body{background-attachment: fixed ! important; }

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Taiwan's Unofficial KMT Mouthpiece Touts Cycling

The current issue of CommonWealth Magazine (天下) locates "The Six Lures Hooking Foreign Visitors". The introduction to the article identifies Taiwan's difficulties in competing with Europe and Japan for tourism dollars and then seeks to contrive emotive experiences for potential visitors.

Most of the article focuses on the mythologized "round island trip" and a character called "Frog", who has leveraged a sizable capital investemnt in bicycle tourism.

The whole article is really worth a read as it gives us a glimpse inside the dissonance between the actual cultural life in Taiwan and how that cultural life is imagined, constructed and promoted by a powerful minority of ideologues who seek to engage locals and visitors alike in the realm of wishful make-believe.

CommonWealth Magazine is a publication that founded in 1981, during a brief period of liberalization in the era of martial law, in the indirect aftermath of the Chung-li incident. CommonWealth has traditionally been aligned with the beliefs of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and, in earlier days, the Government Information Office, to promote a sinocentric outlook for Taiwan.
Taiwan's people seem more smitten with Europe's streetscapes and Japan's culture than their country's own beauty. But CommonWealth Magazine has identified six major lures that overseas visitors have come to appreciate.
It is in the context and juxtaposition of CommonWealth's traditional political alignment/ideology, and its current lamentation for promoting Taiwan to foreigners that I find this story very interesting.

For the entire period of KMT initiated martial law, beginning in 1949, until the end of Lee Teng-hui's first term as president following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwan's late dictator, Taiwan's separate cultural and ethnic identity had been degraded within the framework of the ROC into an undesirable "local" flavor that was to be gradually replaced with the modernist state high "Chinese culture" invented and promoted by the KMT in China.

Chinese nationalist critics, like CommonWealth, have claimed for decades that Taiwanese had "no history" or culture. They have contended that Taiwanese were culturally "traditional Chinese" (as opposed to those modernist Chinese in the KMT who had jettisoned their "backward" traditions and thus making them fit for leadership), and that the concept of a separate Taiwanese identity and culture is merely the result of contemporary political careerists.

I would argue against this position as Taiwanese have not only followed a different socio-historical trajectory than other people around the world, including Chinese, they have also lived within a separate Taiwanese socio-political structure that delineated how the people on Taiwan would interact with their respective governments and with each other, across the lines of ethnicity, class and, later, political affiliation. Qing era Taiwanese were definitely aware, from as early as the 17th Century, that their experience was an exception within the Qing Empire. This is reinforced by the myriad of special laws and decrees issued specifically to manage Taiwan's unique ethnic and cultural landscapes.

I find sad irony that such a staunchly conservative publication, such as CommonWealth, would now seek to promote Taiwanese culture after being so aligned with the Chinese nationalist establishment that spent, and still spends, so much effort in fruitlessly trying to transform and align Taiwanese culture with the idealized "Chinese high culture" invented and distilled for the Republic of China in the 1930's.

In June 2007, after Yang and three friends circumnavigated Taiwan by bicycle, he decided to leave the online game company he was working for and devote himself to running his biking haven, the Frog Café. He was so enthralled by the spirit of adventure and feelings of attachment for his native land he experienced during his tour of Taiwan that he wanted to encourage young people to share the adventure.

Yang invested NT$200,000 in 15 bicycles kept at his Bali outlet that are available for people to rent or borrow. Those who submit a simple "Frog Round-Taiwan Bicycling Sponsorship Plan" online, pay a NT$500 maintenance fee and contribute NT$500 to a fund for sustainably promoting biking around the island can use the bikes in Yang's shop for an unlimited number of days.

"Surprisingly, the first person to submit an application was a woman from Hong Kong. She said she wanted to use the bicycle to get to know Taiwan's beautiful natural scenery," Yang says.

After that, many other ethnic Chinese, from Chinese exchange students to Malaysian office workers, took advantage of Yang's plan to tour Taiwan's mountains and coastline.

What really caught my eye was the repeated focus in the CommonWealth article on, "Ethnic Chinese".

This is a very loaded term and a contrivance that comes directly from the core of Sunism and its ambiguous friction between concepts of race, ethnicity and the nation.

Chinese nationalism seeks to construct a global net of "Overseas Chinese", who are forever bound to "the nation" by blood. Scholars like Dru Gladney and David Wu have done a marvelous job in unraveling the political construct we know as "Ethnic Chinese". This term is actually more an artifact from the old Sunist lexicon than representative of a non-political imagined community.

Contemporary Chinese nationalists have tried to come to grips with the post WWII world, in which the old Western colonial enterprises withdrew, Tibetan, Sichuanese, Uyghur, Yao and other nationalisms failed, the Japanese Empire withdrew... and yet the people remained were bound by their shared experiences and not by an imagined darwinian blood linkage. The Chinese nationalists coined the term "Greater Chinese" to lay some form of ownership over most of East Asia.

This CommonWealth article is rife with evocations of this imagined "Chinese culture".

Among other attraction they hope to promote Taiwan's "Rural Villages" because:
These destinations all showcase pastoral landscapes that are so poignant, they evoke deep emotions in many ethnic Chinese. Community-building efforts have generated a vitality similar to that of the spring planting season, when the soil is broken up and new seedlings germinate, yielding unique green sightseeing opportunities.
...further stating:

In recent years, Taiwan's leisure farms have even developed strong name recognition in Singapore and Malaysia, drawing many ethnic Chinese families from the two countries.

More than 140,000 foreign nationals have already visited Taiwan's recreational farms this year, according to statistics from the Taiwan Leisure Farming Development Association, signs that a 20-year campaign to build tourism around local agriculture is having some success. The initiative first positioned farms as tourist orchards, and then they slowly evolved into integrated recreational areas complete with restaurants, accommodation and DIY farming experiences.

In another passage CommonWealth attempts to highlight Taiwan's cultural particularism while failing to fully backtrack from the logical impossibility it asserts... that... somehow Taiwan is "more authentically Chinese than China".
In recent years, the country's dynamic and enterprising cultural creativity has generated many commercial festivals attractive to the ethnic Chinese community that bear little resemblance to traditional holiday celebrations.
The following quote emphasizes the Chinese nationalist view of their right to cultural hegemony in the face of cultural particularity.
"What we are selling is Taiwan's outstanding lifestyle, attitude and aesthetics. We examine our vision of life and hope to successfully communicate an interpretation of ‘life' with everybody, or at least with all ethnic Chinese,"
One of the most revealingly incongruous quotes from the CommonWealth article comes in the form of this little gem:

Preserving the Spirit of the Country Scholar

Because most guesthouses are situated in the countryside, they allow foreign tourists to experience the life of the traditional Chinese countryside scholar, as preserved in Taiwan. Pei Chin, the owner of the Riomont Penthouse in Yilan County, lived in California for 25 years before returning to Taiwan and was stunned to find traditional agrarian scenes everywhere.

"The forgotten practice in Chinese culture of pursuing learning while tilling the soil was somehow preserved really well in Yilan County," Chin says, and this was one of his inspirations for opening his own guesthouse.

The lesson from this article and others like it, that seek to promote cycling and leisure activities in Taiwan, is that much of what is being touted and sold is a figment of the imagination born in the minds of political actors intent on authenticating and framing Taiwanese cultures and experiences to fit a narrow trope and appeal to their own fantasies and the fantasies held by others. They simultaneously acknowledge Taiwan's separate, non-Chinese identity through the exoticizing lens of tourism, while trying to maintain congruity with their monocultural Chinese nationalist ideology. The apple cart upturned.