Written by Hegerová Terézia.
Taiwan’s popular music, just like Taiwan itself, has undergone many changes. Its development was and is still being influenced by various factors. Many Taiwanese musicians closely link their creative output and artistry to the question of Taiwanese identity. Some use their music to fight for Taiwan’s independence, some use lyrics to resurrect Taiwan’s history, and some use their songs to fight for indigenous rights and cultures. Although not as well known around the world as their American or European counterparts, these musicians are gaining popularity, especially in Asian countries, and are slowly establishing their names in the hearts of music lovers worldwide. One of the most interesting examples of artists representing Taiwanese identity is the band Fire EX. (滅火器).
Fire EX. started their career in 2000 as an indie punk rock band from Kaohsiung. The four members are singer Sam, bassist Pipi, drummer Wu Ti and guitarist Oreo. The group at first performed only covers, but later started to produce their own songs. They say that their style was influenced by many other singers and bands, especially those from the US like Blink 182 and Green Day.
Many of Taiwan’s indie musicians pay attention to politics, commenting and criticising through their lyrics or simply stating their opinions on the circumstances Taiwanese people face. It is fair to say that the ‘indie’ label also reflects Fire EX.’s endeavour to encourage Taiwanese people to fight for their rights and international status as an independent country. Each of the band’s group members are active and outspoken on social and political issues.
In 2014, Fire EX. participated in the Sunflower Movement in which students managed to occupy the Legislative Yuan to protest the passing of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement. Since many students listened to FireEx’s song Goodnight Taiwan, the protesters asked the band to create another song especially for the Sunflower Movement. Since Fire EX. actively participated in the movement, they agreed and in three days produced Island´s Sunrise. The name says it all: the song encourages Taiwanese people to rise against unfair treatment; not just the unfair trade agreement, but against unfairness put upon Taiwan in general by both external and internal factors. It was a call for all people to support progressive social movements and to support the progress of Taiwan.
Fire EX. became visible mostly because of their involvement in the Sunflower Movement. Since then, they started to tour internationally and were also invited to perform at many special occasions, including Taiwan’s 2016 presidential inauguration. This invitation was a telling sign that Fire EX. were a symbol for youth activism in Taiwan and that the band’s espoused political ideals also reflected the values of certain political parties. For this special purpose the band also created a new song, Good Morning, Taiwan!, representing the new beginnings and better times to come. The song captures the characteristics and spirit of Fire EX., and celebrates the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 as Taiwan’s first female President. The lyrics symbolise the band’s main ideals as inhabitants of Taiwan:
On an ordinary day, dreaming extraordinary dreams
A new day, it’s a new day
We walk different roads but sing the same song
We earnestly pass our every day
Living on an island in the sea, a people who won’t give up
Give off our own light
The group composes most of their lyrics not in Mandarin Chinese but in Taiwanese-Hokkien. The usage of Taiwanese language might limit comprehension to a smaller audience market, but the band do not see this as an obstacle. They believe the music itself can still reach people even if they do not understand the meaning behind the words, since listeners will still understand the meaning behind the atmosphere. In this way, the group is also changing the perception of Taiwanese language as only for uneducated people. While performing Island Sunrise during a concert in Kaohsiung, many fans joined in singing about how the Taiwanese people were no longer afraid. Taiwan is experiencing a phenomenon called the ‘natural independence’ generation, wherein young people see themselves as Taiwanese instead of Chinese. Some of them started to pay still more attention to the usage and the beauty of Taiwanese language.
Island Sunrise is still regarded as an anthem for Taiwanese youth. Its singers wave banners calling for Taiwanese independence and are determined to keep their homeland safe. But Fire EX. members use more than just their lyrics to express their desire to see Taiwan rise and become an independent democratic country. The band’s frontman, Sam, used an interview to explain his support for Taiwan’s democracy.
Another topic often raised is marriage equality. Sam publically criticised the Taipei mayor at the 2019 Megaport Music Festival in Kaohsiung because of his unclear statements about his stance on same-sex marriage. Sam later explained that he was not willing to ‘compromise on the values we’ve been fighting for.’ He was also criticising the mayor for not keeping his earlier promise to be open-minded and support progress. In May 2019 when same-sex marriage was legalised in Taiwan, many supporters of the new law gathered outside the Legislative Yuan during the vote to pass the legislation. Sam was among them, singing a song supporting same-sex marriage.
Even though Fire EX. is still very popular in Taiwan, the same is not true of China, which has blacklisted many Taiwanese, Japanese, Hong Kong musicians and other popular public figures. Those blacklisted all have one thing in common: expressing negative views about China, its systems or the Chinese Communist Party. Celebrities and artists showing pro-democracy tendencies by supporting related movements are one targets of this blacklist. The blacklist’s main purpose is to state who is not to be engaged to perform in China, so it is not surprising that after participating in the Sunflower Movement, Fire EX. has joined the blacklist. However, China’s Ministry of Culture has denied the existence of such a blacklist.
Fire EX’s music emphasises the beauty, the tradition and the future possibilities of Taiwan and its people. They use their music to make people realise what Taiwan needs, to encourage people to not give up on Taiwan and the place in the world this small island deserves. They call for unity in the fight for independence, the fight for Taiwanese uniqueness.
Hegerová Terézia is MA student at the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University. This article is part of the special issue lecture series ‘Music: Pop and Censorship: Taiwan’s Popular Music (Spring 2019).