Monday, May 2, 2016

A Taiwanese State of Mind: Of Localism and Identity


I may not have Taiwanese kiddies, but I do have Taiwanese kitties.

There are two things that are complicated to approach as a liberal foreigner who watches Taiwanese politics (especially through a non-expert lens, such as myself): which party to support, if any - certainly many Taiwanese have yet to find a party that appeals to them - and how to essentially support localist, to an extent "populist", movements.

Until the inception of the New Power Party, feeling a bit uncomfortable about the centrist rhetoric and general corruption (though not nearly as bad as the corruption of the KMT), not to mention the seeming incompetence at pushing their own platforms and ideas rather than simply reacting to KMT initiatives, I tenuously, uncomfortably, supported the TSU (Taiwan Solidarity Union). I liked their straightforward clarity of thought in the idea that Taiwan is not a part of China and this is just a logical conclusion based not only on history but on the reality of Taiwan's current situation and general public will. Their very rational pointing out of the fact that Mandarin was never the native language of Taiwan - it was forced on the Taiwanese by the KMT, who, when they came here were more of a colonizing force flanked by quite a few political refugees, but then took over the place and acted as though they had the right to rule despite nobody in Taiwan having much desire to be ruled by them. What is an unwelcome occupying force? A colonial one. Duh. Their noting that transitional justice simply has not been adequate, and many Taiwanese families still do not know what happened to their ancestors in the White Terror and martial law era.

All very clear, all very obvious.

But I never quite felt comfortable with my own support, because while at various protests and events the TSU had always been welcoming to me, there was a distinct underlying impression that many of their supporters did secretly believe in the idea of Hoklo nativism and tended, with their "Taiwan for the Taiwanese" (implication: Taiwanese = Hoklo) rhetoric, to drive away other groups in Taiwan , like Hakka and the various aboriginal groups, who might have otherwise tended to agree with their pro-independence platforms. I'm sure some of this is KMT propaganda, but that aside, reading their own literature, from the TSU as a source, also carried this impression.

I guess I always wondered if their "Taiwan for the Taiwanese, let's all speak Hoklo" rhetoric, despite their friendliness to me, would eventually morph into anti-foreigner sentiment in general. I'm a foreigner. How can I possibly feel totally comfortable with that?

So when the NPP (New Power Party) came along, it was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, an unashamedly pro-independence party that is socially liberal as I am, has made worker's rights a central tenet of their party platform (though I feel $26K in their 'fight for 26K' is actually too low), an anti-death penalty, strongly pro-LGBT party I could really get behind, with the added benefit of being founded by student activists and other Third Force powers that I have supported in the past. Plus, they are nationalists in that they believe, without reservation, in de jure Taiwanese independence, but they are not isolationists in the sense that so many nationalist parties are (from their platformThe New Power Party advocates that Taiwan actively participate in international society, that it should uphold conscience and defend human rights and justice more, and that it should carry out its international responsibilities.)

Finally, a party I can fully support, right?

Well, I'm still not so sure.


It has gone largely unnoticed, but the New Power Party is one of the groups resisting changes to the laws regulating foreign workers in Taiwan:

On top of that, loosening the requirements will play into the hands of employers who wish to maintain the current low salary structures. So far, several of the newly elected legislators, including the New Power Party (NPP) caucus, have publicly spoken out against the modified draft.

This is a bit of a blow - in that it blows quite a bit.

A few thoughts about the proposed changes to laws regulating, well, people like me. Foreigners. First of all, this sort of sentiment bothers me in similar ways to my not-unconditional support of Bernie Sanders. Sanders too, and many left-wing populists like him, seems to think that easing immigration restrictions drives down salaries, despite little evidence that this is actually the case and some evidence that it is, in fact, untrue. From the Washington Post article:

Today, he likes to talk about his opposition to it in humanitarian terms, calling guest-worker programs semi-slavery. But at the time, Sanders's public comments reflected on the economics of the program — specifically, his concern that bringing in guest workers would drive down wages for low-income Americans.

So, with my discomfort at Sanders touting - or having touted - an economic anti-immigrant platform that I don't support, obviously it would bother me the the New Power Party in Taiwan has taken up similar rhetoric.

Truly, we are not the ones driving down wages in Taiwan. We are right there with you, tryin' to earn a crust of bread through labor. To take an old cliche - why is the NPP pointing at foreign labor as a cause of stagnant wages? We are going after the same crumbs, yes, but look at your bosses, who took the whole damn cookie.

Honestly, the proposal to eliminate the minimum salary requirement and the onerous hiring requirements is a no-brainer, because Western white collar workers won't take less than what the law regulates anyway unless they have a reason not to, and even non-Western white collar professionals from, say, the Philippines or India, do expect international-level salaries. I doubt anyone in that segment of society, even from considerably less wealthy countries, went through a long education to become a professional only to take low pay in Taiwan. The folks who want to see restrictions eased don't want to accept stagnant pay any more than Taiwanese citizens do!

