Press Freedom or Tourist-free Trains?

In Taiwan since March 18th, 2014, student protesters have been occupying the main hall in the Legislative Yuan in Taipei.   They are protesting against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which is a part of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).   The CCSTA is a reciprocal trade agreement between China and Taiwan, which opens various Taiwanese sectors of the service industry to China.   This is an extremely controversial pact as it is seen as a threat to Taiwan’s political and economic autonomy.   President Ma, along with the Kuomintang (KMT) are seen as evil doers selling Taiwan to China.   The student protesters who are backed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), are demanding the KMT to not implement the agreement until it was considered in the legislature and reviewed clause-by-clause in public hearings, with consultations with academics, NGOs, and the representatives of the sectors that stood to be affected by the pact. Hong Kongers have been showing their support for Taiwan in various forms:

support

It makes me feel warm and fuzzy that Hong Kongers are supporting the Taiwanese people, but there is an element of ridiculousness and triviality to their complaints.  For instance, a Hong Kong based blogger, badcanto, who writes for Dictionary of Politically Incorrect Hong Kong Cantonese, posted an item about Hong Kong tourists in Taiwan.  Hong Kongers are encouraging Taiwanese people to be strong, and not to become a ‘Second Hong Kong”, which I totally agree with, but I do find this statement amusing: ” In Hong Kong, I’ve to wait for four trains before getting on one.  However, in Taiwan, even during rush hour, I can still breathe.  I feel very grateful.”  Basically, what this tourist is implying is that if the Taiwanese don’t hold their ground and fight this trading pact, the country is going to be overrun by Mainland Chinese, which seems like the only thing this individual was concerned about.  He didn’t mention any other consequences other than crowded public transportation… like, what about the the loss of freedom of speech and free press?    In Hong Kong, three journalists have been attacked in the recent weeks.  On February 26, a notable journalist Kevin Lau, former editor-in-chief for Ming Pao, was stabbed as he was getting out of his car.   On March 20th, two more journalists were attacked in Tsim Sha Tsui.  These attacks have been regarded as a threat to free press in Hong Kong, which I believe should be a far more concerning issue for the Taiwanese people to think about than the prospect of too many tourists from a particular country. While it seems that the majority of the people in Hong Kong may support the student protesters in Taiwan, the view of mainstream media is a little vague (perhaps a sign of shrinking press freedom and its subsequent self-censorship).  The South China Morning Post has an article today titled, “‘This isn’t the democracy we want’: Some Chinese dismayed by Taiwan students’ occupation of legislature”.   While the author agrees that most Hong Kongers support the Taiwanese people, she had chosen some provoking images to represent the student protesters.  In one picture, the students are seen drinking beer, and in another, two gay men kissing. Instead of openly being critical of the movement, the author had chosen a passive-aggressive tactic to discredit the whole event.    Why don’t you just tell us what you really think, SCMP?

What is troubling is how Hong Kongers aid the media in trivializing the student protests in Taiwan, whether they intend to or not.  While Hong Kongers are supportive of the Taiwanese, and urging them not to end up losing control over their country as they had, the Hong Kongers show their support by focusing on petty issues, such as having the public transport system overrun by Mainland Chinese tourists.   Hong Kongers are not articulating their issue and their demands to each other and in the media.  There have been emotionally charged protests taking place that are targeting Mainland Chinese tourists and shouting at them in public places to go back to China.   These anti-Mainland sentiments are ineffective in enabling Hong Kong to be more autonomous, and they end up making Hong Kongers look ethnocentric, which hardly generates as much international sympathy as would protests about press freedom.  The rhetoric of bigotry is harmful because the purpose and the demands of the political activity can be easily discredited.   I hope Taiwanese people take a cue from what’s been happening in Hong Kong and employ a different tactic.  They should articulate their demands as they have been doing, hold their ground, and do not let emotions and bigotry get in the way of the issue at hand, because if they do the press controlled and influenced by Beijing will be ready to pounce.  Go Taiwan!

