Monday, April 19, 2021

Recent immigration reforms in Taiwan are a mixed bag



The cabinet has just approved a new draft amendment that would relax requirements for foreign professionals coming to Taiwan, including those enrolled in postgraduate programs in Taiwan.

As an immigrant myself, it makes sense to be generally in favor of streamlined immigration requirements. But I’m ambivalent about this

On their face, the relaxed rules are fine. I don’t see any good reason to make foreigners wait six months for National Health Insurance coverage if they’re committed to being here for at least a year, and it’s smart to encourage talent cultivated by Taiwan — graduate students at Taiwanese universities — to stay here. 

The enhanced tax incentives, immediate NHI coverage and shortened permanent residency eligibility period apply to “foreign special professionals” — that magic, golden class of foreigners who glitter all the more in comparison to everyone else, who is apparently garbage.

I'm not at all sure that these are the issues that would tip a "special" professional towards coming to Taiwan if they had doubts, with the possible exception of the NHI coverage, as health care is likely a major consideration when making such decisions.

I’m also concerned that these changes target the wrong issues and add yet another layer of elitism to already stratified regulations. While the government has moved quickly on “foreign special professionals”, they neither invest in the foreigners who are already here and committed to Taiwan, nor do they address the horrific human rights abuses and poor working conditions endured by foreign blue-collar workers, most of whom come from Southeast Asia.  

The amendment would also relax requirements for foreign teachers coming to teach subject classes at schools for the children of foreign professionals. Frankly, I do think some  requirements for working in Taiwanese schools can reasonably be relaxed — ask me for examples if you care. However, the lack of specificity in the announcement is jarring: what requirements will change, exactly? The students are children of foreign professionals, who all presumably speak English already, how does this do anything to support the Bilingual by 2030 plan? 

A friend of mine has been having trouble in one such “bilingual school for the children of foreign professionals”, dealing with teachers who create unprofessional materials including a “textbook” that consisted of printed-out Wikipedia pages. Such schools need more professional teaching expertise, not less.

The original draft called for graduates of “Top 500” universities to be allowed to work in Taiwan without the requisite 2 years’ related experience or a Master’s degree. However, that clause was dropped.

That’s a shame, as I supported it. Though I have no idea how “top 500” would be determined (most ranking systems are questionable), it would ensure that prospective immigrants won’t feel they need to teach English to come here. I am in favor of any regulatory change that reduces the non-serious people in my field. If they’re better at doing something else and don’t want to be in a classroom, let them, and leave teaching to people who actively choose it — even if they require training and experience, as I once did. 

So, it’s disappointing that the most promising clause in the amendment was dropped. What’s left is...okay. I’m not against it, but I’m not impressed.

As someone who went through the 5-year wait for her APRC, I have no particular desire to force that on newcomers. And yet from my experience, a five-year wait is an entirely reasonable requirement, especially now that it’s easier to change jobs. I suppose it's a positive change for those with graduate degrees from Taiwanese universities, however: student visas don't count towards the permanent residency clock, but Taiwan would be wise to incentivize such people to stay.

I have no opinion on tax incentives, but it sure feels like offering more benefits to the already-privileged. And everyone should have faster access to NHI, not just Special Magic Wizard Foreigners. 

I can’t help but compare this to the very minor recent improvement to working conditions for foreign blue-collar workers. Starting this month, most of these workers are now being provided with work documents in their native languages as well as Mandarin, rather than Mandarin only. 

That’s great, but frankly, I’m shocked that that wasn’t already the case (and embarrassed that I hadn’t realized it wasn’t)! How did take until the Year of Our Good Lord Baby Jesus in Goddamn Heaven Twenty-Twenty-Fucking-One to make this happen? Seriously?! 

It’s disheartening that the government can move so swiftly to accommodate the already-privileged, but can’t seem to get basic human rights sorted out for the vast majority of immigrants to Taiwan.

You can whine all you want about how it’s the Taiwanese government’s prerogative to “attract” certain “talent”, but the cold fact is that Taiwan needs these workers to keep the economy running way more than they need some tech bro. The fishing, the factory work, the elder care — those jobs are at the solar plexus of Taiwanese society, not whatever Craigstopher McJuggerton from Indiana will be doing here. I will freely admit that what they do is more vital to Taiwan than what I do, as well. 

It's not that I think the Splendiferous Glitter Foreigners shouldn't be welcome in Taiwan. Of course, they should -- but it's already pretty easy for them to come here. The people at risk of indentured servitude or outright slavery perhaps have more pressing concerns.

Finally, it annoys me as a long-termer that the government still seems to be unaware that there are foreign professionals who are already here, who are already committed to Taiwan, and what most of us seem to want is a realistic shot at dual nationality. 

At the risk of sounding like a big baby whinerpants, I’ve recently become aware that the path to dual nationality for someone like me is even more narrow than the existing one. For an educator, the requirement is to become an assistant professor. However, for language teaching professionals, there are essentially no such positions. The very few exceptions I’ve met merely prove the rule. Were I to get a PhD, the most I might reasonably hope to achieve in Taiwanese academia is an annually-renewed “lecturer” contract and very little access to research funding. Even that is rare: most new hires are low-paid adjuncts. The language teachers who are professors are generally Literature or Linguistics specialists who’ve been asked to teach language classes. 

So, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll never be a “professor” in the sense that the government requires. That job simply doesn’t meaningfully exist in Taiwan in my field. And yet, that is the requirement to apply for dual nationality. I could “publish in major international journals” (most likely without research funding), but I’ve been too busy training the teachers the government says it wants to cultivate!  

All this despite the government saying repeatedly that it wants to elevate the quality of language teaching in Taiwan, and therefore ostensibly wanting people like me as part of Bilingual by 2030. 

I’m not against these new rules. I wouldn’t even call my ambivalence “jealousy” because I’ve managed to carve out a good life here, get my APRC, and cultivate a career I’m passionate about. Hell, I went to two “Top 500” universities (whatever that means). I have NHI and neither need nor want tax incentives. It is a little depressing to see how pointless it would be to get a PhD for career-related reasons, but that’s a personal issue. 

Rather, the ambivalence stems from annoyance: the relaxed regulations aren’t a bad thing, but they don’t do much to the kinds of immigration reform Taiwan actually needs.  

Friday, April 16, 2021

Mythbusting Bilingual by 2030

I dunno, this just seemed like a good photo to illustrate the current debate around Bilingual by 2030

There is an ongoing series of interesting and worthwhile dialogues in Taipei affiliated with Fulbright and Taiwan NextGen which include discussions of the Bilingual by 2030 initiative: there's one tomorrow, (most likely today by the time you read this). Having attended the last one, I am considering returning, but I need to be available for last-minute feeback and questions for trainees who are doing their teaching demonstrations on Sunday, and I'll always prioritize them. 