The few that would take such pay cuts or who would need to get a job without having the requisite Master's degree or two years' documented experience in the field are not that great in number and are not much different from local Taiwanese. They are not going to undercut locals - they're just not. They don't want to. They aren't quite me - I am an English teacher and corporate trainer by profession and with an APRC the rules don't quite apply to me. But, they are people like, say, a twentysomething who wants to live here but not teach English, and yet struggles to find a non-teaching job because the law keeps many firms from hiring people like her. Who isn't trying to take what Taiwanese have but rather just wants to build a good life for herself, and loves living in Taiwan.

It feels unnecessarily draconian towards an economic end that hasn't been shown to actually be a problem, and oddly self-destructive for the New Power Party for two reasons:

The first is that they themselves support greater international participation for Taiwan. Allowing more foreigners to come here and work without having to teach English (or wait until they are established enough in their fields that the low salaries on offer in Taiwan do not appeal to them) is a great way to do that. It would certainly help alleviate the feeling that Taiwan is a professional backwater.

The second is that, hey, young liberal twentysomethings - which is who most of these new workers would be - are natural allies to the New Power Party! The majority of them are the sort of workers-rights-loving, LGBT-friendly, anti-death-penalty, environmentalist, Taiwan-loving progressives that the New Power Party would be wise to court, if not for their votes (we can't vote) then for their international presence and ability to use soft power to share the cause of Taiwan with the world.

How better to raise the profile of Taiwan in the international sphere than to make it easier for this demographic of young folks to come, work here, fall in love with Taiwan and then go home raving about what a great country it is? How it is not China and deserves more from the world?

In short, we are natural political allies, NPP. Please don't do this to us. Don't throw us under the bus when we're not the ones who are taking the Taiwanese workers' cookie.

Set your sights instead on the bosses, business owners and powers-that-be who are taking your cookie.

Another reason this is problematic is that it diminishes hope for wannabe-permanent immigrants like us who are not sure we can stay forever simply because there is no viable path to citizenship for us (which is again done purposely, and is again extremely racist as the government allows its own citizens to have dual citizenship), and a lack of citizenship causes problems in our daily lives that may cause many to decide to leave. As I've written, we may be among that cohort someday.

Why should this matter?

Well, both the Taiwanese independence movement and the Third Force/student activist/New Power Party have been accused of being 'populist' - that they channel not only grassroots anti-elitist - in this case anti-KMT - sentiments (an essential component of populism) but, as an inevitable outcome of that, nativist anti-foreigner - in this case anti-China - sentiments. That they are extremely localist to the point of wanting 'Taiwanese independence'  along the same lines as UKIP's "Britain for the British" or Trumpian "Build That Wall!" rhetoric.

First, some thoughts about populism. It's definitely got a bad reputation these days - think THEY TOOK OUR JOBS-style anti-globalization, pro-isolationist right-wing anger. But the original term "populism" comes from the idea of "from the people", and doesn't necessarily have to mean everyday people and Joe the Plumber types being anti-foreigner. That's right-wing populism, but the term itself has several possible definitions, including left-wing populism which only really shares a strain of anti-elitism with other versions but otherwise tends to appeal to a socialist sense of community and shared resources.

Yet, if you perhaps think that being a part of the UK isn't the best thing for Scotland but are not necessarily an isolationist/splittist/anti-foreigner type, or you think maybe the EU isn't quite working for you as a country but are otherwise more or less a socialist, or think that Taiwan ought to be de jure independent from China but don't see that nationalism as being anti-China but rather pro-Taiwan, you tend to get lumped into the right-wing populist camp by critics, whether you belong there or not.

And I don't think Taiwan belongs there. I really don't.

It is possible to be in favor of creating your own nation - in favor of self-determination in fact - but not an ethnic zealot nor an anti-foreigner isolationist. This is where I feel Taiwan's future is.

There aren't many countries or territories in Asia that have managed to build nations without an ethnic foundation - I can only think of Singapore and Hong Kong off the top of my head as being truly internationally diverse (others, such as Indonesia, Burma and India, are multi-ethnic but all ethnicities are local). You don't have to be Malay or Hokkien to be Singaporean, and you don't have to be Cantonese to be Hong Konger (although the Chinese government has something to say about that, wanting only people of Chinese ethnicity to be Chinese citizens and creating a problem of statelessness in Hong Kong).

I know I can never 'be Chinese', nor would I want to be. That's an ethnicity, and I am not ethnically Chinese. But there are countries - mostly Western ones - where you can 'be' that nationality without having to be a certain ethnicity. I do wonder, however, if I or someone like me could ever 'become Taiwanese' the same way one can 'become American', not only in official name (it is possible, just often insurmountably difficult, to get ROC citizenship) but also in the public consciousness. If Taiwanese doesn't have to mean Hoklo or "Han Chinese", if it can include aborigines and Hakka (whom I realize are technically Han, yes) and the children of Taiwanese with foreign spouses, can Taiwanese also mean, say, someone like me? Or, even more fittingly, a 'foreigner' who was born here? Could I actually live the 'Taiwanese dream', or is that closed to me because of my ethnicity?

I like to think that it could, and for every "you're a foreigner and you'll always be one even if you were born here", I feel like I meet someone for whom the "multiethnic diverse nation of Taiwan" idea is not only not crazy, but actually inviting. Who is happy to admit that Taiwan has had such a tumultuous history and is home to enough different kinds of people that being Taiwanese is a state of mind, not an ethnicity you are born with.

