Tales from Taiwan

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Many Taiwanese are becoming increasingly concerned for the health of First Lady Chow Mei-ching 周美青 (Christine Chow Ma), who suffered a spinal injury after being bowled over by a group of overenthusiastic children while visiting a primary school in Pingtung 屏東 County on March 3. She was released from the hospital on March 16, but despite repeated Presidential Office reassurances that the First Lady is in good health doctors have ordered two months of additional bed rest, meaning that she had to miss the opening game of Taiwan’s professional baseball league on March 20 (the First Lady is an avid Brother Elephants 兄弟象 fan; they won 1-0). One of her daughters has returned from the U.S. to assist in her care.

The First Lady, a dedicated philanthropist, is in some ways more popular than her husband, whose prestige has suffered from a series of official missteps on policies like the death penalty as well as repeated KMT losses in local elections. Her admirers are particularly worried about media reports claiming that the she currently weighs only 46 kilograms, less than many middle school girls. These fears came to a head following the broadcast of a talk show about the First Lady on ETTV network (東森關鍵時刻), which prompted some viewers to wonder whether she might be suffering from anorexia. Such concerns remain in the realm of unconfirmed speculation, but one sincerely hopes that regardless of the nature of her illness the First Lady will get well very soon.

Perhaps the current discussion can also help focus public attention on the problem of eating disorders, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Taiwan and the rest of East Asia as well. In a moving January 2, 2005 Taipei Times article entitled “Bingeing, Purging, Starving in the Dark”, one of Taiwan’s few specialists in this field, Dr. Chen Kuan-yu 陳冠宇, referred to anorexia as a “hidden problem” due to the fact that cultural stigmas related to emotional disorders prevent many people from coming forward or even discussing their problems with family and friends. This article also quoted an Asian medical journal as stating that the percentage of females suffering from anorexia and bulimia in Japan, South Korea and Singapore might be nearly 1 percent, although Dr. Chen’s own estimate is 0.2 percent for women in Taiwan. This corresponds with extrapolated statistics posted on some websites:

Katz table

Regardless of actual numbers, an increasing number of reports indicate that eating disorders like anorexia are on the rise throughout Asia, including in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. As early as December 9, 1999, a New York Times article from that paper’s “Beijing Journal” entitled “China’s Chic Waistline: Convex to Concave” described the seriousness of this problem, while an October 23, 2006 Chinanews.cn article entitled “Eating Disorders Attacking Girls in China” reported that, “Eating disorders are like ghosts haunting many young women in big cities in China. Many patients even have kept their disease secret from their families for years.”

All this suggests that anorexia and other illnesses are starting to have a major impact on Taiwan and other Asian nations. Unfortunately, however, Taiwan has yet to establish its own branch of the National Eating Disorder Association, while public or private clinics and specialists in treating these disorders are woefully few. Eating disorders like anorexia are monstrous afflictions that sink their claws into men and women of all ages, gradually shredding away their humanity. It is time for committed philanthropists and concerned citizens throughout Asia to devote their energies to alleviating the suffering so many people now endure. Promoting public awareness and acceptance would be a good way to start.

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Paul Katz has previously reported on the rebuilding of Siaolin; see his earlier China Beat posts on the subject here, here, and here.

By Paul Katz

Just over five months have passed since the devastation wrought by Typhoon Morakot, and the survivors of the Siaolin Village 小林村 tragedy are coping as best they can with a lot of help from their friends, charitable organizations, and the government. However, the effects of the disaster still linger. Over 400 bodies of victims buried or washed away in the mudslide that followed hours of torrential rains will never be recovered, and there is not a large enough tract of arable land in the unscathed portions of Siaolin, or even all of Chia-hsien Township 甲仙鄉, to rebuild a community sufficient to house the 247 remaining households, meaning that the survivors have had to accept the reality of having “one village [scattered over] two locations” (一村兩地). Another touching story involves Siaolin’s children, many of whom still suffer emotional scars. The village’s school-age kids now have to attend class at various Chia-hsien schools, not knowing when or where Siaolin Elementary will ever be rebuilt.

