Showing posts with label taiwanese_culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taiwanese_culture. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Neither and Both: proposing an end to the "Taiwan: liberal or conservative?" debates

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Piggybacking on my last post about abortion, I began to think about the old dichotomy that seems to keep popping up. Given Taiwan’s democratic success and free press, recent legalization of same-sex marriage (note: not marriage equality), the more-or-less progressive-ish track record of the Tsai administration can we call this country a “liberal” one? 

Or is the ongoing human rights crisis regarding foreign blue-collar labor, often conservative attitudes of the general public, the ridiculous treatment of female public figures, the continued existence of the death penalty and the criminalization of adultery (now decriminalized!) and the continued lack of options for unilateral no-fault divorce enough to swing it the other way — is Taiwan still a “conservative” country?


Of course, as with most of these “is it A or B?” debates, it mostly seems to be people looking for something to debate. In the end, Taiwan is neither liberal nor conservative, or both liberal and conservative. Honestly, it depends on how you define it. 


I do take the liberal viewpoint as the sometimes imperfect but overall superior one; a core tenet of liberalism is to let other people live their lives non-judgmentally and not discriminate against them in any sort of transactional or legal sense. 


Early on, I realized the different ways of looking at this needed to be investigated separately.  So let's investigate! Why is it reductive to declare Taiwan "liberal" or "conservative" like it's a true-or-false question with one clear answer?



It depends on what you’re comparing it to


If your frame of reference is, say, Europe, it’s fairly easy to proclaim Taiwan “still very conservative”, dust off your hands and be done with it. In Europe, adultery isn’t criminalized, marriage equality is broadly (though not universally) recognized, there is no death penalty, in most places abortion can be obtained on request or very easily, gender equality is generally quite good, and —speaking anecdotally — I often find that moderate to center-liberal Europeans tend to equate to so-called “left-wing” Americans (who are not actually left-wing at all: most are pretty moderate.) Most of Europe also allows unilateral no-fault divorce, although the UK and a few Catholic-majority countries don’t.

I don't know as much about the internal social workings of various European nations, so I'll leave it at that.


If, however, you compare Taiwan to its neighbor states in Asia, you will likely come to a very different conclusion. 


In most of Asia, divorce is similarly restricted. No-fault mutual divorce is generally obtainable in other industrialized Asian nations, but mostly banned in the Philippines and very difficult to obtain in some other developing parts of Asia. However, rather like Taiwan, unilateral divorce generally requires proving some sort of fault. Most Asian nations retain the death penalty, even if they don’t exercise it. I can’t find information on some countries, but in Japan and South Korea, spousal consent is still required to obtain an abortion. Along with this, gender equality metrics in most other Asian countries show Taiwan in a favorable light, comparable to Hong Kong and Singapore and ahead of just about everywhere else in Asia


With changes to adultery laws, the legalization of same-sex marriage and hoped-for changes to abortion access, who can reasonably look at Taiwan compared to the rest of Asia and say it’s “not that liberal”? 


Why, if one is inclined to insist that Taiwan remains a conservative nation, does one have to look to the West to validate that view? 



But - does it even depend on what you compare it to? 


Hold up, though. Let’s look at a few examples from the West. Is it really that much more liberal? 


Divorce laws in the UK are broadly similar to Taiwan’s. They don’t have unilateral no-fault divorce either. Spousal consent for abortion is not required, but giving a ‘reason’ is — acceptable reasons are very broadly defined, as in Taiwan. Ending the criminalization of adultery and (probably) making abortion more accessible to married women will still render Taiwanese laws a bit more conservative than their British counterparts, but not by much. The UK will still be ahead due to abolishing the death penalty, which remains popular for some reason in Taiwan. But in what other ways can the UK be said to be “more liberal”? 


In some ways, one could say the tie-breaker here are social mores. Public opinion, you might say, is more liberal in the UK. Certainly you would not find a public opinion poll that showed popular support for the criminalization of adultery, legalizing capital punishment and disallowing same-sex marriage. You might point to British society and say that it’s so much more diverse, and that diversity begets a sort of liberal strength. 


Sure. I’ll buy that. (Taiwan is also multicultural and multilingual but that diversity is less immediately apparent.) 


But I’ll also point out that while it’s nearly impossible to get dual nationality in Taiwan if you don't have the right ancestry, it’s fairly easy to immigrate here, at least for foreign professionals. Even the salary and qualification requirements to do something other than teach English (2 years’ relevant experience or a Master’s degree in anything) are fairly permissive. If you come to Taiwan to study and can get a job offer upon graduation, it’s fairly easy to stay. 


Once in the UK, there is a path for most to citizenship. However, it’s extremely hard to actually immigrate to the UK to get that process started. Once there, you might still be kicked out, possibly for deeply unfair reasons. For all that diversity, it seems as though the United Kingdom doesn’t actually want non-British people to settle there. 


