What you need to know
Kao Chia-yu frames her rise as that of a self-made actor against established forces. The story begins in her college years. This is the second part of a three-part essay on Kao and the world that made her.
Long before entering politics, Kao Chia-yu displayed an extraordinary ease in public and in front of the camera.
In 2000, as an undergraduate, she appeared on an episode of “The Jacky Show,” a variety talk show hosted by the well-known TV personality, Jacky Wu. The episode, titled “NTU Beauties Have the Brains and the Looks,” featured interviews with four female National Taiwan University (NTU) undergraduates. Audience members and guest judges rated contestants by their stories and talents, all culminating in a final vote on the best and most dateable student. Kao won the contest by a clear margin after displaying her ease with bantering and talent for off-key singing.
Kao was then a third-year student and the elected student body representative of NTU’s law school. She sported a baby face and side bangs — this was before her iconic princess-style hair — and spoke with a slight lisp. Compared to the other contestants, Kao possessed an easy confidence and presence on stage, and clearly found humor in the experience. She wasn’t just passively interviewed, she participated and co-created the conversation.
Amid the mix of light back-and-forth and the exploitative set-up of the entire pageant, there’s a moment when Kao turns the hosts’ schtick against them. Asked by Jacky’s sidekick Kang Kang on what kind of men she’s into, Kao lists attributes like humor, talent, and in a half-joking manner, an interest in poetry. “Like Jacky,” Kang Kang offers. Kao rapidly responds, with a knowing smile, “I don’t like the ones who beat people.”
Wu had a history of fights, including incidents at a hotel, just one of a long string of scandals involving physical violence in his public and domestic life. Kao’s directness drew chuckles from the audience. Kang Kang was visibly disarmed, and played along with the joke by stage-whispering, “It’s settled.” In a segment all about casual objectification of young women, Kao subtly disrupted its core narrative.
Kao’s TV win foreshadowed more impressive achievements to come. She was elected as the student body president of NTU the following year, and kicked off her political career years later with consistently top votes as a city councilor before becoming a national level legislator. It presaged other patterns in Kao's portrayal in the media, such as the focus on her looks with nicknames like “Flower of Chungshan Hall” and “Goddess of Nangang-Neihu.” As a young female politician, her romantic life has always been of interest. In December of 2021, her personal experience with domestic violence at the hands of her ex-boyfriend would become front page news. Amid tabloid-like and victim-questioning coverage, Kao spoke out about her experience with vulnerability and composure. As in the show, Kao is able to transition effortlessly between playfulness and directness, whether in media appearances or on the floor of the Legislative Yuan.
College was a formative years for Kao, who began to develop an interest in government and politics. Before entering NTU Law, a training ground for many of the country’s top officials, she had neither interest in law nor ambitions to become a lawyer or politician. After arriving on campus, Kao found more interest in student organizations than in the classroom. She fell in with friends who were in a so-called “revolutionary” or “reformist” group, interested in student governance.
One friend in the group became her long-term boyfriend. Ma Wen-yu and Kao dated for close to 20 years; for years he was also her political aide. Kao has in an interview with The Journalist that she “wouldn’t be in politics” if she hadn’t known her ex-boyfriend.
Growing up, Kao had always been loquacious and bubbly. The same characteristics that brought about reprimands from her teachers were now highly sought after in a student representative who was a warm and natural communicator. “At the request of my friends and upperclassmen,” she wrote in her memoir, she decided to join student government, first as a representative of the law school before becoming president of the student body.
In the same interview with The Journalist, Kao said, “Due to personal characteristics and other factors, he was less suited for politics. Instead I went into politics.” Her first experience as a representative began with being a representative of her friends. She admitted that in the early days, instead of being merely inspired by Ma, she championed many of his views. “But now I walk my own path.”
In our interview, when asked about how she developed her own voice, Kao said, “I think I grew step by step.” By virtue of her participation in student affairs, her interest in public issues naturally developed. Hers was a passion that grew from modest interest and the encouragement of friends, rather than political fervor or professional zeal.
Given the seminal influence of her friends and social circle, it is surprising that her early career and friendships aren’t more discussed in Taiwan. Any expectations for stories of Kao’s present-day colleagues that originated from her youthful and idealistic days in undergrad, of rivalries that date from those years, or of the excitement of new love and budding friendships and intellectual community, fell short. Instead, Kao’s own narrative highlights her unconventionality and self-made achievements. Her interest grew incrementally into a passion, and her effort accumulated into success. Behind the humble pragmatism, her social and intellectual motivations underpinning it remain elusive.
Despite the strong support of her friends, getting elected wasn’t simple. It mirrored some of the larger political dynamics outside of campus that Kao would one day have to face in her elected office.
The NTU Student Council is one of the largest and most influential — if not the most — student organizations in Taiwan. By the time Kao ran, it had been in existence for over a decade, and fully established as the arena in which Taiwan’s young and ambitious vied for a foothold in the political world.
As a result, the culture of student government inevitably took on flavors of the outside world, the world that its members were preparing to enter. Two forces dominated. On the one hand, a more traditional force influenced by the Kuomintang (KMT), which maintained a positive relationship with the university, groomed student leaders, and brought along their culture of taking students out to meals at five star hotels. On the other hand, a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” faction, to which Kao and her friends belonged.
Kao campaigned in a fashion similar to how she would more than a decade later, with limited resources. She almost didn’t win the position. In fact, the election results clearly showed she had less votes. Through tips from professors at school, however, Kao learned of allegations that the election results had been deliberately miscounted. The results were nullified soon after, and a recount showed that she had won. The scandal was reminiscent of the 1992 Hualien incident, where the KMT was found manufacturing false votes in a local election during a planned power outage. Democracy was new in Taiwan, and democracy was new for the student government at NTU, which had its first student council president direct election in 1988. The president who won that year, Luo Wen-jia, would become Kao’s boss at the Legislative Yuan.
Instead of intellectual inspiration or personal connections, it was perhaps direct experiences like this that shaped Kao’s political consciousness. Instead of being spurred by ideology or idealistic dreams, she saw firsthand the power struggles simmering just below the surface of social life. Who had power, and how was power allocated? Who had a voice and who didn't? If that was the site of her struggle and inspiration to enter politics, perhaps it makes sense that she frames her story as “self-made” against established forces within and outside her party, rather than a story of rising from her friends and communities.
After the tumultuous journey to student body president, Kao was ready to get to work. The first item on her agenda was a long-demanded request that she finally realized: to install air-conditioning in student dorms, a basic utility for the sweltering Taiwanese summers. She worked with the city to install a new crosswalk at a busy and precarious intersection often trafficked by students, which gave her the experience of working with the city government. She repealed the school administration’s proposal to cancel the Tomb Sweeping holiday.
Her approach to student government would serve her later. Her campaign style for Taipei city council also took on a grassroots approach, and received little institutional support. She focused on issues that are near and dear to students and her constituents’ lives, solving long-delayed problems like installing air-conditioning or fixing up a back street in Neihu.
In the fight for student council presidency, Kao had the support of her friends, classmates, and professors. When fighting for political office, her resourcefulness would be tested – it became less clear who was a friend or mentor, and what shapes, sizes, of parties they would come from.
READ NEXT: “Princess in the Attic”: Kao Chia-yu’s Path
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.