Sunday, May 1, 2022

Anxiety, COVID, and Me

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The National Museum of Prehistory, Tainan


I haven't been blogging as much as usual for two reasons: the first is that we're about to leave for a necessary trip to the US in less than a week. While I'm excited to see friends and family after years away, it's stressful to plan a pandemic trip, and the timing isn't our choice: there are some things that require our personal presence in the country of our citizenship.

On top of that I had two writing deadlines for Taipei Quarterly. Expect a post about that in the upcoming months; I think it'd be relevant to Lao Ren Cha to do a rundown of all the restored heritage buildings they've been having me visit. 

The second reason is plain old anxiety. COVID has finally hit Taiwan for real, and handed an outbreak that probably can't be reduced to zero anytime soon, the government has abandoned COVID Zero and taken up a mitigation strategy. In my anecdotal experience, the populace seems fine with this.

Perhaps they're tired of the looming threat of lockdowns, or perhaps they've been watching the unfolding disaster in China and don't want their country to go down the same path (which I doubt would happen regardless). Perhaps they feel safer as most Taiwanese are now vaccinated. Nobody really wants all restaurants and cafes to close again, though I haven't actually been to a restaurant or cafe in weeks.

I have seen more caution -- stricter mask wearing, more use of hand sanitizing stations -- but there's one area that has me deeply uncomfortable: the lack of a return to working from home wherever possible. Sure, some offices are re-adopting those policies or offering flexible work-from-home options, but it just doesn't seem to be the imperative that it was when we had case numbers in the hundreds, before crushing that outbreak. Now we're above 10,000 a day, and people who don't need to go to the office are still going.

Few seem as worried about this as I am, and I acknowledge that my opinion is both out of step with about half of public opinion and fueled in part by personal anxiety. I have a trip coming up for which my presence is crucial in two states at two different times, at the risk of some serious setbacks. I can't get sick. If I do, I can't go. If I get sick in the US, I can't travel, but have no good isolation options (and miss the things that really need to happen). If I get sick towards the end of the trip, I can't come back. Anyone would be anxious about this. 

While I've been telling myself the worries will ease once the trip is done, that certainty slips by the day. 

If everyone is fine with face-to-face work, that means a lot of the work I'm offered will be in-person as well. I don't particularly want to say yes to in-person training (my English teaching work is all online; only teacher training is in person), but I may not be given a choice. And while we're not broke, I can't exactly choose to turn down work and play housewife until it's all over. 

In other words, if everyone else is fine to continuing in-person work, I feel pressured into accepting it, too. I don't have enough of a financial cushion to say no forever. Yet I don't want to do it. I want the option of going online, of being able to say I'm not comfortable with this and still have work.

There is no good reason for this attitude on the part of employers. It seems that most just don't particularly feel like making remote work the norm until this outbreak begins its hopefully inevitable decline. It's not very scientific, and it's not rational. Nobody wants a full lockdown -- I don't support that either -- but it's just not logical to go out often and spend lots of time indoors with other people's germs in the middle of a major outbreak, if one does not absolutely have to. 

There are employees who don't mind going to the office, of course. One of my students pointed out that she likes her coworkers, plus there's always free coffee, drinks and snacks (it's true, that particular office is very strong on all-you-can-consume snacks and beverages). But mostly, I want to know why employers seem more accepting of an outbreak at their office. 

I don't love it. I don't support it. I don't want it. I am deeply uncomfortable with it. And there isn't much I can do about it. Cue the anxiety. 

So I haven't been writing much, because I just don't know what to say when all I can think of is don't get sick don't get sick don't get sick don't get sick. 

There's a lot I want to talk about, too. From an upcoming post on restored Taipei heritage buildings to an exploration of the way the KMT is trying to replace Taiwanese democracy activism with ROC stories from China to the utter preposterousness of the notion that "the US funds Taiwan independence separatists", I have things to say. Just no will right now to say them.

Maybe I'll find my mojo again -- get my groove back or whatever -- when I return from this trip. Or maybe I'll become a weird hermit who stores her pee in jars. Who knows?

Perhaps it's normal for bloggers to just take breaks, and I need one now. Maybe that's fine too. In the meantime, I guess you'll find me behind an N95 as I travel the northeast corridor of the United States, or at home dusting my pee jars.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Asian Boss interviews political party officials in Taiwan and doesn't disclose that fact


KMT official Eric Huang (黃裕鈞) being interviewed by Asian Boss, who didn't disclose his position. But hey, at least he calls Taiwan a country!


After the last debacle with Asian Boss, I was hoping I'd be done forever with them. Vox pop interviews aren't a very good way to gauge public opinion, but I'd hoped they'd learned their lesson after the last time they set up a fake "street interview" with a deep blue Youtuber and got caught immediately. We know they use these tactics because the videographer they tried to hire for that interview talked openly about how Asian Boss approached them and what they were trying to do. 