I would call that a distinctly illiberal view. (In fact, in general, I find my fellow liberals tend to have oddly regressive, even reactionary views on immigration. In non-pandemic times, I consider being pro-immigration to be a fundamentally liberal value.)


Of course, it’s not fair as an American to sit here wagging my finger at the UK. 


The US seems to be unable to reconcile the fact that most Americans support abortion rights with the legions of conservative clownwaffles who keep trying to take those rights away. Abolishing the death penalty in the US feels like a faraway dream. Supposedly one of those “more liberal” countries, we (sort of) elected Donald Trump in the same year that Taiwan chose the comparatively liberal and pragmatic Tsai Ing-wen. We only legalized marriage equality a few years ago — look how fast Taiwan moved in comparison. As with the UK, it’s very hard to immigrate to the US. In fact, it’s difficult to immigrate to most Western countries.


You might look at the US and again point to the nation’s visible diversity. Well, I grew up in the US and in most of the country, diversity doesn’t mean mixing. I don’t want to speak for people of color when I haven’t experienced the same things, so all I can say is that many White people I know in the US live in almost exclusively White areas, and for many, there doesn’t appear to be a single non-White person in their circles. I have heard the same sort of conservative or right-wing rhetoric — the same old racist, sexist, anti-LGBT rhetorical trash — in the US as I have in Taiwan. In fact, as I’ve noted before, it seems to be one of the US’s major cultural exports here


So although adultery is not an offense and unilateral no-fault divorce is possible. But in what other ways can I say the country of my citizenship is more liberal than Taiwan? It’s hard to think of much. 


Placing a high importance on making sure all of its citizens have what they need is a core tenet of liberalism for me. In that way the US again fails, with not just high rates of inequality but a total breakdown in the accessibility of quality health care to all but the upper classes. Few in Taiwan would disagree that everyone deserves access to affordable basic health care. In wealth equality generally, Taiwan is comparable to many Western nations. 



And of course, the people


Now that I’ve made the country of my birth sound like a terrifying hellscape — which these days, from a distance, it seems to be — remember that there are plenty of liberals, lefties, progressives, radicals, socialists, whatever you want to call them and all of them are slightly different. On both sides, I've met people who challenge assumptions. They could be anyone, from carceral feminists to liberal/leftist activists with misogynist views to people who are pro-healthcare but anti-immigration, to conservatives in every other sense who are finally embracing marriage equality or no longer trying to dictate whether mothers should stay home or return to paid work.

The youth tend liberal, but Young Republicans are a thing. For every BLM activist, there’s surely a Brocktaniel Craigstopher Broseph Dorpington III who is certain he’ll be a senator someday and can't wait to turn his opinions on women's bodies into legislation. My grandparents, when they were alive, always seemed surprised to hear that liberals were a real thing and it wasn’t just me.


My liberal friends always knew that the other side existed — they didn’t live in quite as much of a bubble — but often underestimated exactly how many people really felt that way. That is, after all, part of how we got Trump.


Taiwan is similar. How can you say a whole country is conservative when the youth tend to overwhelmingly support liberal causes (except, for some reason the death penalty, which seems odd...though perhaps not that odd) and then are surprised when those causes meet strong resistance. But how can you say it is liberal when their aunties and grandpas are more likely to vote, though perhaps less overwhelmingly than in the past?


Of course, the aunties and grandpas assume the youth to be a minority of loud kids, perhaps not even realizing that their younger relatives agree with those “other kids”, but have decided it’s easier not to bring it up. Many are traditionally conservative, but some of their views -- such as understanding the fundamental need for universal health care -- would look liberal to your average American. 


In other words, for every young urbanite who was shocked to see marriage equality referenda slapped down in 2018, there is someone like the Bread of Life lady in my building who keeps putting up anti-gay brochures and seems surprised when they are taken down. 


Both groups are loud, and both can mobilize. One is older and on their way out, but will be engaged voters for several years more. The other has shown they can defeat an attempted pro-China “populist” wave. 


It’s very hard for me to say the US is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ when different Americans are, well, so different


So it is with Taiwan. 



What does it mean to be ‘liberal’? 


The notion that Western-style liberal/conservative dichotomies have dominated these conversations is not new. When looking at non-Western societies, it’s quite common for someone to point out that notions of ‘freedom’, ‘choice’ and ‘equality’ can look very different through different cultural lenses. 


I don’t mean this in the old ‘individualist vs. collectivist’ debate, another binary that I find a bit overstated. People who proclaim some societies ‘individualist’ and others ‘collectivist’ forget that nothing is that polar, gloss over the interplay of personal and collective choices at the individual, small-group and larger social levels. They further tend to blur the very different definitions of ‘individualism’ with ‘individuality’. Just as an ‘individualistic’ European or Brit (sorry, Brits, you’re separate now) can insist that national health care and affordable education are common goods, so can a ‘collectivist’ Taiwanese find their own path and express their individual spirit while caring about society and family.