I like to think, anyway, that Taiwan might be something of a thought leader in Asia in this area. Certainly despite some setbacks it is a progressive nation by Asian standards.

This feels, to me, like a natural platform to support for the pro-international-engagement New Power Party, so again, it's disappointing that they're adopting the same problematic 'immigrants are a problem' rhetoric that a lot of lefty 'populists' really need to get out of their system. It certainly isn't going to come from the KMT (are they not the architects of the original anti-foreigner citizenship and worker laws?), the DPP doesn't seem particularly interested, the TSU, as above, is a bit too nativist, but I am actually surprised it's not on the NPP docket. If they're trying to differentiate themselves from the Taiwan = Hoklo reputation of the TSU, this is a great way to do it.

But getting over this "don't make it easier for foreigners, they're lowering our wages' hump seems like it's going to be a problem. If we can't even change the laws regarding who can work here as a foreign professional, how are we going to create a path to 'being Taiwanese' - to making it realistically possible to get citizenship and live here as regular adults and not eternal guests?

I want to wholeheartedly embrace the NPP...but again, as a foreigner who just wants a better life and isn't looking to take anything from Taiwanese, who is most definitively not holding the cookie that's been kept from local low-wage workers, I'm not sure I can. They don't seem to want to let me live the 'Taiwanese dream' any more than any other party, and it's a damn shame.

Do better.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A serious case of Credit Card Head


So, is it just me, or is this image horribly sexist?

This sort of thing bothers me because while it's intended to be cute or funny, it reminds me of latent sexism that, in other situations, I've been surprisingly able to avoid in Taiwan.

For example, for years I've been sitting on a half-done 'dealing with sexism at work for foreign women in Taiwan' post that I haven't published because honestly, since I left my former job where sexism was something of a problem, I haven't really had to deal with it so I'm not sure what to say about it - and my own attack strategy of saying 'that's sexist, cut it the hell out' might be a tad too direct for readers who maybe are looking for advice on a more nuanced approach.

And maybe I just broadcast how picky I am about not hanging out with guys who say sexist bullshit, but I really don't meet a lot of guys who say sexist bullshit (could be me though, if you know me you might imagine that I might pre-emptively scare the douchebaggier men off - not a bad superpower to have).

And when I look at the staff breakdown of finance and banking offices and see far more women both in cubicles and in management- or executive-level positions than in the US, because women in Taiwan have traditionally been trusted with money and budgets in a way that American women (traditionally) have not.

Aaaaand when I point out things that are obviously sexist to me - like men who are insecure about the idea of their wives or girlfriends earning more than they do (even if they don't have a problem with high-earning women generally or other women earning more than they do) - while a few have admitted to having this insecurity, pretty much all have been able to understand that yes, that is indeed sexist rather than offering up a bunch of evolutionary biology nonsense excuses that are also sexist.

So, mostly wins, no?

But this? This is a loss.

It's the Taiwanese equivalent of all housecleaning product commercials featuring obviously feminine-gender-role-oriented mothers doing chores, except worse, because at least there's a lot to praise about being a parent who can successfully maintain a clean adult home. There is nothing praiseworthy in the idea of being cute enough that you can go shopping and your boyfriend, who is basically a walking piece of plastic to you, will pay for it all so you don't need to worry your pretty little head about it.

Also he'll dress super preppy and carry your bags for you when you buy so much with his money that you can't carry it all. Nothin' against preppy-dressin' guys (hi Brendan) but come on.

Basically I see this as a microaggression - a seemingly small, innocuous thing from a bank I don't even use, but that reminds me of larger issues that most of the time I can safely forget about. Just like the odd local exclaiming how good you are with chopsticks and asking when you are moving back to your home country reminding me that as much as I feel like I live a normal life here, there are people who look at me and don't see another typical Taipei resident, this reminds me that as much as I can pretend people don't see me as different, lesser or in a subordinate role to men in my daily life, that a lot of people do. So many so that either the Hua Nan bank thought this piece of garbage would appeal to them or, more likely, whoever created the ad didn't even realize how laden with assumptions about gender dynamics in a relationship it was, and thought it was just normal, all guys finance their girlfriends' shopping sprees and all gals either let them or expect them to do so.

Which then makes me think, 'how many random guys do I walk past, briefly talk to, have everyday exchanges with who actually think that men are providers and women are spenders, and what does that lead them to assume about me?'

Which is not a productive line of thought, but that's what microaggressions do. Just like wondering 'how many people do I meet every day who treat me normally but actually see me as an Outsider?' because someone expressed surprise that I have more than a rudimentary grasp of Chinese.

And it makes me wonder how many women play to the stereotype - and how I can't even criticize them if this is the life they've chosen to lead (haha j/k I can criticize whomever I want and such women are not a credit to my gender and the judgier, less-nice side of me absolutely judges them even as I try to be better than that). How many women do want to be 'rich housewives', how many do want a boyfriend who mostly exists to look good, carry bags and finance shopping trips, and if you actually like him that's a bonus (then when he treats you horribly you cry to your girlfriends in your Prada dress about how awful men are)? And how many of those women exist, and date and interact with men, who then have a real-life basis for their stereotyping of women as perpetual dependents who exist to spend their money?