The next video they released from Taiwan didn't include any set-up interviews that I could find. It wasn't a particularly good video, but as far as anyone can tell it was all above-board and done mostly ethically. The worst I could say about it was that the translations in some cases were a bit off, and didn't wholly accurately express what the people interviewed were trying to say.

This latest video, however, contains a huge disclosure issue. One of the first people to appear on the "vox pop" video about mandatory military service in Taiwan is the KMT Deputy Director for International Affairs Eric Huang (黃裕鈞). You may remember Huang for being tasked recently with reopening a KMT party office in the United States.

Huang posted the video quickly to his Facebook feed and admits he was the person in the video (between the mask and different haircut, it was difficult to tell at first). 




He also insists he was approached randomly on the street near his home in central Taipei, and that he disclosed to them that he worked in politics. 







The fact is, I can't prove that either of these statements is untrue. All I can say is that it seems implausible for a busy party official most well-known for a job that requires him to be in the US frequently to not only be stopped randomly, out of all the other pedestrians they might have picked, and that we already know -- from the link above -- that Asian Boss has created fake street interviews before. 

The question, however, is whether it matters.

The problem with this isn't that Huang appeared in a video. While the difference between seeking someone out and passing them off as a street interview is pertinent, even if it can't be proven beyond a doubt, it's still a major problem on the part of Asian Boss that they interviewed someone who is (was?) slated to be the KMT's deputy representative in Washington (apparently he's only back in Taiwan to get that set up). Rumors are that he might instead run for city councilor in Taipei. It doesn't really matter -- he's a well-known KMT figure in the news and Asian Boss did not disclose that fact.

Whether this was indeed a random meet-up (again, implausible) or a planned interview, Asian Boss certainly knew of Huang's position in the KMT and said not a thing about it. They treated him like an ordinary citizen with a non-political job.

That is wrong. It's unethical. It's presenting a false narrative. 

Asian Boss got caught doing this before, and should have learned that if they're going to make mediocre street interviews in Taiwan, at the very least they have to actually do random vox pops. Apparently they also need to be reminded that they can't interview people they know are political party officials -- again, random or not, Huang says he disclosed this -- and pretend they're just anybody. They're not. Unlike, say, a schoolteacher, software engineer, accountant, designer or fry cook, the job of a political official actually matters in this context. 

From an ethical standpoint, one does need to disclose such things. So why didn't they? Do they want to keep ensuring that they get their desired amount of pan-blue viewpoints? Do they want to push a particular consensus view but can only do that if some interviews are not entirely, honestly disclosed? Why?

Seriously, Asian Boss. Why? If your goal, as you often state, is to platform Asian voices without political bias or agenda, why don't you actually do that?

And why, exactly, does Asian Boss keep doing this with pan-blue people, whether they be Youtubers or party officials, but never even things out and interview pan-green ones? They could easily do both, as long as they disclosed that fact. It's suspicious that this behavior only flows to one side of the political spectrum. Perhaps it tells you something about Asian Boss's own biases.

I have to admit that nothing Huang actually says in the interview is that bad. He calls Taiwan a country and clarifies that it would never do anything to provoke a war. Of course, the KMT's idea of actions that should be avoided lest they "provoke a war" doesn't exactly line up with my opinion, as they often use it as a cudgel to criticize any acknowledgement that Taiwan is already independent -- but that's beside the point. Huang himself has been called somewhat 'better' and 'more enlightened' than the dark blue oldsters that occupy many party positions, and while I am sure there are many things we don't agree on, but they're not on display here.

Frankly, what he says here is reasonable enough that a friend of mine wouldn't have noticed he was in the video at all if he hadn't recognized him, and I wouldn't have recognized him (again, between the mask and the haircut, it's not very obvious) if he hadn't posted about it himself on Facebook. 

Asian Boss, however, needs to do better. Their actions in Taiwan are suspicious enough that their entire global operation should be called into question, and their videos from other countries also checked for these sorts of issues. If they do this in Taiwan, how can they be trusted not to do it elsewhere, too?

They need to disclose who is in their videos, if their job is relevant. Eric Huang's job is relevant to the questions being asked. If they're going to make middle-brow videos in Taiwan, at the very least they have to do so ethically. 

Or they'll just keep getting caught.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

This Taiwan "explainer" masters the art of "technically true, but what are you implying?"

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Lots of windows, but nothing inside


Recently, the Economist posted a video "explaining" the Taiwan/China situation. While just a 3.5 minutes long, it's astounding how much this short video, backgrounded by creepy History Channel Aliens music, gets so very wrong. 





Without preamble, let's take a look.