Instead, let me illustrate this through a series of anecdotes. Although this is now considered a somewhat traditional or even out-dated practice, some men still hand their salary over to their wives, who run the entire household budget and give their husbands ‘allowances’. (This also happens in Japan and the practice might originate there; I’m not sure.) This has led to society as a whole believing that women are good with money. As a result, accounting tends to be a more female-dominated profession, and ask any family business who keeps the books. I bet you a beer it’s likely a woman. 


And to think, I grew up in the “more liberal” United States hearing dumb jokes about how women just spend money shopping and a husband might have to cut up his wife’s credit cards because she bought too many purses! 


And yet, a 老闆 (laoban) is assumed to be a man, whereas 老闆娘 (laobanniang) can be translated as "female boss" (as though it needs to be a gendered term) or...the boss's wife, even if she's really the boss.


Here’s another one: the Taiwanese government, despite all of its recent progressive leaps, still seems to think that more babies and bigger families are always a good thing, despite the country being already fairly densely populated. And yet, they now seem willing to look at the country’s current abortion laws and realize that they need to be liberalized, without compromising their view that families should have more babies. 


I believe (and hope) they see that abortion isn’t what’s stopping people from procreating; that a person who wants to have a child will try to have one, and abortion being more accessible won’t make them change their mind. That encouraging people to have more kids means ensuring a better standard of living, that families have enough time, money and housing to raise children. Do that, and most people will choose to have children. Abortion is a separate issue entirely. 


Oh, how I wish I could get anti-abortion politicians and reactionary voters in the US to realize the same thing! 


In fact, here's a quick aside: let's jump back to my assertion in the last post that making abortion accessible to unmarried women had nothing to do with giving women choice while valuing the partnership of marriage. We know it's more about which babies are "desirable" to society than about rights, because single people and same-sex married couples who do want children aren't allowed to access fertility treatments

The government is finally starting to act on improving abortion access, but nobody seems interested in fixing this problem despite it being a protested issue since at least 2016, and probably earlier. So is it acting in a liberal manner, or not? It's hard to say.


I could add more cultural anecdotes from other parts of the world — for example, the fairly liberal stance of Islam on family planning compared to much of the West through history — but they would be cultures I haven’t spent as much time with, and thus would be less informed. However, such examples exist. 


The short of it? I don’t think it’s fair to measure Taiwan by a liberal/conservative spectrum informed by Western assumptions, when the way people make sense of the world through a Taiwanese cultural lens is just...different. Sometimes, I think better. In some ways, perhaps not. 

This was apparent watching so many otherwise liberal Taiwanese go pro-Trump, who is about as right-wing as it gets (though it's hard to tell how much of this was straight-up malicious trolling, as people seemed more reasonable in real life). I don't agree at all with their reasons -- nobody who thinks Trump's pandemic response is an acceptable price to pay for anything is welcome in my life -- but the reasons did exist. They mostly don't care about our political binaries, so it's not fair to measure Taiwan based on those same binaries.

I’m also not a total cultural relativist; I too have my lines and I too make personal and individual judgement calls. But I am open to conceiving of liberalism in different lights and will criticize or praise individual ideas, not entire belief systems, including my own.


There are people who insist that any and all conservative ideas they don’t like which exist in non-Western societies were put there by colonialism, and decolonization will therefore liberate those societies from such beliefs. I don’t fully believe that; although I occasionally come across examples of this (say, certain aspects of Taiwanese society that seem to have been shaped more by the outside influence of Christianity on ROC politics than on any local cultural norm), it’s far too ‘noble savage’ or Orientalist. In other words, I’m not impressed by ‘every Western idea is bad, every non-Western one is good’. The West has had some pretty good ideas and some atrocious ones. Every society is capable of both, and a whole lot in between. Every society is going to have some ideas we might see as ‘conservative’, and others that could be called ‘liberal’. Taiwan is no different.


What matters is that we recognize that there is no objective yardstick by which to measure any of this, and perhaps it’s wise not to make any sort of proclamations about it. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Confucius is as relevant to Taiwan's COVID19 response as Aristotle is to the US's

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We're in our house keeping our stuff in order because nobody else is going to help. 


Some outside Asia (and, honestly, some people here) seem to think Taiwan's success in dealing with COVID19 is due to "Confucian" ideals of collectivism and respect for authority which allowed the government to adopt measures that people in Western countries might find uncomfortably strict.

I don't want to search for too many examples because the entire line of thought makes me want to barf, but here's one:


In South Korea, as in Japan and Taiwan, the lingering cultural imprint of Confucianism gives a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency, says Lee Sung-yoon, an international-relations professor at Tufts University. 
“Most people willingly submit themselves to authority and few complain,” Mr. Lee said. “The Confucian emphasis on respect for authority, social stability and the good of the nation above individualism is an ameliorating factor in a time of national crisis.”