(Note: this is not the same thing as being a homemaker as a plan you've come to because it is the best choice for you and your family, I'm talking about expecting men to finance your shopping whims just because you're an attractive woman).

Anyway. I've wasted enough time on this thing. I just wanted to complain about it. It's bad, and its creator should feel bad.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An Unexpected Sun Yat-sen: Luzhou Wanderings


So a few weeks ago on a rainy Sunday we decided to trek out to Luzhou to see the Li Family Mansion (not to be confused with the Lin Family Mansion in Banqiao or Lin Antai house near Xinsheng Park, which I just found out recently used to be located very near where I live).

First, I strongly recommend you have a read of the Li Mansion's English introduction - it's just sort of wonderfully off-kilter:

In 1895, the Ma Kuan Treaty was signed, surrendering Taiwan to Japan. To console the sadness of losing their homeland to Japan and to meet the needs of a growing family, the Lee family decided to expand their estate in its current location.

Yeah, okay, I'm so sad that one colonial power signed my island off to another colonial power that I'm going to expand my house on that island  makes PERFECT SENSE you guys. Sure.

Anyway, we didn't get to see it. The photo above is not of it. We got to the entrance only to learn that we'd taken the MRT out to the 'burbs for naught: the family was praying to ancestors that day and the home was closed to visitors.

Oh well.

So we decided to see what else we could find in Luzhou. We didn't expect a lot, but what we did find is a testament to how much fun it can be to wander in random neighborhoods in Taiwan. I'm not going to tell you where all of these places are, the point is to wander and find interesting places for yourself. All I'll say is that they're in the vicinity of Sanmin Senior High School (三民高中) station.

We found an old farmhouse in surprisingly good condition, with a brick pattern I associate with Qing-era Taiwanese architecture, an old wooden door, picturesque greenery and interesting old tiles:


We found a hideous new luxury apartment building construction site, erecting something that is meant to be private residences but looks like a surprisingly unattractive church:


So beauty!


We found a giant friendly leopard spotted cat:


...and as far as I know Luzhou isn't near the sea, so can anyone tell me what's up with the sidewalks decorated with crabs? Are Luzhou crabs famous and I had no idea? Where do they get the crabs?


We found an old Japanese-era mansion at the far end of a parking lot hidden behind some buildings off a main road:

And most interestingly to me, we found the crumbling homestead of a family with a sculptor ancestor:


Basically, I was looking over the gate and pointed out that the courtyard was full of random sculpture as well as a scooter, implying someone lived here despite its somewhat dilapidated state. Take a look just in front of the house on the right - what do you see?


Well, hello Dr. Sun!


So as I was taking photos a guy came up and wanted to get in the gate - it was his house. I figured we'd better head out and not bother him (I'm happy I did not lift the unlocked gate to investigate - not a cool thing to do at a private residence) but first I just had to ask how he came to have a random Sun Yat-sen in his front yard.

Turns out his grandfather or great grandfather (it wasn't clear) had been a sculptor and had made it - and the others in the yard.

Finally, in a random lane as we were looking for the first Japanese-era mansion (which was mentioned in some travel literature somewhere), we found another mansion! I'm not sure of the age of this one but it says 1930s or 1940s to me. Something about the color of the bricks and the window shape. I could be wrong, though. I'm certainly no expert.

This place was obviously a private residence with a well-kept courtyard, so we satisfied ourselves with peeking over the fence.


But of course, Luzhou is still Luzhou, and it wouldn't be the slightly-dinged-up Taipei suburbs without some random thing on the street: 



I really hope they weren't trying to use that thing to sell ladies undergarments, but somehow I fear they were.

Happy wandering!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Confucian values" are not the problem

So I was reading this article linked to by a friend on what's wrong with Taiwan and its approach to the business in the post-industrial era. 

And I have to say, I didn't care for it. I didn't absolutely hate it, but it missed the mark in a few key ways.

First, I'll give Stocker points for referring to Taiwan as a 'nation' and 'country' and not using the old 'island' cop-out that so many pussyfooting writers do. Thank you for that. More people should be so brave as to speak truth to power or just, I dunno, use language to describe a situation realistically. I don't know why that's so hard for so many writers, publications and weak-willed editors. All it takes is a backbone and some damn principles. And realistically, Taiwan is a country. It is a nation. It is also an island, but using that as the de facto descriptor is devaluing and belittling. I have trouble taking journalists writing on Taiwan seriously who do this, so much credit to Stocker for not doing so.

And he's right to criticize the ODM mindset that lower costs and ramped-up production based on what other people are ordering, absolutely. Taiwan can't compete on price. It just can't. That's not going to change. It's time to find something new.

In his words:

Taiwan’s four decades of economic development were built largely on a single business model: winning export orders by delivering a quality product at a lower price (aka CP Value). Despite the increasingly uncompetitive nature of this business model, and in spite of sales of millions of copies of books like Blue Ocean Strategy and Value Proposition Model, Taiwan has failed to break its reliance on the CP Value model; not much unlike a college student who continues to rely on mom and dad for money after graduation.