The video starts with a Chinese perspective, starting listeners who may not know much about the issue with just one side's take. Although it's clear that this is China's view, it introduces the topic with words like "renegade province" and "reunification". The professor (Steve Tsang) delivering it is also quite clear that this is China's perspective, and he's not wrong about that -- but it feels unbalanced to introduce the video with just China's current beliefs, but not Taiwan's. 

Following that short quote with the government position (which is the mainstream general consensus) in Taiwan would have balanced this out. While the video goes on to talk about democratization and a shift in cultural affiliation, it never actually states outright that polling data in Taiwan clearly show most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese, the majority who identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese prioritize Taiwanese identity, and most Taiwanese consider the status quo to sufficiently meet the requirements to be considered an independent country. 

All of these things are true, and ignored in favor of a lengthy discussion on the CCP and KMT positions on the matter. 

Let's dive deeper into a few quotes from the various speakers:

"At the end of the Second World War, Taiwan was handed back to the Republic of China" (emphasis theirs)

How is this possible? The Republic of China did not exist when Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Notably, the entirety of Taiwan had only been controlled by the Qing for about a dozen years; for most of their 200-year "rule" of Taiwan, they only held the western third of the island.

Regardless, you cannot hand "back" a territory to a government that did not exist when the territory was ceded. 

I could add other nitpicks to this -- the fact that the status of Japan in Taiwan wasn't actually settled until the early 1950s, not the end of World War II; the question of whether any legally binding treaties support the legitimacy of the Republic of China on Taiwan; the difference between a government and an occupying force; what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to say about it; that giving Taiwanese ROC citizenship is not the same as naming the ROC as the legitimate government; and that even the KMT at the time recognized that it didn't have great legal standing to actually take Taiwan. 

But they're beside the point -- the simple truth is that you cannot hand something "back" to a government that did not exist when the thing was given away by a different government.

"By 1949, Mao's Red Army had swept to victory, deposing Chiang Kai-shek's military dictatorship, forcing the former leader and about 1.2 million of his anti-communist supporters to retreat to Taiwan."

This is technically correct, but it maintains an iron grip on a Chinese view of Taiwan -- Taiwan from the perspective of a retreating army from China -- and completely ignores what Taiwan itself was going through at this time. 

This take makes it sound like Taiwan didn't have any people, and the Nationalists arrived on a barren island devoid of people to set up a nation. In such a view, the people who already called Taiwan home in 1945 are erased. This video implies that 1.2 million people came to Taiwan and just did, y'know, whatever. It's not like there were any locals to oppose them, nothing happened on February 28, 1947! 

The fact is that 1.2 million people increased Taiwan's population by a great deal, but they were still the minority. The majority of Taiwanese already living here deserve to be considered in historical views like these.

This erasure is common in older literature from Taiwan, by the way. Pai Hsien-yung, Lung Ying-tai and even the beloved Sanmao have engaged in it to some degree.


"Everyone on both sides agreed that there was one country called 'China'. They just disagreed what it was."

They most certainly did not! The only way this is true is if you consider the views of two dictatorships to be the sum total of the views of "everyone" on "both sides". I don't think that way and you shouldn't either: "everyone" includes all people, and in the mid-20th century, nobody asked Taiwanese people what they thought. There is plenty of proof that not all Taiwanese agreed that there was one country called 'China' at that time. Many, but not all.

The view of a recently-landed dictatorship that has no regard at all for the wishes of the people on the island it's retreated to -- and in fact massacres them for asking for even slightly better governance -- does not represent the views of "everyone", period.


"As economic growth surged on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan and China let down their barriers."


These "technically true, but" statements are so interesting. Yes, economic growth surged in both countries but at different rates; China was in the doldrums of Cultural Revolution (and still recovering from the Great Leap Forward) when Taiwan's economic miracle began. China's economic advancement happened later, and far more unequally: eastern China jumped ahead, leaving behind the rest of the country as well as deep wealth inequities. China is now a bigger economy than Taiwan, but Taiwan is the more advanced economy overall, with greater wealth equality, purchasing power and GDP per capita.

The two sides did "let down" some barriers under Ma Ying-jeou, but for China this was a means to an end: unification. Ma was in on that plan, a unificationist to the core (though a closeted one for awhile). Taiwanese were literally sold a bill of goods: the promise of economic benefits without political ramifications. 

The benefits never materialized -- the various agreements didn't do much for the Taiwanese economy, if anything hollowing out the job market as work was siphoned off to China -- and the political ramifications soon became clear. More on that below.


"Cultural divisions between Taiwan and the mainland deepened."

The resulting backlash was far more than a "deepening of cultural divisions". It was a pushback by Taiwanese of what, exactly, the Ma administration was aiming to do to Taiwan: render it economically dependent on China so as to make unification inevitable. 

It's fortunate that this happened, as the economic effects of continuing with the Ma Ying-jeou vision would have been disastrous for Taiwan. 