Such thinking is difficult to refute, because it comes from an Asian source (dominant narratives that don't actually describe the experiences of many, but appear to come from the "same" cultural sources, are a challenge for this reason). But I'm going to invite the furor of the Whole Internet and say that Lee is wrong. 

A cultural difference indeed exists, but at least for Taiwan, it was hard-won in living memory. First, seeing firsthand what SARS was capable of, people realized the need for immediate action and recognized government initiatives as wise (and they were). There's also the living memory of a police state in Taiwan, which helps draw a stark contrast between "a strong centrally-planned response" and "authoritarianism", because most Taiwanese remember the latter and can tell the difference.

Perhaps there is some additional "collectivism" baked into these cultures but I wouldn't go overboard with this: there's a point at which it becomes a stereotype. I see most "collectivist" action here as merely "not being stupid", and I'm an "individualistic" American.


In fact, if Taiwan had been in the WHO to begin with - or if the WHO didn't generally faff about with their thumbs up their butts - the world could potentially have been warned about this long before China officially recognized it, and "mitigation" strategies similar to the UK's might have had some effect. In fact, the UK's strategy, which was just announced to be a failure, sounds a lot like what Taiwan was doing as early as January 1. And it worked. Life is mostly normal here as a result.

That said, I can't help but quote this wonderful tweet:


And, of course, threatened by China and ignored by the WHO, there is a recognized need to "deal with this ourselves" because Dr. Tedros sure ain't coming to save us (or anyone, but especially not Taiwan). So people do as asked by a government that appears competent, which they've just re-elected by historic margins, and a Central Epidemic Command Center that is doing a better job than the WHO. The results are visible, so people trust them. That's not "Confucian", that's "not being stupid". 

Do I swan about writing editorial bullshit about how "the Western failure to contain with COVID19 is due to the cultural imprint of Aristotelianism"? No. Because that's dumb. Stop being dumb.

In fact, Confucius is about as relevant to the average Taiwanese person as Aristotle is to you.

Think the comparison doesn't work? I assure you that it does. Ancient Philosopher Guy from a foreign land (because Taiwan is not China, and South Korea isn't China either) does some philosophy which is considered impactful enough to still be studied today?

Yup, checks out. Except only one is touted as the foundation of several distinct cultures, rather than what he really was: an important thinker, sure, but not the Father of All Things.


Also, let's talk "respect for authority" and people who "don't complain". Let's talk about things that would make dear old Confucius turn over in his grave.

Not too long ago, Taiwan looked a dictatorship in the face and said "get fucked". And it actually worked! South Korea did the same thing.

And they did it without an army - against an army, in fact. They did it with few resources and no firepower. They had only themselves and the power of their words and unarmed bodies.


Did your parents and grandparents do that?

No?

Then sit down, Billy McFreedomfries.

Friday, February 28, 2020

My Glass Persimmon

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On a sad day like 228, I want to write something that, while perhaps a bit maudlin, is also hopeful. 

Let me share with you my glass persimmon. 

You can buy them new - they usually come in pairs for reasons explained below - but I found this one at an antique/vintage shop for 30NT (about US$1). 

Foreign friends may not immediately 'get' that this is the sort of thing you're likely to see at your grandma's house - it's kind of an old-style thing. Literally like a kitschy figurine your elderly relative might have around.

Persimmons  are a major agricultural product in Taiwan and are one of many popular fruits for gifts. Most fruits given as gifts have an 'auspicious meaning' and persimmons are no different. They're most commonly grown in the mountainous parts of Hsinchu - they're also found in Taoyuan county around Lalashan - and often eaten dried, like a candy - dried persimmons are exceedingly sweet.

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The word for persimmon (柿子, or shìzi) sounds like the "shi" in 事事如意 (shì shì rú yì, or "everything is going well"). The first character is doubled - I suppose that's why glass persimmons usually come in sets of two. 

You can buy glass fruits of all kinds, but it seems persimmons are particularly common - that's probably because of their appealing flattened circle shape. They make good paperweights and are fairly common as gifts as well. It's traditional to put a little gold leaf inside to signify wealth and prosperity (or perhaps just to look nice). I also personally think the opaque coral-orange color of red persimmons is an attractive choice and works well in glass.

In all my years in Asia, I haven't seen glass persimmons as decorative items - especially in the style of my persimmon - anywhere but Taiwan (though they might exist elsewhere; I haven't been everywhere). They have the same meaning in China, but even the first search result for glass persimmons in Chinese culture comes up with a fancy glass persimmon sold by a Taiwanese company- at a much higher price than I paid for mine! (More affordable options are available). 

I don't really mind that I don't have two. Just the one, on my coffee table, is perfect. 

So why do I like mine? 

