Asia Economy

Made in Taiwan: Laptops, bubble tea, bikes and lots more

A modern metropolis: Taipei, Taiwan.
Daniel Aguilera | Getty Images

Taiwan, an exporter to the world and Asia's fifth-largest economy, has established an under-the-radar track record as a purveyor of things both technological and cultural.

Even before President-elect Donald Trump sparked a diplomatic kerfuffle by speaking directly with the country's independence-minded leader—thus incurring the ire of Beijing, which sees the country as part of China—Taiwan has been a source of considerable international attention.

An economic powerhouse that ships more than $300 billion annually in exports, the self-governed island is ranked as the 15th-most competitive economy on the planet by the World Economic Forum, higher than mainland China and several larger G-20 countries.

Taiwan's fortunes are so closely linked to the global technology sector that the semiconductors Apple uses for its iPhone recently helped boost the country's exports to their best levels in more than a year.

The emphasis on tech, and its tight economic links to virtually all of Asia's largest economies and the U.S., allows the country to punch well above its weight globally, but overshadows its other accomplishments.

"Taiwan is a very big player in high tech area ... people may not realize that [at least] 85 percent of laptops sold in the whole world are made by Taiwanese companies" with various big brands, Francis Kuo-Hsin Liang, chairman of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council, explained to CNBC in a recent interview.

"Although it's a relatively small country ... Taiwan is an ideal test bed for many high tech industries to test [their] products and business model ... and transport them to China and other developing countries," said Liang, on a recent trip to New York City.

Yet the country, which is often overshadowed by larger regional economies, has made other noteworthy contributions to the world that have attracted little fanfare or credit. With that in mind, CNBC compiled a list of areas in which Taiwan has made an impact.

The gooey drink taking the world by storm

Bubble tea
Kenneth Shelton | Getty Images

A popular concoction of milk, tea and tapioca balls — a delicious treat to some, and an acquired taste to others — bubble tea was popularized by Japan but actually originated in Taiwan. The most common recipe uses a mixture of black tea, milk, sugar and tapioca pearls, but more exotic versions add custard pudding, grass jelly and even sweet red beans to the drink. Taichung, Taiwan's third-most populous city, is widely considered to be where the drink originated.

The laptop you're using

A model shows ZenBook 3, a new product of Asus, during an news conference as part of Computex 2016 at the Ta
VCG | Getty Images

With exports dominated by all things technological, Taiwan has established itself as a key cog in the global electronics supply chain. The components of major computer brands are manufactured in the country, and computer names like HTC, Acer, Asus and MSI are Taiwanese. Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer with a market capitalization of more than $117 billion and most recognized for its partnership with Apple, is Taiwan-based.

Taking a ride

Velocite bicycle.
Source: Velocite | YouTube

Giant Manufacturing, one of the world's largest bicycle makers, is based in Taiwan, as is Velocite Bikes — known for its use of high-tech materials. Pacific Cycles, which makes endearingly portable folding bicycles, and Merida, which sells pro-level bicycles at at an affordable price, are also Taiwanese. The island's culture is also conducive to riding, with its expansive bike lanes, varied mountainous terrain and tropical jungles.

Rev 'em up

Taiwan's motorcycle maker Sym's 250-cc scooter.
Toshifumi Kitamura | AFP | Getty Images

SYM, one of the largest scooter makers in Taiwan, began operations by making bicycle lights. From its plant in Hsinchu, Taiwan, the company now produces 300,000 motorcycles per year under its own brand and 35,000 cars under the Hyundai brand. Kymco, another scooter manufacturer, began its operations as part of a joint venture with Honda before striking out of its own, eventually buying back all its shares in 2000.

Academy Award winner

Director Ang Lee attends the symposium at Tsinghua University on Nov. 7, 2016 in Beijing.
VCG/VCG | Getty Images

The acclaimed director of international hits like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Life of Pi," Ang Lee was born in Pingtung, the southern part of Taiwan before coming to the U.S.

Where cats go to chill out

Koen van Weel | AFP | Getty Images

Pet-crazy Americans who indulge their companions like humans may be surprised to know that the first cat cafe opened in Taiwan in 1998, at a place called the Cat Flower Garden. Similar to bubble tea, the concept eventually migrated to Japan, where it really took off. Nearly 20 years later, trendy feline lounges are popping up all over the globe in places London, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Sydney and New York City.