Taipei, Taiwan – Six years ago, Valcan Ke took an unexpected trip to a pet shop in Taipei. Ke’s friend had proposed visiting the store, but it was Ke who became smitten by a tan and white corgi puppy.
Ke had never pictured himself as a dog owner but three months later, he found himself sneaking a chubby bundle – now named Butter – into his apartment after making a return trip to the pet shop.
Butter has become an important part of the 33-year-old’s life. He recently moved to a larger apartment, in part for his dog, in a more pet-friendly part of Taiwan’s capital. But while Butter remains a firm part of Ke‘s future plans, his dreams for marriage and children are hazier.
“I dream of having my own house and living with someone,” Ke said over tea at one of Taipei’s many pet cafes. “I love having my own dog, but I don‘ t want a traditional family. I just don ‘t like it. I just don‘t like traditional Chinese culture.”
Ke’s parents in rural Taiwan cannot understand it.
“My parents live in central Taiwan,” he said. “It‘s a very remote area and very traditional. They don‘t understand what I am thinking, but I am really lucky that they will not interfere with what I do.”
Ke is not alone. An increasing number of people in Taiwan are putting marriage and children off later and later. More than 40 percent of Taiwanese aged 30 and over are single – about six million people – according to Taiwanese market research firm Trendsight Research and Consulting.
While that figure includes divorcees, widows and widowers, it also reflects a growing trend to eschew traditional marriage and family arrangements entirely.
Pet ownership, meanwhile, continues to climb. By the second half of 2020, the territory‘s 2.9 million pets will outnumber children under 15 for the first time, according to a forecast from Trendsight Research based on government figures, as the birthrate continues to decline.
A boon for the pet industry, the trend towards “fur babies” as they are sometimes called in Taiwan, comes from more than just a desire for a cuddly companion.
Their growing ranks reflect deep social changes and conflicts in Taiwanese society, where traditional Chinese culture has customarily pivoted around family and marriage. This remains deeply rooted despite Taiwan’s reputation for being progressive. In May this year, its parliament became the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.
“Let’s imagine you are slightly higher educated and you basically have quite a decent income, you are somewhat hesitant to enter a marriage that will somehow put a lot of responsibility on you, ” said Shirley Yam, vice president at Trendsight.
“Younger people might not see really the reward psychologically for being a parent. They see it more as a burden or as a deterrent to realising their own dreams. I don‘t think that is an issue that happened only in Taiwan, but also in many Asian developed countries like Japan and Korea.”
The responsibilities of marriage can be particularly hard for women, said legislator Karen Yu, although she said many men are also beginning to chafe under the familial obligations that come with married life.
“In many Asian societies, including Taiwan, women are still given more expectations and responsibilities to do housework, serve their husband and their husband‘s family and take care of their children as well,” Yu said. “As a result, while more and more women are pursuing more vocational careers nowadays they are more likely to think of marriage and children as obstacles.”
Pets are an easy way to sidestep many of these issues, particularly as having children outside of marriage is still not widely accepted. A dog or cat is also considerably cheaper.
Meanwhile, pet-friendly services and products continue to make pet ownership easier and easier. Animals are allowed on high-speed trains as well as on Taipei‘s metro system provided they are kept in pet carriers. There is also an expanding network of pet-friendly bus routes and special “pet buses”.
Insurance companies, meanwhile, have added pet policies as an option for Taiwanese customers while their creatures are also welcome in a number of cafes and restaurants and in a growing number of apartment buildings. Pet ownership is an increasingly easy sell for young and educated Taiwanese.
“I used to want to have kids but after I got my dog I kind of don‘t really want a kid in the short term any more,” said Candace Chen, a 26-year-old Taiwanese-American who recently moved to Taipei with her small mixed-breed dog.
“I used to want one before I turned 30, but now I don‘t mind having a kid later on. A lot of my friends have cats or dogs, they don‘t want to get married and they don‘t want to have kids right now. They would rather have a pet.”
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) February 23, 2019
While Tsai has been mocked in mainland Chinese media for not having children and being single, in Taiwan she often appears in Instagram and Twitter posts and even re-election materials flanked by her various pets.
And despite Taiwan’s progressive policies, it will take some time before deep-rooted norms can be ditched.
“You can see the serious problem of staying single in our culture unlike in some of the Western countries,” Trendsight ‘s Yam said. “Children out of marriage is quite acceptable but in our culture, it‘s still not popular.”