First of all, persimmons are an early autumn fruit, in season right around my birthday, which often coincides with Mid-Autumn Festival.

Plus, over the past few years I've spent more time intentionally decorating my apartment to look modern and clean, but with comfy retro and antique twists. Think "Taiwanese auntie with good taste" or, these days, "Taiwan hipster coffee shop". 


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No, really. The decor is totally Taiwan hipster cafe. 

I spent a lot of time putting together a 'vintage Taiwan' wall, and my little persimmon fits nicely in this style. The color contrasts well with all of the blue I tend to use in my decorating. That this type of knickknack is just so typically Taiwan really appeals to me, too. 

But mostly I like the way it feels in my hand. Cool, heavy, smooth, and perfectly circular. I've been dealing with a heavy workload, academic stress and general anxiety over the past year, and it's calming to pick it up and roll it around in my hands. 

(That paragraph is starting to sound like an intentional setup to a "that's what she said" crack, so I'll stop there.) 

It's like this: 2019 and 2020 have been stressful years for me academically. It feels like my dissertation is never going to get done. But my glass persimmon is a reminder that if I just keep doing the work, there is an endpoint and 事事如意 - everything will turn out well. 

And, being 228, it's a reminder that Taiwan has had a long and painful history, a history that many people want to pretend doesn't exist independently (oh, but it does). Even now, it faces general threats from China, and a particular threat to public health from COVID-19. Again and again it's had to rise to meet various challenges - including pushing a foreign dictatorship out of power. Mostly, its efforts and admirable successes have gone ignored on the world stage. 


There's no clear endpoint in sight for Taiwan, but we have to believe that 事事如何 - everything will turn out right in the end.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Taipei Pride 2019: Huge and Political

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This year's Taipei Pride, held earlier today - and the parties are surely still going on - merits so many "that's what she said" descriptors, I don't even know where to begin. It was massive. Huge. So very long. It just kept coming. By the end, my legs were practically falling off.

Basically, it was exactly what you'd expect for the first Pride after legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, the first Asian country to do so.


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I have no idea exactly how big the parade was other than that it was the biggest Taiwan, and therefore Asia, has ever seen (Taipei Pride is the biggest LGBT event in the continent). I found it hard to estimate in part because the usual starting point and route of the parade changed from the Jingfu Gate circle and general 228 Park area to City Hall square - that big esplanade where Ren'ai Road ends - for reasons I'm not sure of. The News Lens puts the total conservatively, I think, at 170,000. New Bloom is perhaps a tad overgenerous with 350,000. All I can say is that I stopped walking and took up a permanent spot thinking the whole parade would pass me in about 20 minutes. Two hours later, it was still going. 



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It was big enough to make the front page of the BBC (to be honest, though, Taipei Pride usually does. And, of course, BBC had to add the stupid language about China and Taiwan, as though China is at all relevant to Taipei Pride (it isn't.) I won't even bother to quote it here.




All the usual corporate sponsors were there - something I don't love, but in an Asian context, also don't hate. Not because it signals that they don't (or don't intend to) discriminate against LGBT workers, job applicants and clients - that should be a given - but because the older generation which is less open to LGBT equality and rights won't necessary listen to their kids and grandkids: the young, liberal participants. But hoo boy, if they learn that the Taiwan branch of some fancy company (and therefore that company's CEO or branch office's General Manager, who is likely to be older and more like them) supports those things, they may be more likely to reconsider.

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LGBT-friendly churches were in attendance as well, a reminder that  while most Christian organizations in Taiwan are anti-gay, we can't judge anyone before we get to know them.


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What really struck me, though, was how much more political this year's Pride was. I mean, Taipei Pride has always had that legacy, acting as it does to offer a beacon of hope to the region that, as President Tsai put it, "progressive ideals may take root in an East Asian society". It's quite typical that people from around Asia and the world come to Taiwan to celebrate Pride here because they simply cannot do so in their own countries, and this year was no exception. What's more, young supporters of political causes, including Taiwanese de jure independence, have typically also been supportive of LGBT causes (older Taiwan independence supporters...not so much).

But this year there was a very strong undercurrent of support for the Hong Kong protesters, mockery of repressive China, and more open support of Taiwanese identity. Other flags and signs supporting Tibet and Xinjiang could also be seen.




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If, by the way, you're pro-LGBT but were still thinking that you could support any candidate in the Taiwanese 2020 elections and it wouldn't matter, think again. It's quite clear not only from the candidates' own messaging but the overall attitude at Pride that if you're not heteronormative, Han Kuo-yu is not the guy for you. Tsai Ing-wen's administration on the other hand, while not perfect, is your best bet (yeah, I needed help to understand this, my Taiwanese sucks).

International organizations that have a presence in Asia such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace were also present - with some participants flying in from abroad to march with their organization's banner.