Still, there is hope, and some good progress to report, with material reconstruction proceeding apace. Since last October, surviving villagers who had once crowded inside cramped temples have been living in temporary houses constructed by the ROC Red Cross in Shanlin 杉林 (a township in Kaohsiung County nearer to the Kaohsiung metropolis). More importantly, permanent homes are under construction, with some units now ready to move into.

The first permanent housing project, also located in Shanlin, has been constructed by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (佛教慈濟功德會). Known as “Great Love Village” (大愛園區), this project is situated on 59.3 hectares of land and holds 1,500 housing units, built at a cost of NT$3 million per unit. Construction on these spacious and comfortable homes, complete with furniture, cooking utensils, and even plasma TVs, wrapped up on January 30, and the new units will be made available for 500 disaster victim households from Siaolin and other communities on February 11, just three days before the Lunar New Year. Approximately 70 Siaolin households are looking forward to setting up new homes in this village.

Work on the second permanent housing project, to be constructed by the government, is proceeding more slowly. These homes will be situated in the village of Wulipu 五里埔, located less than one kilometer from where Siaolin Village used to stand and also the site for the successful restaging of the annual Siraya Plains Aborigine 西拉雅平埔原住民族 ritual known as the “Siaolin Night Festival” (小林夜祭) (discussed in an earlier post). Construction on homes for 90 Siaolin households is slated to begin on March 1 and finish by August of the same year, but it is not clear whether the project will actually be able to proceed according to schedule.

And then there are the villagers who would prefer to do the rebuilding themselves, specifically 146 households who have petitioned the government to give them the right to join forces with the ROC Red Cross in purchasing farmland in Shanlin owned by the Hon Hai Precision Industry Company (鴻海科技集團). Some villagers simply want the chance to rebuild on their own; others have expressed concern that the standardized housing units in the “Great Love Village” will contribute to an erosion of their culture, with a few feeling disconcerted by reports claiming that smoking, drinking, and betel nut chewing will be forbidden. Their plans appear to be going nowhere, however, as both the local and central governments have declared their opposition to any such arrangement. Villagers remain in largely good spirits, however, and plans are underway for a special Lunar New Year’s Eve party at the ROC Red Cross temporary housing units:

The China Beat -- Rebuilding

In terms of cultural reconstruction, an important step forward occurred with the formal establishment of the “Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture” (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), founded by Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and his colleagues. The Association has set up an office in the ROC Red Cross temporary housing units, and has also begun work on two research projects. The first involves the compilation of a documentary about Siaolin’s past, as well as a database of audiovisual recordings. The second is to help plan an exhibition of Siaolin cultural artifacts to be held when a new museum opens as part of Wulipu’s Plains Aborigine Cultural Park (平埔原住民族文化園區). Much of the work for these two projects will be done by Siaolin villagers. Plans are also underway to revive Siaolin’s “Great Drum Troupe” (大鼓陣). Finally, the Association now has its own website, which includes details about its founding and goals, as well as an introduction to Siaolin Village and photos of the community before the disaster and in the wake of its destruction. There is also a section for donors.

Note: Many thanks to Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬 for her assistance in collecting this information.


By Paul Katz

The China Beat -- Blackball (葉君璋1)This year’s holiday cheer has been dampened by a series of events that have shaken Taiwan’s sporting world – the abrupt release by the Sinon Bulls (興農牛) baseball team of All-Star catcher Yeh Chun-chang 葉君璋, as well as the fishy circumstances surrounding his aborted attempt to resume his career with the Brother Elephants (兄弟象).

The China Beat -- Blackball (葉君璋2)Almost an iconic figure in Taiwanese baseball, Yeh is known as the Iron Man (無敵鐵金剛) for his grit and dedication. He was never renowned for his offense (what with a lifetime .233 batting average and just 6 homers in 14 seasons), but he has strong caught-stealing percentage (36%; nearly 50% for two seasons) and is adept at handling pitchers.

Yeh also possesses an outstanding knowledge of the game, and many players attributed their enhanced skills to Yeh’s tutelage. A constant starter for Taiwan’s national team, Yeh saved the game-tying run in a key 2008 Olympic qualifier against Canada by blocking the plate against a much larger player.

