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Taiwan finally begins to find itself, and overcome its China syndrome

July 27, 1999

By Matt Forney

Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Chang Hui-li, a 27-year-old university student, likes to wear T-shirts silk-screened with portraits of Taiwan's aboriginal chieftains in feathered headdresses. "Young people have always shown what they're into with what they wear," she says. "Now, we wear aborigine clothes to show that we're into Taiwan."

And here, for a change, Taiwan is in.

This island is a part of China in Beijing's eyes, but it has become its own place in the eyes of many of the 22 million people who live here. In a convergence of the political and the cultural, Taiwan is rediscovering its roots after 50 years of competing with the mainland for status as the true soul of China. So as President Lee Teng-hui riles Beijing by suggesting that Taiwan is its diplomatic equal, suddenly, things Taiwanese are cool.

La Vida Local

Restaurants with 1940s decor and playing Taiwanese oldies are packing in the customers by serving pricey versions of dishes that grandma used to make. Books about Taiwanese history and culture are flying off the shelves. Troupes performing Peking opera, the national art form of China, have had grant money cut, to be spent instead on Taiwanese puppet masters versed in local folklore.

The local language, too, has a newfound cachet. Though spoken by nine out of 10 people here, the Taiwanese dialect long took a back seat in politics and culture to Mandarin, the official language of both the mainland and Taiwan. Indeed, until five years ago, the use of Taiwanese in school was a punishable offense. Now, it's used as a selling point.

To sell beer, among other things. In 1996, Japan's Kirin Brewery Co. launched a television commercial in Taiwan featuring a folksy jingle in Taiwanese -- proscribed in advertising until the early 1990s and still a rarity when the ad began running. The jingle struck a chord, prompting a duo of blind musicians to expand it into a full-length song -- "Rambling on the Tamshui," referring to a local river -- that ended up with sales of three-quarters of a million copies. Kirin sales have roughly quadrupled here since the ad appeared (it's still running).

The Folk-Rock Effect

Not to be outdone by a foreign rival, Taiwan Beer, run by the government's Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau, played its Taiwan card. Last year, it hired Wu Bai, a scruffy electric guitarist who puts a rock spin on Taiwan folk songs -- also in the local dialect -- to front for its suds. Sales have since jumped 9%.

Wu Nien-Jen, director of the Kirin ad, also hosts a popular weekly television travelogue that introduces the Taiwanese to their own island. "People say to me, 'I never knew Taiwan was so beautiful,' because it was always presented as just another Chinese province," he says.

For decades, the only culture allowed in Taiwan was that brought by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and the two million Nationalist troops who fled to the island from mainland China in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Tse-tung's Communists. To bolster their claim as the sole government of all of China, the Nationalists decreed that their (implicitly superior) language, culture and history would replace those of the people who had settled here generations earlier.

That remained the status quo until this decade, when Mr. Lee, Taiwan's first native-born president, started shedding the trappings of authoritarian rule and nurturing American-style democracy, slowly dropping Taipei's pretense to rule all of China, and lately, its claim to be part of China at all. That, in addition to prompting Beijing to rattle its swords, has encouraged a budding Taiwanese nationalism.

Wu Chung-san, 57, has witnessed the change from behind the counter of the Taiwan Store, which he opened in 1993 to sell books on local culture. He started by selling things like manifestos penned by opposition politicians who called illegally for independence from China, and books on entomology that introduced locals to their native invertebrates. Taiwanese flocked to his store.

These days, the top seller is a fat book of song lyrics from the 1930s, in dialect. Pointing to one ditty from the period, he says: "I never learned these in school." Like most people his age, he was taught almost nothing about Taiwan. Only when studying computer science at Columbia University in New York in the 1960s did he read his first history books, in English, about the island.

"I knew Taiwan could be an independent country," he says. "I wanted people to understand the depth of their culture, to give them confidence. We were always taught we had no culture."

