Tag Archives: East Asia

5 Documentary Films from Taiwan

Someone asked me for a list of five documentary films for an online anthropology publication, but the piece never got published so I’m sharing it here. I decided to choose is a list of five films from Taiwan which I think would be particularly interesting for anthropologists. I’ve tried to select a variety of film styles: one fiction film by an indigenous Taiwanese filmmaker (Finding Sayon), two ethnographic films made by Taiwanese anthropologists (Returning Souls and Amis Hip-hop), a documentary by an indigenous activist (What’s Your Family Name, Please?), and an observational documentary (Yellow Box).

Yellow Box looks at the world of “Betel nut beauties” (scantily clad women who sell betel nuts to passing drivers) but manages to avoid being exploitative by pointing the camera so the gaze is primarily on the customers.

Finding Sayon is fictional account of a film crew visiting the village where a famous Japanese-era story, The Bell of Sayon (about an Aborigine girl who sacrificed her life for her Japanese teacher) took place. [Yes, I know this means it isn’t really a list of 5 documentaries – but this film is definitely of interest. We even had a review of it here on Savage Minds.]

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Elevator Girls

In an old New York Times essay a journalist commemorated the Japanese elevator girl’s voice as being especially piercing and high pitched. Other Americans have similarly made fun of this feminized service occupation, describing it as a particularly extraneous and vacuous job. Japan’s first elevator girls appeared in 1929, when the newly reopened Ueno branch of Matsuzakaya Department Store promoted novel features such as air conditioning, its own post office, and eight elevators operated by women. Since then elevator girls have been of great cultural interest, appearing in numerous comics, a TV drama series, films, Hello Kitty incarnations, novels and in other media. She was a big hit in this McDonald’s commercial from 2006, in which she munches a burger with one hand while preventing a passenger from boarding by pushing the close button with her other hand. The words “I want to eat now” appear on the screen.

Video link.

[Unfortunately, embedding is disabled for this video, if anyone knows of a different version we can use, please let us know in the comments. -the editors]

I want to take the elevator girl seriously as part of a larger effort to reclaim women’s cultural history. In a forthcoming book chapter I track the history and representation of this feminized occupation, as well as the training and experiences of contemporary elevator girls. For example, the high-pitched voice that so irritates foreigners is intentionally fake. As part of their training elevator girls practice speaking in a crafted vocal performance in order to alert customers that they are not available for chatting up: they are on duty in their professional roles. The pre-determined announcements, delivered in the Tokyo-based “standard” dialect, also allow women from diverse regional and class backgrounds an opportunity to work in elegant surroundings in a desired urban location. The work and the uniform strip elevator girls of individuality, thus allowing the observer to imagine their own fantasies about these women (not surprisingly, elevator girls figure prominently in fantasy media and pornography). But for the elevator girl herself, the vulnerability she might experience working in such a public service job is protected by the uniform and scripted speech.

Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man

Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I’m the first to admit that I have a long way still to go. But for the past six years I’ve been teaching in Chinese and so I’ve achieved a certain degree of fluency even if nobody who spoke to me for more than five minutes on the phone would mistake me for a native speaker. In the United States there is a general assumption that everyone should and can learn to be a fluent English speaker, no matter where they are from. People are sometimes even fired for not speaking English at work [also see this]. But in Taiwan it is the opposite, there is an assumption that nobody who isn’t ethnically Chinese can learn to speak the language. For this reason, when someone sees a white person walk into a store or restaurant the first assumption is that there will be a problem communicating with you.

Of course, this happens in the US as well. I once read of a study where different groups of students were played the same audio lecture but with different photographs of the supposed speaker. When the photograph was of an Asian person the students performed worse on the test, actually retaining/understanding less of the lecture than when the photograph was of a white person. I don’t know if this study has been replicated, but I do think that expectations of communication problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in reduced comprehension. This problem is compounded in a society like Taiwan which has relatively few non-Asian immigrants. But not everyone responds to a foreigner in the same way, and over the years I’ve compiled a mental inventory of the various ways in which people respond to the challenge of having to talk to a foreigner. What follows is a list of seven ways strangers react when they have to talk to me.

First, there’s “foreigner panic” which is often evidenced when dealing with service people who fear having to use English in order to do their job. I’ve seen salesgirls hide behind coworkers who speak better English. I’ve had people standing right next to me turn around as if looking for signs of intelligent life because the very idea that they might be able to talk directly to me never crossed their mind. And I’ve seen people practically bang their heads on the ground apologizing for not speaking better English. Fortunately, a few words in Chinese, no matter how badly pronounced, is usually enough to calm the panic and establish a more routine service encounter (when dealing with young women, this is usually only after some giggling and additional apologies). Continue reading

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

I recently applied for “academic promotion” from Assistant to Associate Professor. I’m still awaiting the results, but I wanted to share part of that process with you: the ubiquitous “statement of teaching philosophy.” As this is something many people also struggle with in job applications, I thought I’d talk a little about the genre and share my own statement in full. Sharing my statement takes a little guts, as I really struggled to write an honest statement as opposed to the kind of jargon and cliché ridden statements I’ve seen when sitting on the other side of a job search committee, or when looking for sample documents on the web. (Rex sent me this page on writing such documents and the “Rubric for Statements of Teaching Philosophy” included there is one of the few genuinely helpful documents I found.)

