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Monday, January 10, 2011

Breaking Away: American Cycling, Taiwan Culture and the Mimetic Faculty

Peter Yates (July 24, 1929 – January 9, 2011)

Peter Yates, the director of the 1979 classic, Breaking Away, one of the earliest and best bicycle/coming of age movies, died Sunday at the age of 82.

The plot revolves around a young cycling enthusiast in a small Indiana college town, who is infatuated by all things Italian and all things cycling. He does his best to imitate what he imagines to be everything, "Italian". He tries to speak Italian, eat Italian and even scam on the college hottie like an Italian.

Italian he is not. He is simply another local kid, or "Cutter" who is NOT going to college with the prospect of a life stuck in a small town staring him in the face.

Dave, the protagonist, and many elements of the story, were lifted from the life and times of Dave Blase and his exploits in the 1962 victory of the Phi Kappa Psi team in the Little 500 at Indiana University.

This movie can serve as a starting point for several conversations about cycling, globalization and greater ideas on the power of the image.

To connect this all back to the subject of this blog, I think, and I may be reaching a bit so bear with me, that it not only represents a paradigm shift in the sport of cycling that has had both a direct and indirect on Taiwanese culture, but it also helps illustrate the shifting and impermanent cultural borders that are often portrayed and imagined as fixed and unchanging.


Breaking Away materialized just at the end of the 1970's when cycling was dominated by the powerful European teams of Italy, France and Belgium. The reign of terror Eddy Merckx had enjoyed for a decade was coming to a close and the surly Frenchman, Bernard Hinnault, was just beginning his own dynasty.

The United States treated cycling as a European farce and very amateur. And... the US sucked at cycling. With football, baseball and basketball... what else was there?

At the same time, Taiwan had used American aid (and pressure), state-run monopolies, joint ventures between state and private companies, and a vast network of small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to promote rapid industrialization to help manufacture goods that were mainly aimed at the American market.

By the time Breaking Away came out the United States had already announced its official withdrawal form Taiwan and an end to the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty which enabled the US to station its military personnel on the island who spread American consumer culture off base.

The point I am edging toward here is that people will mistakenly attribute Taiwan's culture to China, yet for the past 100 years Taiwan's metropoles, its cultural centers... the locations Taiwanese have looked toward to emulate, compare and contrast themselves and their lives... those places, aside from the domestic, have been in either Japan or the United States. "How are we doing compared to America?"

When Breaking Away came out it was just at the tipping point for American Cycling. Team 7-11 was established in 1981to go head to head against the European greats. Team 7-11 featured several great American amateur cyclists including, Davis Phinney, who makes a cameo in Breaking Away as one of the evil Italians.

Team 7-11 gave Americans their first victories in the big European races and as it later morphed into the Motorolla teams of the mid-80's and then birthed the US Postal Service and Discovery teams of the 1990's. With greater success came better sponsorship and more success. American cycling increased its profile in the US athletic market. The increased profile also let to an increase in riders and Americans interested in cycling. These cyclists needed bicycles. Breaking Away had led the vanguard of American cycling and the consumer was quick to follow.

During this same period Taiwanese bicycle producers were coming into their own and offering better and cheaper manufacturing facilities than the Japanese factories. This is when Taiwan started to become the world's producer of bicycles. Taiwan was turning out frames and parts as OEMs for Nishiki, 3Rensho, Shimano and other companies.

Not only did Taiwanese encounter the bicycle as an economic mainstay in the period after Breaking Away was released, but as the popular image of the bicycle matriculated throughout American culture, especially with the rise of Lance Armstrong, that image was exported around the world in the form of advertising and popular media. These images were readily snapped up by Taiwanese. From this point Taiwan had a double cultural investment in cycling-- both economic and popular.

These dual influences have really helped give rise to a strengthening and more nuanced cycling culture that has transformed and been reflected back as something definitely Taiwanese. This only could have happened with the USA as one of Taiwan's cultural centers.

Beyond this, in the movie, Dave, emulates the Italians he idolizes.

This reminds me a little of, what I call, "The Iron and Silk effect". We have all seen this in Taiwan, and maybe been guilty of it at some time or another, of Orientalizing and engaging in a type of mimesis of what we think we are seeing or wishing to be. Periodically, I run into, more often than not, white men who want to be Asian. They wear the jacket with the Sun Yat-sen collar (Sun Jacket), pajama bottoms, maybe get really into martial arts and buddhist imagery... maybe a samurai sword on the mantle. They attempt to integrate themselves into the society and capture some of the imagined "magic" through the mimetic faculty. In doing so, they appropriate essentialized imagery and reflect it back into the people they are trying to mimic, which does not make them more alike as there is a consciousness on both sides of the contact of what is being appropriated and why. It remains an underoos fantasy.

The mimetic faculty and the use of the image has been used for millennia as a form of capturing the power held by the object. By drawing the Ibex on the wall of the cave there is a hope or belief in somehow capturing some of the essence or power the object holds to use for oneself.

Just as Dave in Breaking Away tried to capture the power of Italian cycling, thousands of cyclists tried to capture and appropriate the images in Breaking Away as they entered the sport of cycling, driving the image of the sport to far off places.

The image of drafting a truck probably sold more bicycles that that ad in the back of Sports Illustrated.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant analysis and analog (and great film). My friend also pointed out that Taiwan's culture is more reflective of Japan and US than anywhere else. I have since been trying hard to get my mind around this, given the use of Mandarin, icons, folklore, and the physical features of the people of Taiwan.

    I know that the premise is to distance Taiwan from the evil empire, but I am still grasping for more understanding on this.