Written by Yi-Yu Lai.
“Have you ever watched Meteor Garden (流星花園) before? I was so crazy about Dao Ming Si and his gang before!” Many Taiwanese might be familiar with the similar conversation when they first met their Filipino friends. Since my friends know I am from Taiwan, they sometimes asked me to sing its theme song Qing Fei De Yi (情非得已) for them. They also love to hum the tune to me, though they cannot speak Mandarin at all. The early 2000s was a crest of Taiwanese dramas before the advent of the Korean turn. Although the popularity of Taiwanese dramas has never met that prosperity afterwards, it is undeniable that the arrival of Meteor Garden brought the wave of Asianovelas and then became an icon of Philippine pop culture.
The Taiwanese soap opera Meteor Garden was first aired on ABS-CBN, one of the biggest commercial broadcast networks in the Philippines, on May 2003, creating the highly ardent Meteor Fever in Manila. After that, ABS-CBN launched a series of “Asianovelas” with remarkable success.“Asianovelas” is a local term for dramas produced in Asian countries. These include Taiwanese dramas such as Love Scar (烈愛傷痕), Girls Marching On (女生向前走), Eternity: A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂), and Westside Story (西街少年), The Promise (紫藤戀). Thus, to compete against ABS-CBN, the GMA network began airing Taiwanese dramas in their programming block The Heart of Asia, such as My MVP Valentine (MVP情人), The Poor Prince (貧窮貴公子), and Lavender (薰衣草), At Dolphin Bay (海豚灣戀人), Tomorrow (愛情白皮書).
Why did the wave of Asianovelas hit the Philippines at that moment? Historically, it was around when democratised media was reestablished after the repressive Marcos regime from 1965 to 1986. Privatised television networks first introduced Mexican soap operas to attract more audience because of the two countries’ shared history.’ Indeed, both were colonised by Spain and were affected by the neocolonial forces of the United States. Later, those market gatekeepers gradually turned their attention to the regional circulation of Asian pop cultures. Instead of the grieving tendency of Mexican soaps, the genre of romantic comedy from Taiwan refreshed the Filipino audience significantly. Moreover, it radically changed the Philippine viewing habits regarding length and melodramatic proportions.
In the book The Chinese Question (2014), the author Caroline S. Hau points out the coincidence between the Asian renaissance in Philippine pop culture and the crisis of Philippine cinema due to the Asian financial crisis of 1997. As a result, the television networks imported Asian dramas with relatively lower costs while local studios were forced to suspend numerous productions.
With real anxiety about the danger of the film industry, Filipino producers witnessed the global success of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tigger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍). It thus motivated the emergence of “Chinese” themes and characters in the Philippine media productions to save the industry from precarious conditions. Although these films usually have nothing to do with the image of Taiwan, the impact from Taiwanese cultural products made more room for Chinese Filipinos to be represented. Some actors from Taiwan and Hong Kong who became popular with other introduced dramas were even invited to be in the cast in some of those “Chinese” films.
The Mano po, a film series that focuses on the lives of the Chinese Filipino community, is one of the most successful productions in the history of Philippine cinema. Its first instalment was released five months before Meteor Garden debuted in the Philippines, riding the wave of Taiwanese dramas with its setting of Chinese cultures and achieving box-office success. In its latest seventh instalment of 2016 called Chinoy, the crew moved to Taiwan to shoot scenes, including famous landmarks such as the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum and Lotus Pond in Kaohsiung. However, their visit to Taiwan was like a travelogue for its sense of “authentic” Chinese culture and had no apparent connection to the storyline.
Even in non-Chinese productions of the Philippines, Taiwan is usually represented as a place to experience Chinese cultures. There is an example of a six-episode series of 2019 called Taiwan That You Love, the first production on ABS-CBN’s online platform iWant that shot out of the Philippines. This romantic story centres around the myth of the Chinese matchmaking God, Yue Lao. An idealistic young girl called Ivi who dauntlessly goes on a three-week trip to Taiwan with her boyfriend Eric of three years plans to operate an underground walking tour in Taipei with her close friend Tammy. The two girls wear traditional Chinese cheongsam tour Filipinos around renowned tourist spots like Liberty Square, Ximending, and Dadaocheng. The story later develops with a matchmaking mission that Ivi needs to address amid a love triangle between her boyfriend and a Taiwanese guy named Wei-Ting.
Nevertheless, in this transnational production, Taiwan That You Love shows both the traditional and modern look of Taiwan with Chinese cultures and reveals different aspects beyond the representations of Chineseness. For example, they introduced Liberty Square as a site for rallies that brought Taiwan into the era of modern democracy. They also point out that nowadays, people in Taiwan might be angry if foreigners call them Chinese rather than Taiwanese.
According to these media productions, the image of Taiwan in the Philippines has shifted from romantic fiction, the medium of Chinese cultures, to a neighbouring country that exists. At the same time, the introduction of Taiwan has not been limited by big studios or the main television networks. Instead, countless streaming services and independent producers have diversified the channels for understanding Taiwan.
Taiwanese issues with worldwide attention might also play a significant role in how people select productions to watch. Because of the progress of LGBTQ rights in recent years, some of my Filipino friends have become fans of the Taiwanese LGBTQ films and the BL series because they can be the medium for them to project their imagination with the Taiwan society.
In the Tale of the Lost Boys (他和他的心旅程) of 2017, another transnational production between Taiwan and the Philippines, Filipino filmmaker Joselito Altarejos uses an encounter between a Filipino dejected mechanic and a gay Taiwanese Indigenous student in the film to depict his own exploration of belonging. In an interview of Up Media, Altarejos regarded the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis for Austronesian as his inspiration connecting origin, identity, and LGBT stories with the common grounds between Taiwan and the Philippines.
Since Taiwan has appeared in the Philippine media in various and complicated ways, we should ask if Taiwanese people understand the Philippines broadly and deeply with the same efforts as their counterparts? Or is it merely wishful thinking that Taiwanese people just want others to know more about Taiwan without a reciprocal understanding? The Philippines’s changing media landscape has made it increasingly easy for Filipinos to get to know Taiwan over the last twenty years. Hopefully, Taiwanese people will also become more interested in learning about the Philippines moving forward.
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.
This piece was published as part of a special issue on Asian Mediascapes of Taiwan.