This was cast in stark relief by one sign in particular:





Homonationalism is an ideology that uses liberal, often pro-LGBT positions as a means to discriminate against immigrants from more "conservative" societies, saying that they bring their anti-LGBT (or illiberal) values with them, so we're in trouble if we let too many of them in. Or, more generally, it's just used as an excuse for prejudice and discrimination in societies where things like marriage equality are now taken as normal and may be supported even by members of the right wing, but xenophobia remains a problem.

And yes, perhaps you'll meet immigrants who live up to the "their values are not like ours" stereotype - nevermind that our values weren't much different just a few years or decades ago - but the fact that Taipei Pride is a massive welcome party for marginalized groups across Asia from these "conservative" societies - shows that one cannot assume liberalism or illiberalism simply by national origin. 




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Of course, the usual bevy of left-leaning political parties showed up, including the much reduced and humbled New Power Party (with a few flags), the Green Party, the State-building Party (with their own truck, spouting very serious political messages) and I assume others. I'm not sure at all if the NPP being on more equal footing representation-wise with these smaller parties is a good thing or not - none of them are currently strong contenders to take down the DPP/KMT two-party vortex, but then it never quite felt fair before that the NPP got all the thunder, y'know?


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This year also felt more sexually diverse than previous years - with huge bisexual, transgender and asexual flags in addition to the usual rainbow.


 
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My own visit to Pride was cut short in part because the route was just so slow, especially before it reached Zhongxiao Dunhua, where things sped up a little bit. I was stuck in a mass of people at City Hall well past the 1:30pm departure time, and by 3pm we hadn't even made it past Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall yet, with several very long waits. This was due at least in part to how little space the parade was allocated. I remember previous demonstrations in this part of Taipei taking up all of Zhongxiao Road or all of Ren-ai Road, or at least one full half of it, but Pride got just one or two lanes, with several close calls (including people trying to speed up a bit walking on the outer edge of the march, quite close to traffic). Some marchers got stuck trying to use the fenced-off walkway by the Taipei White Elephant Dome construction site, only to be forced back into the much-delayed and swollen crowd when that walkway ended.


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I could try to assign blame for this poor planning but we don't really know...oh whatever, let's go for it. Maybe it'll become clearer in a few weeks but right now, it sure looks like the authorities are just less willing to give space to Pride and that could be in part due to homophobia. After all, one aspect of homophobia is reducing the 'space' in which LGBT people may exist, and in today's case, that felt literally true.

But let's not assign blame to every member of law enforcement. Several traffic cops I saw today were wearing small but noticeable rainbow items in a show of support, and the police I saw here and there looked friendly and relaxed, not serious or unsupportive. 


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To end this on a fun note, I did enjoy the preponderance of music this year. 






In previous years each parade route might have had one or two trucks playing music for participants to dance to - otherwise you sort of walked and talked with your friends but there was nothing to keep your energy up. This year, everyone from the usual drag queens to the Korean truck (who were not the only Korean participants) blasting K-Pop to LesPark (which always has great music) and more kept the mood upbeat.


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And, of course, the costumes - with Taipei Pride being so close to Halloween, it'd make sense that it turns into something of a costume party (though I suppose most Pride parades do - I've only ever attended in Taipei though.) Not to get too gossip-rag about it but let me tell you: in 2019, dog daddies and Pikachu are super hot, and the Joker is super not (as a friend I ran into put it, the new Joker is kind of an Angry Straight White Guy thing so that makes sense). Disney princesses, ruling like a queen or goddess, video game and cartoon characters, BDSM, Hong Kong solidarity, Free Hugs and angel wings are in. Showing too much, however, seems to be out.











Plan your Halloween party attire accordingly. 



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Sunday, July 21, 2019

I Went To Animatronic Hell

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You know which Hell is more fun than Christian Hell (which, let's be honest, was interesting when Dante covered it but otherwise just ain't all that)?

Taoist Hell!

Last week we went to Tainan to get some much-needed relaxation. I'd heard about a temple in Madou (麻豆) out in Tainan County that features a regular temple, a giant dragon, a fun sculpture garden, and an animatronic Heaven and Hell, which I suppose can be called family-friendly because parents do take their kids. The animatronic sets, fake blood, recorded screams etc. aren't that scary (to me), but there are repeated references to rape, murder and trafficking (that said, most of that part is in writing, which little kids typically can't read yet).

I wasn't quite sure how to get out there - there are buses from Tainan City, but though it's a half-hour drive, most take an hour or longer. The express buses only depart a few times a day. Even then, they go a bus depot on the edge of town, and of course the temple with animatronic Hell - 麻豆代天府 - is not only on the other side of town, but somewhat outside its compact downtown area. There are buses that stop within a 15-minute walk, but waiting for one stretches the trip into a 3-hour ordeal each way. There's a taxi rank at the bus station, but no clear way to get back unless you can get that same driver to agree to pick you up at a later time.