I can't honestly disagree with that.

He's not wrong, either, to criticize the educational system, which sees fantastic scholastic achievement but mostly in the realm of test scores, and even then, much of it is the result of the private after-school cram school industry:

The business environment as far as I can tell is a reflection of the classroom. People are trained into this way of thinking/acting over 16 years, and when the company they join reinforces this mode of operation, people just default to what they are used to.
“When each individual is taking his/her own test, you aren’t going to build a very innovative culture. No experimentation. No exploration. No observation. No conversation. No debate.
Sure, but I'm not sure that's the biggest reason for business problems in Taiwan.

I used to defend Taiwan's educational system more vociferously, but I've grown more disillusioned with it the more I learn about it. I will not, however, go as far as some commentators do and say it teaches Taiwanese kids to become drones incapable of critical thought. No, it doesn't do that any more than the American public school system, which is still very much in an Industrial Age mindset, does. And anyway, it's not like Taiwanese don't learn to become critical thinkers - they do, just not from school. They learn it from their families, their friends, from life. Just like most other people in the world, including Americans. I was lucky to have a few decent teachers who really were dedicated to teaching us to think, but honestly, I could have gotten through school fairly easily simply memorizing what I needed to know and regurgitating it. Often, I did, and did my real learning in other ways (such as through my parents' extensive library). But I don't think American public schools were any better at teaching me critical thinking than Taiwanese schools are at teaching it to Taiwanese kids, so please lay off on that stupid supremacist stereotype. We are not any better. That's not to say the Taiwanese system is great, just that our pot is pretty black too.

Hell one of our most famous folk songs includes the lyrics "20 years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift"!

Hell, if the education system were really to blame, Korea and Japan would be stagnating too in terms of brand reach. Both have education systems not that different from Taiwan's. Japan has its own economic turmoil but nobody doubts its international branding, and Korea just seems to keep climbing the ladder, outshining its old Asian Tiger rival, Taiwan in economic growth and global visibility. China, too! China is a bit of a rollercoaster economically, but people are touting it as the next great superpower, and it is already a global economic powerhouse. China's educational system is, if anything, far more repressive than Taiwan's.

So no, there is plenty to criticize about education in Taiwan but it is simply not the reason why business and international brand reach in Taiwan have been stagnating.

As for "no conversation, no debate", has Stocker walked down the street in Taipei on any given day to hear people sitting around outside their homes or the stores of their friends/neighbors debating issues of the day? Has he hung out in cafes overhearing student groups meeting to talk about politics and the way forward for the country? I have. In fact, I feel like I come across this more often in Taiwan than in the US, where "public discourse" seems to now mean throwing insults at each other over Facebook and saying stuff like "it's people like you who..." and "you [insert pejorative catchphrase here] make me sick" and "typical neocon/fundie/liberal/SJW crybaby". (To be fair, I argue with people on Facebook too, but I never stoop to that. It shows a lack of ability to support one's views with evidence).

People do converse, and they do debate. They experiment, too. Have I ever told you about my student who - as a child - would throw cats to determine their mass and velocity and tie firecrackers to lizards' tails to see what would happen? I mean, that's animal abuse and it's wrong, but you can't say he didn't experiment.

As for "Confucian values":

This leads to one of the big three challenges facing Taiwanese business as he sees it: Confucian values.
Says Stocker: “Unfortunately, too many Taiwanese are afraid to tell their boss what is going on and what should be done. Taiwanese employees don’t feel they have the right to make decisions, and for this reason they refrain from communicating (anything) with their superiors. There is no debate, there is no challenging of the status quo; there are no crazy ideas. The boss has to do all the talking, and over time since he/she is doing all the talking, he/she starts to do all the thinking as well. We end up with these incredibly flat organizations, with a boss on one layer and all employees on a second layer. Employees wait for the directive from the boss, and ignore anything coming laterally from co-workers. They also won’t collaborate with other employees to find an idea to work on, because the only relationship they need to attend to is that with the boss. It is very hard to be innovative when the only interaction is boss-to-employee in a downward direction.”
I mean, yes, I do often see a 'keep your head down, do as you're told, don't rock the boat' mentality in businesses in Taiwan. He's not wrong on the results, just on the reasons behind them.

Perhaps I'm just sick of the stereotypical invocation of "Confucian society" as a Western rejoinder to every issue they see in Taiwan. Don't like something or find it different from your own culture? Assume it's worse, and blame Confucius! It's so easy! You could practically make stickers or emojis to express this sentiment in shorthand. Certainly all you have to do is go to an expat bar in Taipei to hear it. And I'm sick of it.

Because again, if that were really the problem, then how come the issues uniquely affecting Taiwan are not affecting Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong or China, or at least not to the same degree? They are all "Confucian societies" too, and again, while they have their own economic woes, they're not facing economic stagnation in quite the same way or for quite the same reasons as Taiwan is.

So clearly, "Confucian values" are not the reason.

What do I think are the main reasons?

Because what I think is important, at least on this blog?

They are wage stagnation, exhausting work culture, brain drain (a direct result of the first two) and China.