Yeh turned 37 just over two months ago, making him far older than most of his peers who don the “tools of ignorance”, yet Bulls fans had expected the team to reward his 10 years of service with a retirement ceremony and appointment as assistant coach. Those dreams have now been dashed. What is particularly disturbing is that of the three players the Bulls released during the past year (the other two are 郭勇志 and 曾華偉), all had assumed key roles in the recently formed players union. While the other two had struggled with less than stellar seasons, Yeh enjoyed a strong year in 2009, especially after having to take over all of the backstopping chores when the other catcher he had been platooning with was injured. This has led to considerable speculation that Yeh may have been singled out for harsh treatment due to his decision to lead the new union. It is also worth noting that the Bulls management was vehemently opposed to the union, and had initially threatened to disband the team should any players join, only to back down when the entire team signed up.

The circumstances surrounding Yeh’s failed attempt to join the Elephants are equally controversial. Initially, the Elephants claimed to be uninterested, but shortly afterwards stated that Yeh would sign after agreeing to a 30% pay cut but being allowed to keep his players union post (a rather striking development in light of the fact that the Elephants are the sole team whose players have not joined). This was followed by the Bulls rapid-fire issuance of a statement threatening to disband should any other team sign former players who had been released for “moral and disciplinary problems” (因道德及風紀問題). “Moral problems” is a euphemism for being involved in match-fixing, but Yeh has a sterling reputation. This suggests that he was branded as having a “disciplinary problem”, most likely due to his defying management’s wishes by helping to organize the players union.

The Bulls higher-ups subsequently claimed that the above statement did not apply to Yeh, but negotiations between Yeh and the Elephants quickly fizzled. There are also claims that some form of collusion involving Bulls and Elephants management may have occurred, and some members of the Elephants staff have admitted to being contacted by their Bulls counterparts. Regardless of what the facts may be, Yeh’s career appears to be over. Revenge has indeed been served cold, in what seems a shabby way to treat a great player who has given so much to Taiwanese baseball.

The above events have sparked a storm of protest, with the Bulls website being inundated with comments by distraught, disappointed, and disgusted fans. Many are vowing not to buy Bulls tickets, while others are calling for the team to follow through on its repeated threats to disband or at least allow a change of management. The long-term extent of damage remains to be seen, and the Bulls are blessed with a crop of exciting young players, but for the moment the organization’s reputation appears to have been tarnished. Some young players are now postponing plans to sign with the Bulls.

All this indicates that systemic failures continue to plague Taiwanese baseball. While the league (the CPBL) has instituted some reforms, including a restricted form of free agency and minimum monthly salaries, it is apparently powerless to persuade some teams to treat their players with greater respect or commit to effectively cultivating new talent by implementing a viable minor league system. In many ways, the current situation reminds one of American baseball in early 20th century, which also witnessed its share of controversy and scandal.

As for the government, its response seems limited to “taking note” (關注、了解) of the situation. The Presidential Office recently organized a “blue-ribbon” commission to reform Taiwanese baseball (President Ma’s wife is a loyal Elephants fan), and a number of meetings have been held, but not a single player has been invited to take part. One must also note the recurrent failure to imprison the gangster kingpins at the root of the gambling problem. Teams have been disbanded, and careers ruined, but when it comes to match-fixing in Taiwan it seems that crime does indeed pay, so long as one is not a player.

It now looks like the players have finally decided to stand up and fight for their rights. The players union is threatening to expose unfair practices such as collusion, while Yeh is contemplating a lawsuit despite the risks involved. Through the years, he has sacrificed himself for team and country. It may now be time for him to do so for the good of the game he loves.