In any case, Madou is an interesting enough town that it's worth spending a little more time (half a day is about right), which is hard to do without private transport.

Lucky for us, one of our closest and oldest friends in Taiwan also lives down south (though not in Tainan) and was so excited to hear we were coming to her part of the country that she took off what is usually a work day running the family business, borrowed her dad's car and was quite happy to plan for our time together to include a trip out to Madou, as she hadn't been to anything like animatronic Hell since childhood.

Madou has been settled for a very long time - originally called Matau, it was one of the largest indigenous Siraya settlements in that part of Taiwan during Dutch rule, and the most 'troublesome' to the Dutch (though I find it likely that the Dutch were just as troublesome to them, if not more so, seeing as the Siraya got there first...by a good few thousand years). It continued to exist through the Japanese era and as such has a small collection of interesting architecture from that time, including the old sugar refinery and a big old theater (電姬戲院), now in ruins. The main street still has a few pretty Art Deco buildings at various intersections - though a few are obscured by ugly commercial signs - and a couple of old shophouses that have not been restored.

Madou is also famous for savory rice pudding (wan-gui or 碗粿 - I don't know the exact tones in Taiwanese), so that was our first stop. We went to the famous 碗粿王, but there are a million options and all of them are probably great. 


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You add sauce and garlic paste to your liking than cut the whole thing up with your spoon to eat it. The gloopy rice is reminiscent of Cream of Wheat, and a good bowl will always contain at minimum a mushroom and half a boiled egg. 


Then, straight to Hell - all 18 layers of it.

Daitian temple is interesting enough as a temple, though the main complex, built in the 1950s, is quite typical for Taiwan. The domed building off to the side is dedicated to Guanyin and is similarly nice, though not particularly unique.

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If you're wondering whether you get to go up inside that dragon - worry not. You do! That comes later, though.

The entrance to Hell is to the right of the temple proper, past a man-made creek decorated with plants and sculptures. It costs NT40 to enter and is presided over by a bluish demon with red LED eyes. Though there isn't much of a descent, it feels like you're heading down to a basement as the interior quickly grows dark.


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Once inside, you start your animatronic journey with the first court, where the recently deceased are judged for how they lived and sentenced to the appropriate level accordingly. After that, you twist and turn through the next 17 layers, each in its own LED-colored alcove which lights up at regular intervals (so if you arrive in the middle of a display, just hang around for a few minutes after it ends. It'll start up again.) Scary music - which isn't that scary - plays over the loudspeaker as the sets light up, and each one begins with the god who presides over that layer of Hell reading out the crimes of the person sent there, and what will happen to them, all in Taiwanese. I don't actually understand Taiwanese and the recordings are not particularly clear, but it's not hard to guess what's going on. What, did you expect that it would be in Mandarin, in this part of Taiwan? Haha, fool. Anyway, there are also placards above each set that explain in Mandarin and English what's going on.

Some of these are videos - what kind of blogger would I be if I didn't offer up videos of Animatronic Hell?

If they won't play, let me know. 



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For example, don't swindle the womenfolk. I don't know why that's a specific sin apart
from swindling menfolk, but ok


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Some of the layers made sense - murderers, rapists, con-artists etc. - whereas there was at least one which punished those who sought profit for themselves, or to enrich themselves. Which to me sounds like...almost everybody? Maybe that's the point - almost nobody goes straight to Heaven because we're all fundamentally selfish. That's not so different from Christianity, after all - harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven and all that.

A few others were specific to the Asian cultural sphere: levels of Hell for not being filial (or filial enough), for women who didn't listen to their husbands' parents directives and more. 



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I have to admit, I had a fantastic time. I turned to my friend and the other friend she'd brought along and asked why on Earth nobody had told me about this place before. It's great, I said. You know I'd love something like this!

"Because this kind of place was really scary to us when we were kids," my friend replied.

"Do you still think it's scary?"

"Not really," she said. "But...now I think I'd better listen to my parents more!" 



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Partway through our tour, we were walking alongside a family with an older and younger daughter, perhaps around ages 9 and 4, respectively. When my friend convinced this would have scared her as a child, I asked the older girl if she was afraid.

"Not really," she said.

"Kids these days are really different. This was definitely terrifying when I was young."

Then I asked the younger sister. She just looked at me and then quickly away. I joked that she was more afraid of a foreigner than all this Hell stuff (which seemed pretty true). Her parents laughed but said, in fact, the little one was scared, but probably wouldn't tell me, because she was in fact afraid of me too.

Later on we passed some teenage boys going through. They were laughing, joking and imitating the animatronic figures. In other words, acting like teenagers anywhere. Ever seen teens in a haunted house around Halloween in the US? Though they'd be more likely to bring their girlfriends and make out. Come to think of it, I'm sure that happens here, too. Plus, open containers are legal, the drinking age is 18 but nobody really cares, and beer is common at temple festivals. I can't imagine some teens have not passed through with Taiwan Beers in hand having a grand ol' time.

