Interviewed, translated from Chinese to English and edited by Isabelle Cheng.
Image credit: cinema museum by Amy Ross/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0
On 30 October 2020, the Taiwan Studies Programme hosted a webinar after the online screening of a pilot documentary Nine Shots (槍響之前) directed by Tsai Tsung-lung. This essay is an interview with Tsai about this pilot documentary, which discusses what, if not who, was responsible for the tragic death of Nguyen Quoc Phi. The latter was an undocumented Vietnamese migrant worker who was shot dead by the police, firing nine shots in 12 seconds, on 31 August 2017 in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan. Three participants at this event also examined issues arising from their discussion after the screening. They focus on how postings on PTT portrayed Nguyen as a migrant worker and whether Taiwan can prove, again, that it can overcome clashes between ethnic groups residing in the island. Other forthcoming essays will consider how to improve migrant workers’ rights and how transnational networking may be forged between NGOs in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Also included in these discussions is a migrant activist’s reflection upon her experiences from being a migrant worker to a spouse and her vision for Taiwan being a multicultural society.
Cheng: You have produced several documentaries about Southeast Asian migrants in Taiwan. As someone who understands the migration governance of Taiwan well, what was your first reaction to the news of Phi’s death?
Tsai: I learnt from the media coverage that he’s 27 years old, he worked at construction sites in Chupei, he was allegedly stealing and vandalising a van and a motorbike, and he resisted the police’s arrest. What surprised me was why he was shot nine times. My first reaction was that there must be some underlying problems that overwhelmed the policeman. I’m not naïve about the fact that it is common that undocumented workers are on the run and the police chase them, but why did Phi deserve such a death?
Cheng: What motivated you to make this film?
Tsai: When I presented my funding application for this documentary to the National Art Foundation, a panel of eight reviewers also asked me this question, particularly after I had produced See You, Lovable Strangers (再見可愛陌生人). I told them it’s because I didn’t see any changes to how migrant workers were treated after ‘See You, Lovable Strangers.’ At that time, the footage of Phi’s death hadn’t been released, so I didn’t know what I could find for my documentary. After I watched the footage, I was determined to carry on and complete the film. I decided to test how my crew would react to this footage – they were shaken. The footage showed how problematic Phi’s death was. I felt privileged to be able to know the whole picture. I felt like I was on a mission: like I’m responsible for unpacking the problematic structure!
Cheng: In the documentary, we heard a male voice narrating poems. One of the verses is ‘Home is like a kite.’ Did Phi write these poems?
Tsai: No, they’re not poems; they’re posts taken from his Facebook page. Phi’s Facebook page is still there as if he’s still alive. I decided to use his own writing so that it would feel like he narrated the documentary. Phi posted texts, photos, images and mojos on his Facebook. He often said he’s tired of work or he’s sad. You can tell there were many times he felt low, down, moody or lost a sense of bearing. Phi also borrowed from existing literature and blended that into his writing. This verse ‘home is like a kite’ is an example: it was taken from a folksong. Phi did well at school and finished his secondary education. But their family couldn’t support him to go to university.
Cheng: You edited into the film quite a few TV news reports showing the police chasing after migrant workers. One newsreader said one of the migrant workers ‘is like a gecko climbing up and down;’ you interviewed another injured worker at a hospital. Why did you include these news reports in your film?
Tsai: I’ve been collecting texts, images, videos or Facebook posts like Phi’s. I want to show how migrant workers are portrayed by the media, by the government or by themselves. These TV news reports represent how the media frame migrant workers. How these newsreaders describe them will affect how people see them. These TV reports can be categorised as ‘fun news’ for the purpose of entertaining the viewers. You’d feel like you’re watching migrant workers doing funny things or as if the worker and the police are playing hide and seek. This belittled the fact that they were running for their life and their future. I hope that juxtaposing these ‘game-like’ footages with Phi’s death will make people think that if we keep ignoring the injustice behind it – we’ll see how it leads to deaths.
Cheng: Did you see Phi’s death as a case of institutional discrimination?
