Date: Fri, 25 Jun 1999 16:02:10 -0400
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: Leibo, Steven A. <>
Subject: H-ASIA: Taiwan Diary #3

From: Scott Simon <>
Subject: Re: Taiwan Diary #3

Taiwan Diary #3: A Hakka family

By Scott Simon, 25 June 1999

I first learned about Meinung when a leather tanner invited me to dinner in a Kaohsiung pizzeria. What are you doing in Taiwan? asked the waitress. I'm an anthropologist, I said. I'm doing research for my Ph.D. thesis. I know about anthropology, she said. When I was young, an American anthropologist lived in our village and wrote a book about us. You might know him. His surname is Kong. (It took me a moment to realize that Confucius was a Cohen).

Since that day, I have taken several trips to Meinung, a Hakka district in Kaohsiung County, with my friend A-san. To Taiwanese people, Meinung is famous for its thick, juicy ban-tiao noodles, oil umbrellas, and pottery. Local people brag about the district's higher than average production of Ph.D.s, artists, and writers, noting sadly that many were victims of Taiwan's earlier white terror. I have enjoyed visiting Meinung because Myron Cohen's ethnography of the area (House United, House Divided: the Chinese Family in Taiwan, New York: Columbia University Press, 1976) was one of my first introductions to sinological anthropology. I had been fascinated by his account of extended families staying together to meet the work demands of labour-intensive tobacco crops, and was excited to visit Myron Cohen's village myself.

This past weekend, a three day holiday due to the Dragon Boat Festival, A-san took me and another friend to Meinung to visit his family. When I was little, reminisced A-san, our house was full of activity during the Dragon Boat Festival. All of our relatives would get together and eat rice dumplings (zhongzhi). Now we just buy a few zhongzhi and eat them ourselves.

I asked A-san if his family plants tobacco. He said they haven't planted tobacco for about twenty years. Since then, they have switched to bananas, then to grapes, and later abandoned crops altogether to raise pigs.

Now they raise Thai prawns. Three sons return frequently to visit, but all of them have left behind Meinung and agricultural life. A-san works in a petro-chemical factory and has bought an apartment in a Kaohsiung high rise. One of his brothers is a professional soldier. The younger brother is training to become a nurse.

Politics dominated conversation on this trip to Meinung, due to planned construction of a dam at Yellow Butterfly Valley. The dam is designed to provide water for a new industrial park in Tainan, itself the object of local protest due to the threats it poses to the oyster farmers and black-faced spoonbills. Along the roads in Meinung, fluttering banners promote the slogan, Oppose the dam, save Meinung. Anti-dam literature is prominently displayed at key tourist attractions throughout the area. A-san himself opposes the dam. As we stopped to eat mangoes on the banks of a mountain stream, A-san picked up two errant crawfish and put them back into the water. After they build the dam, he said, this stream will dry up. All of the water will be held up at the dam.

Returning to A-san's house, I asked his father, Did you go to Taipei to protest?

No, he said, but a lot of people went. Some oppose it. Some support it. It's about half and half.

A-san's mother had demonstrated in Taipei. We went to support the dam, she said. They took us there by bus and explained the dam to us, how it will benefit the community. Then we went outside the National Assembly and they gave us red banners to carry. We didn't know we were going to demonstrate. There was another group outside that was protesting the dam. The ones in support of it carried red signs. The ones protesting it carried white signs and wore white headbands. It was embarrassing for us because the people on the other side were our friends and relatives. They were all from Meinung. We all know each other. It was hard to face them afterwards when we bought vegetables in the market.

They didn't know they were going to Taipei to demonstrate, explained A-san. They just thought they were going for a trip, but they got brainwashed.

I support the dam, said A-san's mother. It will bring economic development to Meinung. Tourists will come to see the dam. And when they build the dam, there will be jobs in construction.

But those jobs won't go to local people, objected A-san. They'll go to foreign workers. He turned to me, saying, The ones who benefit are the capitalists in the industrial park in Tainan (which will use the water captured), the construction companies and the politicians that help them. There is a dark side to all of this, just like with the Taipei subway system. It's all about the conflict between the local and the central governments. The protests can only slow down the dam, but in the end it will go through because the central government wants it to go through. The local government is DPP and the central government is KMT.

Conversations like this (a common part of Taiwanese daily life) reveal where the Taiwanese miracle has occured. The Taiwanese miracle is more than the industrialization that brought A-san down into the city to work and created the need for new dams. The real miracle is the democratization of Taiwan that began in the mid-1980s. Independent thinkers in Taiwan no longer fear white terror and people speak openly about politics. Taiwan has already chosen its first democratically elected president and is preparing for its second presidential election. Politicians, in fact, now compete for public support of their projects, and even the KMT has to lobby the public instead of merely implementing projects at whim. Demonstrations are a common sight in front of the National Assembly. People are free, for example, to protest dam construction projects and equally free to support them.

All of this proves that democracy is not incompatible with Chinese culture, I said to Yakai, a DPP supporter. Or that the Taiwanese are no longer Chinese, he replied.