Why is this statement so hard to write? Well, for one thing, I think it makes us painfully aware of the gap between our teaching ideals and our actual classroom practices. We can talk all we want about various teaching philosophies, but much of what most teachers do in the classroom is essentially the same. Even Mike Wesch, who wrote here about his theory of anti-teaching, has more recently written about “why good classes fail“:

In fact, the few truly fantastic classes I have stumbled into were just as likely to be “sage on the stage” lectures as they were to be based on more participatory methods. And the disheartening reality has been that a really bad lecture doesn’t fail as badly as a really poorly executed participatory class. Many of these professors seem to do everything “right.” They ask their students questions, pause and let them discuss with their neighbors, show YouTube videos that relate to their own experience, and invite discussion. But disinterest and disengagement still reign. Why?

I appreciate Wesch’s thoughts on this, and I strongly recommend reading the whole piece. (And look forward to his forthcoming book on teaching.) There is also an article about his re-think in the Chronicle. I mention it because it gives me comfort in the more modest approach I’ve taken in my own statement of teaching philosophy. I talk, for instance, about making my goals explicit. This may not seem like much, but in practice I’ve found that it is very difficult to do well and also very helpful to students when done properly. It isn’t the kind of thing that gets one written up in the Chronicle, but it is something I’ve thought long and hard about. It isn’t just about writing a good syllabus, but about spending time in class teaching one’s expectations and the reasons behind them. (In my case we actually created a whole new course to accomplish this goal.)

I hope my document is useful for others working on articulating their own teaching philosophy. I also think it highlights some of the unique challenges I face teaching here in Taiwan and might be interesting even for those not planning on writing such a statement anytime soon.

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Learning an Endangered Language (Part 5: Recap)

If I’ve been quiet lately it is because most of my free time has been devoted to trying to learn Amis (also known as Pangcah) one of the Austronesian languages still spoken in Taiwan. I’ve been reluctant to write about it because I’m at that initial stage where I am completely tongue tied and unable to speak a word if anyone actually tries to engage me in a conversation. I’m a little embarrassed to be writing about this again, because I started writing about it in 2009 and haven’t made much progress since then.

Anyway, I’m hard at work on this again, so here’s a roundup of the previous posts on the topic: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, as well as a more general post on my decision to teach in Taiwan.

Looking back at my previous posts, I realize there is much I never wrote about. So in a series of future posts I hope to write more about (1) my thoughts about language learning in general, (2) specific thoughts on strategies for learning an endangered language, (3) iOS tools for language study and (4) some of the themes of my research relating to the role that language preservation efforts play in the construction of indigenous identity in Taiwan. I hope that this time I get a little further than I did in 2009. In the meantime, leave a comment if you have any thoughts of your own, or specific questions you’d like me to address in future posts.

Subjective, objective and indigenous history: Seediq Bale’s take on the Wushe Incident

A favorite topic on the blogosphere is whether or not Seediq Bale is an historically accurate take on the Wushe Incident. Some details, at least, are inaccurate, and people have some questions for the director Wei Te-sheng. For instance: Why is Mona Rudao at events in the early 1900s he didn’t attend (人止關 in 1902 and 姊妹原 in 1903)? Why does Mona Rudao shoot at Seediq women when there’s no historical evidence for it and when it goes against gaya – tribal tradition or teaching? Where does the child warrior Pawan Nawi come from? And so forth.

Child warrior Pawan Nawi and Chief Mona Rudao

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Mona Rudao’s scars: epic identity in “Seediq Bale”

Commentary on the film Seediq Bale often relates it to Taiwan identity. Leaping the fifty years from the Wushe Incident (1930) to Taiwan nationalism (1980s) might seem like a non sequitur or anachronistic, but many have made the leap. According to The Economist, “its message of a unique, empowering Taiwanese identity is unmistakable.” I found this statement very irritating when I read it. What business does anyone have relating a Seediq resistance against the Japanese to Taiwan identity? I’ll address the issue of the supposed connection between Seediq Bale and Taiwan identity in a roundabout way, by exploring Seediq Bale as an epic film. It seems to me that the film’s message is of an epic identity, not necessarily an empowering one.

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Nativization and Foreignization in the Translation of “Seediq Bale”

The epic film Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow Bridge is of particular interest to translators because it’s in the Taiwanese aboriginal language Seediq. As a Chinese-English literary translator I’m naturally interested in problems of translation in the film. Unfortunately, I don’t know the Seediq language. Translators know they should comment on languages they know well; but I’m going to go out on a limb here and comment on one issue of translation in Seediq Bale: the title of the film. Then I’ll use the nativization-foreignization continuum from translation theory to comment on different translations of the title.

