Migrants’ Voice in Taiwanese Documentaries: Narrative, Language and Space

Written by Adina Zemanek and Lara Momesso.

Image credit: 啪的一聲 by Jared Yeh/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since the early 2000s, immigrants from mainland China and Southeast Asia have been an increasingly visible component of Taiwan’s social and public landscape. As such, they have received growing recognition both in terms of legal provisions and in the public discourse. An example of this acknowledgement is the December 2019 issue of Taiwan Panorama, a promotional magazine issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Half of this issue is dedicated to highlighting migrants’ presence in Taiwan. One of the articles calls for listening to their unique life stories, which would have the transformative effect of understanding the world from a new perspective and dismantling preconceptions about Southeast Asian cultures.

Multiculturalism as a concept seems easy to define but difficult to put into practice. It broadly refers to negotiation processes between minorities and a majority within a given community and can be approached from several perspectives. Normative multiculturalism refers to a society’s positive acknowledgement of intrinsic diversity in the public discourse and through policies and practices that support equitable participation for all groups. In this regard, Taiwan has seen significant changes since the 2000s. For instance, legislative reforms were enacted to improve migrants’ access to citizenship rights, discriminative language towards migrants was revised to be more inclusive and less gender-biased, a network of services was developed to advance migrants’ social and cultural rights. The narrative of Taiwan Panorama reflects this trend.

Yet, the ambitions of a majority group to be respectful, inclusive and open to diversity cannot necessarily find immediate implementation in actual life. From this perspective, everyday multiculturalism refers to how social actors experience, talk about and negotiate cultural diversity in everyday interactions, practices and shared spaces. This standpoint on multiculturalism may be more relevant for the actual degree of accommodation that a majority group offers to minorities. 

Rather than focusing on everyday life events, we decided to explore everyday multiculturalism in documentary movies about or by marriage migrants. The last decade has witnessed an explosion in cinematic production on/by migrants in Taiwan, which shows new migrants’ unique position in Taiwanese society. Increasingly visible in cities, markets, families, migrants have gained a space in cinematic production too.

Documentaries do not refer to the world in an oblique and allegoric manner but capture real people and verifiable events belonging to the real world. Furthermore, the documentary genre has the potential of being “a social service and political act” that aims to give a voice to groups deprived of the means to produce their own images. But despite a documentary’s claim to truthfulness, its story is told in the filmmaker’s voice. This is reflected in her/his manner of subject engagement, the argument s/he builds and her/his social perspective.

We explored migrants’ degree of participation in shaping that voice. More specifically, we discussed their degree of ownership over their narratives, language, and space in formulating broader reflections on how migrant groups are accommodated within Taiwan, above all who speaks for them and how they are spoken about.

We watched six documentary movies, released between 2003 and 2013. These films represent very diverse viewpoints: some were commissioned by NGOs, some by Taiwan’s public television service, and some were made by independent directors. They portray a multicultural Taiwan, connected with the wider world through its migrants, which shows awareness of its links with that world and its integration into society. In other words, through these movies, we confirm the self-image that Taiwan is promoting is diverse, multi-ethnic, multicultural.

Yet, a deeper analysis of migrant ownership of their voice and spaces in these movies may lead to different conclusions.

Kim Hong Nguyen, the director of Out/Marriage, holds the most power over her narrative, based on connections and movement between two locations: Vietnam and Taiwan. She follows several women who decided to return to Vietnam, who tell their stories in their social and cultural home space. However, despite owning the narrative as a filmmaker, she does not share or negotiate this power with her subjects. The other migrants in the film are subsumed to the logic of Nguyen’s narrative, an essentially Taiwanese-centred story of acculturation despite being set in Vietnam.

Migrants are depicted as speaking the languages of the majority group (Mandarin and Hoklo) (Out/Marriage, Bridge over Troubled Waters) or striving to learn it (My Imported Bride). They aim to educate their children along with the cultural standards and language of the majority group (Out/Marriage, On the Way Home) and make great efforts to meet the cultural and behavioural standards of their Taiwanese husbands and in-laws (Marriages on the Borders).

Our analysis of space led to similar conclusions. The spaces in which migrants operate are either limited to the town of residence in Taiwan (Bridge over Troubled Waters, Liu Qian). When depicting migrants’ hometown, the documentaries establish a clear hierarchical relation between Taiwan and their homeland. This emerges particularly in My Imported Bride, where the streets of Taipei are portrayed as clean, silent and well-organised in clear contrast to the streets of Ho Chi Min, messy, noisy and blurry due to the rain. When in Taiwan, it seems that migrant women are allowed to express their cultural identities only on stage, while performing a play with ethnic costumes for the local community (Bridge over Troubled Waters), or when protesting (Marriages on the Borders).

The potential of these movies is significant. They open up a window on migrants’ lives in Taiwan and reflect on Taiwan as a multicultural society. However, our analysis revealed an essentialised portrayal of migrants, which reinforces a hierarchical position of Taiwanese culture vis-à-vis those of migrants and reflects a colonising project that “seeks to convert or assimilate the colonised subject within a civilising mission”. The success of this colonising project is reflected in migrants’ appropriating the idiom of the dominant group for self-representation. There is a contrast between migrants’ increasing voice in public debate and the permanence of forgotten and ignored spheres of their actual identities and experiences, leading to what Lyons named as “spaces of silence”.

Documentaries analysed

  • My Imported Bride (黑仔討老婆, Tsai Tsung-Lung/Public Television Service, 2003)
  • Marriages on the Borders (中國新娘在台灣, Tsai Tsung-Lung/Public Television Service, 2003)
  • Liu Qian (劉茜, Taiwan New Immigrant Labour Rights Association, 2008)
  • On the Way Home (回家路上, Angel Heart Family Social Welfare Foundation, 2011)
  • Out/Marriage (失婚記, Nguyen Kim-Hong, 2012)
  • Bridge over Troubled Water (拔一條河, Yang Li-Chou, 2013)

Adina Zemanek is a Lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire and an executive board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (since 2016). Her teaching at UCLan has covered topics such as East Asian popular culture, the cultural and creative industries in East Asia, East Asian philosophy and research methods. Her research interests include: nation branding in Taiwan and Taiwan’s citizen diplomacy in Europe; banal and everyday nationalism in Taiwanese visual culture; history and memory in Taiwanese graphic narratives and tourist souvenirs; Confucianism, gender and power in Chinese and Taiwanese TV dramas.

Lara Momesso is a Lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the School of Language and Global Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). She is also a Research Associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS (the University of London, UK), an Associate Fellow at the European Research Centre of Contemporary Taiwan (University of Tuebingen, Germany). She is also an elected executive board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS). Since 2018 she is Deputy Director of the Northern Institute of Taiwan Studies and the Lancashire Centre of Migration, Diaspora and Exile at UCLan.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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