“Princess in the Attic”: Kao Chia-yu’s Path

“Princess in the Attic”: Kao Chia-yu’s Path
Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

What you need to know

Kao Chia-yu, one of Taiwan’s highest profile political leaders, is a constant subject of sensationalist media attention. What hasn’t been explored in depth is her background, values, and how she came to her position. This is the first part of a three part essay on Kao and the world that made her.

To get to Kao Chia-yu’s office one has to walk a block from the main research building of the Legislative Yuan on Jinan Street, with its imposing black tile and glass facade. The DPP legislator works out of the Qingdao Second Building, a three-storied structure with white Gothic pointed arch windows on the upper levels. The main entrance opens almost immediately to the ascending stairwell, without the buffer of a big and bustling lobby that most legislators are greeted with. Here it’s quiet, almost sleepy, with one security guard. Kao’s office is split on levels two and three, with her personal office occupying the top penthouse unit, which is full of light and painted a soft pink.

Kao arrived at our interview in March a few minutes late, gracefully and without haste. She looked slightly tired, but her signature half-up, half-down hairstyle — gongzhutou, or princess-style in Mandarin — was impeccable as always. I had seen her a month prior when she was making the rounds at community centers in the eastern Taipei districts of Neihu and Nangang, which she has represented since 2010, first in the Taipei City Council, and as of 2020 as a member of the Legislative Yuan. She had also arrived a few minutes late, with no fuss, to the Lantern Festival celebration I was at, after a morning of similar commitments. Her presence was a burst of energy in an otherwise lethargic event attended by community center staff, retirees, and a few young families. Her engaged conversation — and of course, her notorious singing — cut through the uneventful afternoon.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

Here in Kao’s sun-streaked office, her shelves are lined with books, documents, and branded merchandise. The sitting area is furnished with an armchair and sofa, accessorized with plush pillows of Doraemon or Hello Kitty in various costumes as a rabbit or an apple. There’s a square pillow with a picture of her face, cheeks puffed and lips puckered, with her eyes widened in a cute eye roll, which she prefers to call an “eye exercise.” The photo became the most-downloaded LINE sticker for a short period in 2019 during her successful campaign for a legislative seat. 

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

That photo was recreated in a photoshoot for her memoir published the same year, Believe In Yourself, ahead of her 2020 legislative win. Her assistant had placed multiple copies on her desk. I mentioned I own a copy of the book which came with an outdated photoshoot calendar featuring Kao in similar cute poses. Kao laughed and self-deprecatingly said, “This must mean the books have barely sold!”

The "Goddess of Neihu and Nangang,” as the media and netizens sometimes call Kao, and as she unabashedly claims for herself, has many nicknames, self-appointed or otherwise. In an interview on DPP legislator Lin Chun-hsien’s YouTube show “Unboxing Congress” (開箱國會), Kao jokes that she’s the “Princess in the Attic,” thanks to her isolated office. Lin mentions media reports that the building has bad feng shui, given the many tenants who enjoyed short tenures or notable scandals. 

“Including Fu Kun-chi,” Kao said, referring to the Kuomintang (KMT) politician who was charged with insider trading. “Including many I won’t name one by one,” she added playfully. “But since I’m here, maybe things will be different.”

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

In a very obvious way, Kao’s office reflects her personality — brightly lit, confidently feminine, uniquely hers. In a deeper sense, her office reflects her contradictory position both as a legislator who wields real power and as a figure at the periphery. At 41, she’s still seen as a young rising star, as she has been since the start of her career in her early 20s. Despite her long experience in government and politics, and her considerable fame, she calls herself a “lone bird” in the party.

Born in Keelung, as the oldest of three in a modest family that owned a multi-store, she worked her way to the top schools in the country — Taipei First Girls’ High School, and an undergraduate law degree and graduate degree from the Graduate Institute of National Development, both at National Taiwan University (NTU). Academic pedigree plays an outsize role in electoral politics in Taiwan — it’s not unusual to see campaign posters list a candidate’s degrees held and schools attended. But for Kao, education has been more than just a qualification but the practice field where she learned how to run and win elections. 

As an undergraduate she was the student representative for the law school before being elected as student body president. After a law internship, she joined DPP legislator Luo Wen-jia’s office as a legislative assistant after a cold-call inquiry for vacancies. Luo too was a student body president at NTU, its first ever. Her earliest government experiences were with Luo, whom she followed to the Hakka Council and on his failed 2005 campaign for Taipei County magistrate.

That same year, Kao was elected to the National Assembly as its youngest ever member, at age 24, and gained her first public nickname from the venue where the assembly convened, “The Flower of Chungshan Hall.” She had signed up as part of a campaign bolstering young candidates, and did so behind Luo’s back. Kao would serve for eight days and then vote with the majority to abolish the assembly. The 2005 constitutional reforms, of which abolishing the National Assembly was a major part, would be the subject of Kao’s master’s thesis.

By the time Kao won a seat to the Taipei City Council in 2010, aged 30, she was probably as experienced at campaigning as any young candidate could be. Her Neihu-Nangang city council district was and still is a growing community, drawing young people in the technology sector. But it’s also a historically blue, KMT-leaning district. As a first-time candidate in the multi-member constituency, Kao garnered the fourth-most votes; the following election, the most; and yet the following election, the second most. Her formidable campaigning skills were apparent from the outset — in her first run she didn’t even have banners or flags — making her one of the very few candidates to win without the resources — and trappings — of a professional operation. Now, since being elected as legislator, she has become a household name across Taiwan. There is chatter of her having greater ambitions, like one day running for mayor of Taipei. 

Kao’s story reads like that of many career politicians. An impressive resume with all the right schools, right internships and jobs, and right connections. She’s intelligent and well-spoken, taking the issues seriously. When questioning fellow politicians, she is sharp and forcefully addresses the heart of the issue. She also doesn’t take herself too seriously, whether it’s bantering in congress, or singing off-key at meet-and-greets. She’s great on paper and also lively in person, with a goofy sense of humor and the confidence of someone who knows her role and her principles. She knows both how to talk the talk — as a deliberate and articulate public speaker and warm and charming conversationalist — and walk the walk — quite literally as she visits her constituents, and as evidenced by her long list of accomplishments.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

Her path to political success, however, was more fraught than it appears. There were many forces for her, certainly: her capabilities and go-getter attitude, her government experience as a student leader and an aide to Luo, her ability to connect with people young and old, her adeptness at navigating various forms of media and self-representation, and the issues of her platform. There were also many forces against her: her naive political background despite her experience in government, the factional forces in Taiwanese politics and within the DPP, and how women in politics are expected to act in public. Kao has navigated these obstacles skillfully, such that the balance of forces have been pulled in her favor. 

These tensions reflect apparent contradictions in her story, but perhaps also the evolving nature of what it means to be a young politician in Taiwan, that is, more complex and nuanced, which is to say, more wholesome. She contains opposites, and achieves despite and because of her qualities. What she lacks in traditional political resources, she makes up for by her resourcefulness. Contrary to the title of her memoir, she didn’t simply pave her road to success with hard work and self-belief. She struggled, but it would be mistaken to call her an underdog, or hers a story of individual meritocracy. Rather, it’s an account of the larger sociopolitical contexts and how Kao has behaved within them.


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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