Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Sunday, June 09, 2002

Hot Topics and Headline News in Taiwan As of June 10, 2002:

Drought in Northern Taiwan Persists Since Mid/Late April
China Airlines Crash on May 25, 2002 (Taipei bound for Hong Kong) Still a Mystery
Deadly Porcelain Bathroom Sinks
Election for Borough Wardens Held June 8, 2002
Dragon Boat Festival and “Bah Zhang” (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) Season Until June 15
Foreigners “On Display”
Human Rights
Regulating Marriage

Drought in Northern Taiwan Persists Since Mid/Late April

There’s been a drought in Taipei county due to record low rainfall this year. Water rationing has been in place since mid-late April. Through this whole ordeal there’s been a lot of finger pointing as to who’s responsible for the mismanagement of water storage. Former President Lee Teng-hui has blamed Taipei Mayor Ma for mismanaging the water storage; if a leakage in the sewage system had been detected sooner, then substantial the loss of water resources could have been prevented, possibly averting this entire mess. He’s also accused Mayor Ma of diverting water meant for household use to electricity generation.

As late as May 22 there has been conjecture that the calls for water rationing are unnecessary and that it’s a political game of sabotage. The Taiwan Solidarity Union party (TSU) has accused the local government of instigating this fiasco as a way to try to discredit the central government. TSU charged that there is actually enough water in the reservoir for the use of northern Taiwan’s residents.

The water stoppages are beginning to have adverse effects- other than the obvious inconveniences (that require modifying household cleaning and personal hygiene habits). Most recently, there’s been a threat of water-borne disease, as a direct result of the water stoppages. Last week, several Taipei City residents came down with cases of diarrhea and began vomiting. Pumping during water stoppages caused sewage to be sucked in to the water system. Also, water stored at low volumes is more easily contaminated by decaying water pipes, and unclean underground reservoirs which allow pollution to seep in.

Fortunately for me, the water situation here in Kaohsiung is the complete opposite of what’s been happening in Taipei. For the last 2 weeks there’s been abundant rainfall. There have been several consecutive days of pouring rain. Otherwise it seems to rain every other day. Amazing how the weather on this island of Taiwan can vary so greatly in the north and south. As a result the weather has been rather strange, it’s not uncommon for the day to start of slightly overcast, humid, progress into short downpours and then to become sunny by late morning/early afternoon. Often the rain revisits us in the evening or overnight. As a result, the weather in Kaohsiung has not been as unbearably humid, hot and uncomfortable as usual at this time of year.

Ground is being broken to build wells to tap into ground water resources in Taipei and rain is in the forecast, so hopefully relief is on the way for Taipei.

China Airlines Crash, May 25, 2002

China Airlines flight CI 611 crashed into the sea with 225 people on board near Penghu on the afternoon of May 25, 2002. The plane had left Taipei and was en route to Hong Kong when it crashed suddenly; pilots didn’t have time or weren’t able to radio for help. The deadly air crash of China Airlines has prompted criticism of the Taiwanese media, conspiracy theories, calls for privatization of the airline and proposals to change the airline’s name.

There’s always a shroud of mystery surrounding air accidents; they never seem to be completely explained. The families of victims and the public are always left wondering and uncertain. Have they been told all the facts? Is there a cover up? What is not being said; what are we being “protected” from? So much is left unresolved. What did the victims think, how did they feel in their last moments?

Severed body parts float in the sea, ravaged by the effects of the crash and attacked by the scavengers of the sea, bodies have gone missing, bodies are mutilated beyond recognition. This is all we have left of our dearly departed mothers, fathers, children, lovers, colleagues, friends….

The media has been harshly criticized for their coverage of the crash. Reporters have hounded the families and friends of victims in stalker-like fashion deluging them with questions and likewise camera crews have followed and filmed the victims’ loved ones in hot pursuit, in their darkest hour - it’s the Taiwanese way. Once a story hits the news, there’s 24-7 coverage; people just can’t get enough of a new news story. In the days ensuing the China Airlines crash there were daily panel discussions and round the clock reporting of the crash, updates on findings, speculation and conspiracy theories. Talk about beating a dead horse.

