British minister breaks taboo with watch gift for Taipei's mayor

Story highlights

  • British transport minister presents a pocket watch to Taipei mayor
  • Baroness Susan Kramer apologized for the inadvertently inauspicious gift
  • The word for a watch or clock in Chinese sounds like "the end" and many associate it with death

Hong Kong (CNN)A British transport minister on a trade visit to Taipei got a lesson in the perils of diplomatic gift giving Monday when she presented a pocket watch to the city's mayor -- a taboo act in Chinese culture.

Baroness Susan Kramer apologized for the inadvertently inauspicious gift -- the word for a watch or clock in Chinese sounds like "the end" and many associate it with death.
    "We learn something new each day. I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive: In the UK a watch is precious - because nothing is more important than time," she later said in a statement.
    But the recipient, Mayor Ko Wen-je, also came under fire for his "rude" response. Ko, who was recently elected and isn't a career politician, told reporters that he had "no use" for the pocket watch.
    "I can just regift it to someone or take it to a scrap metal dealer and sell it for cash," he was quoted as saying. On Tuesday, he apologized and said he would undertake some "diplomatic etiquette" training.
    Kramer and Ko can take comfort that it's not the first time an exchange of official gifts has stirred controversy.
    President Obama was widely slammed by the British press in 2009 when he gave then British prime minister Gordon Brown a set of DVDs, which did not play on the British system.
    Brown's gift of a pen holder carved from the timbers of a Victorian anti-slavery ship seemed to be the more thoughtful half of the exchange.
    The same year, the President Obama raised eyebrows again when he gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod loaded with video footage of her visit to the United States in 2007.