So here we go:

1.) Wage stagnation

Stocker almost gets it, here:

To the converse, if you as an individual do come across a good idea, you are going to keep it to yourself, and when the timing is right you will ‘start your own company’.

Do you, Mr. Boss Man (because you are probably a man, maybe you even have a top had and monocle or just secretly wish you did), want to know why your employees aren't sharing their great ideas with you?

Do you think it's because of "Confucian values" and all you have to do is tell them to make more decisions, talk more to each other and be responsible for their own roles as they play into the success of the company? Is that why, Mr. Boss Man?

Let me speak for Mr. Boss Man: "Yes, that is why. I shall tell my employees to talk more and make more decisions when we have our next annual meeting."

To which I say, no. That is not the reason.


I know this because I used to be someone's employee too. I used to have great ideas for how to improve our materials, our seminars, our support, our non-existent training. Years later, holding a Delta (meaning I'm now qualified to professionally assess the quality of my previous ideas), I still feel I had some great input.

I never bothered to share it with the company, though, because they didn't pay me enough to make sharing it worth it to me. I wouldn't see a pay bump, or a promotion. There wasn't a job to be promoted to. I would see precisely no benefit from sharing my thoughts with that company...why should I have given them my creative output for free, so they could profit and I could stay in the same place?

No, I kept my ideas to myself, created my own materials, syllabuses and teaching style and used it to build my own freelance business where I charge a rate commensurate with my abilities - a rate my former employer would never have paid me.

And that was the smartest thing to do.

I don't know anybody in Taiwan who would think "I have a great idea but I'm not going to tell the boss because she really cares about the chain of command and will see my speaking out as insubordinate."

No, every decent boss, "Confucian" devotion to hierarchy notwithstanding, knows a good idea when she hears it (there are plenty of bosses who aren't so decent, but let's assume enough of them get to be bosses by having some sort of talent) and if it is going to make her money, won't care where it came from.

More likely that worker thinks "I have a great idea but I'm going to keep it to myself because these people don't pay me enough to give a damn how successful their company is. It doesn't benefit me at all to help them make money while I continue to be underpaid and overworked, whereas I could stand to benefit a great deal from pursuing my idea on my own".

If you pay someone freakin' peanuts, they will give you monkey work. They may not actually be a monkey, but you will not be motivating them to talk to you with their most innovative ideas. Did anyone else read Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, in which one of the protagonists invents the idea of advertisements on chopsticks through screens that can cycle through different images/ads? And he notes that that invention made his company billions, and all he got was his regular paycheck as always?

That's how it feels when you give your best at work, throw your crazy, wonderful ideas to the boss, and watch the company make scads of money while you are consistently underpaid. You might get promoted, but wages are so stagnant in Taiwan that not even that job is going to pay you what you are worth and what you might expect in literally every other developed country in Asia, if not the world.

Again. There is no incentive to do anything but save your best idea for yourself when you know you will continue to be underpaid even if it takes off wildly after telling your boss.

And no amount of "tell your employees to collaborate and speak openly!" is going to change that, Mark.





Until companies do, they can expect more of the same. You can't just tell people to hand you their good ideas if you show them through their lousy paycheck that you don't value them. They're not going to, because they're not stupid. And if employers don't like that, they can suck it.

Final note - if you beg the question in your article with an assumption that people in Taiwan don't think/experiment/debate/collaborate/innovate, and then go on to say they take their ideas and start their own companies, doesn't that contradict your first point? Doesn't striking out on your own with your own idea require a huge amount of chutzpah, experimentation, thought, collaboration and innovation?

If Taiwanese really were indoctrinated into being mindless drones who always listen to their boss in the hierarchy, they would be happy to drone on in their jobs. But they're not - they're starting their own companies. This is clear evidence that they aren't educated to just obey the system.

And I say bully for them!

2.) Exhausting work culture

I think this one speaks for itself - how are you going to come up with your best ideas and find creative new innovations, solutions to problems in the company and market, or come up with the next big thing, if you are constantly exhausted? If you are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week for less money than you'd be making in - again - every other developed country in Asia if not the world, constantly on the verge of nodding off, and not doing so because your brainwaves are so high on the creative process that you can't sleep but simply because you're doing your regular old job, you just aren't going to be an asset.

In fact, studies show that more than 6-8 hours of work per day leads to decreased, not increased, productivity. And working people much more than that leads to a steep decline - you get literally no benefit, and in some cases you start to feel a deficit, in productivity from pushing your employees to work longer hours.

How can we fix this?

Simple - hire more people. Stop asking A-Chen to do the jobs of 3 people and then knowingly lie to him about it being possible to finish in a normal 8-hour day. A-Chen knows you're lying and you do too. (Again this may be a reason why he's not giving you his best ideas - you overwork him. You don't appreciate him so he doesn't appreciate you. What did you expect?)

Hire 3 people to do the jobs of 3 people (I mean for Christ's sake the math isn't even hard, come on guys) and pay them fairly, at internationally standard rates. Sure, this will cost you money, but you'll get it all back and more as your company roars to life.