But the China Airlines crash is no exception, much of the media coverage of late breaking news stories in Taiwan are reported on in this fashion. I’ve long ago observed how uncouth the Taiwanese media has been in their television coverage and reporting. Only now, with this tragedy has the public and government sat up and taken notice of the Taiwanese media’s overstepping of social boundaries. The Government Information Office has pleaded with the media to respect the privacy of families and not to film or photograph the bodies of victims.

Apparently the site of the air crash is known to be a particularly treacherous part of the sea- where there have been many accidents among ships. Some have even referred to it as the “Bermuda Triangle” of Asia.

Several conspiracy theories abound regarding causes of the China Airlines crash. Possible explanations offered have included: metal fatigue, an internal explosion, sudden loss of cabin pressure, mid-air collision, or military accident.

The Boeing 747-200 was over 20 years old and was set to be sold to a domestic airline in Thailand, hence speculation that the fragility of the airplane’s metal somehow played a part in the crash.

A veteran pilot who contacted the Taipei Times compared the China Airlines crash to the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash off the coast of Long Island, NY. TWA Flight 800 suffered from a center fuel-tank explosion.

Sudden loss of cabin pressure could have been caused by a mid-air collision. Consequently the depressurization would have rendered the pilots unconscious and unable to send a Mayday.

Others have speculated that the plane was unintentionally hit by Chinese missile during testing. Tom Clancy foreshadowed the possibility of 9-11 in his book Executive Orders; now some are asking could he also be right about China hitting one of Taiwan’s planes? In mystery novel fashion some have conjectured that perhaps the U.S., China and Taiwan are already in negotiations over the handling of the matter. How should this situation be handled diplomatically to ensure the safety in the Asia region? What could this mean for the cross strait relationship of Taiwan and China? Suspicions of an accidental Chinese missile strike are running high due to Beijing’s uncharacteristic friendliness. Just hours after the accident they offered assistance in searching for survivors and the pro-China media has been downplaying connections between China’s military exercises and the crash. Moreover, Premier Yu Shyi-kun has been leading the search-and-rescue efforts in Penghu. This is notable because air accidents are not usually handled by premiers.

Privatization of China Airlines

Shortly after the China Airlines crash, the Cabinet proposed to privatize the state-run airline, which has long been criticized as a retirement haven for air force and senior military officers. Foreign investors would be allowed to become airline shareholders and safety could be improved. In the best case scenario, privatization could increase production efficiency and diminish the cost of output. There’s been debate over the merits and shortcomings of seeking privatization.

Some political observers have said that private companies are not necessarily better than state-run companies. One advantage of state-run enterprises is that they are under the supervision of a legislative body vs. private companies which are more autonomous. Statements that favor state-run companies assume that the company is managed professionally and with good corporate practices. But unfortunately this has not been the case with China Airlines.

Deadly Porcelain Bathroom Sinks

Lately there’s been a rash of deaths from spontaneously shattering porcelain bathroom sinks in Taiwan. Sounds strange, but it’s true and it’s no laughing matter. It seems that a combination of Taiwan’s high humidity and poor installation of bathroom sinks has led to this minor epidemic. Most of the bathroom sinks in Taiwan are of two types: 1) a simple stand-alone porcelain sink basin mounted on bathroom walls secured or supported in place by an adhesive, or 2) the same porcelain sink basin as previously described, the only difference is that it rests on a pedestal. Taiwanese bathroom sinks are not usually built with countertops and cupboards underneath.

The extremely high levels of humidity in Taiwan have weakened the adhesives, causing sink basins suddenly come crashing down, claiming the lives of old and young. In recent weeks many people have died. They bled to death from puncture wounds caused by the jagged pieces of broken porcelain.