Note: As I was completing this post, a news flash appeared stating that the other Bulls catcher has confessed to involvement in match-fixing. One wonders who will catch for the Bulls now…


By Paul Katz

Just over two months have passed since the devastation wrought by Typhoon Morakot, but the reconstruction of Siaolin Village 小林村 and its venerable Plains Aborigine (平埔族) culture is already well underway. A major step forward took place this past weekend with the successful restaging of the annual Siraya 西拉雅 ritual known as the “Siaolin Night Festival” (小林夜祭). This event was accompanied by the holding of a conference on the reconstruction of southern Taiwan’s Plains Aboriginal culture (「重建南臺平埔族群文化」學術研討會) and the official opening of an exhibition of artifacts from Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine culture (小林平埔文化特展) at the Chia-hsien Cultural Hall (甲仙地方文化館). Visiting dignitaries included Huang Pi-twan 黃壁端 (Minister of the Council for Cultural Affairs), Lin Chien-Chi 林倩綺 (General Director of the Kaohsiung County Bureau of Cultural Affairs), Kaohsiung County Magistrate Yang Chiu-hsing 楊秋興, Chia-hsien Township Head Liu Chien-fang 劉建芳, etc.

Of particular significance was the attendance of Sun Da-Ch’uan 孫大川 (Puyuma (卑南) name = Paelabang danapan), the Minister of Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, Executive Yuan (行政院原住民委員會主任委員). His presence sent an important message due to the fact that the Council has committed to allocating funds for Siaolin’s cultural reconstruction. Sun’s visit also coincided with the Ministry of the Interior’s decision to approve plans for the formal establishment of the “Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture” (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), which has been organized by Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and his colleagues (林清財, 段洪坤, 洪淑芬, 黃智慧, 潘英海, 簡炯仁). This marks one of the first instances of the Taiwan government’s recognizing the use of the term “Plains Aborigine” in state documents, and represents a major breakthrough in the quest for this group’s being officially listed as one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

The Night Festival is staged each year on the fourteenth or fifteenth day of the ninth lunar month, which this year happened to fall on October 31 (Halloween!). It began with traditional Plains Aborigine rituals referred to as kaixiang 開向 (“releasing the xiang magic”), which were held at a Siraya shrine (公廨) that had been newly constructed in the village of Wulipu 五里埔, located near the site where Siaolin used to stand. The shrine is dedicated to the worship of a deity known as Taizu 太祖 (other Plains Aborigine deities include Alizu 阿立祖 and Laojun 老君). With the exception of Laojun, most of these deities are believed to be goddesses, and in Siaolin Taizu is generally conceived of as a group of seven sisters. The shrine is also noteworthy for having no statues and no altar. Offerings (especially cigarettes and betel nut, as well as the usual sticks of incense) are placed on the ground atop leaves from the 姑婆芋 plant (Alocasia macrorrhizos; “Giant elephant’s ear”). In the center of the shrine stands a bamboo cylindrical structure of seven knives (one for each sister) adorned with flowers.

A temple to the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven (玄天上帝) known as the Beiji Dian 北極殿 was also rebuilt at Wulipu. While numerous Beiji Dian dot the mountain areas of southern Taiwan, and have long served as sites for the interaction between Han Chinese and Plains Aborigines, the reconstruction of the shrine proved especially heartening to Siaolin’s survivors.

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo1)The kaixiang rites were presided over by a female Plains Aborigine specialist known as the xiangtou 向頭 (“head of the xiang magic”), who is responsible for both summoning and communicating with Taizu and other spirits while joining them in enjoying cigarettes and betel nut. Her rites reflect the profound ethnic reverberation that has shaped southern Taiwanese culture, combining traditional Siraya songs with the use of Hoklo vernacular when issuing instructions to worshippers. The xiangtou was assisted by other members of Siaolin’s women’s community, which reflects the matriarchal nature of Siraya family structures.

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo2)After the spirits had been summoned, the xiangtou led villagers to cut down a preselected bamboo plant (砍向竹) located in the hills near the village, which was then erected in front of the shrine (立向竹). Seven bundles of straw were attached to the bottom of the bamboo (one for each sister, and also representing steps ascending to the heavens), while a larger bundle of straw was hung from its top. In the past, human heads were said to be used instead. There was also a ceremony for repairing the shrine’s roof (整修公廨). Taizu pronounced approval of the rituals.