However, I thought this would be a good opportunity to "mythbust" some common misconceptions about Bilingual by 2030. I've noticed a lot of people believe things about it which are simply not true. Others have decided what they'd like their opinion on it to be without giving it a fair hearing: it's so tempting and easy to project one's already-extant beliefs about English being a harbinger of Big Bad Globalization onto it, without fully considering where it may have merit. 

I'm not here to tell you if it's a "good" or "bad" plan, although I can say that I started out highly cynical, but was gradually won over by dedicated professionals who saw a lot of good in it, and have been doing what I can to ensure it's implemented in a thoughtful and effective way. If my mind can be changed, I hope yours can too. 

"Taiwan wants to prioritize only English and Mandarin, that's why it's called 'Bilingual' by 2030"

The name "Bilingual by 2030" is certainly sub-optimal, and cringey tweets from Vice President William Ching-te Lai don't help correct the view that the plan sidelines and potentially threatens a renewed interest in local languages. I strongly suspect many negative opinions of the policy come from hearing the name and pulling a face. I agree: it sounds pretty bad. The NDC document (linked in the next section) re-iterates that Lai and others have expressed this English-Mandarin binary, however, it does not incorporate this view into the actual policy:

Side by side with implementation of the bilingual nation policy, equal importance will also be attached to the promotion of native-language culture. Taiwan in the future will be a nation of diverse ethnicities and languages.The bilingual policy will be parallel to the pluralistic development of mother tongues, and its implementation will not constrain native language education.

Having interacted with the NDC on this issue, I do believe they are a few steps ahead -- and a few notches more thoughtful -- than the government at large, but the intent is there to focus on improving language education in general, not "bilingualism". 

Will this attempt to be more pluralistic and promote both English and local languages and cultures be successful? I have no idea, but this is a more egalitarian, local-context-situated take on foreign language education than I've seen from any previous policy. Frankly, it's a step forward that they thought to include it at all. 

Will implementation be insufficient? Probably, and local language education is currently insufficient as well. But Bilingual by 2030 hasn't been implemented in any meaningful way yet, so it would be odd to blame it for an already-existing problem.

If this is the case, why is it labeled "Bilingual by 2030" rather than, say, "Multilingual Taiwan" (my preferred nomenclature)? Honestly, this is just thickheadedness. The plan is based on an initiative that began in Tainan when Lai was the mayor, so it's his 'baby', and to that end, it seems that the blame for this baby's unfortunate name lies with the father. I can't say much, but I happen to know that Lai was told the name was problematic by experts back when it was a city initiative; he didn't listen. 

The subtleties of this do matter: the writers of the actual policy are clearly trying to do the right thing and craft a useful policy out of a cringey focus on "bilingualism". That said, they most likely don't have the power to demand a better name, because that's how power works. Understanding this is key to useful advocacy. 

"Taiwan wants to make English an official language by 2030"

Other than a quick review of Lai's involvement in the policy's formation, the actual policy document addresses this one time:

With regard to promoting English as the nation’s second official language, this would be studied and discussed again after 2030, in light of the executive review of the results of the bilingual policy’s implementation.

This is most likely a polite way of saying that the government and NDC don't actually want to do this, but Lai thinks they should, so they're humoring him while putting off the actual question. I merely suspect this; I cannot confirm it. But I've been here long enough that I've hopefully gained some competence in translating "Taiwanese Governmentese" into something more comprehensible. 

Whether I'm right or wrong, it's right there in plain text: perhaps the issue of making English an "official language" will be taken up in the future, but it will not happen as part of Bilingual by 2030. 

"The plan is to make every citizen bilingual by 2030"

Nowhere in the actual policy does it say this. While it does list improving the English proficiency of Taiwanese citizens as a policy objective, it very wisely does not go so far as to say that the goal is for every citizen to be forced to learn English, or for everyone to be proficient in it to some degree. In terms of language education, it talks about improving the way languages are taught, without stipulating any specific outcomes. In terms of "improving proficiency", it focuses on government employees and front-line workers who interact with foreigners regularly (such as tourism and hospitality professionals). Frankly, that seems like a pretty smart focus: they're the people who would need English the most in a more international, multicultural Taiwan. 

Improving the overall English proficiency of Taiwanese labor is also included, but it's important to note that none of the details of this part of the plan would force anyone to actually improve or learn English: the idea is to make online work applications, advisory services and handbooks bilingual, and encourage companies to offer English classes to employees. I've taught Business English for many years, and I can say that your average trainer in this field is more concerned with providing an environment to practice and enhance existing language skills -- which is the most optimal way to help trainees actually improve, though it's less quantifiable -- not crack the whip, administer tests and pour homework on already-overworked learners.

Indeed, much of the plan involves improving English-language government services, including improved websites, application services, financial services, procurement contracts and a whole bunch of other boring crap that really needed to have been done a decade ago. Who can argue that all of those things require improvement?  

This all feeds into the actual goals of what the NDC has crafted: a plan to nudge Taiwan towards offering a more welcoming international environment, not enforcing some sort of linguistic imperialist nightmare hellscape in which not speaking English or Mandarin will earn you a paddlin'. 

"The changes in education simply won't work"

Not with that attitude they won't! 

Seriously, this is the area where people's concerns are the most valid. On one hand, my professional opinion is that the language learning methodology that Bilingual by 2030 promotes is sound. 

You might say that's just my opinion, but I literally have a Master's in this, as I took a deep look at Bilingual by 2030 as part of my dissertation which focused on intercultural communicative competence. What's more, my primary work right now is in teacher training. If there are two things I know extremely well, they are intercultural communication and teaching methodology in the language classroom. I'm so methods, I'm post-methods, baby! 

CLIL (content and language integrated learning -- careful scaffolding of the learning of subject matter in a foreign language) does have promising research behind it. It helps eliminate the issues inherent in low-content, low-context "general English" classes. When you see language learners failing to learn,  common causes include sub-optimal teaching as a result of washback from inappropriate testing methods, inauthenticity (learning that doesn't prioritize or promote real communication, and is thus rendered both useless and unengaging), and insufficient exposure (extended exposure plus interaction forms the backbone of the interactionist theory of language learning -- I wrote a paper on this, but won't bore you). 