What does it really mean to say that "cultural divisions deepened"? This makes it sound like Taiwan and China were naturally culturally similar until democratization, at which point they naturally began to diverge. While divergence did accelerate in that time, this is not quite right. When the Nationalists arrived in 1945, unlike commentators today who seem to assume that Taiwan simply was a Chinese society returned to Chinese hands, they understood that centuries of Qing neglect as a "backwater" and a half-century of attentive, albeit repressive, Japanese rule had created in Taiwan a society that was not quite "Chinese" despite the ancestral roots of most of its inhabitants. When Sun Yat-sen visited Taiwan before 1945, he viewed it as Japanese. Even Mao did not initially envision a Communist "liberation" of Taiwan as something that would come from China, but rather something Taiwan should do for itself. 

Given all this, in 1945, the KMT did everything in its power to destroy Japanese cultural memory in Taiwan and replace it with Chinese nationalism. They tore down temples and other structures, defaced buildings and pushed Mandarin Chinese, then a foreign language in Taiwan, on the population. They turned Taiwan culturally Chinese by force. 

Is it really a "deepening of cultural differences" if Taiwan, after decades of this treatment, woke up and realized it had a unique history and heritage that diverged significantly from China's? 

I don't think it's true that cultural differences "deepened". they were merely uncovered. It was a Taiwanese society finally able to speak for itself. 


"Despite claims that it wanted a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, in 2005 China passed an anti-secession law authorizing the use of force should Taiwan formally declare independence."

Why the use of "reunification" here? Not only did the ROC not exist when Taiwan was ceded by Japan, but the People's Republic of China has never controlled Taiwan. How is a "reunification" possible between two sides that have never been united? 

This part is not terrible -- it does make it clear that China poses a threat -- but it still centers a Chinese viewpoint and puts some of the responsibility for possible war on "Taiwan independence", where it doesn't belong. Taiwan is already independent; it has everything an independent country needs to govern itself, and it indeed governs itself. It's China that threatens to upend this.

This take also ignores the road the DPP is currently trying to take: one where a formal declaration of independence is not necessary, because Taiwan is already independent. 

The Taiwanese view is offered far later on in the video, with this:

 
"The more that China shows its teeth and shows it's not willing to tolerate even a semi-democracy in a place like Hong Kong, the more that the Taiwanese people think, what kind of promise of autonomy makes any sense of us?" / "They simply will not accept the prospect of being part of a very hard authoritarian Leninist political system, whatever the economic benefits."

It really is interesting how the technically-true parts and the questionable assumptions meld together to weave a problematic narrative. There is nothing incorrect in the statement, but it leaves the listener to assume quite a bit that is not necessarily true. 

First, while it's true that Chinese treatment of Hong Kong has noticeably dampened support for any sort of "unification" agreement that would include "autonomy" (essentially, One Country Two Systems), the fact is that enthusiasm for this model was on the downswing long before the tragedy of Hong Kong took place. People identifying as solely Taiwanese surpassed those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese in 2008 -- the year pro-unification Ma Ying-jeou was elected. The 2014 Sunflower Movement gained popular support in Taiwan just before Hong Kong experienced the Umbrella Revolution. President Tsai was elected before the 2019 Hong Kong protests. 

It is safe to say that One Country Two Systems was a dead idea in Taiwan, supported by few, well before Hong Kong's downward spiral. Watching Hong Kong surely hardened or underlined that view, but the consensus already existed.

As for the "economic benefits" of unification with China, the lack of meaningful economic growth under Ma Ying-jeou shows that there likely would not be much. If anything, it would hurt the Taiwanese economy to be joined to China's. Think about it: a manufacturing base that isn't wholly trusted by the world despite so many consumer goods being made there; the CCP's certain desire that Taiwan not be too prosperous so it won't feel able to break free again; the way jobs in Taiwan were suctioned off to China where labor is cheaper after even slightly closer relations; the idea that unifying with a country with more poverty, fewer social services (it's true!), less equality and lower GDP per capital would somehow make Taiwan wealthier.

How could anyone look at all that and say that unification with China would be economically beneficial to Taiwan? 


"It should be impossible to imagine this not ending peacefully, but it is also impossible to imagine this Chinese government allowing Taiwan to drift away."

Admittedly, it took me awhile to parse this statement. I've said before that for every person that asks how Taiwan could possibly become formally independent from China, they should also ask how Taiwan could possibly integrate peacefully and harmoniously into China. It can't. That's not possible. They should ask themselves whether voluntary unification is possible. It's not -- forget "remote chances" -- it's not going to happen. This trend has only pointed one way since democratization and it's not the way that leads to Taiwanese suddenly deciding China is great. 

To his credit, this person does seem to pose the issue as one between a war toward annexation or China releasing its claim on Taiwan. And it's true: China deciding not to start a war is the main (well, only) way to avoid a war. 

