In a single-story work space on a quiet side street in downtown Taipei, a spiky-haired 30-year-old Taiwanese man fiddles with a digital toolbox on the computer in his cluttered back office. Giant raindrops bounce off the tile sidewalk in front of Rough Crafts' glazed wooden doors like a million plastic baby heads falling from the sky. The three-dimensional component taking shape on Winston Yeh's monitor could be a blast shield on the Millennium Falcon, or the left ventricle in a Jarvik heart. As in politics and polemics, the scale and proportion of many things we see are not always as they appear. I re-learned this lesson on a recent business trip to Taiwan, when a 200 mile-per-hour bullet train and good fortune landed me at Rough Crafts' front door.
ChopCult members have been admiring Winston Yeh's Rough Craft creations for months. Given his home's proximity to Japan, neophytes might be quick to file Winston's work under "Brat Style." Winston bristles at this comparison, but not from lack of respect for the Japanese shop that coined and popularized the name. "If you look carefully," Winston explains in English seasoned with perfect American-made slang, "the bikes I build are nothing like 'Brat Style.'" I looked, and he's right. Winston's reliance upon what he calls "precision CNC pieces with classic old style" doesn't hit you over the head with its billety bluntness, but instead grows more obvious and interesting as you scan the curves of the bikes that roll out of his shop. When I asked Winston how he might respond to potential vehemence from unwashed China haters, his response was thoughtful and calm. "I would say nothing. If a person believes, he will come. If he does not, nothing I say will change his mind." Spoken like a true kung fu master.
If you don't instantly associate Winston's style with its American counterpart, you're not alone. "I learned graphic and industrial design on a one-year study program at Art Center in Pasadena, California. While I was in America I worked with Roland Sands. mostly t-shirts and graphics, but also on motorcycle projects with him and Jesse Rooke, too."
After completing his Taiwan-government financed study program and working at PM/RSD, Winston returned home to earn his master's degree. Before the then 28-year-old chopper fanatic could open Rough Crafts' doors full-time, however, Winston owed a debt to Taiwan society. "Military service in Taiwan is mandatory, and must happen some time after high school and before a guy starts his career. Because I was good with ideas and my hands, I spent a year in the Taiwan Army building sets and props for a traveling promotion team." Work-study programs on the government's dime? Mandatory military service to help build strong work ethics and resumes? Hey Taiwan, what are you—some kind of forward-thinking democracy?
Rough Crafts opened in early 2009. In a 12' wide x 40' deep space on the ground floor of a multi-story Taiwan apartment, Winston juggles multiple bike mockups in the front room, and CAD time at his cluttered desk in the other. A glass wall with venetian blinds and a bold Rough Crafts logo separates Yeh's clean and dirty work spaces, and provides privacy from the steady stream of scooter pilots and passers-by. It's a cozy shop, and Winston has made it hospitable with a wooden table and couch of his own design, and a hat rack from his days as an ID student at Art Center. If the dirty side of Rough Crafts is the home of Winston's Id, the office is definitely its Ego. Of course, if Winston wants to give his Super Ego room to think, the most famous bike builder in Taiwan needs to move that Honda Motocompo into the front room. Ironically, that quirky machine was the inspiration for the billet piece on Winston's monitor during my visit, a fact that prompted my next line of questioning. What are the financial prospects for a tiny chopper shop in Taiwan? Not surprisingly, Winston's answers were wise and insightful.
Difficult as this might be for many aspiring American builders to achieve, every Rough Crafts motorcycle is financed by a prepaid customer. With so many Motocompos, BMX bikes and battle-weary Ninja chassis laying around, I was ready to dismiss Winston's shop as another vanity project among the chopper-obsessed masses. "Importing any non-Taiwan made motorcycle into my country is really expensive. Duty and freight can add 100% to the purchase price. After you get a bike here, it must remain in stock style. Inspectors make sure your bike has the original frame, all lights and other things. Customizing a bike is difficult under these rules, but I work hard to find a way. I tell my customers to trust me, and I always try to give them much more than they pay for." An honest, value-conscious service provider in Taiwan? It's not as uncommon as some people think.
Yes, Winston is creative, practical and engaging. He's also Taiwanese, and I don't mean that in a bad way. In my dealings with Winston's compatriots I've found the Taiwanese to be tenacious and goal-oriented when it comes to earning money. Winston is no different, and this makes him and his brand unique. Any fool can make $300 handlebars and $100 grips. Winston knows this, and he refuses to fall into the same trap. "Customizing your own motorcycle can be very expensive, and I want to make parts people can afford. I develop parts like my bar risers and headlight bracket while building bikes for customers, and sometimes I turn the best of these ideas into Rough Crafts parts. I have good relations with my CNC shops, and they can make inventory from my solid drawings in a few weeks. This will help me be efficient and profitable when I grow my business. Today, we are still growing Taiwan's custom motorcycle scene."
