Saxophones from Taiwan Aiming for the Pros Taiwan has etched out a reputation as a high-tech hardware store to the world. But this country of 23 million has quietly garnered a chunk of the world market in a very different product: saxophones. Taiwanese saxophones were once regarded as inferior, but now the industry is producing high-quality instruments.
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Saxophones from Taiwan Aiming for the Pros

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Saxophones from Taiwan Aiming for the Pros

Saxophones from Taiwan Aiming for the Pros

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Reporter Lucy Craft has this serenade to Taiwan's pipe dreams, though her story starts in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUCY CRAFT: Virginia music store owner Kevin Landis runs through a jazz standard. He's playing an instrument that dates back to 19th century Paris. French saxophones are still the gold standard today, but the horn Landis is cooking on now wasn't made in France.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRAFT: You would never have thought of Taiwanese instruments trying to inch into the pro territory, but they are. And they're making some really nice horns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES)

CRAFT: While the work is slow and methodical, the owner of this company, Lien Cheng Saxophones, feels a sense of urgency.

M: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: Chang Tsung Yao says, our quality's improving, but if Taiwanese companies don't move quick, the will be left behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES)

CRAFT: Just how Houli became the world's unsung center of saxophone making is largely an accident of history. The story dates back to just after World War II. It stars a larger-than-life character named Chang Lien-cheng. He was a farmer's son who abandoned the family land to become a painter and jazz musician, says a spokeswoman for his company.

CRAFT: No one during that time was actually playing any kinds of Western instruments, but he was fascinated by this instrument called saxophone.

CRAFT: But then, mainland China began ramping up its cheap saxophones assembly lines.

INSKEEP: to stake out a middle ground between top brands like France's Selmar or Yamaha of Japan, and the cheap mainland Chinese instruments. The Taiwanese government and the private sector are furiously investing in research and development, quality control and marketing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRAFT: Here's the secret weapon in Lien Cheng's battle for brand recognition - the founder's great-granddaughters, ages 15 to 22. They're giving a demo in the store, but the family deploys them around the world to showcase the company's horns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CRAFT: But they know their prospects are flat unless they can make saxes good enough to woo professional musicians like Richard Kleinfeldt of the Washington Sax Quartet.

M: I must say, I frankly wouldn't have 25 years ago thought of buying an instrument made in Taiwan. But now I would consider it.

CRAFT: For NPR News, I'm Lucy Craft in Houli, Taiwan.

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