Taipei mayor apologises to British minister over watch gaffe

Taipei mayor apologises to British minister over watch gaffe
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (R) receives a gift of a watch from visiting British Transport Minister Baroness Susan Kramer during a meeting in Taipei on January 26, 2015.

TAIPEI - The mayor of Taipei apologised to a visiting British minister Tuesday for joking he would send a watch she gave him for scrap - compounding embarrassment after she broke a cultural taboo by presenting him with the timepiece.

The double diplomatic gaffe came when Ko Wen-je, the newly elected mayor of Taiwan's capital, was given the watch Monday by British transport minister Baroness Susan Kramer.

She was apparently unaware that giving clocks or watches as presents is seen as bad luck in Taiwan, due to the similar pronunciation of "giving a clock" and "attending an old person's funeral".

Ko - who has a reputation for off-the-cuff remarks - responded by telling a reporter he would "sell it to a scrap metal dealer for some money, because it would be useless to me", sparking an avalanche of criticism.

"I would like to apologise to Mrs Kramer for what I said, which was inappropriate from the diplomatic protocol and etiquette perspective," Ko said at a press conference.

He added that he needed to "take a lesson" in diplomacy, although could not suppress a smile.

The protocol pantomime dominated Tuesday's news as well as making headlines internationally.

The popular Apple Daily newspaper advised Ko to "watch his mouth" while China Times criticised his "arrogance and ignorance", and Taipei City councillors also got in on the act.

"You are the mayor of the capital - if you continue to do this in this way, something will go wrong sooner or later," said Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) councillor Wang Shih-chien.

But Kramer said Tuesday that she was "not offended" by what she described as Ko's "humour".

"I obviously did not understand the cultural implications. We learn something new each day."

Independent candidate, Ko, 55, was elected mayor of the capital in November elections, thrashing Sean Lien, son of former vice-president Lien Chan.

Ko sparked multiple controversies while campaigning for the post, including describing a female candidate from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party as "young and pretty and just fit to sit behind a (department store) counter".

A recent survey showed that despite a string of gaffes his approval rating stands at a comfortable 70 percent, as staunch supporters hail him for pledging to battle corruption and streamline bureaucracy.

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