To say Taiwan's media and people were once fascinated with anything related to the Chiang clan is an understatement - it was more of a feverish obsession. But as former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) passed on and Taiwan's political scenery changed over the past decade, the Chiang fixation waned.
Now, however, Chiang fever has exploded again with the arrival of the debonair grandsons of Chiang Ching-kuo, brothers Demos and Edward Chang.
Demos Chiang (蔣友柏), who graduated with a Business Administration degree from New York University and founded DEM Inc. only two and half years ago, has muscled his company into one of the fastest growing Taiwan design firms. The company has now expanded to Shanghai.
Edward Chiang (蔣友常), the younger brother who graduated with a Design Management degree from Parsons School of Design a year ago, came back to Taiwan to join DEM Inc. as its creative director, and now oversees a team of 12 designers.
The two are the sons of Chiang Ching-kuo's third son, Chiang Hsiao-yung (蔣孝勇), who moved to Canada in 1988 after the death of his father and himself died of cancer at the age of 48 in 1996.
More than just good looks
Taiwan's fixation with the two young Chiangs is easily understandable. They are rich, young, impeccably handsome, and possess a rarefied aristocratic aura that comes with being the heirs of one of 20th-century China's most powerful family clans.
Demos, 30, is married with two young children. His assertive personality and masculine look earned him the moniker "sexiest man in Taiwan" in a poll conducted by Min Sheng Daily.
Edward, 27, is dating secretly, or as secretly as he possibly can since he's a favorite target of Taiwan's paparazzi and often graces tabloid magazine covers. He was voted "most eligible bachelor" in a poll published in Cashbox magazine.
By most accounts, DEM Inc. is well-managed and expert at creating attention-grabbing commercially driven designs. The company has grown from a core group of 10-plus employees to 30 this year and a projected 50 by the end of 2006. But the company's success may ultimately rely on the heavy hint of romance gracing their products.
As a mostly business-to-business firm that packages design and marketing services, DEM Inc.'s clients run the gamut from Dr. James Clinic, Motorola (for its V3 phone), and Giant (for its racing car) to Kuro (for its latest MP3 player) and Levi's (for a combination jeans and bag package that will come out this month).
The firm's highest profile campaigns to date have been for products designed for their own account: a limited edition Valentine's Day scarf last year and the PXR-5 Watch, featuring an upscale design and a budget price. Both products were sold as pre-order items at 7-Eleven convenience stores around Taiwan and literally flew off the shelves.
The Chiang brothers' handsome appearances and attractive designs should suffice in helping them stake out a place at the top of the design industry, but it is the Chiang clan's history that gives them that extra elusive allure. The Chiang dynasty, and the Soong clan it is inescapably associated with, played major roles in shaping modern China.
Of the Soong family clan, the eldest sister Soong Ai-ling (宋靄齡) married Kung Hsian-hsi (孔祥熙), an affluent financier who brought modern banking to China. The idealistic second sister Ching-ling (宋慶齡) eloped to Japan to marry China's founding father Sun Yet-sen (孫逸仙). The youngest sister, May-ling (宋美齡), married Sun's general, Chiang Kai-shek. These relationships and the hold these personalities had on China in the first half of the 20th century spawned considerable innuendo, only adding to their legendary status.
After Chiang's Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war and retreated to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek and son Chiang Ching-kuo ruled Taiwan with iron fists for nearly four decades before Ching-kuo lifted Taiwan's notorious martial law in 1987. At that time, he also publicly forbade any Chiang descendant from entering into politics.
This storied history and the nostalgic connection to an era eclipsed by an age that trumpets democracy has only enhanced the following of the two young Chiang brothers.
Also, because Chiang Ching-kuo married a Russian wife, both Demos and Edward have one-eighth Caucasion heritage that contributes to their status as Chinese versions of Greek gods with perfectly sculpted faces and bodies that send Taiwan's teens, professional women and grandmothers screaming when the two appear in public.
To the Chiang brothers, however, this dream mixture of family pedigree, good looks, talent, determination, intelligence and public adulation can actually distract attention from what really makes their company tick.
"A good design is a design that will sell," Demos told me at a cafe in Taipei. He was sporting his trademark casual T-shirt and hip-hop baggy long pants, a hippie-like longish coif, a goatee, and black-rimmed glasses that highlighted his piercing, devil-may-care glares. He speaks in succinct sentences with an almost teen-like angst bravado, and responds to questions extremely swiftly - too swiftly in several occasions.
"I am not in this business to flaunt highbrow, overly priced products that the average consumer can't afford. Some designers indulge in their own ideals of what a design should be and don't care about the functionality. I care and want to meet the needs of my clients."
As much as the family name may bring some welcome publicity, it can also be a burden that many children of celebrities battle with, and Demos is no exception.
"Being the descendant of Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang Kai-shek, I can't afford to lose," Demos told me as he was chain-smoking. Demos is understandably guarded with the press, strong-willed, impulsive and full of energy and frustration. "People expect perfection from me. I can't reveal my fears or anxieties to friends or even my relatives.
