While many know the reputation Taiwan has in the manufacturing of high-tech electrical components, few may know of the growing saxophone business based in Houli. Long known as the music capital of Taiwan, Houli is located in a rural township in northwestern Taichung County. This area is also known for sugar cane, soybean, grapes, wine, and iron plants. While the population of Houli is about 50,000, it produces an amazing 40,000 saxophones a year.
The Taiwan saxophone industry dates back to just after World War II when Chang Lien-Cheng, a farmer’s son that abandoned the family land to become a painter and musician, created an organized Jazz Band in 1945. Their performances throughout Taiwan were widely acclaimed until the area suffered a great fire and the only saxophone of the band was so seriously damaged that it could not be played any longer. Chang began by making an accurate drawing of the saxophone which contained about 400 components. He then started to transform the drawing into a real saxophone. After 3 years, the first handmade Taiwan saxophone was made. Due to its very good quality, people all over Taiwan began to be captivated by the saxophone. Until Chang’s death several years ago, he trained a number of apprentices, and in the process, launched a lucrative export industry. By the 1980s, Taiwan was churning out so many saxes under contract to labels in the United States and Europe, the government estimates that one out of every three saxophones in the world was made in Taiwan. Later, mainland China began ramping up its saxophone assembly lines, but these instruments were of a much lower quality. Despite the quality issues, the orders in Taiwan dwindled virtually overnight to a fraction of what they had been. During this time, about half of Houli’s workshops went out of business.
Today, the surviving manufacturers are fighting back. Their strategy is to stake out a middle ground between the top brands like Selmer and Yamaha and the low quality mainland Chinese instruments. While the work of making saxophones is slow and methodical, the owner of Lien Cheng Saxophones clearly feels a sense of urgency “Our quality is improving, but if Taiwanese companies don’t move quick, they will be left behind.” said Chang Tsung Yao. The Taiwanese government and the private sector are furiously investing in research and development, quality control, and marketing. Taiwan’s branding efforts are starting to pay off. Once limited to the inferior ‘student’ market, Taiwanese firms are now making high-grade saxophones for the famous European and American labels.
While some players may have perceptions regarding the quality of these saxophones, those that have tried them those that actually play test brands and models side-by-side with others are quickly learning some of these saxophones coming out of Houli are every bit as good as the big name instruments that cost 2-3 times more!