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Abandoned

“I want to go to the old city centre.” It was the third day of the Chinese New Year.  I was in Taichung with my parents and we had been celebrating the arrival of the wooden horse by eating an obscene amount of food.  We’d also been spending time with grandma, and the extended family from my mother’s clan.  They are a rowdy bunch and demand constant attention.   Dealing with family for an extended amount of time is always mentally draining, and on top of that, I had not been sleeping well.  The room I was sleeping in was infested with mosquitoes and I slapped myself awake multiple times throughout the night while trying to kill a buzzing insect above my head.  By the third day, I was showing signs of tear and wear, and my dad, being an empathetic human being, asked me what I wanted to do on the third day. “Why do you want to go there?” Mom made a face, “there’s nothing there.  All the shops are closed and nothing to do.” “Exactly, I want to go and take pictures of abandoned buildings.” We parked Dad’s old dark green Benz from the late 90’s next to an abandoned department store. Abandoned department store The building still looked every inch a department store, but it had been neglected,  the light fixtures were falling off and everything was covered in dust.  There was such a contrast between the festive mood elsewhere during the holidays and this forlorn building. Looking into the windows lacking dressings and shoppers, I was thinking perhaps 15 years ago,  all the dressings were screaming in loud red and gold, enticing excited shoppers with their wallets bulging with red pocket money.  Now it was standing there, empty, abandoned, and not serving its function as a place of merry consumerism. Both my parents are from well established families in Taichung.  In the 60’s, Taiwan was not open for trading with other nations.  However, in Taichung City, there were lots of shops that specialized in imported goods from Japan and America, brought in to Taiwan by the American military.  Back then,  Taichung was a prosperous city, teething with energy.  In addition to import shops, there were an array of restaurants. “Look.” Dad pointed at an empty store front. “I used to eat dumpling there when I was younger.   When we first moved to Taiwan, you kicked and screamed and refused to go inside because you thought the place was dirty.  You were standing outside while we ate, and your aunt had to convince you to come inside.” He laughed as he retold the story. I was 6 when I moved to Taiwan.  Even as a small child, I remember the busy streets of the city centre.  However, as I walked around with my parents on the third day of new years more  in the year 2014, the streets were deserted and many of the buildings were abandoned.  We walked by the Second Market, which was a very famous market in Taichung.  Even today, there were many signs for shops, but I imagine most were no longer there.  One of the signs brought back waves of memories.  It was a sign for a shoe shop that was called “Cinderella”, and the sign was written in Chinese characters.  It was still placed prominently at one of the entrances of the market.  I am not sure if the shoe store was still there, but I remember distinctively looking up and seeing that sign as a child when I was forced to go to the market with mom.  I could see my childish self, a 6 or 7 year old girl, dressed in delicate floral Japanese dress, pouting, and following behind her mother meekly with her head down.  I was cringing and  watching the dirty red tiled floor carefully, trying not to step on puddles.  Every so often, her mother would yell, “hurry up!” in Japanese. The former glory of the city  had dissipated.  On any given street, 6 out of 10 buildings have been abandoned, and the others were struggling to not crumble. street scene “Ha, this is the movie theater I used to go to.” Mom stopped in front of a fading cinema with old movie posters still inside the display. “Grandpa knew the owner of this place so I used to go there, whose house was right behind the theater.  After my friend and I have a snack we used walk through  the backdoor and go directly into the cinema.” “Free movies?  Very nice.” Snapping a picture, I noted the movie poster of the last film they were showing.  It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.   This means that the cinema had been abandoned since 2001.  12 years ago. “Yes, free movies.” in a nostalgic tone, she said, “this cinema specialized in foreign films too.” 20140204-183840.jpg “Maybe we could walk by Grandpa’s old clinic?” Dad suggested after we passed the cinema. “Yeah sure.” Grandpa's clinic Grandpa was a prominent obstetrician who delivered many baby boomers in Taichung.  After he died, the clinic was boarded up.  However, Grandpa’s name still lives on a plaque on green tiled wall.  Chang Obstetrics Hospital.  Head Doctor, Chang Yao Dong Medical Doctor graduate of Tokyo University.   A place where many people’s lives had started, was now abandoned, like so many other places in the city. In the car on the way home, I was reflective.  “Dad, why was the city abandoned?” “Well, you know the city centre is very old, and as the city grew, it became very crowded.” Dad explained as he steered the car.  “There was lots of land outside of the city, so they started to develop it in the recent years, especially near the big Eslite bookshop that you like.” “Back then, those were all rice paddies.” Mom chimed in, “People who owned property way out in the middle of nowhere are now rich.” “But why didn’t they just renovate it?  Fix it up?” “People in Taiwan want to live in high rises with modern facilities like elevators and underground parking lots and not have to park their cars out on the street.  They want to shop in grocery stores and not in the wet market.”  He sounded a little melancholy as he drove us back to my grandmother’s house, which was located at the edges of the old city centre. On the way home, we drove by a large, burnt out building.  It was despondent, tattered, and yet it still occupied a space, silently protesting;   traces of its former glory echoing in its hollowness.    I like to imagine what the building was like in its heyday, when it was serving its purpose.  Was it a night club?  A multi-purpose building with many restaurants and shops?  I also like to imagine what happened before it was burnt down and abandoned.  Was it a careless accident? 20140204-183820.jpg “Well, I like the old city centre.” I said, seeing myself as a little person pouting in the dirty market, my mother wearing her school uniform watching a foreign film, and my dad as a teenager eating dumplings at the same place where his daughter refused to go in 20 years later.  The ghost of our former selves will always live on in this abandoned city, and even though either my parents nor I live in Taichung anymore, every time we visit, the past will always come out to say hello.