It's just a weird way to put it.


"Is America still able to deter China? That's now in real doubt."

Again, this is technically true, but it elides so much and implies that the facts of the issue are not quite what they are. First, it ignores the existence of a Taiwanese military, but Taiwan does indeed have one. It ignores the assertion by President Tsai that Taiwan could hold off the first wave of Chinese attack, which I believe. (She diplomatically avoids the likelihood that assistance would be needed after that first wave).

Yes, US support for Taiwan -- among support from other countries -- helps deter China. But this ignores the fact that Taiwan would fight regardless of US help, and implies that the US is the one stirring up this conflict by angering China. The "see, the US is really the problem here!"  absolutely love this line of reasoning. The video doesn't go quite that far but gives them plenty of fodder for their gish-galloping arguments. 

The opposite is true: China is stirring up this conflict because it wants something it cannot have and does not deserve --  Taiwan.

By the way, I made a video too. I think mine is better:


Saturday, April 9, 2022

Collecting Majolica Tiles in Taiwan: A History and a Buyer's Guide

 

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It's been a rough few weeks, and I think we deserve a fun, colorful post with a little history and a touch of advice. I have some heavier stuff in the oven, but you'll just have to wait. Today, I want to talk about Majolica tiles in Taiwan: their history, their entry point into Taiwan and their popularity, both past and present. 

As a collector of the real vintage Japanese tiles as well as happy owner of modern interpretations on these traditional designs, I also wanted to offer a buyer's guide: should you collect the real antiques, or modern versions? What sort of prices should you expect to pay? Are there any ethical issues in buying old tiles? (Spoiler: there don't seem to be, but always trust your gut). And, of course, where can one find them?

The pictures will be a bit scattered and cover several countries -- they are here for your aesthetic enjoyment and don't necessarily follow the flow of the text. 


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Part of my own collection of Taiwanese Majolica


The style we now call Majolica was probably invented in the Middle East or Iran centuries ago. It arrived via trade routes to Europe by the 1400s, where it became especially popular in Italy, and became known as "Faenza tiles", for the Italian city known for producing them. The original method from the Middle Ages and Renaissance involved lead-glazed ceramics colored with tin oxides. 

Original colors were therefore all based on tin oxides: manganese purple, antimony yellow, cobalt blue, copper green and rust orange. In fact, this is likely why the Majolica tiles one sees in places like southern Spain so often follow a blue/yellow/green/orange color scheme: if they're old enough, those were the only possible colors. 

The firing process and generally viscous paints allowed multicolored tiles to be fired only once, making brightly-colored wares more affordable and accessible. By the Victorian Era, this is part of what fueled their popularity -- as attractive, colorful signifiers of middle-class status.

Bookmark this for later: the same Middle Eastern origins of these tiles also spread eastward to India, and for years along those trade routes, they were associated with Islamic art and architecture (for example, in Mughal India). That would change in the 19th century, however -- and this link is a fascinating read.

The style made its way to Spain, where they came to be known as "Majolica", a corruption of Majorca, the place where such wares entered the country. They were called faience (after the city of Faenza) in France and 'delft' in the Netherlands. The blue-and-white style became especially popular beyond Spain, including Portugal. 

Not all "Majolica" tiles are of the same type: some were etched and filled with paint to create something of a shiny, brightly-colored almost three-dimensional effect. Blue colors especially did a fantastic job of mimicking water. Some were simply painted on the shiny white finish of plain tiles. Some looked more like pools of limpid color, others were more opaque with visible brushstrokes and overlapping colors. Some took on a distinctly European style, some imitated Chinoiserie in blue and white, and some -- especially in Spain -- retained their Middle Eastern aesthetic roots. Some were transfer-printed geometric designs that didn't look like painted glass at all. 

It's hard to say of any or all of these could truly be called "Majolica", but when I use the term I'm specifically referring to the glazed tiles -- some in three- dimensional relief and some not -- popular in Taiwan in the early 20th century.



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The baskets of fruit, including grapes, peaches and pomegranates, proved popular with Asian buyers

The style fell out of fashion for awhile, but was resurrected in Europe in later centuries, and enjoyed a huge boom in popularity in Victorian times. 

Victorian times were also colonial times, so perhaps it's clear where this is going. 

The Great Exhibition of 1851 (something like a World's Fair) in London brought the style back in a big way. Across Europe -- but especially in England -- the tiles began to be used to decorate houses and public areas. They were especially common on the walls of pubs and around fireplaces, being easy to clean and able to withstand high temperatures. They began to be mass produced by companies like Minton and Wedgewood, which used fanciful designs that called back to nature (a 'return to nature' was a big thing, stylistically). Industrialization and improved techniques made these colorful items available to the masses. They were seen as sanitary (easy to clean) and attractive -- again, a sign of middle-class status in the 19th century.

