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INTERVIEW/Vincentian prime minister and his Taiwan barber: A long friendship

05/22/2024 04:13 PM
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Ralph Gonsalves (left), the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Taiwanese barber Chiu Yen-chung greet each other in Taipei Tuesday. CNA photo May 22, 2024
Ralph Gonsalves (left), the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Taiwanese barber Chiu Yen-chung greet each other in Taipei Tuesday. CNA photo May 22, 2024

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, is known as a strong supporter of Taiwan on the international stage.

The longest continuously serving head of government since his country became independent in 1979, Gonsalves has visited Taiwan 12 times since he first became prime minister in 2001, most recently this week to attend the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) on Monday.

During his a dozen trips to Taiwan, he has met and befriended four different ROC presidents -- Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and now Lai, whom he called "my brother William," referring to Lai's English name.

But none of them have had a more enduring friendship with the Vincentian prime minister over that time than an individual whom Gonsalves has met on almost every one of his trips to Taiwan and continues to call his good friend: his Taiwanese barber Chiu Yen-chung (邱炎鐘).

Chiu, 82, has been working for decades as a barber at the Grand Hotel Taipei, one of the most iconic history-laden hotels in the capital city and the place where foreign dignitaries almost invariably stayed in the second half of the 20th century.

The legendary barber served two late ROC presidents, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and Lee Teng-hui (李登輝).

CNA photo May 22, 2023
CNA photo May 22, 2023

Talking to CNA while having his hair trimmed by Chiu, Gonsalves said that when he first visited Taiwan in 2001, he needed a haircut, and because he was staying at the Grand Hotel back then he was introduced to Chiu.

"He told me about the stories, about his history [in cutting the hair of former presidents], and we became friends," Gonsalves said.

Since then, he has paid a visit to Chiu on almost every one of his trips to Taiwan, even if he was not staying at the Grand Hotel.

During his visit with Chiu, the Vincentian leader said that he had just had his hair cut before visiting Taiwan to attend Lai's inauguration, but he still decided to book a time slot with Chiu on Tuesday afternoon to see his old friend.

Their familiarity with each other was evident when they met Tuesday outside the barber shop, the two men all smiles, and that continued inside the shop.

"He is doing his magic," Gonsalves said as Chiu carefully snipped away at the prime minister's hair.

A relatively shy Chiu told CNA that he cut the hair of some other world leaders many decades ago at the Grand Hotel when Taiwan had many more diplomatic allies, but he believed Gonsalves is the only foreign political leader he regularly served in recent years.

"He is very easy-going even though he's the prime minister," Chiu said, adding that most other senior politicians are more serious-looking.

The two have maintained an easy relationship often punctuated with laughs over the past 12 years even though Chiu said he could not speak fluent English.

The two have communicated through an interpreter assigned by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the years, though Gonsalves said of Chiu "his English has improved," a compliment that Chiu was clearly not buying.

Chiu said the foreign ministry pays Gonsalves' barber fee but the prime minister always gives him a "very generous tip" himself, though Chiu would not say how much.

Asked about his role as an unofficial diplomat maintaining diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the humble Chiu said he was simply doing his job as a barber and offering the best service to his client.

Now in his 80s, Chiu said he would continue to do his job "as long as his health permits."

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