphere. Membership has plummeted since the end of Martial Law, as new women’s groups offer a wealth of options for philanthropy

By Enru Lin  /  Staff reporter

“The ones who wear hats have no hair, the ones with canes can’t walk well and the dead ones are dead,” Lin says.


Although the typical TIWC member today is in her 50s and 60s, their monthly meeting is rambunctious and interrupted repeatedly by cheerful chatter.

Two women demonstrate the steps of a Japanese tea ceremony, and another two women complete flower arrangements onstage that are auctioned off to the audience for charity.

The ambassador of Nicaragua, an invited male guest, entertains the club with a song and accepts their gift of wheelchairs for children. Then the women break for socializing in English and Mandarin.

TIWC membership was once restricted to English speakers, with admission based on a fluency test, but now over half of its members are Taiwanese. Some members do not speak English well at all, says Kelly Cheng (鄭清淑), who adds that she is one of them.

She gestures at a table seated with three wives of foreign ambassadors residing in Taiwan, and says they are from the English-speaking demographic that the club was established for.

“They are the only ladies from that circle,” she says. “There’s nothing we can do about that, since the American military is gone and Taiwan doesn’t have so many diplomatic allies anymore.”


Since the end of Martial Law, new members have gotten only harder to come by: Other clubs have appeared, offering a wealth of options for philanthropy.

About five women do join each year, though these look very different from the ones of old.

Instead of the well-educated full-time wives of the 1950s, recent members have mostly been women who are professionals in their own right, like Gabrielle Seewald, chief executive of a beauty and health company, and Faye Angevine, who runs an antique furniture store in Taipei.

Membership has also become more representative of the national population.

“It’s diversified a lot, I think. There are women from other countries, [Mainlanders], Taiwanese women,” Babcock says.

Babcock, who has disbanded her own group, joined TIWC two years ago. Though the concept of a women’s club now seems quaint, she says the atmosphere is warm and characterized by women helping other women instead of competing.

“There’s a loyalty to each other that I haven’t seen in many other places,” Babcock says. “I think there are personal interactions through some of the activities that help empower the women to be the best they can be.”

The current president, business owner Peck Hee Lim of Malaysia, agrees.

“Some of the women make introductions to others. They are very good at this. If one woman thinks she sees talent in another, she will help,” Lim says.

It’s a small but surprisingly pro-women turn for a club that began as a way to restrict women’s movements in the public sphere.

Manila native Maria Tan, another recent member, says that the main draw of the club is not substantive aid, but that the women are interested and invested in one another’s well-being.

“When I first came to Taiwan from the Philippines, I felt like something was missing or that I was not so welcome. I met one of the [club’s] board members on a hike and joined and it came together for me,” she says.

“In my experience, the club hasn’t been about business and it hasn’t been about politics. It is only a very good place to make friends.”

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