Taiwan: Linsanity persists despite the end of the Knicks’ winning streak


TAIPEI, Taiwan — It’s 8 in the morning, and the bar’s already overcrowded.

But still hipsters, businessmen, students and office workers roll in. There's a line around the block. Nearly half of those waiting are wearing New York Knicks jerseys, and nearly everyone sports the Knicks' orange and blue in one form or another.

One guy has the No. 17 scrawled across both cheeks.

That's why they've all come, to cheer on No. 17 Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate, whose improbable rise from bench warmer to starting point guard of the New York Knicks has resonated with a global audience and galvanized Asian communities around the world.

On Friday night, the Knicks took on the woeful New Orleans' Hornets, and the exuberant fans were dizzy with expectation. Nowhere compares to Taiwan for the sheer scope of “Linsanity”right now.

More from GlobalPost: Before Jeremy Lin, there were Asian American athletes

This diplomatically and politically isolated island 180 kilometers (112 miles) off China’s southern coast has struggled to cement a place on the world stage.

It doesn’t matter that the 6 ft 3 Lin was born in California — his parents migrated to the States from Taiwan in the '70s — or that the 23-year-old struggles to speak Mandarin, or that he has made only a handful of visits back “home.”

Lin’s story resonates with the Taiwanese because they see themselves, both individually and collectively, in him.

The underdog, the hard-working kid who struggled to get attention, the immigrant who went largely unnoticed despite his contributions — these archetypes are reflected by Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation in the '80s, and later, its transition to democracy in the late '90s.

Inside the bar, Jay-Z’s "Empire State of Mind" makes an already excited crowd a little more frenzied. He references Brooklyn, Tribeca, De Niro and Sinatra, before saying: “And since I’ve made it here I can make it anywhere. Yeah, they love me everywhere.”

The crowd roars. The young man next to me, wearing a Lin jersey, says something about living in New York for a while, but his voice fades as the feed from Madison Square Garden comes in on the bars' flat-screen TVs.

All eyes are glued to the TVs as the next chapter of sports' biggest story begins, Knicks vs. Hornets. Or, more specifically, all eyes are glued to Jeremy Lin.

More from GlobalPost: China quick to champion Jeremy Lin

Like Lin, who was ignored by over 300 Division One colleges despite leading his high school to a state title in hoop-strong California, Taiwan has gone largely overlooked as its diplomatic space shrinks and China’s rise continues unabated.

“Nobody really cares about us. We are a peaceful democracy and one of the world’s largest economies, but we aren’t represented as we should be,” said James Huang, a Taipei office worker. “Even though [Lin's] not really Taiwanese, we can relate to him and his story.”

Relating is one thing, but the media firestorm sweeping the island is unprecedented. Lin’s on a 24-hour news cycle.

Free trade agreement talks with Singapore, a controversy involving a celebrity beating a taxi driver into a coma, Foxconn’s labor problems, the technological patent wars between Taiwanese and Western smartphone makers and another alleged betting scam in Taiwan’s scandal-plagued pro baseball league — all these stories have been relegated to the backpages in favor of Lin and the Knicks' seven-game winning streak.

The ever-present press corps forced his 85-year-old grandmother to leave Taipei for the relative quiet of the family home in central Taiwan's Chunghua County in central Taiwan. Unfazed, reporters still stalk the hardscrabble farming community for her, Lin's uncle or any neighbor who has an anecdote to share.

Taiwanese politicians have been quick to associate themselves with Lin, tracing his work ethic back to the country where his parents were born, often referring to him as Taiwan ji-guan, or the pride of Taiwan. Justin Kuan, general manager of NBA Taiwan, called him "God's gift to the NBA."

A travel agency in Taipei, offering two-day trips to New York and tickets to a game at the Garden, received over 70,000 responses in two days. New gambling options centered on Lin are being set up by the government body that regulates sports betting.

Love hotels offer Lin-inspired promotions. One particularly creepy one offers discounts for 17 people in a room.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration is hoping to bring him on as a cultural ambassador, and a slew of multi-million dollar endorsement deals from banks to motorcycles to computers are on the table.

Other companies are blatantly infringing on his likeness without offering deals. A sizeable cottage industry churning out knock-offs has sprung up and one prominent analyst predicted that Lin-related economic activity would total about $150 million in 2012.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said media analyst Chang Guo-hou, decked out in Knicks' orange and blue.

“A lot of people are going to make a lot of money and like everything that explodes in Taiwan, media will probably go too far and some feelings will be hurt,” he said.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, some feelings have been hurt already.

An official in China's eastern Fujian province claimed Lin’s family was from there, making him “Chinese" — as opposed to "Taiwanese" — and therefore eligible for China's national team.

The reaction in Taiwan, which split with the mainland following a bitter civil war in 1949, was indignant, prompting media to badger Lin’s relatives about their Taiwan credentials.

“His parents are eighth generation Taiwanese and China still tries to steal him. But then again, they tend to think that the entire Chinese race belongs to them,” said Chang.

Back at the bar, as the game drew to a close, the Knicks' winning streak was about to come to an end.

Lin was erratic from the start, turning the ball over five times in the first quarter. Perhaps the pressures of going from a relative unknown to the biggest trending topic on Twitter and the most searched term on China’s Baidu within a few weeks have taken their toll.

Still, there’s no need to call for the carriage to turn in to a pumpkin in this "Linderella" story just yet. Despite a career-high nine turnovers, Lin still chipped in 25 points and five assists toward a losing effort. And on the way out the door, Taiwanese fans are still in celebration mode.

Jay-Z's lyrics come to mind: " … ball players, rap stars addicted to the limelight." Although, in Taiwan’s case, maybe it’s the other way around.

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