Not all Majolica items are tiles: in fact, the style more typically referred to housewares made of inexpensive earthenware or clay, fired with a tin glaze providing a white, glossy surface for painting. In the Victorian era, Majolica pots, urns, pitchers and servingware were all popular. I don't have time to talk about those, and that style isn't particularly to my liking (lots of pitchers decorated with bulbous grapes or squirrels) -- let's focus on the tiles. 


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Reproduction (modern) tiles using traditional designs, available at the Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles with shops in Tainan, Taipei and the museum in Chiayi


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Taiwanese Majolica tiles turned into decorative hangings using vintage glass and window framing, purchased here


These tiles fell out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century, as their bright colors and naturalistic elements -- plants, animals, leaves, feathers, fruit -- didn't quite mesh with the incoming Art Nouveau and Bauhaus styles. 

However, they didn't disappear entirely: if you look at vintage tiles from that era, the whimsical floweriness of Art Nouveau started to show up in tile designs, replacing prim Victorian roses. Look hard enough and you'll even find some tiles with Art Deco influences, including some with a Streamline style.

This was also around the time that they began to catch on in Asia.


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A few things happened here: in India, upper-class Indians often sought to imitate the British colonizers, including decorating their own homes with the tiles they saw in British houses. 

At the same time, the British wanted to promote "sanitation" -- as they saw it, cleaning up India by tiling as many surfaces as possible. A house with a tile floor was a "clean" house, it seems. Once associated with Mughal design, these tiles became associated with modernity (and, yes, colonialism). 

But what did South and Southeast Asians want in their tiles, and could Europe provide it?

The answers seemed to be bright colors, fancier (more expensive) designs for the upper classes, and no -- England could not provide enough of them affordably.


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Four of my favorites: an early Art Deco style (note the Streamline influence and minty color), an Art Nouveau (the natural floral lines, ornate but not feminine, lots of rust and purple), a rare green and purple combination with an octagon, and a lion with a deep, limpid blue background setting off green leaves -- explicitly for the Chinese/Taiwanese market)


At the same time, after Japan was forced at gunpoint to end its isolation with the rest of the world, they began a rapid process of industrialization. Foreigners were moving in, and decorating their houses in Japan with these colorful painted tiles. 

Some Japanese saw a business opportunity, and began experimenting with tile manufacturing. By the early 1900s, they were more or less able to replicate the imported European tiles, and started their own manufacturing enterprises.

This was also the period of early colonial rule in Taiwan, as well as a great deal of trade between different communities across Asia. 

If the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu (a well-known group who traded extensively and made massive fortunes) had gorgeous peacock and floral tiles, their counterparts in Southeast Asia wanted them too. Many of those communities were ethnically Chinese, and some had roots in Kinmen. 

Desire for these brightly-colored tiles among wealthy Asian communities began to grow -- perhaps inspired by what they saw imported from Europe, but far more local as time went on. The yanglou 洋樓 of the Kinmen elites were often practically encrusted with these tiles, just as the mansions of the Chettiars in Tamil Nadu. (Chettinad itself is still a center of tile manufacturing, though the method is quite different from the tiles in these pictures).


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Some modern takes on old tile patterns -- silicone coasters from the Museum of Taiwan Tiles, and a peacock coaster from Perfume Tiles (which also sells solid perfume). 


Sensing this demand, the Japanese companies making the tiles began to create designs that would appeal to South Asians and Chinese. Colors got brighter -- the pale lavenders and pinks of the English tiles became bright greens and bubblegum colors. Images these communities like began to be produced: peacocks, lions, fruit and flowers that symbolized prosperity, community or longevity -- fewer English roses and more bamboo, Buddha's Hand, birds, lions, peaches and pomegranates. Baskets overflowing with fruit.

Lotus flowers and lilies also became popular, and with the rise of Indian nationalism, there was a massive demand for Hindu iconography in India. Tiles bearing Krishna, Lakshmi, Sarasvati and more began to appear, often directly imitating the influential work of painter Raja Rami Varma. Demand only grew between the two world wars, at a time when Japan could provide but Europe, perhaps, could not. 


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Modern reproduction tile coasters from the Museum of Taiwan Tiles

In India, the rise of the swadeshi movement caused Indians avoid British-made goods. Japanese ones, however, were considered an acceptable substitute by some. They might not be Indian, but at least they weren't British! Southeast Asia was probably less ideologically driven to buy the Japanese tiles as simply finding them more affordable and aesthetically pleasing.

In Taiwan, conidering the contact that wealthy Taiwanese would have had with the Japanese and other Asian communities as well as the West, it isn't surprising that demand for these tiles grew, giving Japan another market. 


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Peacock Majolica from a Chettinad mansion


Wealthy Taiwanese homes were often already paved with terracotta-style tiles (those dark rusty-red tiles you see in old farmhouses). But the colorful Majolica tiles were a way to decorate your home -- especially the exterior as the glaze would repel water -- adding a pop of color while acting as a status symbol. 