Daily media coverage on these horrible incidents followed and there were even panel discussions convened about what to do. Panel discussions are a favorite Taiwanese television reporting style- designed to stimulate discussion and awareness, and to offer solutions. But they are often far from reaching the lofty goal of offering solutions. The panelists agreed that there should be mass advisories of this household hazard, and concluded that it didn’t seem feasible to mount a full scale campaign to fix all of the bathroom sinks in Taiwan. They offered prevention tips to the general public: don’t lean on your bathroom sinks, children should not sit or climb on to sinks, don’t apply heavy weight or pressure on bathroom sinks when using them.

I didn’t hear about any proposed reforms for the future. Perhaps more secure installation methods or safer construction of sinks needs to be developed and implemented. For example perhaps there should be more structural support built in so that if a sink became unglued or unhinged it wouldn’t immediately come smashing down. What about alternate materials for sinks (that are shatter proof), such as stainless steel instead of porcelain? I’m no engineer, but I’m sure that there are some concrete solutions that can be offered to avert this deadly household hazard.

Election for Borough Wardens- June 8

Quite a lot of fanfare was roused in the week leading up to this minor election. Fireworks, drums and authoritative voices reverberated throughout the city day and night. Prerecorded slogans blared from megaphones mounted on candidates’ campaign vehicles. Propaganda vehicles roamed about broadcasting the candidates’ mantras as if it they were spreading the gospel. Even mid-day, drum beats lulled and random bursts of fireworks popped into the sky. Nightly, fireworks startled the vacant sky and unsuspecting ears.

The June 8th elections were for so called “borough warden” positions. Borough wardens are relics of the bygone Japanese era. Originally they were envisioned and appointed to be service providers involved with garbage collection, road repair, the installation of street lights and traffic signals, the issuing of various certificates, and the like. Eventually the wardens evolved into elected positions. People who serve as wardens have garnered clout in city and national elections. At present, this influence has been abused in large part; many wardens no longer serve the people but political parties and aspiring local politicians in a less than forthright capacity- as a buyer of votes.

Most residents don’t even know who their borough warden is let alone how to contact their warden if in need of assistance. The wardens no longer truly serve the people; instead they impede the autonomy of borough residents. There have been several proposals to eliminate the warden positions all together, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus among the different political parties in Taiwan because of the “purpose” that wardens still serve.

All of this campaigning reminded me of my firsthand experience with election campaigns, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) style, during the December 2001 legislative elections. On the campaign trail, candidates in North America make regularly scheduled appearances to deliver speeches or to participate in debates with their rivals. In Taiwan campaign speeches or appearances are best described as massive outdoor pep rallies. This description is most certainly not an overstatement. These rallies are presented in an entertainment extravaganza fashion with opening acts consisting of young hopefuls singing catchy tunes and dancing trendy numbers.

After this parade of diversions, it’s finally time for the main event. Once the tone for the evening has been set, and the audience has been prepped, the candidates speak with zeal and in equally rousing language. Catch phrases, sloganeering, and buzzwords abound. It’s all a part of the Democratic Progressive party’s campaigning recipe. A dash of campaign promises, spice it up with emotional rhetoric, salted with reasons to vote for said candidate, all said with motivational gusto. The candidates’ speeches are a production delivered with a dramatic flair; there’s overly melodramatic music, strategically placed dramatic pauses, drum beating to emphasize key issues and build suspense. At the end of it all, there are none other than- noisy fireworks, streamers and confetti released into the air. Let the campaign “race” begin!

The DPP’s campaigning style has proven to be so effective that it has had far reaching influence on campaigning in Taiwan; the other major political parties of Taiwan have begun to campaign in a similar style.

With all this fluff it all seems like a show, and one is left wondering: Was there any substance to what the candidates have said at all?

