Birthday Boy

I was young! I needed the money!



Taiwan and the World

Those wishing to get a picture of Taiwan's present situation in international affairs will appreciate the essay by Esther Pan and Youkyung Lee that appears in today's Washington Post. The essay appears courtesy of the US Council on Foreign Affairs.

Residents of Taiwan find a disconcerting number of article and discussions about their home that contain glaring errors. Many journalists betray a lack of familiarity with even the basics of the island's situation. Here you can find an excellent thumbnail survey of the situation: what it is, how we got here, and the questions that remain.



Hometown, Homeland

I'm looking forward to a concert this week by the Sonare Chamber Orchestra. Part of a series entitled My Hometown in Our Homeland, the concert features new compositions by Professor Hope W.P. Lee and Mr Che-Wei Chang will be featured. Maestro Apo Hsu conducts.

Lee and Chang belong to Taiwan's latest generation of artists who stand as heirs to the Taiwanese Literature Movement, a phenomenon that revolutionized this Taiwanese art in the 1980s. Their works combine a variety of native Taiwanese melodic, rhythmic and timbral elements with harmonies and structural elements of the European tradition.

The concert takes place January 16 Wednesday at 19:30 in the National Concert Hall, Taipei.



Help Me, Eros

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed.

1 Corinthians 15.36-7 NRSV

So begins the personal liturgy of Ah Jie, the marijuana-savouring antihero of Help Me, Eros (Bangband wo aishen, 幫幫我愛神), a new Taiwanese art film that opened today. The film represents a haunting and darkly comic new addition to the oeuvre of filmmakers Lee Kang-sheng (李康生) and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮).

Bodies and souls of all sorts figure prominently in this story. Textures of haze and grit, feast and famine, pain and thrill unfold at the pace of a chant. The story, set in Kaohsiung and told in Mandarin and Taiwanese, revolves around two characters who are living lives of quiet but dire desperation. Each finds a form of solace in an addition as each seeks a solution.

Ah Jie, the central character (played by Lee), is a financially ruined man whose marijuana plants hold sacred status in the repossessed home he still secretly occupies. In his despair and haze he has come to depend on a regular exchange of phone and IM messages with a counselor at a support hotline. The woman never permits him to meet her, and he passes over clues to her real identity as he imagines another woman in the role. The counselor, played by Liao Hui-chen, 廖慧珍, has troubles of her own. Though financially more secure than her client, she is at least his equal in emptiness and uses food to fill the void. A moment of grace enters Ah Jie's life in the form of a betel nut beauty (Ivy Yi 尹馨) whose kiosk stands on the curb outside his apartment.

Eros juxtaposes documentary realism and iconic myth in a way that recalls the films of Leos Carax (Les Amants, Maivais sang) or Krzysztof Kieslowski (ronique). Explicitly staged sexual encounters, as its title suggests, are an integral part of this story. These encounters, like countless images in the film, go from candid to surreal in the blink of an eye. The sordid realities confronted by the betel nut beauties are shown in detail. Their work is a particular detail, an aspect of culture and locale. Yet it is universal as well: the women stand for all individuals who are just trying to make a living--trading their time for a little money, dressing for success at work, and accommodating their customers without losing themselves in the process. Yet even this work is given its dignity. When the film shows these women sitting aloft in their serene columns of light, then descending in a spiral to street level to serve a customer, a thousand mythic images are evoked. When we see their counterparts, the telephone counselors at the hotline help centre, sitting at desks inside grey cubicles wearing identical skirted suits, the picture provides both an echo and a contrast.

Kaohsiung provides more than a backdrop for Eros; the seaport metropolis brings a screen presence of its own. In more ways than one these characters inhabit a world far from the corridors of power. (This is represented by Taipei, the capital city whose events dominate their TV news.) They make their way in an urban landscape remote from the spotlight but within sight of Love River. Here, connections are fragile, solace is granted in bites, and neon holds back the darkness.


Mike Kearney. 'Eros in the Streets of Taiwan.' Taipei Times, 2007.12.18

Bangband wo aishen (2007). IMDb.