You can see them in situ in many of the pictures below, as well as here at the Kuo Family Mansion. Xianse Temple in Sanchong also has some lovely ones, and they are easy to find on preserved mansions in Kinmen. In Taichung, the old Wu residence gatehouse, relocated to Taichung Park, is decorated with Majolica.

In other words, as demand for Majolica fell in Europe, it spiked in Asia, with India as a leading market, though many found their way to Taiwan -- a prosperous territory, even as a colony.

If the Japanese Majolica looks brighter than its Western counterparts, or incorporates more post-Victorian design trends (such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco) and even seems highly market-specific, that's because it is. 


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It wasn't going to last, of course: World War II kicked up, there was no budget or supply chain for luxuries, and Japanese Majolica tile production dropped off. 

Whatever was already in Taiwan was more or less Taiwan's Majolica legacy. That is to say, the real stuff is almost entirely post-1900, but pre-war. Old, but not ancient. 

Some pieces, however, are rare enough to sell for huge sums. I didn't pay this much, but I've seen lion designs like this one go for NT$12,000 per tile. 


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So, what to do if you want a few of these tiles for yourself, or simply a decorative item that evokes this history? 

The tiles are no longer made, but the Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles has led the way -- and created an excellent example -- for salvaging these pieces of 'everyday' art from old houses that are slated for demolition. The museum acquires the tiles, cleans and refurbishes them, and either displays them in their small museum space in Chiayi or returns them to any original owners who want them back. 

From them, you can buy modern designs based on these traditional tiles at affordable prices. Larger ones can be used as trivets, and smaller ones as coasters (there are also tea tray, mirror and coat hook options). The museum shop -- located in Red House in Taipei, Blueprint Cultural and Creative Park in Tainan and the museum itself in Chiayi -- also sells a variety of related items, including jewelry, compact mirrors, tiled bathroom mirrors, washi tape and more.

Yes, you can tell the difference between the new and old versions -- look above, and you'll note the opaque colors and uniform flat designs. However, they make excellent coasters, tiles for decorative projects and trivets. I've never sensed disappointment when giving one as a gift. 

The museum occasionally offers limited runs of hand-painted tiles in the same style and colors as the originals. I bought this peacock from them -- it looks authentic, but it's quite new. These will cost more, however (between $1800 and $4000NT depending on whether you buy a design with a single tile or two).

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Perfume Tiles are another option. They pop up in Eslite, and many of the "cultural and creative" markets around Taiwan, as well as on Pinkoi.

But let's say you want originals. You should use these as decorative items only; the Museum of Taiwan Tiles reproductions make good coasters and trivets, but the true antiques won't. You can even see in my set of four coasters that I had to give it a bit of a gold paint job after my cat knocked it off the table!


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A tiled mansion -- check out the ceiling! -- in Chettinad, India


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Real antiques will, of course, cost more. A common design such as the ones below might run anywhere from NT$700 to NT$1300, depending on the seller and the condition of the tile (tiles with obvious color bleeding or other damage sell for less, of course). 


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Tiles in common patterns and painted trim in Kinmen


Rarer designs will cost you more: anywhere from $1500-$3000NT. The rarest -- which often include animals or intricately painted flowers in vases -- can go for up to NT$6000 per tile, depending on condition, quality and shape (flat or with a relief pattern).

Occasionally, tiles from England or meant for the Indian market will appear from Taiwanese sellers: these can be cool additions to a collection, though in general I like to keep it local and stick to whatever was popular in Taiwan. Majolica is expensive but it's also everywhere; a curated collection of specifically Japanese tiles meant for the Taiwanese market lends uniqueness to the endeavor.

I would not recommend buying at that upper limit if you just want something pretty -- there are plenty of options at lower price points. 

Generally speaking, tiles with relief patterns -- raised off the tile surface - will cost more unless they are significantly damaged. Flat designs will be cheaper, unless they are rare. Heavy damage usually means a solid discount -- color running not so much, but chipping or dirt stuck in the glaze that can't be removed will drive down prices. 

Rarer tiles like these (I almost never see the patterns below come up for sale) will, of course, cost more:


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From a compound of old houses in northern Tainan county

Sometimes you can get a good deal if you buy four of a kind and frame them together.

But where does one acquire them?

Honestly, your best bet are Facebook groups. These are run almost entirely in Mandarin.

何武朝根 is an artist in Pingtung who sometimes incorporates tiles into his work. A typical piece (like the diamond-shaped ones in photos above) run approximately NT$1800, including shipping.