Sadly, the Taiwanese education system is plagued by all three issues. CLIL might not solve the testing issue, but it does help bypass it: if you have to learn actual content in English and are tested on the content, it matters less if the exams for your language classes are inappropriate. It creates a more robust environment with more exposure and more real content in which you have to communicate authentically in order to learn. General language classes very often lack such content, either out of fear that it's "too hard", "too controversial" or "not necessary", in favor of grammar exercises, translating sentences and the occasional boring story about boring blonde kids doing boring things. 

In short, if the plan is implemented the way the NDC clearly wants it to be, it actually could work. The methodology and theory behind it is sound, thoughtful and modern. 

However, concerns about Bilingual by 2030's viability in classrooms are valid: there seems to be no effort to reform the examination system which plagues Taiwanese education like a relentless metastasized cancer. Focus on that instead of complaining about an approach that actually has a professional stamp of approval (and not just mine). 

"It does nothing to address the wealth and urban/rural divides"

This is a legitimate concern. The policy document proffers an insufficient solution:

When the government implemented bilingual policies in the past, limitations of teachers and funding made it difficult to apply them with uniformity nationwide. But now, emerging technologies and digital learning platforms can reduce the urban-rural divide, helping children in remote rural areas enjoy the same English learning resources as their peers in cities enjoy.

Yawn. Who phoned this section in? Because it's terrible. 

There is in fact a way to bridge these societal divides: training up local teachers to be not only effective CLIL and language teachers and reforming the testing system to give them the flexibility they need to teach properly, but to recruit the best among them to be trained up and mentored as trainers, able through sheer number to reach more school districts in more remote and underserved and marginalized areas. More than one person shares this goal: watch this blog for more, someday -- I hope. 

Will the Taiwanese government actually do this? I hope so, but as of now it still seems to be stuck in a native speakerist "must recruit foreigners" mode. I'm not against foreign teachers coming here in general, but this particular initiative certainly won't help. It will create animosity as local teachers see they are being paid less than these newcomers who don't know the local context and don't speak any local language, there won't be enough of them to reach rural and underserved schools, there's no guarantee they will actually be trained in CLIL (most likely not), and no clear outline has been set for what they will actually do once here. 

"It's 2030 is totally new and overly ambitious"

Not really. The push to "internationalize" and encourage "intercultural communication" through bolstering English classes has been at the core of the education initiatives of several administrations. At the turn of the century, English classes were introduced in elementary school, in Grade 5 and later Grade 3. Aims included “improving students’ basic communicative competence” and “addressing cross-cultural issues”. In 2015, the Ministry of Education issued new guidelines with more explicit intercultural aims, aiming to cultivate future professionals who can “effectively communicate and interact with people from different countries”. You can read all about this in Chou and Ching's Taiwan Education at the Crossroad and Lin and Byram (eds) New Approaches to English Language and Education in Taiwan, or if you know me, you can ask to borrow them. 

"The turn of the century" would have been the Chen administration, though his was certainly not the first government to announce such initiatives. 2015 was the Ma administration. In fact, Bilingual by 2030 is not particularly new: it's an iteration of ongoing government initiatives.

"Bilingual by 2030 is just another iteration of the same old government initiatives"

It's not really that, either. Although it turns out I still have institutional access, I just don't have the energy right now to go and find all of those old documents. However, from my memory, they mostly stated an intention to do so, but never got very far in terms of actually changing the way languages are taught. I don't know to what extent the architects of those plans engaged professional opinions, but it doesn't seem to have been sufficient make a difference. If they had been more successful, the major exams would have been reformed by now, but they still lack any sort of communicative element; in fact, there's no speaking section at all on the English portion of the university entrance exam. 

Bilingual by 2030 has some serious issues in actual implementation, and while there's a great deal of funding, it's unclear what will be done with much of it, although some of it I can say is well-spent. 

If anything can change the way language is taught in Taiwan, it's something like this. If you asked me as a language teaching professional to come up with a plan to improve such classes, it would look a lot like this. 

"Teachers are against Bilingual by 2030"

We don't know that; nobody seems to have asked them yet. Mostly, K-12 teachers report being willing to implement more modern, communication-based approaches, but feel they can't due to the pressures -- again -- of the exams. Anecdotally, I've interacted with a lot of teachers at the university level. Although they were mostly a self-selecting group, they seemed more enthusiastic than not. What's more, a good friend and fellow classmate who teaches in a Taiwanese junior high school reports general enthusiasm for the new plan among younger teachers. She added that the (mostly older) teachers who gripe about it are generally concerned with being encouraged to teach using new approaches which may require additional training, which is generally not a good reason to oppose new education policies. Most peers I've talked to in teacher training start out skeptical, as I did, but changed their minds after giving the plan a close read. The general consensus is that if implemented in a principled way, it has the potential to be a beneficial approach.

"We should make Taiwanese an official language instead!" 

First, a quick reminder that the goal of Bilingual by 2030 is not to make English an "official language" by 2030. 

Second, I strongly support bolstering Taiwanese language promotion, education and resources. I would love to see that and the other languages of Taiwan -- the many Indigenous languages and Hakka -- gain such recognition and popularity. There is an element of rediscovering local identity in this approach: as I noted in a podcast with Donovan Smith, there's an argument to be made that Mandarin, a colonial language imported from China and forced on Taiwan in some horrifically cruel ways, is about as relevant to Taiwanese identity as English, which is a part of Taiwanese history as well given the historic closeness of Taiwan and the US compared to other countries. 

I am sure there are people who will hate me for saying that, but there is indeed an argument to be made. In that context, a focus on local identity is crucial, and this is one smart area for advocacy.

However, that's an argument for promoting the use of local/mother languages, not against English per se. Not everyone has to learn English, just as not everyone has to learn Hakka or Atayal. It would be great if improved teaching methods could empower learners to choose the languages relevant to them and make it easier to learn them simply because they are taught more effectively, and the teaching methods proposed in Bilingual by 2030 are promising in their efficacy. 

In other words, this isn't Highlander. There can be more than one. Of course, language learning is not neutral: the tides and eddies of imperialism, colonialism and cultural supremacy vs. erasure are inherently tied to it. However, that's an after-effect of history, not the language itself. Taiwan also has the benefit of never having been colonized by an English-speaking nation, so what it means to learn English here is not quite the same as what it means in post-colonial English-speaking societies. In fact, if the primary colonial language is Mandarin, then how is English the bad guy in this context? It is in fact possible to do better. 

Or as a friend put it, he once thought of English as just another agent of colonialism and thus opposed it. then he realized it was simplistic and trite to just slap the same anti-Western label on every single thing. When he talked about feeling brutalized by language learning -- "like they cut your tongue" -- he was talking about Mandarin, not English. 