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“Seediq Bale” as a primitivist film

Seediq Bale is the biggest Taiwan film ever and the story of an indigenous resistance (against the Japanese in central Taiwan in 1930). As such, it reminds one of Avatar. Having spent many childhood nights reading Call of the Wild to the light of the moon, and many days in early adulthood reading Joseph Campbell – the great Primitivist and Orientalist – I’m embarrassed to admit that I came out of Avatar starry-eyed; Avatar is calculated to appeal to people like me with a “primitivist” tendency. It speaks, in a highly commercialized, packaged, unthreatening and, on second and third viewings, irritating way to longings in the wayward heart of modern man. Seediq Bale, for everything else that one might say about it, speaks to those same longings.

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The Chinese connection in Taiwan’s first indigenous film

In Taiwan’s first indigenous filmFinding Sayun, there are two casting assistant/cameraman characters from Beijing, as well as a director from Beijing. The director from Beijing never appears on screen. We only hear his voice as he watches the footage recorded by his Taiwanese casting director. What are these mainlanders doing in a Taiwan indigenous film? One reviewer complains the Chinese connection is irrelevant and was probably included to attract Chinese investment. Another possibility is that the director Laha Mebow wanted to attract Chinese tourists to the village. B&B tourism is part of the marketing of the film. I don’t know if Chinese tourists stay in B&Bs, but there are now a lot of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. What if the investor put pressure on the director to change the film in accordance to mainland audience expectations? What if the director put on rose-colored glasses to make her village attractive to the mainlanders? These are delicate questions. I was too afraid to ask them. So, I asked the director via e-mail what the mainlanders are doing in her film. Suffice it to say, the director encouraged me to find the meaning of the Chinese connection in the film itself rather than the film’s investment structure or marketing strategy.

It seems to me that rather than declare the mainland Chinese presence in Finding Sayun irrelevant we should try and make sense of it.

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Taiwan’s first indigenous film? Continuum and either/or definitions of “indigenous film”

In an article on the recent Orchid Island film Waiting for the Flying Fish, which is about but not by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, Prof. Anita Wen-hsin Chang called for funding for local films by indigenous directors. Finding Sayun, directed by the indigenous woman Laha Mebow, claims (on the film poster) to be the kind of film Prof. Chang has been waiting for: a local film with an indigenous director. Therehas been significant indigenous involvement in other films, including this year’s “epic” about the Wushe uprising in 1930, Seediq Bale. A better example is The Sage Hunter, starring the Taiwan indigenous writer Sakinu and based on his writings.










If Finding Sayun is Taiwan’s first indigenous film, it is Taiwan’s first contribution to the growing corpus of global indigenous film. According to Houston Wood, the author of Native Features: Indigenous Film from Around the World, the first indigenous film was Richardson Morse’s 1972 adaptation M. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn. The first feature by an indigenous woman was the Australian Tracey Moffat’s beDevil in 1993. A Chinese/Atayal language indigenous film with limited distribution (even in Taiwan) like Finding Sayun is not likely to make it onto the radar of a scholar like Wood. This is not a criticism of Wood, who had his work cut out for him trying to cover indigenous films in English speaking countries.

But what does it mean to claim that a film is indigenous?

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“Finding Sayun” and aboriginal romance films

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Darryl Sterk.]

Finding Sayun is a superb new anti-aboriginal romance film by Laha Mebow (陳潔瑤), a Taiwan indigenous director. The film revisits the 1943 Japanese propaganda film Sayon’s Bell about an indigenous girl from Nan-ao, a “rural township” in northeastern Taiwan, who drowned trying to carry luggage across a river for the man she adored: a departing Japanese officer. (Sayon and Sayun are two different transliterations of the same name.) Sayon’s Bell wanted to reassure the Japanese public that, a decade after the Wushe uprising in 1930, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples had been converted to imperial subjects, and to convince aboriginal braves to fight for the emperor: it would be hard to resist after hearing Sayun singing the inspiring Song of the Taiwan Soldiers:

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Buffalaxing in Reverse in Taiwan

According to the Urban Dictonary “buffalaxing” is a term which comes from a YouTube user named Buffalax who is famous for writing fake English lyrics to foreign songs which (to an English speaker who doesn’t understand the original language) sound like they could be the actual lyrics to the song. You can find this kind of thing by searching YouTube for “buffalax” or for “misheard lyrics.” Some of these are funnier than others, and many are simply offensive. The reason I bring it up is that buffalaxing is very popular in Taiwan, and I wanted to share a new music video which has some fun with this meme. But first some context…

Let’s start with two of the more famous songs which have been given misheard Chinese lyrics. The first is “Golimar” from the Telugu movie “Donga“:

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Dragon Boat Festival

Training for the Dragon Boat Races

Here in Taiwan it’s time for the annual Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 端午節), which also happens to be a school holiday. The traditional story of this festival is well summarized by Wikipedia:

The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (c. 340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi [a kind of glutinous rice snack eaten at this time]. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.

This is the version of the story which most Taiwanese learn in school, but the truth is much more interesting. Continue reading

Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading