The Fashioning of Filipino Community in Taiwan: OFW Beauty Pageants in the Era of Social Media

Written by Yi-Yu Lai.

Image Credit: photo provided by author.

It was just a typical Sunday at a park in Chungli, in which numerous Southeast Asian migrant workers usually huddle together during their holidays. Around the park, several Filipinos were waiting in the midmorning sun. Some were dressed casually, and some were primped with meticulous attention to detail. Soon afterwards, a small group of Filipinos with yellow uniforms gradually appeared and began to rehearse on a park stage. It was actually the day that these Filipino migrant workers hosted a beauty pageant—Hottest Hunks & Hottest Babes of 2018. However, someone had another appointment and decided not to attend, while others were still on their way from distant cities. Although the event was delayed for at least an hour, it seemed unaffected by their rehearsal. We cannot easily explain this as an outcome of “Filipino time.” Instead, migrant workers can be triggered by their work, their employees, or even their friends and family members who are far from where they are. During their day-off, living as a migrant worker is a matter of time.

Filipino migrant workers, also known as “OFW” or overseas Filipino workers, usually have fewer and limited holidays, making them passionately dedicate themselves to their leisure activities. A Filipino friend who proactively participated in beauty pageants told me that he attended over 30 contests in Taiwan from 2016 to 2019. Since Filipino migrant workers have solid demands for nostalgic consumption and gathering, it does not mean that they are merely keen on beauty pageants. Nevertheless, as one of the rapidly increasing activities in Taiwan’s Filipino community in the past few years, beauty pageants cannot be ignored because they play a vital role in developing the Filipino ethnic economy in Taiwan. Especially in the era of social media, such an eye-catching activity has rearranged the migrant workers’ holiday routines, changed their networks’ interactions, and attracted Filipino-targeted businesses to revise their promoting strategies within the community.

As an anthropologist who studies Indigenous movements in the Philippine highlands, my experiences of beauty pageants’ are not rare. The beauty pageant has been culturally entrenched in the Philippines and its diasporic communities for many decades. Because these contests are very popular with Filipinos, some Indigenous youth advocates use them as an instrument for cultural activism, empowering participants and attracting those who were previously indifferent to political issues. Nevertheless, the Filipino beauty pageants of Taiwan are quite different from those I previously experienced. Although it is difficult to trace the origin of Filipino pageants in Taiwan, the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) and some churches have hosted such contests as one of many performances in celebrations over the years. Out of the many churches and official institutions, people could thus attend the ones held by Filipino enterprises or those initiated by different Filipino informal interest groups. 

This trend has become much more popular in the last four or five years. A turning point was when migrant factory migrant workers began to take a day-off every Sunday when the Taiwanese government enacted an act for “One Fixed Day-off and One Flexible Rest Day” (一例一休). As a result, they have become the most proactive group organising and participating in such activities. While some attend just for fun, others might seize the chances to cultivate their hobby or extra working skills. Some even attempt to earn additional income through these activities. Informal interest groups combining with various migrant worker freelancers have increasingly come into sight, such as models, photographers, videographers, hair stylists, fashion makeup artists, dancers, singers, etc. In a beauty pageant, for instance, entrepreneurial sponsors and freelancers usually collaborate with organisers and contestants. The places where they prepare for these events and where they are held have become crucial ethnic consumptive fields, challenging those traditional clusters that are usually fixtures in specific locations. 

The rise of social media catalyses the trend of deterritorialisation. With the use of communication technology for social networking, individual freelancers and interest groups have closer and more interactive relationships with the entrepreneurs even in the working days. On the one hand, freelancers present their artworks on social media, attracting potential customers and sponsors from different corners of Taiwan. On the other hand, freelancers make the spaces of the Filipino ethnic economy more flexible in Taiwan as a mediated role between customers and entrepreneurs. For example, the event venues are usually decided on the areas that most sponsors and the contestants come from. During the preparation for the meeting, model card shootings and rehearsals, organisers and freelancers would visit the venue and their sponsors’ shops. Writing posts on social media to display their sponsors’ products or services is essential for the events. Moreover, it will let their sponsors feel satisfied with their sponsorships. Those who lack brick and mortar can also have chances to increase their media exposure. Under these circumstances, social media use extends migrant workers’ space beyond the traditional ethnic fixtures. It thus helps them connect and reach out in a previously unavailable way, although traditional consumptive spaces might not be eliminated in the future. Still, entrepreneurs need to continuously follow up on the latest events, popular interest groups, and individuals because their holiday activities now shape migrant workers trajectories. 

Concerning current beauty pageants, we can perceive concrete endorsements and sponsorships. While organisers usually provide some clothes or makeups for free, they may also provide rooms for contestants to prepare their own costumes. Some people might do this, but those who were already brand ambassadors might wear attires already prepared by their sponsors. Even if some entrepreneurs do not send any contestant to participate in the pageant, their representatives may still have a chance to be invited to display their products during the break time. Nevertheless, the host still needs to keep introducing sponsors along with products/services because the models cannot easily visualise some sponsorships.

Apart from the contestants, I noticed that the judging work in a beauty pageant is also related to the sponsorships. I noticed this on my first time being a beauty pageant judge. I remembered I got three papers first and then was asked to score in the three different rounds—hottest shirt, tropical attire, and enchanted costume. However, during the second round of the judges, I was surprised that the host unexpectedly announced several awards without our scores. Later, I realised the sponsors decided the criteria of the second round for tropical attire. In other words, although the judges needed to score the performances in all of the three rounds, our scores were only used in the first and the third round. In the second round, each sponsor had a chance to award a prize and provide one of their products/services to the awarded contestants. 

Such an arrangement is essential for ethnic, economic development. Besides posting activity photos and videos, for instance, some participants posted their certificate, shoulder belts, and souvenirs from the event sponsors. When these posts reach an audience who do not directly participate in such leisure activities, it will ensure the continuing influence of beauty pageant endorsements and sponsorships in the broader Taiwanese Filipino community. Therefore, social media actions break the limitations of time and space, strengthen the Filipino community’s networks, and ensure ethnic economy development can continue. Beauty pageants transient in nature, but their impact on Filipino community fashion in Taiwan has significant consequences. 

Yi-Yu Lai is currently a PhD student in Anthropology at University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, and he has studied the Indigenous resistance in the highland Philippines since 2014. Focusing on the issues of political violence and Indigenous politics, he has participated in countless academic, voluntary, and cultural exchanging projects in Taiwan, Hawaii, and the Philippines.

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