I know it's cool to default to hating the West, and there certainly are a lot of things to hate. But I'm not cool, so I feel confident in not hating this particular thing. We can have both the local and the global. Taiwan has accomplished more astonishing things than that; it can surely succeed if it wants to. 

"Taiwan doesn't need English as a foreign language"

Many individuals probably don't, no. Learners who are not motivated to learn it would either become motivated if the learning environment were to become more authentic and communicative, or they'd continue to lack interest, in which case they would not be forced to take CLIL courses -- and that's fine too. English is not currently required for the vast majority of jobs in Taiwan, and that probably wouldn't change much.

However, as a society, I'd argue Taiwan does in fact need English, a point I've noted before. Not being particularly interested in business, I remain neutral on "international competitiveness" in industry. It's fine I guess, but it just doesn't arouse any sort of internal passion. After all, I've spent my life being surprisingly well-paid for someone who so thoroughly repudiates the idea of a corporate job.

You can talk all you want about how South Korea and Japan do just fine without high English proficiency (though it seems to me their governments push it just as much as Taiwan). However, nobody doubts the existence of Japan and South Korea as countries. Taiwan has to fight every single day for even the most basic international recognition. 

To participate in that discourse, you need English. Without making a moral judgement, you just do -- I know firsthand that activists who have wanted to engage in such participation at one point felt held back by their self-perceived lack of skill in the language. Taiwan has the power, if it wants it, to appropriate English for its own ends, as a tool to fight for international recognition.

It wouldn't be the first country where learners thought to do so, either. From a student evaluation form in Palestine sometime before 2017: 

We need to learn how to resist by using the Western language in order to convey our message and our voice to the whole world.

Sound familiar?


Hate on Bilingual by 2030 if you want, but hate on it for the right reasons. If the alternative is the way language is (mostly) taught in Taiwan now, it's honestly a huge step forward. If you want to criticize it for its proposed teaching approach, don't. Or at least, don't complain to me. 
If you want to complain that the government should not spend resources improving access in English to vital information and websites, what is wrong with you? 

If you want to criticize it for not centering local languages enough, that's fine. But remember that this isn't an either/or situation. Use that energy to advocate for local language education and use, not against English. If you want to complain that it probably won't succeed, that's fine too, but perhaps look at the real issues with implementation: the lack of proposed reform of the major examinations, the focus on recruiting native speakers rather than training local talent, the lackluster focus on local languages despite the NDC's best intentions, and the half-assed approach to bridging the urban-rural divide. This is smarter than criticizing it because it burnishes your anti-Western cred. 

This will be much easier to do if we all let go of the myths that have been built around Bilingual by 2030 and stop wasting energy talking about non-issues. There are real problems to discuss, so I propose we get to it.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book Review: Migrante

 Migrante by J.W. Henley

“Even if your case is closed and they say you can change your employer, it’s like there’s a black mark on you. You didn’t finish your contract, and the next man wants to know why. They think we’re troublemakers. Runaways. They actually think we’re out to cheat them, if you can believe it. Us cheating them,” he scoffed. “Not all of them, but enough.”

— Mak to Rizal, Migrante

Many keys have been pounded in the effort to bring attention to the working conditions of foreign blue-collar labor in Taiwan. At this point, I would find it highly suspicious if anyone in Taiwan was not aware of the way these workers are treated: fishermen worked to exhaustion in life-threatening conditions (in some cases even killed by the captains of their ships), wages withheld to the point that they are more enslaved than employed, rampant physical and sexual abuse. Domestic workers forced to work outside their contracts, seven days a week. Factory workers enduring constant safety violations, including dorms which are little more than fire traps

However, if you think that everyone is aware of these horrors, you would be wrong, as this jaw-droppingly obtuse letter to the Taipei Times illustrates. If you need another anecdote, consider my neighbor, who once insisted that the way Southeast Asians are treated in Taiwan is “not racist” because “they come from poor countries so they are more likely to be criminals”. 

Sometimes it takes a novelization — the closest one can often get to being transported into another’s shoes — to really bring home what a deep, black mark this paints on Taiwan’s human rights record. How utterly unacceptable it is, across several industries. 

Enter Joe Henley’s Migrante. Henley himself takes on an aura of Upton Sinclair in the story of Rizal, a fictional man from the Philippines who comes to Taiwan to work on a fishing boat. If the narrative reminds you a bit of The Jungle, that is clearly intentional. If you are asking yourself why working conditions in wealthy, democratic, 21st century Taiwan echo those of American meatpacking factories a century ago before the concept of labor protection was more common...well, yes, that’s a very good question indeed.

In Migrante, the various experiences of foreign blue-collar workers are teased out as Rizal interacts with his fellow fishermen, women who had been abused and raped as caregivers, staff at a cantina in Zhongli, fellow “runaways” at a shelter and finally a factory floor. (Henley addresses both the reasons behind the choice of protagonist, and why a comparatively well-off Westerner in Taiwan wrote Migrante rather than an actual migrante in the preface.)

Although a great deal of fiction weaves social issues into larger narratives, Migrante is more like The Jungle in that narrating social injustice is its main — perhaps only — goal. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s simplistic, however. Henley uses Rizal’s experiences to show that the story isn’t as simple as “Taiwanese employers bad”. Yes, the labor broker and boat captain are passively and actively cruel in their respective ways. However, Rizal is eventually offered shelter and a chance to change his job; people do show him genuine kindness. Contrast a Taiwanese government worker’s attempt to help Rizal with the way he’s treated by the Filipino broker in his hometown. Neither cruelty nor kindness know national borders.

Migrante also teases out issues that tend not to be sufficiently examined. For example, as bad as the situation is for blue-collar labor in Taiwan, in many cases the conditions they are trying to escape are as bad, or worse. Toward the end, Rizal starts talking like his employers: keep your head down, don’t complain, you’re lucky to have been offered a job. He knows as he says this that none of it is true, but the way he adopts the language of his abusers is chilling. 

I also noted that throughout much of the story, Rizal was showing classic symptoms of situational depression, an issue that affects every stratum of society but tends not to get much attention in the very poor, as issues of more immediate desperation take precedence. This may be why some people think of depression as a problem affecting the comparatively wealthy. Of course that’s not the case. It’s helpful, then, to see it portrayed here. 

I can only imagine that all of these details came out of the extensive research Henley did in order to write this book, including interviews with the workers whose experiences he is drawing upon. Oft-ignored issues like these are far more likely to be brought up when one actually talks to members of a community in order to tell a well-informed story.