To understand how the DPP’s campaigning style evolved into its present state we must delve deeper into Taiwan’s political history. During the years of authoritarian rule by the Kuo-Ming Tang Nationalist Party, any form publicly expressed anti-government sentiment or political debate was strictly forbidden. Therefore, one possible explanation for the evolution of the DPP’s campaigning style is that it arose from the necessity of opposition groups or individuals to employ “creative” guises for public forums of political discussion or criticism. Underground political activists organized open air performances as a front for their activities and as an enterprising way to recruit prospective supporters.

Campaigning aside, today’s politics in Taiwan are complicated and confusing, leaving the public wondering where the substance is beneath all the fighting, personal grudges, sensationalism, and emotional behavior of politicians.

If you want to read more about how emotions and personal grudges have affected politics in Taiwan, check out this article in the Taipei Times:

Personal grudges hurt democracy

Dragon Boat Festival and Bah Zang

The fifth day of the fifth lunar month is day of the Dragon Boat Festival, which after the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is the third biggest annual festival on the Lunar calendar. This year the day of the Dragon Boat Festival falls on June 15th. This means that Dragon Boat Races will be held and the season of eating and wrapping “bah zang” (Holo Taiwanese) or “zong zi” (Mandarin Chinese) is upon us. “Bah zang” or “zong zi” (for those of you who don’t already know), can be described as sticky rice (which is seasoned with soy sauce and mixed with different meats, nuts and or vegetables) wrapped in fragrant bamboo leaves. These mini meals come in a variety of flavors (i.e. traditional meat, seafood, nuts, vegetarian).
I was going to write about the story of the Dragon Boat Festival, and the relevance of “bah zang” or “zong zi” but I’ve discovered that there are many websites out there devoted to this subject. So instead I’ll list some of sites that I have discovered:

Dragon Boats
(This website is dedicated to dragon boating; there’s a great story about the dragon boat races and zong zi.)

Story of the Dragon Boat Festival
(This website that has good general information about the Dragon Boat Festival.)

This Year's Boat Festival
(a recent report in the Taipei Times newspaper regarding this year’s festivities)

Bird's Eye View of a Dragon Boat
(a Taipei Times article about the 2001 Dragon Boat Festival complete with some interesting photos)

Foreigners on Display

The other day I was watching the news. Two of the stories in the news happened to feature foreigners (translated as “wai guo ren” in Mandarin Chinese). In Taiwan there are many types of minorities: Caucasians, Blacks, Latin Americans, Filipinos, other non-Taiwanese Asians, American born Taiwanese, Canadian born Taiwanese, etc. Whenever the media reports a story about “wai guo ren” this almost exclusively refers to English speaking Caucasians. These are the only newsworthy foreigners in Taiwan; the others are almost never mentioned in the news. The media’s preferential reporting reflects the public’s curiosity with “these particular foreigners.”

The only foreigners that seem to count are Caucasians.

In fact one of my friends who’s also an American Born Taiwanese recently told me that her Taiwanese language teacher asked her where the largest number of immigrants or foreigners in Taiwan were from, and to this she responded “the Philippines, or some South East Asian country”; her Taiwanese language teacher promptly told her that: “Oh those people don’t really count. The majority of foreigners in Taiwan come from America or Japan.”

The first news story featured “wai guo ren” chasing after Taiwanese kindergarten and elementary school aged children at an outdoor activity day of picnicing and relay races. Parents and the “wai guo” English teachers chatted with television reporters about the excellent English speaking ability of these children.

The second story featured our “wai guo peng yo” (foreigner friends) participating in a “bah zhang” wrapping contest. Trendy music blared outdoors in a busy section of Taipei. On stage the “wai guo ren” were shown frantically scooping sticky rice and various ingredients onto bamboo leaves; these leaves are then wrapped and tied around the sticky rice mixture. It was a hilarious site to see. Wrapping “bah zhang” is considered a well-honed skill or art. It requires that a person wrap the “zhang” securely for obvious reasons (while the “zhang” is being cooked, we wouldn’t want any of the ingredients to escape or fall out of the bamboo leaves), and that the rice is wrapped beautifully, so that once the “zhang’s” leaves are peeled away and opened, the sticky rice retains a firm triangular-like form with pointed corners. Not very many Taiwanese people are bold enough to lay claim to being able to beautifully wrap “bah zhang.”