Lately, sales are down -- by almost a third from two years ago -- but not because of lack of interest. Down the street, the larger chain bookstore Eslite has added a section on Taiwan studies with which Mr. Wu says he can't compete. He is branching out, stocking black-and-white posters of Taiwan's former world champion Little League baseball players.

At Eslite, browsers crowd around the Taiwan section. One man is thumbing through "Rare Ancestral Surnames of Taiwan." Ye Wenhui, a 40-year-old veterinary assistant from another city, sits crosslegged on the floor reading about a kung fu master who subdued brigands in a southern county 200 years ago. "I come whenever I'm in Taipei to see what's new," she says. "These books barely existed a few years ago."

The Good Old Days?

This quest for identity celebrates anything different from China. Whereas mainland Chinese often harbor deep suspicions of Japan for its brutal occupation before and during World War II, most Taiwanese remember fondly the 50 years they spent under Japanese colonial rule. Taipei last year refurbished the sulfur bath built for Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who visited as a prince in 1923, shortly before blessing the invasion of China. The building is now a museum, and was packed on a recent Thursday morning.

"The Japanese helped create the buildings and lifestyle of Taiwan," teacher Leonard Tai is telling a group of fifth-graders on a class trip. "Kids need to know why their grandparents like to speak Japanese," he tells a reporter, in English.

Older mainlanders are nonplused by the upwelling of Taiwanese self-awareness. Chou Mei-yuan, the widow of a Nationalist general, fled on one of the last ships to leave the mainland for Taiwan in 1949. It irks her that some Taiwanese women with whom she has been playing badminton for 30 years now call themselves "Taiwanese," not "Chinese." It suggests to her that they consider her an outsider. Her explanation: "They're not educated; there's no point in arguing."

Neither did her daughter, Gen Wang, have much regard for things Taiwanese -- until she visited the land her parents had fled. "I went to China looking for my homeland, and realized that it's in Taiwan," she says. "China is where my parents come from; this is where I'm going to be."

Soon after, she noticed Taiwanese words creeping into her Mandarin. Then Ms. Wang, who is 42 and a director of a public-relations company, began dating a Taiwanese man for the first time, something she would never have considered before. Recently, she took a trip to southern Taiwan with her boyfriend. "I'd never liked it there before because everybody speaks Taiwanese and I can't," she says. "But with him to explain things, it was really fun. I felt so safe."

Oddly, the newly proud Taiwanese find themselves celebrating the culture of the aboriginal inhabitants who predate even their arrival in the last centuries of the imperial era -- a culture that they, too, long shunned. Ms. Chang, the student with the aboriginal T-shirts, is one of a crowd gathered at the OO-XX Pub in Taipei on a recent Saturday night to do just that. Elegant black-and-white photos of aborigine women, their faces tattooed with intricate geometric patterns, cover the walls in the basement bar.

In a Strange Tongue

On stage is Auvini. He's from the Lukai tribe. His home village is a three-hour hike from the nearest road. In his traditional vest and round-brimmed black hat, he sits on a stool grinning and singing village songs in an aboriginal tongue that only he among the crowd understands, while a long-haired electric guitarist, hunched on a Marshall amplifier, strums the blues.

Against the back wall, behind a bottle of single-malt scotch, sits Landy Chang, president of Magic Stone Music Co. and producer of the remade Kirin jingle that became a hit. He likes what he hears on this night. "Taiwan folk is still not mainstream, but the market will grow in the next few years," he predicts. He's adding staff now to promote his growing catalog of Taiwan folk recordings -- perhaps, soon, including one of Auvini.

In many other respects, Taiwan is already mainstream. Mr. Wu, the movie director and ad producer, says that if you want to sell, say, a bicycle, it would no longer work to fall back on the old Chinese standards -- someone pedaling along the Great Wall, for instance.

"Never," Mr. Wu says. He thinks for a moment and then makes this pitch: "Flashback to a father and son fishing together. Then show the son, today, riding his bike to meet his aging father to go fishing again, and he addresses him with a Japanese term of respect, because his father speaks Japanese. Then they ride off together."