If I have any criticism of Migrante at all, it’s that in some places the prose is laid on a bit thick. It mirrors The Jungle in this way, as well. It doesn’t do this in every way, however. There are clear differences in the personalities of Rizal and Jurgis Rudkus, and Migrante does not end with a discordant “happier ending” of an orator proclaiming that socialism is coming and will save us all. This is to the novel’s credit: Henley doesn’t treat us like dumb capitalist puppies who need a good lecturin’, and I appreciate that. 

It would be fantastic if the ignorant letter-writers and racist neighbors in Taiwan read Migrante, although I know they probably won’t. Those of us who are already aware of the situation should step up our agitation for change. Those who unequivocally tout Taiwan as a bastion of human rights are not entirely wrong, but would do well to reflect on areas where drastic improvement is needed. And we should all remember that when we talk about “foreigners in Taiwan”, the vast majority have experiences closer to Rizal’s than to, say, mine. 

Just as Henley did not write Migrante to bash Taiwan, I am not writing this to attack this country. Both of us call Taiwan home, and I assume both of us will continue to do so. There is so much good here, but human rights need to be taken seriously for all workers. Period. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Safety Theater


The hallway outside our apartment created jarring echoes all week. Just before the holiday weekend, we saw a notice posted in the lobby that the government would be inspecting our building for fire safety so everything -- the usual shoe cabinets, umbrella stands and benches -- would have to be stowed outside as it's all technically against code. 

The building manager also told us it wasn't clear what day they'd come, so everyone's stuff would have to be kept inside until she gave the all-clear.

It stayed that way all weekend. Early this week, an announcement crackled over the PA that they'd be coming "tomorrow or Thursday, and they're very serious this time", with a reminder to wait for a signal that everything could go back outside. 

Obviously, the inspectors have been warning buildings in advance, to give everyone time to bring their hallways up to code. I gossiped with some neighbors and the building manager, exclaiming that "this is all a play, it's like a game, it's not real safety!" The doorwoman agreed but said it had gotten worse under Mayor Ko (柯文哲).

"Didn't the same thing also happen under Mayor Hau and Mayor Ma?"

"Yes, but Mayor Ko is stricter!" she spat back.

It's true that Ko does have a reputation for being more of a stickler on things like building inspections.  But he has good reason to be: it's all fun and games until a KTV burns down, killing five

That sounds glib, but the point is few take this seriously, even though it's not a joke. People do die.

Plus, she once exclaimed in my general direction that all Taiwanese are Chinese and Taiwan is a part of China when I walked out wearing a 非韓家園 t-shirt (an anti-Han Kuo-yu pun on the anti-nuclear movement) and has made clear her disdain for any politician who is not KMT -- not even Ko is good enough for her -- so that's just like...her opinion, man.

(Despite this we manage to have a good working relationship. I'm honestly not sure how.) 

I tried to point out that Ko can't be that bad, seeing as the inspectors are still calling her in advance, but she cut me off with further insistence that he's too strict and that's bad. I suppose that safety theater was bearable when the play wasn't this dramatic?

Some of the more theatrical aspects of this whole game are so preposterous that I'm surprised they're happening in real life. Brendan and I at least tried to put on a good show, not only moving our small cabinet inside, but also sweeping the area clean. Not all neighbors did this, so when the police arrived, they would have seen very obvious dusty squares where shoe cabinets had recently sat, with the dirt in such perfectly delineated spots that you'd think they weren't even trying to hide the fact that everything had been recently removed. I considered sweeping my neighbors' dust squares too because...c'mon guys, if we have to engage in this massive theatrical dance, can't we at least make an effort?

But I didn't, because that would only fix my floor. Other floors surely have dust squares, too. And this can't possibly be happening in my building alone.

Everyone's stuff is back in the hallway now, except our little chest of drawers. We hardly use the thing; what was the sense of breaking the law just for that? It's currently in our guest bedroom awaiting a clean-up before we give it away.

I am aware that law enforcement officers run the gamut of intelligence levels, from sharp as a knife to sharp as a spoon. This is true in every country. Surely, someone -- if not a knife, then at least a fork --has noticed these dust patches in any one of the buildings they have been inspecting reveal the game for what it is. But since they're calling in advance, my guess is that not noticing is not the reason why they're not reporting.

It's hard to say what the goal is here. Is Ko aware that his own employees are undermining his attempts at improving safety protocols, but understands that changing this mindset takes time? Or does he (or, more accurately, his staff) send them out oblivious to the fact that they're acting exactly as they did back when the KMT was in charge of Taipei and didn't care?

Should the law even exist? My own building is fairly tidy; nobody keeps piles of junk outside their door. A shoe cabinet probably won't make a difference in the event that emergency egress out of the building is necessary. Most people have them: I'd estimate that more people break the law than follow it. These laws feel like they're out of sync with how people actually live, and for that reason nobody obeys them. So why have them at all?

But not all buildings are well-kept, and there are people who do leave heaps of crap in their hallways. My own neighbor once kept a bicycle outside her door. One day I exited the elevator at my floor to hear her calling for help; the bike had fallen in front of the door and now she couldn't open it from the inside. She was trapped until somebody could move it for her. Maybe the laws aren't so silly after all. And although we don't know all the details yet, I'd be willing to bet that if lots of little safety precautions had been followed, the one big mistake by the driver of the truck that hit a train in Hualien, killing 50, might not have turned out the way it did.

So, I can't take a clear position on the whether the laws are reasonable or not. All I can say is, Taipei should make a choice: either have these laws and enforce them properly, or it should change the laws. 

Safety theater hides potential tragedies in plain sight and keeps no-one safe. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

On Freedom of Speech Day, Let's Remember Nylon Deng's Story

Not enough is said about Nylon Deng (Deng Nan-jung / 鄭南榕), at least not in English. The Nylon Deng Liberty Foundation provides a great deal of information in Mandarin, but the only page in English is simply gleaned from Wikipedia. Finding resources can be difficult, as some use the Mandarin form of his name (Cheng or Zheng Nan-rong), whereas most will use the Taiwanese Hoklo version (Deng), and surprisingly, he's not the only Taiwanese person of note with the English name Nylon.

While people who care about Taiwan's history and future certainly know who he was, it would be difficult for any sort of curious Taiwan neophyte to learn more than the basic outline of his story if they were not proficient in Mandarin. 

What is written is often written by those in-the-know for others in-the-know, containing brief summaries of what we assume everybody knows. But they don't, always. 

The two best resources to do this are Wikipedia (yes...I know) and Jerome Keating's blog. When one of the best sources is Wikipedia, the pickings are slim indeed. In history books, again, he gets little mention: out of every general history I've read, he is mentioned briefly in Wan-yao Chou's A New Illustrated History of Taiwan, and gets a name-check in the preface of the latest English edition of Su Beng's Taiwan's 400-Year History, and is the object of exactly one sentence in Denny Roy's Taiwan: A Political History, where he is called Cheng Nan-rong.