When Only the Trade is Free

In this month's Taiwan Review Joseph Eaton, professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, examines a slender but welcome new book by James Mann.
Mann is an experienced China watcher, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and currently author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Mann's previous works include About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (1998) and Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004).
Mann's new book is The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. In it he challenges the notion that progress toward democracy has been under way in the PRC.

China watchers usually forecast either of two probable futures for the PRC--democratization or catastrophic implosion, both of which involve change. Mann contends that we should not assume that China will transform. He foresees a third scenario: the continuation of China's extraordinary economic growth under an undeviating authoritarian regime. China could very well become richer and much more powerful in 25 years and still have a repressive, undemocratic government.

. . . Americans are told that through commerce, China will evolve into a pluralistic nation enjoying increasing freedom of expression and a democratic form of government. This hopeful scenario of slow regime change has become almost a religion among US policymakers and most of the media. American integration with China for the last 35 years has been sold to the US public based on the promise of change.

For several years after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, victims of Chinese political oppression were worthy of American attention, as Hungarians were in 1956, Czechs in 1968 and Poles in the early 1980s. Nowadays, the massacre is rarely mentioned in the West and China has become much richer and more firmly integrated into the world economy. Compared to the treatment of other authoritarian regimes, Washington has handled China with kid gloves.

. . . .

American pro-China policies were spawned by the Cold War strategy of forcing the Soviet Union to worry about NATO and China at the same time. However, the rationale for an anti-Soviet China policy disappeared in 1989 as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. Earlier that year, the People's Liberation Army fired upon its own citizens at Tiananmen. The notion that engagement would change China was possibly the only way to sell the notion of trade and investment in China to Americans in the post-Tiananmen, post-Cold War era.

Mann does not blame Americans exclusively for the creation of a wishful China policy. European and Asian business and political elites are just as willing to invest in China's undemocratic present, while ostensibly encouraging a democratic future. Former British Prime Minister John Major's September 1991 visit to China contributed to a thawing of relations with the West after Tiananmen. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of "unstoppable momentum" toward democracy in China.

. . . .

Mann finds scarce evidence for China's democratization. Chinese political activists, religious adherents, ethnic minorities and intellectuals are still subject to harassment or arrest--and persecution accelerated after President Hu Jintao took office. . . . The rule of law has been applied selectively in China to protect the rights of businesses but does little to protect speech or political protest. Mann envisions further protection of commercial interests but not individual rights, and an environment where foreign investors are kept happy but Chinese nonconformists suffer.

In the 1990s, the Internet looked like a promising way of circumventing governmental controls on communication. Instead, China has created a vast "intranet," devoting copious resources to limiting the spread of information. Recent episodes have shown that technology in China can be channeled for reactionary purposes, as in rallying Chinese nationalists against a Starbucks located within Beijing's Forbidden City and in the never-ending recitation of Japanese war atrocities.

The terrible reality is that American corporations--including Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo--have helped the Chinese police state spy on and prevent information from reaching its subjects.

. . . .

Those who place little stock in the possibility that China will slowly evolve into a pluralistic state emphasize its inherent and longstanding historical weaknesses, the widening gap between haves and have-nots, corruption, environmental devastation, ethnic and regional divisions and the fragility of financial institutions. Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China (2004), wrote that such weaknesses are more likely to tear China apart than lead to a peaceful transition to democracy. But Mann believes that the centripetal forces within China remain strong. For most of its history, China has been able to maintain a remarkable stability and territorial integrity. Fatalistic views of China are just as wrong to assume collapse as is the idea that commerce will automatically lead to democracy.

. . . Even academics, who a few decades ago were limited to teaching Mandarin or lecturing on their esoteric specialties, are influenced by the powerful network of money and business opportunities related to China. A "lexicon of dismissal" has developed that shields China from criticism.... Mann also complains of pejorative labels borrowed by American media from the Chinese state media. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and the Dalai Lama, for example, have been branded "troublemakers."

Mann does not obsess over the modernization of China's military, but does find that the odds of a rise in China's belligerence are increased by the nation's inability to evolve politically.

. . . .