Tsai: People’s opinions towards Phi’s death were polarised. They either saw migrant workers as poor people who they could be sympathetic with, or they thought the police’s disproportionate use of force could be justified. I believed this was because they didn’t see the footage of Phi’s death as recorded by the police’s bodycam. The police stressed Phi’s stealing, taking drugs, aggression and attempting to grab the police car. Phi was said to be crazy and violent like an animal. Hence, the use of a firearm, as a response to his craziness and violence, was justifiable. By the way, Phi practised martial arts when he was a kid, so he knew how to protect himself.
Nonetheless, once you’ve seen the footage, you’ll know how different it is from the police’s description. There is a structural issue as well as a cultural one. Structurally the police are ill-trained. The police officer interviewed by me in the documentary said they knew very little about the real impact of gunshots on human bodies. To them, it’s just a hole on the target paper. The police also receive minimal training about labour migration. They are affected by the stereotype: migrant workers are dangerous; migrant workers react impulsively.
Culturally, migrant workers are stigmatised. I think the problem is rooted in the label of ‘illegal.’ Illegality in our daily cognition is related to murder, killing or causing bodily harm. Nevertheless, the illegality of migrant workers is a violation of administrative laws. They overstay their visa, they abscond, sometimes because of the disputes with their employers, they don’t reside on the registered address, their residency permit expires, or they do not have a work permit. So, what is illegal is their employment. The labelling of illegality is part of the problem.
Another serious issue is the oppressive recruitment fee which leads them to ‘run away.’ In Taiwan and Vietnam, the operation of the brokering industry looks legal on paper, and both governments regulate the maximum fee charged by brokers. However, in reality, the total amount is determined by their broker, and brokers in both countries share the fees. They won’t issue any receipts, so there’s no written proof of the actual charge. It’s said that Taiwanese brokers take a larger share (more than half), but the money may not go entirely to their pockets. It’s said that they have to pay commissions to the HR managers of the companies to which they provide workers. This is because these companies are given by the government a recruitment quota which legalises their importation of workers. Brokers need those quotas to import workers, and the HR managers of these companies provide them, so brokers share profits with HR managers. Quotas are commodities!
Would the government take a heavy-handed approach to investigate and prosecute? Such issues do not surface until tragedies like Phi’s death or the Thai workers’ strike that happened in 2005 in Kaohsiung. It is this complicated context that I tried to present in this documentary. After going through this context, I think what is responsible for Phi’s death is the police’s ignorance of this context. It’s a structural problem involving the police, the paramedics who didn’t provide the critical first aid to Phi immediately after the gunshots, and the overall social-legal structure. The indifference to his injury and their lack of care is as bad as discrimination.
The Control Yuan investigated whether there was a lack of diligence from the police and the paramedics. The report did not state clearly whether this was institutional discrimination. We never admit we discriminate against migrant workers, but I think Phi’s death shows we do. Discrimination is a matter of subjective understanding. I can’t prove it, but I want to show that it exists.
Cheng: What is the major takeaway for your viewers from this pilot documentary?
Tsai: I want them to be embarrassed by the brutality and to challenge the views polarised between ‘poor migrants’ and ‘the justifiable use of force.’ We’re all bound by an ideology that we prefer to see that the victim is a perfect victim who cannot be blamed for anything he/she does. Nevertheless, the background is far more complicated, as I explained. I also hope my viewers can do whatever they can to help to make changes. This is a lamentable tragedy, and it could be avoided had we all been aware that discrimination and the ignorance of discrimination cost lives.
Tsai Tsung-lung is Associate Professor of the Department of Communications at the National Chung Cheng University and works as an independent documentary producer and director. He is known for his award-winning works, including Killing in Formosa (島國殺人紀事), Behind the Miracle (奇蹟背後), My Imported Wife (我的強納威), Oil Disease: Surviving Evil (油症 與毒共存) and Sunflower Occupation (太陽不遠).
Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research interests are marriage and labour migration in East Asia.
This article is part of a special issue on migrant workers.