This is a shame. I would go so far as to say that understanding the spirit of Nylon Deng is key to understanding the spirit of Taiwan. Among foreign residents I know, there seems to be a dividing line between those who've never heard of him and those who admire him as strongly as any locals. Among local acquaintances, again, I have politically-oriented people in my circles who view him as an icon of the struggle for Taiwan's freedom and independence, and others who have to pause at the name to recall who he is. 

I've never met someone who has learned his story and come away unmoved or unchanged by the experience, and so on Freedom of Speech Day, I feel compelled to provide a version of his story that fills in the gaps and perhaps helps to clarify why he is a hero to some, but forgotten by many. 

So, I think it's about time a more complete telling of his story was available online, in English. Let's start with the Nylon Deng Liberty Foundation and Memorial Museum, and then discuss his life and accomplishments.

The Freedom Era office where Deng self-immolated has been turned into a small museum, with the area where he died left untouched. His remains have of course been removed, but the burnt walls, floor and furniture have all been left in situ, behind glass panels. 

I urge everyone to visit: the address is #11 3rd Floor , Alley 3 Lane 106, Minquan E. Road Section 3, Songshan District (台北市松山區民權東路三段106巷3弄11號3樓). It's open during business hours and you can ring the bell to be let in. 

However, rather like most online resources, the museum is also entirely in Mandarin. With advance notice, an English-speaking guide can be arranged, and Freedom Era, the 1990s film about Nylon, does have the option of English subtitles. We were able to view it at the museum and at one of my visits, DVDs could be purchased. But that's about it. Otherwise, if you want to learn more, you're on your own.

Deng was born in Taipei in late 1947, about six months after 228. This may be one of the reasons why he became an active figure in the movement to push for wider recognition of that massacre. His father was Chinese, from Fuzhou, and his mother Taiwanese, from Keelung, and he himself noted both the significance of having one "Mainlander" and one Taiwanese parent, as well as the tragedy of his birth year. He spoke out both of his family being targeted for their background, but also of being protected by neighbors.

He would say of his background that although he had Chinese ancestry, he supported Taiwanese independence, a message that might resonate with many today. No small percentage of my friend circle, for example, have grandparents who came to Taiwan in the 1940s, and yet all of them think of themselves as Taiwanese. Even the ones who aren't particularly 'green' or 'blue' support independence; I don't know many people under age 40 who don't, and data suggest that very few identify as 'Chinese'.

Deng studied engineering at National Cheng-kung University, but found he was more interested in philosophy, at a time when students were still bombarded with KMT propaganda as part of their education. Famously, he transferred from Fu Jen Catholic University to National Taiwan University, but then walked out for refusing to take the then-required class in Sun Yat-sen Thought. This is also around the time he met his wife, Yeh Chu-lan, who became a political figure in her own right after Deng's death. I've heard stories about their relationship, which I staunchly view as none of my damn business.

After finishing school, Deng wrote for several magazines, including Deep Cultivation and Politician, and would spend hours at the Legislative Yuan listening to proceedings (which is not something I had thought one could do at that time!)

In the early 1980s he started Freedom Era, a magazine aimed at fighting for "100% freedom of speech". If you've ever seen the graphic of an open mouth in a prison cell, with one bar bent, this is where it comes from. If you have any familiarity with "political magazines" from earlier eras in Taiwanese history -- most notably the Japanese era when publications such as Taiwan Youth and Taiwan People's News were founded  -- you'll know that Freedom Era was a continuation of the tradition of activist publications in Taiwan.

The KMT government banned the magazine several times, and it was re-opened under a new name each time. It was said that readers always knew where to find it regardless of the name, and in any case, all of the names were similar. Freedom Era racked up 22 publication licenses this way; you can see the stamps for them in the museum. 

Freedom Era included contributions by many leading activists and writers of the day, including the usual Tangwai pro-independence set but also some we might find surprising today, such as Li Ao, a writer from China known now for having been anti-KMT, but also pro-unification. A volunteer at the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum noted wryly that such collaboration did not last. Wan-yao Chou points out in A New Illustrated History of Taiwan that had the democratization movement gone differently, perhaps pro-democracy 'blues' and 'greens' could have worked together more. Instead, they seemed to split among independence/unification lines.

Deng was always clear, however, that he advocated for independence; Taiwan's democratization should not be in hopes of unification, but sovereignty as Taiwan. One of the most famous snippets from his speeches is simply "I am Deng Nan-jung, and I support Taiwanese independence" -- nothing flashy or unique, but not something most people would have dared to say in 1987.

According to the preface of Taiwan's 400-Year History, Deng helped smuggle copies of the book to Taiwan. The book itself is is Su Beng's seminal (and highly editorial) history of Taiwan the first of its kind to give Taiwanese readers the chance to frame their own history as something separate and unique, not a part of any concept of "China" or "Japan". 

Many of Deng's remarks became famous both in their time and after. These include"if I could only live in one place, it would be Taiwan. If I had to choose one place where I would die; that place would be Taiwan." And, in a sense of dreadful premonition, "the KMT will never take me, they will only take my dead body" and "I'm not afraid of being arrested or killed, I'll fight them to the end." 

Back to the story. This cat-and-mouse game continued with the KMT, and one can only imagine the extent to which Deng himself was aware of how it might end.

In the mid-1980s, Deng served a few months in prison for violating censorship laws. In 1987, helped organize 519 Green Action -- a protest on May 19th at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall demanding an end to Martial Law, which was lifted in July of that year. It's hard to say who attended the protest as so many turned their backs to cameras, but one might guess that many were ordinary citizens.

Shortly after Martial Law was lifted, Deng initiated a campaign to push the government to designate 228 as a national holiday. To this day, Deng's brother, co-activists and the Nylon Deng Liberty Foundation and others collaborate on efforts to boost the remembrance of 228, most notably a march through the area where the incident occurred. The march typically covers the site of the Tianma teahouse where Lin-Chiang Mai was beaten for selling cigarettes illegally, the Executive Yuan and the radio station in what is now 228 Peace Park where protesters took over the broadcast and asked all of Taiwan to rise up against the KMT. 

By 1989, the year of his death, Martial Law was well over, Chiang Ching-kuo was dead, and Lee Teng-hui had succeeded him. Lee does not deserve direct blame for Deng's death, certainly the sorts of reforms he pushed through against the protests of a reticent KMT took time (did you know that some Taiwanese political prisoners remained behind bars until the early 1990s? Here's just one example). However, I think it's important to remember that when Deng died, the Chiangs were gone and the man credited with a critical role in democratization was at the helm. The world isn't simple; things don't always make narrative sense. 