These news stories, illustrate how the “wai guo ren” are still so often viewed as a novelties and curiosities in Taiwan. It suddenly seemed quite comical to me to see that these little ditties about “wai guo ren” were considered newsworthy stories. The foreigners were put “on parade” in front of television cameras. It just goes to show our “wai guo peng yo” are good for their entertainment value.

Human Rights in Taiwan

It’s encouraging to see Taiwan’s burgeoning activism on many fronts. Aboriginal groups have been making increasing demands to preserve their ancestral lands, language and culture, and small steps are being taken to protect the rights of psychiatric patients, in turn reforming society’s perception of mental health. New draft amendments made to employment regulations protect the working rights of psychiatric patients. Thanks to the amendments, certain psychiatric patients would be allowed to return to their previous jobs upon recovery. Presently, psychiatric patients are refused professional licenses, have had their professional licenses revoked, and are banned from taking public offices or working as civil servants. In short people’s lives are over once they have sought psychiatric treatment.

Only a limited segment of the population will have relief from the discrimination and stigma of having received psychiatric treatment. The professions covered under the amendments only include the government licensed professions of accounting, architecture, law and teaching. Patients taking medication or under medical supervision would be allowed to return to work as long as they were deemed capable by a medical supervisor and employment supervisor.

This is a small but important step toward changing the society’s view that psychiatric patients can not be rehabilitated into productive individuals who can contribute positively to society.

Regulating Marriage

Almost daily there seems to be talk of new legislation regarding the rights of married women. The latest is that housewives in Taiwan can now bill their husbands for their housework! It seems that the social institution of marriage in Taiwan is in dire need of assistance. Compounding this problem is the reality that women in Taiwan do not have many property rights; and are often unable to claim what is rightfully theirs from their parents or spouses. They are not protected financially and there are often poor provisions for them in the event of a divorce. There are numerous complicated social issues that have eroded family values and the institution of marriage.

Where will it end? What other wifely duties will women seek compensation for: pregnancy hardship, hours in labor, breastfeeding after effects, forfeiture of career aspirations? Is legislation going to resolve all marital problems? How do we put the worth of a wife in to dollars and cents? How do we quantify the innumerable intangible things that a wife contributes to a marriage?

In Taiwan there seems to be increasing cases of married couples who do not cohabitate for long periods of time. Many Taiwanese businessmen do business in China taking them away from their families, and leading them into extramarital temptation. Unfortunately there are increasing cases of Taiwanese businessmen divorcing their Taiwanese wives to take on a new wife from mainland China, or Taiwanese wives filing for divorce and seeking claim to their husband’s financial assets in vain.

There are also many overseas Taiwanese (who immigrated abroad in the 60’s and 70’s) returning to Taiwan in pursuit of a second career. In the majority of cases it is the husbands who have returned for new career opportunities and all too often their wives, who are unaccustomed to life in Taiwan, choose not to accompany their husbands. Many of these wives elect to live apart from their husband remaining abroad and visiting their husbands in Taiwan, a few times a year for a few weeks at a time.

And then there are couples who work in different parts of Taiwan, leading them to effectively live apart during the week for the convenience of commuting. There seems to be a general trend towards married couples in Taiwan living apart.

A “no fault” divorce amendment has been proposed – allowing no-contest divorce if couples have been separated for 3 consecutive years. Some women’s groups are cautioning that the proposal does not clearly specify what would constitute three years of separation or non-cohabitation. Consequently, the amendment could create more marriage problems since many Taiwanese couples already live apart due to professional reasons. Furthermore, there is debate over whether the divorce amendment could aggravate the already elevated divorce rate or serve to offer more possibilities for women who are unhappy in their marriages but ineligible for divorce.


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