I asked Winston to estimate the size of Taiwan's chopper scene, and given the health and wealth of his country's economy (see sidebar), his answer shocked me. "There are fewer than 10,000 motorcycles over 1,000cc in all of Taiwan, and less than 1,000 Harleys." In a nation that adds 450,000 new scooters to its crowded streets every year, these numbers are microscopic. "Taiwan is a small island, and most of our highways do not allow motorcycles. It's hard for even rich people to buy something they cannot enjoy. That is why I also build bikes for people in other countries. More space and more fun to ride."
"Fun." I hear that word often in conversations with Americans, especially among friends in today's chopper scene. Sadly, after doing business in Asia for 25 years, I've yet to ride a bicycle with even one Taiwan friend on native soil. After spending a rainy afternoon in Winston's shop, however, I can see myself thrashing beat-up scooters through twisty rice paddies with this confident, self-made guy any time. Winston Yeh's love for all things two-wheeled is genuine, and his professional aspirations seem honest and real.
See more Rough Crafts here and here
(Very Well) Made in Taiwan
In a season when most Americans are girding their loins for a frontal attack from the deadly sins Gluttony and Sloth, 10 million men and women on Winston Yeh's island are putting their collective nose to the grindstone in a mad dash to produce the last of the $23 billion in consumer goods Taiwan factories will manufacture for US importers this year. This number might seem outrageous until you consider another one: $24 billion. That's how much stuff the US exported to Taiwan in 2009, according to the US Department of State. Given the population of both countries—300 million for the USA and 23 million in Taiwan—the parity of these dollar volumes is interesting, and says as much about the ROC's American style of conspicuous consumption as it does about our own country's continual competitiveness in the global market. According to these figures, every man, woman and child in Taiwan gobbles up $1,043 per year of US-made merchandise, compared to just $78 for Taiwan goods by their American peers. If I can throw another chopstick in this brainteaser, consider this: less than 1% of Taiwanese people live below the poverty line, compared to 12% for Americans. High consumption, low poverty, 4.9% unemployment, and all this from a country whose yearly per-capita income is $30,194—just 15% less than our own $35,424 in 2005, the last year comparative data for both countries were available.
How is this possible, and why should we care? I'm not an economist, so I don't know. I am an inquisitive observer, however, so I will speak to what I see as contributing factors to Taiwan's competence in this comparison:
• Most Taiwanese homes are multi-generational, and some have three to five wage earners under one roof. With fathers and sons bringing home the grilled squid and mom and grandma running the house and raising the kids, families don't rack up thousands of dollars per month on multiple mortgages, car loans, etc.
• Groceries on credit cards? Jet boats and motor homes? Swimming pools with heated grottos? Not in Taiwan. I've seen families of four sharing saddle time on one scooter, and I've supped on hearty noodle bowls with red meat and vegetables for under a buck. People's lives in Taiwan are simple, and the simple pleasures (green space, two-wheeled transit, fast food and beer) are abundant and affordable
• Basic education is compulsory and free. Students attend classes 6-8 hours per day, six days per week, and English is a required subject from the age of ten and beyond. This much study doesn't leave a lot of time for XBox, XGames, iPods, iPads or hijinx
Of course, no place is perfect, and Taiwan has plenty of faults. It's crowded, dirty, and disorganized. Fast rapid transit is expensive, and affordable mass transit is in disrepair. Murder isn't taken lightly in Taiwan, however, and is punishable by death. Depending on your politics, this may not be your thing. I say any place that hangs the riff-raff can't be all bad.
We point out the pros and cons of US/ROC economics and culture to shed some light on a polarizing subject in today's chopper scene: the exportation of American jobs to foreign soil. Practically all of us knows someone who lost his or her American job due to outsourcing and downsizing. I know several others who earn good wages from US-based, Taiwan-owned bicycle, computer and motorcycle OEM's. Show me a CSR in Mumbai who works for AT&T and I'll show you an American typesetter who lost his job to a Macintosh SE30, or a Canadian who builds Camaros. It's a global economy, and the fastest growing, most profitable American businesses exploit this fact, painful though the fallout might sometimes be.
With a website and a PayPal account, a creative guy like Winston Yeh can sell custom parts to chopper freaks in Finland. On this very website, many smart, hard-working online retailers sell everything from American-made magnetos to Japanese Sportster seats. If the pillars of your business include quality, customer satisfaction and good value, the return address on your shipping label really doesn't matter.
Or as Winston Yeh so eloquently put it, "If they believe, they will come."