In 1989, the KMT moved to arrest Deng for "insurrection", as he had published a proposal for a revised constitution. It is unclear when Deng had begun collecting cannisters of gasoline, but he stayed in his office for about 70 days as friends brought him food and water. Remember, he'd also said the KMT would never take him, only his dead body (國民黨抓不到我的人,只能抓到我的屍體). Anyone with forethought would have understood what he was planning.

Then, a police charge led by Hou You-yi -- now the popular mayor of New Taipei and possible 2024 KMT presidential candidate -- attempted to charge his office. Rather than be taken, Deng poured the gasoline he had collected around his office and set himself on fire. He died in the blaze, which was covered by Formosa TV.

Here is something else you should know: that footage can be seen in the film Freedom Era. It's extremely difficult to watch. I shut my eyes for much of that part; I just couldn't. Even so, I could hear Yeh Chu-lan screaming on the tape. As much as I might like to, I will never forget that sound. 

A few years ago, Hou came under fire for some stunningly insensitive remarks about the Nylon Deng tragedy: that they weren't just trying to arrest a man, but also "save a life". 

There are no words for this. Even if Hou was unaware that Deng had been collecting gasoline cannisters -- and perhaps he was -- he would likely have known that Deng had said the KMT would take nothing but his dead body. Maybe he thought it was a bluff. Perhaps he truly believed no lives would be lost that day. Somehow, however, I believe he was aware that a person with a spirit like Nylon Deng was never going to come quietly. I believe he knew that Deng's words were sincere, and went in anyway. 

This is the man who might run for president in a few short years. As long as I've lived here, I don't think as a foreigner if it's my place to show up alone at a Hou 2024 rally carrying a massive sign which is simply a picture of Nylon Deng, holding it silently in the air. But if he does run, and any of my Taiwanese friends want to do it, I'd be happy to help both make and hold the picture. 

Deng's funeral procession was massive: there's a film about this too. Thousands of people turned out despite threats of violence, and if I remember correctly, much of the organization was handled by the Presbyterian church in Taiwan. I don't recall if Deng himself was Christian, but he'd worked with the Presbyterians before, and a pastor had met with him shortly before his death (link in Mandarin). Apparently, at that time, he pointed at a cannister of gasoline under his desk, announcing his intent to self-immolate if the police attempted to arrest him. 

As the funeral procession got underway, not only was Deng's daughter, Deng Chu-mei, attacked with acid (she was unharmed), but Chan I-hua 詹益樺, a fellow activist, also self-immolated on what is now Ketagalan Boulevard, in front of the Presidential Office, when the police would not let him pass.

Although I can't remember the source, I have a memory of photos of Yeh Chu-lan and Deng Chu-mei soon after Nylon's death, as Yeh stepped into politics. It's heartbreaking. Deng, in elementary school when her father died, also drew a picture of him in Heaven, asking him not to smoke or eat too many sweets, along with a poem: "My father is like the sun; if the sun is gone, I will cry and cry, but still I cannot call it back."

A friend of mine once told me that Nylon Deng knew that his self-immolation could be the spark that would ignite pro-democracy and pro-independence activists and get done what needed to happen for Taiwan. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that despite admonishments that Deng is being forgotten, not everyone has let his memory slip away.

His death has inspired the spirit of independence activists who came after him, many of whom visit the museum annually. I wouldn't be surprised if some were to go there today.

Taiwan in 2021 sits at the crossroads of what seems like an impossible situation: China refuses to renounce the use of force to annex the country, but the consensus of the 24 million people who live here is that this can never be allowed to happen. It is unclear to what extent the world would step in if China were to invade, and I think it's likely they are intending to try eventually (although it's difficult to say when). 

What resolve can one muster in the face of this, if not indomitable spirit to keep fighting and refuse to let the CCP have this country? Whether you think self-immolation was the right choice or not, Nylon's will to not give in is what has continued to inspire admirers from his death until today.

In the 1990s, the Freedom Era office where Deng died was opened as a museum, as mentioned above. It's free to visit, but only open for limited hours as the staff are volunteers.

In 2014, not long before the Sunflower Movement, students at Cheng-kung University in Tainan fought with the administration over naming a public square after Nylon Deng. The administration rejected the students' vote, and one professor even likened him to an "Islamist terrorist". Yeh Chu-lan and Deng Chu-mei invited the NCKU president to the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum, though I doubt he went. 

In 2016, the Executive Yuan named his death Freedom of Speech Day, although there's no accompanying day off as with other national holidays.

Over the years, Deng's words continue to be enshrined in Taiwanese music. "If I could only live in one place, it would be Taiwan, if I had to choose one place where I would die; that place would be Taiwan" can be heard at the very end of Dwagie's Sunflower, and "Nylon", his song focused on Deng -- which takes on the rhythm of a Buddhist sutra more than a rap -- uses many of Deng's own words, including the darkly prophetic quote about his self-immolation, and features vocals by his widow, Yeh Chu-lan. Chthonic also has a track (Resurrection Pyrehonoring Deng, with what I believe is a fan-made video. Indie rapper Chang Jui-chuan included him in "Hey Kid", a song about those who fought for freedom in Taiwan and the lessons a father hopes to pass on to his children about their struggle.

In addition to the tributes by some of Taiwan's most well-known musicians linked above, Deng has also been memorialized in visual art. Most recently, a now-closed exhibit at the Tainan Fine Art Museum -- Paying Tribute to the Gods: The Art of Folk Belief -- imagined Deng and Chan as guardian gods. Their neon likenesses reminded one of Matsu's Thousand-Mile Eyes 千里眼 and Ears on the Wind 順風耳 as they stood guard over a ceremonial palanquin at the center of the final exhibition room. Around the palanquin, one could read paper-based ephemera from their lives, as films played on screens at the back. One of the films, of course, was Freedom Era. 

I'm not sure exactly why I'm telling you all this. I'm not from Taiwan. I suppose I have no cultural or ancestral right to consider Nylon Deng a hero, but I do. I can see why new generations of politically-minded Taiwanese do, too. 

So rather than complain that not enough people are aware of Deng's legacy, or that his spirit is not being suitably honored, I figured that the best I could do was to recount the story on Freedom of Speech Day 2021, in English, in as complete a form as I am capable of, so that more people might know. 

Try to remember in 2024, when it will really matter. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Review: The Lost Garden

As with the fictional garden in the title of this novel, it's hard to know where to begin with Li Ang's 1990 classic, not always clear which path you're on, nor where it will bring you, nor where or whether exactly it ends. If other writers use framing devices, spiraled time or narrative parallels in their work, Li Ang turns her story into a literal garden path. 