He proposes a new American emphasis under which economic, military and diplomatic interests should come first, not the abstract notion that purchasing Chinese-made clothing and toys would somehow convince a hardheaded authoritarian regime to pursue a different sort of relationship with its more than one billion subjects.

. . . .

Mann's warning not to equate economic change with democratization should be contemplated with extreme seriousness.

Professor Eaton's complete discussion may be read at the Taiwan Review.

James Mann.
The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression
New York: Viking Adult, 2007
144 pages
ISBN: 0-6700-3825-3


Lee Min-yung, poet

The Taiwanese poet Lee Min-yung is the subject of a story by Joyce Huang in the Taiwan Review (reprinted in Got Poetry?).

Lee stands as a leading light in the Taiwanese literary movement even though most of his own poems are written in Mandarin Chinese rather than Taianese, his mother tongue. Musicians here know Lee as the author of texts in several of Tyzen Hsiao's best known compositions, including 'Ah, Formosa!', the 1947 Overture and the Ilha Formosa Requiem.

'I was born in 1947 when the 228 Incident occurred. [228] marked a stark contrast between life and death,' Lee says. . . . 'But only in my late teens did I come to apprehend the post-228 societal abnormality, and become agonized by the fact that my predecessor generation of Japanese-educated poets was mostly silenced as a result of the official linguistic shift from Japanese to Mandarin.' Unimpressed by KMT propaganda, Lee was more inspired by the cultural legacy left by independent-minded Taiwanese writers such as Yang Kui (1905-1985), who protested oppression under both Japanese and KMT rule in his work. He also respected writers of his father's generation (mostly born in the 1920s) who struggled to overcome linguistic barriers so they could write well in Chinese.
Through these role models, Lee learned about the history of Taiwan, which was not even taught in local universities in 1970, when he became a history major at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung.

. . . .

Since 1971, he has introduced international poems to Taiwanese readers, focusing on the translation of works by contemporaries. He says he is inspired and moved by how 'free people can use literature as a tool to maintain their free minds in difficult circumstances.'

'My intention was to map Taiwan in a global context . . . instead of constraining Taiwan within the "Greater China" myth,' he says. Lee professes esteem for Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who served in the Polish resistance during World War II and refused to bend to the will of the Communist Party during the Cold War.

Lee, a professor of literature at National Taipei Education University, is this year's recipient of the National Award for Arts in literature awarded by the National Cultural and Arts Foundation. Fired by the same independence of spirit as his French literary heroes, Andre Gide and Paul Valery, Lee has generally turned down government awards and projects.

This orientation began with his 1970 rejection of the Outstanding Young Poet award so he could remain soberly critical of the conservative establishment and politically advantaged groups.

Lee has accepted private awards in the past, including Wu Yung-fu's Cultural Criticism Award in 1990, Wu Cho-liu's New Poetry Award in 1992 and Lai Ho's Literature Award in 1998. He decided to accept the National Award for Arts this year because he thinks it highlights the contributions of his generation of post-war poets.

Lee will accept the award on their behalf.

The generation he honours is known amoung poets as 'the darkroom generation.' The designation itself comes from a poem Lee wrote in 1983: 'The Dark Room.' In it Lee describes the surreal quality of living in a world where reality is one thing and official 'truth' another.

It is a world
Fearful of bright thoughts
It blocks and silences
All the cries
Truth exists here
Only in its negative form
A tiny bit of light
Can destroy it all.

Poetry collections by Lee from the darkroom years include:

Our Island (1978)
A Flower on a Scorched Land (1979)
He Loves Birds (1981)
From the Window Behind the Iron Bar (1981)

Lee, father of two daughters, has maintained his distance from government projects in part by working as a teacher, copy editor and real estate manager while continuing to write. Even so, Taiwan's democracy period has seen him as prolific as ever. Collections published in more recent years:

Landscapes Under Martial Law (1990)
Inclining Island (1993)
Sonatas in the Soul (1999)
If You Ask (2001)
Congratulations to a brave artist.



Auld Lang Syne

Here's wishing you joy in the new year. Shinyin kweile!


Auld Lang Syne
Taipei 101
Tainan, Taiwan
2008 January 1

© Alton Thompson