Also, when you are expected to stay late as nothing more than a show of loyalty, or expected to do more than you can reasonably do in one work day, you tend to rebel, don't you? At least I do. Taiwanese employees don't sit on Facebook because they're lazy or unproductive. They're rebelling in the only way they can - by giving monkey work to employers who treat them like monkeys, regardless of how creative or innovative they actually are.

I don't blame them. I would too. Fuck the Man.

You may think I just have a bad attitude, and yeah, sometimes I can. But you'd be surprised if you met me (or if you know me) to see that I actually do work very hard (I'm currently teaching something like 30 hours a week, which is quite a bit when you factor in grading and lesson planning) and when I feel valued, I share my ideas and give a job my all. I really do. I'm even pleasant to be around, I swear!

You want better work? More innovative staff? Start treating your employees like people.

3.) Brain Drain

This is a direct result of the first two problems. Again I don't blame those who leave - if office work in Taiwan were the option I was looking at if I stayed, I'd leave too. No thanks. Pay me what I'm worth and let me go home at 6, or I'll go abroad. Bye!

4.) China

I won't spend too much time on this, but I do think it's a factor. What does every country not have to deal with that Taiwan does? China openly and actively trying to undermine its economy to make annexation easier. Few people seem willing to admit this, fewer still are willing to debate it. It's obvious to anyone who cares to look - I mean hell, China admits it openly! They can and do interfere with Taiwan's ability to negotiate economic agreements with other countries and are quite open about the reason being that a weakened Taiwan is a Taiwan that's easier for them to take over. They are quite open as well that economic talks are, for them, an entry point to later political talks that they aim to "win".

This is not news.

China is actively trying to repress Taiwan's economy so as to render it both hopeless and economically dependent on China, for reasons that are obvious to everyone with two eyes and ears and a brain to process input with.

And that's why we can't seem to get the economy off the ground.

Why am I so sure it's these issues, and not the ones Stocker points to (real issues though they are) as the true mechanics behind Taiwan's economic stagnation?

Because they are the only ones unique to Taiwan. Wage stagnation is not a problem on the same level in South Korea, Japan or Singapore, and even China pays competitively now on the relatively prosperous urban east coast. (Hong Kong is another matter - wages are globally competitive but the cost of living has skyrocketed, especially vis-a-vis housing, to the point that it doesn't feel that way to locals). It's the same for the threat from China. Brain drain doesn't seem to be much of an issue for other competitive Asian economies - if anything they're the ones getting Taiwan's best and brightest.

Exhaustion at work is an issue common to other countries in Asia, and as such may not be the key driver, but I felt I should mention it because it is such a massive problem.

Want to fix whatever is holding Taiwan back?

Start here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Wen Meng Municipal Brothel (文萌公娼館) and a Datong photo walk


So this past Sunday, despite the crap weather, we decided to get some exercise and hang out in a part of Taipei I love, but don't get to return to often: Datong/Dadaocheng. I have a 2-volume book kicking around called Historical Sights in Taipei that I often use to determine landmarks by which I plan my urban roving, and Brendan and I came across an entry I was quite curious about: the Wen Meng House (文萌樓) at #139 Guisui Street (歸綏街), just west of Ningxia Road (Guisui is a little bit north of Minsheng). It's closest to MRT Shuanglian, and you can get there by walking through a fairly atmospheric old warren of streets if you stay off the main roads - though in this 'hood, even the main roads have crumbling colonial architecture.

The Wen Meng House was apparently opened as a municipal brothel in the 1950s - back when sex work was legal in Taiwan. It was closed in the late 1990s when sex work became criminalized, but the women of COSWAS (a sex worker association) are fighting to keep it open as a historical site and small museum. You can read more about it here.

That article was from 2012, and writing from 2016, I can say the building is still around and still marked as a historical brothel, so it seems no final decision has been reached on the fate of the property. It is, however, locked and nobody is around to let visitors in. There is an active shrine/temple next door but I didn't want to ask, though in this country I'm not so sure a temple would be morally opposed to sex work. They do have sexy temple dancers, after all.


As a sex-positive person and pro-historical preservation urban dweller, I obviously side with the women trying to preserve the site. This is an important part of their history, and is one of the things that makes an urban place more human - by remembering how things were in years gone by as well as acknowledging that sex work, well, exists. It has always existed and will always exist.

Though obviously I acknowledge the rampant exploitation in the sex work industry, and am well aware that a huge percentage of prostitutes are exploited or enslaved, I'm not in theory opposed to legal sex work provided by unexploited escorts of any gender, and legalizing it would make it easier to find and punish traffickers. 


The bandanas tied to the door say "pardon sex work", and I assume the photos below are of the press conferences and political activities of the sex worker association as they fight to preserve the property. Godspeed!

I do view this as a women's issue, and an issue of women's rights. Not only should sex work not be stigmatized or penalized (though traffickers certainly should be), but women should be free to do what they want with their bodies - we all should, in fact! If that means selling sex for money and that's what they want to do, let them do it, regulate it, tax it, protect the workers who choose to engage in it, and otherwise, stay out of the bedrooms of others.