The main difference being, the people working at Madou Daitianfu probably didn't care much how teens acted in their animatronic Hell meant to scare kids into behaving, and while we didn't bring beer I got the general impression that it would have been fine if we had. Whereas you can bet some church lady or Aunt Doris in a religious theme park in the US would get all pearl-clutchy about it. Also, no beer. 


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I had thought when I came out here that there are so many religious crazies in the US, that there must be a Christian Hell-themed exhibit somewhere in the US meant to scare children into behaving, and that it wouldn't be that different in tenor or content (though quite different aesthetics) than this Hell. But the closest thing I can find is the Biblical experience park in Florida which includes a bloody crucifixion. Cool, but not the same as Hell. 


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Just great for kids. I read this and I think, definitely a place to bring your toddler. 


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So, you're probably wondering - which level of Hell was my favorite?

(Well, you're probably not wondering, but I'm going to tell you anyway.)

Definitely the 14th level, where "those who look for vulnerable women and take advantage of them" get their "faces skinned by metal blades and disfigured". You see, during this whole Hellacious journey, I was asking myself - sure, but where do the Chads go? You know, the scrubs? The fuckboys? What happens to those guys, because no way they're going to Heaven?
And I suppose this is it. So, gentlefolk, I present to you...fuckboy Hell: 



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Awesome.

At the end of Hell, you reach a final level which is described as more of a purgatory. If you have not sinned enough to go to Hell, or have atoned for your sins, you may be sent by the gods to Heaven instead. At that point, you head upstairs and have the option of exiting, or checking out Animatronic Taoist Heaven.

While less interesting than Hell (because duh), Heaven is worth a visit because the stairs you climb - no heaven for the disabled I guess - take you right up into that kick-ass dragon you saw coming in. Heaven snakes all through its neck and spits you out in his mouth. (Which isn't a great way to word that, but you know what I mean.)



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Here's the thing, though. The first animatronic sets you see in Heaven show either men drinking and talking at a fine carved table while the womenfolk sit at a lower, rougher, less fancy table...

...or they are playing various Chinese games and drinking while the women serve them.

Which, dude. Ew. So, in Hell your typical scrub gets his face skinned off, but in Heaven men are waited on by submissive women who always accept a smaller lot? Yuck. I'll take Hell, thanks. 



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Another family ascended to Heaven with us, the young boy visibly shaken by Hell. I pointed out how sexist Heaven was to them and the parents agreed. Traditional Taoist Heaven seems great for the guys but perhaps not so great for the ladies, and the part where they all sit around playing instruments and laughing is fine, but not nearly as interesting as Hell.

But at the top, you get a fine view through the dragon's jaws to the rest of the temple complex, and there's a picnic area where you can sit before descending. 




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After returning to Earth, we noticed that the temple festival that had just been getting started when we arrived was in full swing. At one point, the Eight Generals (八家將), a group of female dancers in skimpy costume cheongsam dancing a choreographed number with a 'matchmaker' auntie, a troupe of teenage cheerleader-gymnast-dance performers, some dancing princes (三太子), and several spirit mediums including a number of women (rare in northern Taiwan) were all going at once in what felt almost like a three-ring circus of things to see. I put much of this on Facebook as a livestream, so didn't get many photos, but here are a few:


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It was frankly a bit overwheming - temple festivals in Taipei are nothing like this, with one group coming in at a time. To have three, four or five different things going on at once was a very...southern experience.

We left the temple and hit up the sugar refinery, which has a lovely park but was too hot to really enjoy (the small art exhibit on a local artist was nice, and also air conditioned).

It's worth noting that Madou is also famous for pomelos, and if you want to try the local product without buying and eating an actual pomelo, there's a small, unassuming cafe at the sugar refinery where you can get a Madou pomelo slushie (麻豆柚子冰沙), which is perfect for the summer heat. 



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One more stop - the old theater - and it was time to say goodbye to Madou. The theater is worth a quick look but despite advice from a friend, I was not able to get inside. There are alleys around it and I took a walk down the one on the left, which lets out at some privately-owned traditional farmhouse, right in town. It's lovely, with a bright and flowering garden...and an unfriendly dog (the human who was there didn't seem to mind my presence but I didn't really want to hang out on his property like a weirdo, even though as a foreigner one can kind of get away with that. I don't like using my privilege that way.) Also, a big old wall between his house and the abandoned theater, with no clear way in.

Anyway, the weather was hot and bright, at least in the 90s and possibly topping 100. So here we are, a little sweaty and tired, and about to head out for famous gelato in Yujing, about a 20-minute drive away:



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If you put our shirts together, it comes out as something like "I support Taiwan independence, motherfucker!" in Taiwanese.