The Golden Standard of Beauty

“You got fatter lately!” My facial technician, a sweet woman in her late 20’s, said with a warm smile on her face.

“Oh you know, the holiday season is always hard. I haven’t stopped eating since December.” Averting her eyes, I replied under my breath. Doesn’t she realize that she is pointing out the obvious?

I am in Taiwan for Chinese New Years spending time with my family. Unlike when I am in Hong Kong, when here, I am treated like a local and subjected to the cultural customs. Compared to Hong Kongers, Taiwanese people are warmer. For instance, the servers in Taipei are always friendly and helpful with recommendations. In Hong Kong servers ignore you, then scowl and throw the food with a huff. There are similarities between the two cultures of course- Taiwanese people are just as nosy, and perhaps as unfiltered as Hong Kongers. The only difference is, I don’t understand Cantonese so even if they are calling me fat, it doesn’t matter. Here in Taiwan, these comments, as well intended as they are, assault my western brain.

After my facial, my mom and I went to the hair salon (yeah yeah I am being pampered, I know). Mom was sitting next to me, both of us in salon chairs, the hair washer behind my mother and my stylist behind me. I posed a question “why do people in Taiwan comment on each other’s weight as a form of greeting?”

“Oh I think they are just gossiping.” My hairstylist said as she trimmed my hair. “They don’t have anything to think about so they scrutinize your body.”

“Don’t they think about the other’s feelings? Aren’t afraid to hurt the person’s feelings?”

“Well they don’t think so much maybe. They aren’t always malicious, they don’t mean badly.” Mom quipped.

“It sure does to my ears. It is none of their business what my body looks like. I don’t go and say they look older or uglier since I saw them last.”

“I don’t know why people do this. My client told me last week ‘hmm it looks like you have not exercised in while.'”
My stylist said.

“Haha, at least he was being polite.” My mom laughed.

I looked at my stylist, a beautiful, young and skinny Taiwanese woman, and I can’t help but to wonder what is wrong with people.

The golden standard to beauty is thinness. And there is a whole society of people that enforce this standard. I know Wes has something to say about this topic too so I will let him pick up the thread from here while I go stuff my face with fatty food in time for Chinese New Years celebration.

Cantonese is just a dialect… or is it?