And I do think this is possible in Taiwan - first of all, it's less controversial than the "comfort women museum" (which despite controversy I actually support - women's stories too often get shunted to the side, especially if they are doing something others find 'unsavory' such as sex work - puppets get their own museum but not women who were legitimately forced into sex slavery?) And secondly, as I've explored in the past, Taiwan is not the sheer bastion of conservatism that many believe it to be. Commercial sex work was legal until 1997 after all.

And by all means, let the women have their historic site!




Historical Sights in Taipei, by the way, has a hilariously awkward English rundown of the site:

The indoor compartment or layout of this well-preserved house also reflects the spacial needs and functions of the early-time sex business with the particular atmosphere of a public whorehouse still emanating.

Great, except I wouldn't know what the atmosphere of a public whorehouse is? And if you look over to the Chinese, it gives you the Chinese word for, specifically, a public whorehouse (公娼館)...did not know that was a word in Chinese. Nice.

Anyway, just wandering up from Shuanglian along Wanquan (完全街) Street and assorted lanes yields all sorts of interesting sights of a slightly crumbly, gritty neighborhood:



And some tiny alleys lead to interesting things indeed, including antique stone tools in private courtyards (photo taken with permission of owners but not their angry little dog):



...and cool syncretic temples that feel kinda Dao and also kinda Buddhist:



...and I thought I was the only Taipei resident to have a Chen Chu spring scroll (I have one from the year of the horse, with Chen riding a bicycle, which those who know what it would mean for Chen to be depicted riding a horse - perhaps with stirrups - might find as a missed opportunity, albeit purposely so). Chen Chu is the well-liked mayor of Kaohsiung, not Taipei!


By the way, I don't have one for year of the monkey. If any Kaohsiung resident has one lying about that they want to send to me...

I also liked this lovely hand-painted sign:


Sunflower sympathies run deep in Datong - Mr. Hong here was just one of several campaign posters and banners we saw evoking the symbols of the 2014 student movement that occupied the legislature for over two weeks. The actual student activists are not necessarily comfortable with this association or possible appropriation of their name by DPP candidates (I have no idea how close Mr. Hong here is to the student movement). 


...and Datong wouldn't be Datong without its weird little asides:


There are legit other sights too, if you want to walk around the neighborhood. Further north along Chongqing you'll come to this old facade, with an ugly building behind it. The facade itself seems to hold a Starbucks, which I gotta say is a pretty cool Starbucks...for a Starbucks:


...and a turn onto Ganzhou Street will lead you to a Presbyterian church built in the early 20th century, with an ugly-as-actual-sin newer church attached behind it like a tumor that has grown larger than its host. The address is #40 甘州街.


And you'll pass the requisite temples and shrines, of course. This area is also quite near a well-known Earth God temple you may want to stop at. 


If you want to head westward, to the very end of Taipei, walk back to Guisui Street (a bit to the south of Ganzhou) and take it all the way to Lane 303, which is quite literally the last tiny little lane before Huanhe Road, the seawall, and the river delineating the city limits. Turn right and you'll reach the Koo family mansion at #9 Lane 303 Guisui Street, which is now a kindergarten. This was built back when Danshui River trade was much bigger than it is, and the ground floor was used for commerce. The Koo family resided upstairs. This, and the Chen residence further south (on Guide Street between Xining and Huanhe, south of Minsheng) are the only two surviving mansions along the river that I know of, and they don't even border the river anymore. The hideous Huanhe Road does. 



Along the way, the walk is a veritable choose-your-own-adventure of crumbling architecture. Dihua Street of course holds many of the best-preserved examples, but quite a bit exists along Guisui, Guide, Ganzhou, Anxi, Xining, Minsheng, Yanping, Chongqing, and other roads. Just take a wander, See what's out there.



The theater of the lovely little puppetry museum on Xining Road just south of Minsheng: 


...a falling-apart building on either Minle or Anxi Street:


A lane off of Anxi Street:


The old Chen mansion, on Guide Street (#73貴德街). The backside visible along Xining over the wall, in a mess of overgrown shrubbery and trees, is creepy in a haunted-house sort of way. You could probably keep a hermit in there.





An old house along the park where Anxi and Minle meet above, and a crumbling edifice on Anxi below.

This whole area, especially the park to the east of Dihua Street where these roads meet, is starting to show the early signs of gentrification, with cafes and bookstores beginning to pop up. 


Gentrification, to my mind, is kind of okay as long as local residents benefit (though usually they don't), though I have to say it's a bit of a shock to see my old walking grounds, where I was the only non-neighborhood local around, just me and some old folks and kids, now being full of walkers and tourists on a Sunday afternoon. I'm OK with economic development and all, it's just...weird. At least it means these old architectural treasures are more likely to be preserved. If they draw crowds they're not as likely to be razed by developers. As long as they don't turn into some crappy uniform "Old Street" selling the same shoddy souvenirs as Daxi and Sanxia...



We ended the day by being tourists ourselves, stopping at 217 Manor (in a block of old gray shophouses on Dihua Street north of Minsheng) for coffee to perk up and then a beer to wind down.


Independence indeed!

And then walked down to Nanjing Road to catch transportation home, stopping along the way in my favorite Chinese medicine pharmacy to play with one of their many pets (they also have another cat, an overweight dog and a surly gray parrot).