老花磚繽紛樂 are more expensive, but hold regular sales and have a Yahoo! Auction function. They also have the widest variety and focus exclusively on tiles. Interestingly, some of their offerings clearly came from India -- there's a Krishna on their Yahoo! Auction page.

eBay has quite a few options, including Indian and English tiles, but you'll pay a massive premium. I've never used them.

Tiles sometimes pop up in 二手。古董。老件。收藏。裝飾 but it's not all they deal with. However, seller 秦立珍 often has them and always has fair prices. She's based in Kaohsiung but ships securely.

I sometimes post good finds that I won't buy myself in Taiwan Home Decor, but it's nothing you can't find by trawling these other pages.

老花磚Old Tiles瓷磚タイル汰嚕 doesn't sell, it's just for showing tiles one has found, but it's nice to look and see what patterns are common or rare.

I should note that all of mine are framed, but they usually don't come that way. I take them to a framer for that, and yes, it costs extra. Some of the more expensive options will occasionally come with frames, however.



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Old tiles on Kinmen and Tainan mansions -- I covet that center tile


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Tiles on old houses in Tainan county

This brings us to the last question: is it ethical to buy these old tiles?

I think it is. They don't sell for enough to be worth thieves' time to go around and pry them off old houses. Every seller I've worked with has given every indication of being above board, and they're not selling patterns consistently enough that I think they're being taken unethically from someone's neglected property and put on the market. The Old Tiles group dedicated only to selling them seems to get them from a more international source, considering the inclusion of tiles obviously meant for other markets.

In fact, the one time I saw a tile -- broken, and a common pattern, but still a tile -- that had fallen naturally off of its perch on someone's half-ruined old farmhouse, the locals had perched it neatly on this brick column and left it there. The idea of taking it seemed unconscionable. 

I highly doubt Majolica tile trafficking is a big deal, in other words. If I learn differently, I'll update. But you can assume you're buying from people who've salvaged them ethically or acquired them from families looking to offfload them.


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I also like collecting Taiwanese Majolica specifically because it tells a story that goes beyond the expected tropes of colonialism and the evil aspects of global capitalism. Perhaps Majolica could have been a tale of British notions of civilization and sanitation being foisted onto India and then spread across Asia. In another timeline, maybe.

It's not, though. It's a story of a ceramicware process that started in the Middle East (that is, Asia), and then became popular in Europe. When these tiles made their way toward East Asia, locals with the means decided they liked them. Rather than be willing markets for foreign producers, Japanese manufacturers figured out how to create high-quality versions more locally. Yes, Japan was an imperial power too, but nobody forced Taiwanese to buy the Majolica that began to appear. At the same time, these tiles provided an alternative to buying British during a time when India wanted to be free from Britain. The popularity of religious iconography in the Indian versions and what it says about Hindu nationalism, in a place where the original tilework methods already existed and were already associated with non-Hindu origins is indeed fascinating, but not closely related to their story in Taiwan.

Desire for these aesthetically pleasing items, produced in Asia for Asian consumers, spread via Asian -- that is, regional and local -- networks. They came to Taiwan in the early 20th century not because Japan made it so. They came because they were beautiful and affordable. Taiwan was prosperous before the Second World War, and there were middle and upper classes of locals who could afford them, and were well-traveled enough to have seen them -- perhaps in Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Japan or even Europe itself.

That, to me, is not a colonial story from the West, though colonialism is indeed inextricable from the narrative. 

Rather, it's a story of local people deciding they liked a thing merely for its beauty, having the means and worldliness to know it exists at all, and figuring out how to produce or acquire what they wanted themselves.

There's a positive take here, and that's the one I want to leave you with.


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Now, I'd just like to see you off with some lovely pictures of Majolica tiles from around the world -- Spain, Portugal, India, and Taiwan.

Enjoy!


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Lisbon


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 Lisbon


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Seville


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Seville


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Porto, most likely


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Lisbon or Coimbra (above and below)

                    


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Seville


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Lisbon


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Seville (all four above)


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Taiwan 


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You can also see painted tiles like this in some temples in the flat part of Beitou, but the one above in Gongguan/Taipower, near the Kishu An Literature Forest (紀州庵文學森林).



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Gate of the Wu residence, relocated to Taichung Park



Kuo Family Mansion in Neihu (you can see them on the upper columns)


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The Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles, Chiayi


Hoi'an, Vietnam: not sure that these are Majolica in the sense of what I collect, but the idea is more or less the same

Turkey's famous tiles and ceramics (look for the tiles at old mosques and palaces, including the Rustem Pasha Mosque and Topkapı Palace) are also technically "Majolica" in that they are fired similarly -- shiny white base, multiple colors fired together, and almost certainly originated with tin oxide pigment -- but more likely came from the Middle East rather than via Italy/Spain/Europe.

They're in the same family of decorative items, but the ones popular in early 20th century Taiwan arrived via Europe and Japan, not Turkey. 

I have been to Istanbul, however, so here are some photos: