So last week, I introduced Black & White, one of the few idol dramas set in southern Taiwan, and the idol drama most closely associated with the city of Kaohsiung. This is a continuation of that discussion … starting with certain personal observations.
The Taiwanese Pride/Shame Complex
You all probably know this about the culture of the United States, but I’m going to spell it out to make the contrast with Taiwanese culture clearer.
The society of the United States is very proud. Proud to the point that it is unwilling to accept criticism, especially from outsiders. The United States is #1, regardless of objective evidence. It is difficult for the United States to pick up lessons from other societies. In other words, the United States goes beyond pride into the territory of arrogance.
Even in pockets of the United States such as, oh, San Francisco and Berkeley, which openly criticize “mainstream” American culture, getting people to accept criticism aimed at them is pretty tough. People in San Francisco and Berkeley are just as assured that they are #1 as anyone else in the United States, and I say that as someone born in Berkeley and raised in San Francisco.
Taiwan is different. In this respect, Taiwan is very different.
Taiwanese people are certainly proud of some parts of their society. They are generally proud of the local tea, for example. Many are also proud of how they have preserved “Chinese” culture (though how they define “Chinese” varies from person to person—some are proud of the continued use of traditional characters, whereas others are proud of the preservation of, say, Hakka culture, so one also has to be careful of what someone means when they say “Chinese”). Many are also proud of the beautiful local scenery, such as Yushan, the highest mountain in East Asia.
However, the two things which are most apparently successful to a casual outsider—the technology industry, and the development of democracy —tend to elicit more mixed feelings from the Taiwanese. It’s not that they aren’t proud of their achievements in technology and democracy (they are) but their awareness of the continuing problems in both tempers their attitude. Perhaps this is wise.
But when I bring up many aspects of their society—education, comics (manhua), child care, fashion, once in a while even the food (which mystifies me, as someone who prefers Taiwanese food to “mainstream” American food), Taiwanese people tell me that Taiwan is not [as good] as [some other society, particularly Japan, the United States, western Europe and, sometimes, South Korea or even China].
I think some of this is just being polite. In Taiwan, being boastful is considered rude, and the proper way to respond to praise is to claim that one does not deserve such praise.
On the other hand, Taiwanese often seem to feel they have been abandoned by the world. They aren’t a part of the UN; many people don’t know the difference between Taiwan and Thailand; and when they see media from the outside world (and they see a lot—the movies come from United States, the comics come from Japan, the TV dramas come from South Korea, etc.) they rarely see/hear Taiwan being mentioned. So when some Taiwanese people claim that Taiwan is not such a good place, I think I sometimes do perceive a lack of confidence which goes a bit deeper than common etiquette.
I think that this humility has its positive side. Taiwan the most gender-equal, queer-friendly, and religiously tolerant society in Asia, as well as having one of the lowest levels of inter-ethnic strife among multi-ethnic Asian societies. I think this can largely be attributed to the Taiwanese people’s willingness to admit that their society has problems (I don’t think it can be explained by democracy, since South Korea and Japan are also democracies yet are further behind Taiwan when it comes to gender equality and the treatment of queer people).
But just as having low self-esteem in oneself takes a psychological toll, having low esteem in one’s own society also takes its toll.
And for Taiwanese people who come from less privileged regions (in simplistic terms, anywhere outside of Taipei), the sense of shame seems to go just a little deeper.
Which Kaohsiung Is In the Drama?
The Kaohsiung featured in Black & White is the newly cleaned-up Kaohsiung, beautified by international designers, with trendy cafes, contemporary art, good public transit, and plenty of space for recreation. As the story progresses, the drama also addresses some of the less glamorous aspects of the city, such as homelessness and corruption. ‘
But what I found particularly striking was what was not shown in the drama.
In The Outsiders 2, there is a character from Kaohsiung, and the way they rub in that the character is from Kaohsiung is that all of his dialogue is in Taiwanese. It is part of idol drama logic that everyone from the south speaks Taiwanese. And when I ask (northern) Taiwanese people to describe southern Taiwan, one of the most common things they say is ‘everyone speaks Taiwanese’ or ‘Taiwanese is the main language’ or something along those lines.
Yet, in all of Black & White I don’t recall a single dialogue in Taiwanese.
I’m not saying there was zero Taiwanese in Black & White—most Taiwanese people put some Taiwanese words in their Mandarin speech—and there could have been some dialogue in Taiwanese which I simply missed. But I am confident that more English than Taiwanese was spoken in the drama.
And for a TV series which so prominently features southern Taiwan, that seems wrong.
Or is it?