In his last post, Wes asked: when you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at? Honestly, before we had this debate that spanned across multiple drinking sessions and all-day iMessage arguments, I had never even thought of it.  It was always something I knew, something I never questioned.  The Anglo-Canadian part of my brain has been probed throughout my life- through education, media and talking to people like Wes.   On the other hand, the Chinese side of my brain has been left uneducated and uncritical.   Having left Asia at a young age, with Mandarin not being my dominant language, whatever I picked up in Asia as a child and whatever attitudes or opinions my parents have on topics that are not directly related to the “western” part of my brain, have been absorbed without question. So here is me unpacking why I agree with the statement: Cantonese is not a language, it’s just a dialect.

When I think about the above statement logically, it sounds ludicrous. Of course Cantonese is a language, in the literal sense. It is a system of communication used by humans in a particular region of the world.  When Mandarin or Cantonese speakers agree to the above statement we are not agreeing that Cantonese is not a system of communication used by a particular group of Chinese people. Rather, it is a reflection of how Mandarin Chinese plays a role in our collective psyche, no matter which part of China, or which Chinese language speaking country we are from.

My family is Taiwanese.  My ancestors moved from southern Fujian providence to Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty, specifically, in 1762.  People who moved to Taiwan during this period brought Min Nan with them, which is the language commonly spoken in southern Fujian.    It became one of the main languages of Taiwan, in addition to Hakka.  (The aboriginal people of Taiwan also spoke their own languages that are not related to any Chinese languages, how those languages are perceived and what happened to them is a whole different discussion.)   When the Communists took over China in the late 1940s, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan.   They called themselves the legitimate government of China.  Since then, they have been “reforming” Taiwan.  One of the things they did was to make Mandarin the national language.   I remember my parents saying that when they were growing up in Taiwan in the 60’s, they weren’t allowed to speak Min Nan- Hua in school.  If someone was caught speaking it, this person was punished and publicly humiliated.  Generations of people were discouraged from speaking it in public.  Growing up, my parents spoke a mix of Min Nan-Hua, Japanese, and Mandarin at home and I developed an ear for Min Nan-Hua at a young age.   When I moved to Taichung, Taiwan with my family at age 6, the only language I spoke was Japanese. As a first grader, I was taught to speak Mandarin even though at home, my parents hardly ever spoke that. As a child, I was stressed out enough learning the new language, and I didn’t even think that it was an entirely different language I was learning.  My brother, who is a two years younger than me, stayed home more, and he learned to speak Min Nan-Hua from the family cook, who only spoke Min Nan-Hua.  Min Nan-Hua was reduced to a mere dialect 方言– associated with the uneducated and the lower class, inferior to Mandarin.

Do I believe this is right?  Of course not.  It is a reflection of Kuomintang imperialism, and I didn’t even realize that I had such a bias until recently.  My people were oppressed by members of the  Kuomintang, our national language reduced to a mere dialect… and yet, it clearly worked.  I am a well-educated individual who has lived and worked in many different parts of the world.  I like to think that I am worldly and open-minded… Yet, I am not immune to truthiness  – Go ahead Wes, make your point already.

Oh, I suppose I should explicitly answer the original question: “When you believed it was true that Cantonese is a dialect, not a language, what did that mean to you?  What was the truth that sentence got at?”

My answer is, there is no truth to this statement.  This is what the Chinese brain thinks:

Mandarin = Language

Everything else = Dialect

Is this right?  No.   What Wes struggled to understand is that there is no logic to this.  Of course we, the Western educated Chinese speakers, know the definition of language.  But when we agree with statements such as the one above, we are not thinking about the actual definition of language, we are thinking about language from an emotional place, from the depth of our collective psyche.  We are just repeating something that was told to us… like we are brainwashed to think this way.   Like I said before, it’s certainly a bias I had never thought about before.

You gotta give it to the Hong Kong people though.  Cantonese is still the primary language in Hong Kong.  They are still fighting… but I am afraid it is a losing battle.  I fear that one day, Cantonese will indeed be reduced to a mere dialect, like Min Nan Hua in Taiwan… Have you heard that they are teaching Chinese language classes in public schools in Mandarin these days?  I work in a supposedly English speaking university- instead of lecturing in English, a lot of professors are teaching their classes in Mandarin.   What I am observing, is that instead of coercing the Hong Kong people, they (Beijing) are just making small changes here and there.  Soon Hong Kong will become something that none of us recognize.