"It's like being John Kennedy Jr., you can't afford to lose," Demos explained. "Except that the Kennedy clan remains a powerful dynasty in the U.S. whereas we have lost our power. I am almost like an end-of-era prince with all the resources already gone."
Small circle of friends
I reminded Demos that John Jr. failed, and in very public ways too. He needed four tries to pass the bar exam and his ill-conceived George magazine crashed within two years.
"I have very few good friends. The few friends I trust are from my junior high school phase in Taiwan when I was young," admitted Demos as he warmed up and started to reveal more. "Of course I hang out with children of other wealthy or powerful family clans. But those are what you call 'fair weather friends.'"
"But it's the same case with everyone in this world," I both pointed out to him. "Who in this world has a whole bunch of close friends you can confide in? The majority of people we know are the so-called so-so friends."
Demos' youth was not without its struggles.
"My family moved to Montreal in Canada during my high school years. I had to study French. But my foundation in French was too weak and I couldn't pass the exam to get into college. So we moved to New York.
"I was only a decent student at NYU. I flunked accounting and had to spend two more semesters in order to pass it," Demos said. "But I did well in humanities classes. I got an A plus in Philosophy and a good grade in Sociology. But that's because I approached them as management classes."
Ultimately, Demos would like to create his own identity.
"I want to prove that I am Demos Chiang rather than just a descendant of the Chiang clan," he said.
Just before the interview came to an end, I popped a speculative question that I wasn't sure Demos would answer. "Why did you marry and have two kids so early in life?"
With a knee-jerk reaction, Demos gave me a stock answer: "Because I met the right girl."
However, Jimmy, his friend and a respected senior employee, decided to interject. "It's because he never had a chance to have a normal life. He wants to make sure that he can give his children the chance and space to have normal lives."
We smiled amiably at each other and the Chiang team left for another business meeting. A few days later, I went to their firm to chat with Edward and Demos again.
Edward is well-mannered, amiable, willing to talk and carries himself with aplomb. In public, he usually wears suits in contrast to Demos' hip-hop setup. "They (the staff) laugh at me and say that I am an old man living inside a young man's body," Edward said with a chuckle. "But that's who I am. I like to take things slowly and enjoy life. In my spare time, I enjoy Chinese tea culture, reading, listening to music, watching movies or just relaxing in my living-room."
"Why do I have the feeling that you are the older brother while Demos is the younger brother?" I asked Edward with a smile about their seeming role reversals. "You seem so mature, balanced and poised whereas Demos behaves like a teenager who has had two kids."
Edward smiled and claimed that his warm, well-rounded personality is the perfect compliment to Demos' aggression and bravado.
"My family moved to Montreal when I was very young," Edward revealed. "Most of the Chiang relatives are in the U.S. So we were pretty much alone there. We really depended on each other. We developed a very close family bond. We understand each other to the point that often we can read each other's thoughts without saying a word."
He also feels the burden of the family name, but perhaps to a lesser extent than his older brother.
"Being a Chiang descendant is of course difficult," said Edward. "If the situations allowed, I would make friends most of the time without them knowing my family background until we became closer."
In contrast to Demos' claim that he has few friends, Edward said. "I have no criteria for what kind of friends I should meet. I befriend all kinds of people. And then, I have a circle of close friends who I can call on when I want to confide something."
Asked what they enjoy doing the most, Edward thoughtfully answered, "reaching out to people. I really love volunteer and charity work. I just spent two months teaching English in South Africa earlier this year."
And Demos? "Making deals," was his slam-bang answer in between rushing in and out of the conference room like a tornado to take care of his baby daughter and office duties.
But for Edward there was more. "I also enjoy earning respect. I enjoy working hard to earn respect. It's not the same to get respect just because I am a Chiang descendant," Edward said.
"I will try my best to reach my full potential. I only wish that I could reach a fraction of what my ancestors have achieved," he added with a serene smile.
My encounters with the two Chiangs gave me a rare glimpse into who they are behind their public personas as cultural icons. With their Chiang pedigree, mature appearance and movie star glamour, most people forget that the Chiang brothers are still young men and are working exceedingly hard to define their own identities and shape their futures.
Celebrity offspring follow all sorts of idiosyncratic patterns. There are the rare ones whose achievements rival those of their parents. There are the hard-working but underachieving ones who never manage to escape their parents' shadows. Then, there are those who become disillusioned and decide to change their last names and move away in order to have separate lives.
But somehow, I have the inkling that the Chiang brothers will find that rare path where they take pride in the family name but are able to transcend it in shaping their own lives. Rather than banking on the Chiang last name and movie star looks, they work extremely hard (sleeping only four to five hours per day) in developing a company that is gaining success on its own merits.
In the end, though, shaking off the "Chiang descendant" label and establishing themselves as known designers can seem almost secondary to the type of people the two have become. Despite their family wealth and privileged upbringing, Demos and Edward are responsible, likable people who work hard on the job while devoting time to their family and charities. So in the end, you really have to wonder, who gives a damn about the Chiang last name?