I was just a visitor in Kaohsiung, so I didn’t get to observe the city in a deep way. I did notice that people in my age group would usually talk to each other in Mandarin—even if they had spent their entire lives in Kaohsiung, and they weren’t talking to me (I don’t speak Taiwanese). I needed interpretation into Taiwanese only once during my entire trip … and generally, I heard a lot more Mandarin than Taiwanese spoken (this may reflect the fact that I was mostly hanging around people in my own age group. When observing older people, I heard a lot more Taiwanese).
This drama is clearly aimed at the younger generation, as opposed to dramas such as Fated to Love You which are made for a wider age range. As such, I have to say that the choice of using Mandarin almost exclusively was appropriate.
Yet there is a broader issue at hand.
Sure, in Kaohsiung, I saw the shiny new stuff, including the cleaned-up Love river, the MRT system, the renewed harbor-side area, the parks, other recreation areas, etc. But I also saw some of the interesting old stuff. I stayed in Fengshan, an older area, and visited Cijin Island, a historic district, and the Zuoying district, which, aside from the shiny new HSR station, has the highest number of temples per squre kilometer of anywhere in Taiwan. These are all tourist draws (even Fengshan gets some tourist action because of the night market) … yet I don’t recall seeing any of it reflected in Black & White.
Indeed, it seems that Black & White doesn’t show any aspect of Kaohsiung which is older than the Tuntex Sky Tower (completed in 1997). No historic districts, no Taiwanese language, no sign of heavy industry (Kaohsiung was once the center of heavy industry in Taiwan).
Again, I must stress that I was just a visitor in Kaohsiung, I am not deeply familiar with the city, and that my thoughts are based on what I saw and heard. I’m sure I missed a lot.
To me, Black & White‘s depiction of Kaohsiung seems shallow. While it thoroughly explores the new Kaohsiung, it shows almost nothing of the old Kaohsiung. And since, as a causal visitor, I still managed to see some of the old Kaohsiung (and not necessarily on purpose), the makers of Black & White must have made an effort not to show any of that. And that absense sticks out to me.
It’s almost as if they are trying to hide the old Kaohsiung.
The Effect on the City … and the People
So far, I have been talking about how the city has influenced the drama. But how has the drama influenced the city?
Based on my observation, quite a bit.
While more people have seen Fated to Love You, I have seen Taiwanese people express much more enthusiasm for Black & White. And I think it’s because it’s helped fill in a hole in their psyche.
I don’t want to spoil the story but, so I’ll just say that, even though Pizi and Yingxiong are now star cops in the Kaohsiung police force, they had previously suffered neglect. Their confident exteriors cover up psychological wounds which haven’t fully healed. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for Taiwan as a whole, and southern Taiwan more specifically. Taiwan now has shiny tall buildings, sophisticated electronics manufacturing, and is a cultural exporter (Ang Lee is the best known cultural export in the United States, but there are many others who are well known, in one way or another, in many Asian countries). Yet in spite of all of the smartphones, DSL lines, and other high tech, many places still don’t have a modern sewer system. This kind of juxtaposition feeds into the pride/shame complex I have observed in Taiwanese people.
I think, by validating their experiences, this drama resonates with Taiwanese people who had to leave their hometowns for economic reasons, as well as the people who stayed behind and directly suffered from this neglect. In other words, it resonates with the majority of the (younger) Taiwanese population.
And the city itself has taken the drama and run with it. I could see Black & White paraphernalia all over the place, including stuff produced directly by the city government.
Availability in English
The DVD set has English subtitles, and is available for sale at YesAsia.com (among other places). It’s a bit pricey, but then again, it is cheaper than a round-trip full-fare high-speed train ticket between Taipei and Zuoying.
I travelled to Kaohsiung with friends who live in Taipei, but who have family ties to Kaohsiung. When they got their Kaohsiung transit cards, they were excited to see that all transit cards had a Black & White theme. They visited some places specifically because some scene from Black & White had been filmed there (whereas I generally had to see the interesting old traditional stuff on my own). Being with them shaped the way I viewed the city … and the way I view this drama.
Indeed, I think the fact that, not only was their city featured in an idol drama, but in one of the highest-quality idol dramas every made, means more to the people of Kaohsiung than all of trendy cafes and public art spaces.
This drama has helped lower the shame and increase the pride Taiwanese people feel towards their society and, by extension, themselves. And that is why it is important.
Next Week: Fluffy Fluff Fluff
This was the hardest post yet for this column. Sara K. simply must write something very fluffy for next week (otherwise, she would have to go on hiatus). She is also afraid that she has grossly misinterpreted Taiwanese culture, and that this post will haunt her forever. On the other hand, if she never said anything at all due to fear of exposing her misinterpretations, she would never blog. On a completely different note, she saw monkeys today. Wild monkeys. In the wild. That happens once in a while in Taiwan.