Li Ang 李昂, not to be confused with the famous film director, is the pen name of Taiwanese feminist writer Shih Shu-tuan 施淑端. Well-known in Taiwan, most notably for her 1983 novel The Butcher's Wife, very few of her works have been translated into English. She's known for her frank engagement with politics and criticism of the KMT, her feminist critiques of patriarchy in Taiwanese society, and her even more frank exploration of psychosexual themes and female desire. 

The two main stories -- the first of protagonist Chu Yinghong's childhood in the garden with her spendthrift father Chu Zuyan, worried mother and household staff, the second of Taiwan's booming real estate market and the seedy nightlife of the nouveau riche that boom created -- gracefully curve around toward each other, then away in a series of figure 8s, or infinity symbols, or two garden paths that intertwine in places but may or may not connect at the other end. 

Yinghong's childhood is partly the honey-hued memories of a child: the gossip of the staff, looking through carved windows shaped like vases, her father spending time in different parts of the garden, her mother's perfumed nightgowns. And it's partly the dark undercurrent of Taiwan's White Terror: her father had been sent to prison, only freed because it was thought he would die, and is still being watched. 
Smaller stories wend themselves away from this central path as well: how the garden came to be, the odd names of some of the pavilions, such as "Flowing Pillow", the flowers themselves, a teacher at school, a fire deliberately set, her father's purchases, something Yinghong once wrote in an essay which places her character as the inheritor of Taiwan's older and often crueler history. Some are dead ends, some meander back into the story. Some look as though they are going toward one pavilion but then turn abruptly toward another. 

On the other path, an adult Yinghong resolves to win the affections -- marriage, though perhaps not love exactly -- of real estate tycoon Lin Xigeng, despite his known carousing and previous marriages. Metaphorically, the story works: Lin is the 1970s "Taiwanese Dream", the new real estate boom, the Asian Tiger moneymaker. One reviewer described him as seeming like a 'white phoenix' rising from the ashes of the old Taiwan Yinghong knew, as well as Gatsby-like in his chasing of his gold-plated dreams. I'm not so sure about that, as Lin doesn't appear to have any sort of inner life; if he does, from Yinghong's viewpoint we get no sense of it. The main thing she seems to want from him is the funding to renovate her family's garden.

That, and sex. Li Ang explores the different ways their sex life manifests, and the feelings it engenders: trepidation, titillation, desire, dissatisfaction. There is perhaps a sense that she ends up trading her sexuality for an unsatisfying marriage to a fundamentally unappealing man in order to get what she wants for her family's legacy, which is tied up in a curse handed down from one of her ancestors. At the end, Yinghong realizes exactly what it is the curse has taken from her. 

Before that, though? Reader, there is quite a bit of blowjob. It do I say this -- very much a lot. These pages explore Yinghong's inexplicable combination of desire and reticence or even perhaps revulsion, and they are exceedingly graphic. To this reader, that much time spent with an unappealing man's penis also felt like the literary equivalent of an unsolicited dick pick. I suspect, subtextually, this might have been intentional. 

Everything about Lin and his 'set' is portrayed as crass: superficially glittering (in one venue the ceiling is literally spray--painted gold) but ultimately cheap. Where she begins to see a marriage with him -- the old and the new together -- as a path forward for a modern Taiwan, she ends by realizing that she alone is the true inheritor of Taiwan's past, and he is means to an end. Look for this in one of the final scenes: he may carry on affairs and act like he's king of the island, but in that garden he is lost without her. 

That Chu Yinghong is portrayed as more sympathetic than Lin Xigeng (who feels more like a cardboard cutout than a man -- that is, a cardboard cutout with an exceedingly annoying penis that just keeps popping out whether you want it to or not) is the inevitable result of a narrative that contains semi-autobiographical elements. Li Ang, after all, was born to a wealthy Taiwanese family in Lukang which stood against the KMT. 

The garden path I most enjoyed meandering down was the political one. Rather than explain in dull detail how Li Ang uses botanical metaphors to achieve this, I'll share a passage: 

Ignoring objections from elders in the clan, Father went ahead with his plan. He disagreed with their practice of imitating Mainland garden architecture, including planting similar trees; the saplings they had taken so much trouble to find on the Mainland would not necessarily thrive in Taiwan. 

‘Why plant trees that won’t do well in the local climate? It’s better to grow indigenous trees and flowers,’ Father continued in Taiwanese. ‘Your children may be born in the year of the dog or the pig, but they’re still your own flesh and blood.’

Pines from the frigid zones baked in the harsh sun of central Taiwan for nearly half the year and lost the resilience of evergreens in the snow, where deciduous trees wither till the spring. They manage to put forth anemic needles on shapeless branches. The pines were dug up and replaced by star fruit trees. 

The star fruit trees came in mature forms, though many leafy branches were trimmed for the transplanting process. When spring arrived, tender, green, delicate leaves sprouted with impressive vitality. With the autumn wind came blankets of red flowers, so tiny they weren’t particularly attractive by themselves, but the concentration of many shades of red presented an eye-catching yet sorrowful beauty, especially when blown off to the ground by strong winds. The ground was covered with small flowers, like blood-red tears. 

With the arrival of winter, the tears disappeared, as if they’d shed their last drops of blood, and were replaced by small star fruit hanging on the trees like tiny green stars....but soon afterward, the starlike fruit began to fall, until not a single one was left. This time Medan explained that the newly transplanted trees needed time to recover from the uprooting and branch trimming before they could properly nourish the fruit.

Oof, right?

Comparisons are drawn to many of the historical gardens and homes across Taiwan. You can see in the description of the garden and the family that inhabits it -- as well as its placement in the distant suburbs of Taichung -- something of the Wufeng Lin family mansion. In the 'old Taiwan' aesthetic and silted-up port, you see Li Ang's hometown, Lukang. In the meandering garden paths and pavilions, perhaps a shade of the Banchiao Lin family garden. 

These implicit comparisons invite the reader to consider the ways such old families have shaped Taiwan, especially when Yinghong is asked why she chose a private management trust for the Chu garden rather than donating it to the government. Notably, the Lin Family Garden in Banchiao chose to work with the government (which is why the entry fee is so low). The Lin Family Mansion in Wufeng chose to continue private management. 

Chu Yinghong explicitly addresses this, asking why she'd give her family's garden to the government that oppressed her father. 

It's a good question, and teases out the ways that politics, money, cultural heritage and love (or lust) can shape individuals, families and a nation.