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo3)The afternoon was devoted to villager worship (村民祭祀太祖) and a Plains Aborigine feast (平埔美食呷平安) prepared by each household featuring a dish known as “mai” 米買 that is made using glutinous rice. This was followed by evening ceremonies (公祭典禮) that combined elements of state sacrifices and mourning rituals, including statements made by leading officials and village leaders (長官致詞, 族人代表心聲感述). The most moving part of the ceremony was the reading of a memorial addressed to Taizu (in Hoklo), which expressed the villagers’ sorrow at their loss, pride in their history and culture, and hope for the future. Its opening and closing statements are worth quoting here:

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo4)“今夜原本是呷恁祝壽和開向歡喜的日子,無奈您們的子孫在二個多月前的風災當中,四、五佰人去乎崩山來埋去,阮也因此失去了阿公、阿媽、爸爸、媽媽、兄弟姐妹、族親呷好朋友。連咱祖先辛苦建立的部落也瞬間來化為烏有,崩山時的驚嚇,土石打置身上,一定真痛,蒼天不仁。”


The evening rites concluded with village leaders’ expressions of gratitude and vows to rebuild. While the traditional nightlong dancing and drinking revelry were abandoned this year, a promise was made for all participants to join hands in dance one year from now.

The Night Festival was marked with occasional moments of grief, especially during viewing of a documentary about the village prior to its destruction. At the same time, however, there were also many outpourings of joy, including making offerings of rice wine to Taizu in the shrine and listening to elderly women who just weeks ago had been torn with grief singing childhood songs (including some in Japanese). There was also the appearance of a beautiful butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina kezia (Butler); “Blue Moon Butterfly”) in Taizu’s shrine.The China Beat -- Revival (Photo5)

Efforts at material reconstruction are also proceeding apace. Surviving villagers who have spent weeks living inside overcrowded temples are now moving into temporary houses constructed by the ROC Red Cross in Shanlin 杉林 (a township in Kaohsiung County nearer to the Kaohsiung metropolis). These structures are rudimentary, and there is a pressing need to add gardens and other greenery, but villagers are happy simply to have a place of their own that they can call home. There are also plans for two separate sets of permanent homes. The first, also located in Shanlin, are to be built by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (佛教慈濟功德會). The second, which will also include either a Plains Aborigines Cultural Park (平埔族文化園區) or Plains Aborigine Memorial Park (平埔族紀念公園), will be situated in the village of Wulipu. The villagers’ positive feelings found clear voice in a poster and press release that accompanied the Night Festival, which expressed sentiments of “Gratitude (感激), Commitment (承諾), and Hope (願望)”. What has been accomplished stands as a testimony to the human spirit, and the inner strength of the Taiwanese people. Siaolin has stood up.

*Note: Many thanks to Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬 for sharing her photo of the butterfly.


By Paul Katz

Taiwan has recently been upset by the news that imports of American beef will soon resume, including internal organs. The resulting upheaval has featured more hysteria than science, but has nonetheless had an impact on the current government’s popularity, with President Ma’s approval rating plummeting by 14%. In the midst of the discomfort about potentially contaminated beef, however, concerns are also being raised about other forms of filth at the political and social levels:

1. Yet another KMT legislator is facing the end of his political career, with the Taiwan High Court yesterday upholding a lower court ruling annulling his 2007 election. This is the fourth such case, so far…

2. The recent election of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee (中常委) was so ridden with vote-buying (or at least gift-giving) allegations that it will now have to be redone on November 14. Chairman Ma is now trying to soothe the feelings of disgruntled KMT loyalists, especially newly dethroned CSC members.

3. Taiwan’s baseball fans are facing yet another game-fixing scandal. This is the fifth to rock the league in the past twenty years, with the previous one occurring just one year ago (see my China Beat post). Current allegations have even implicated one of the league’s most popular players, former MLB pitcher Tsao Chin-hui 曹錦輝, a fact that has caught the attention of the United States media as well. The government in general and the prosecutors office in particular are facing strong criticism over leaking details of the investigation, perp walking suspected players for show, and failing to lock up the gangster kingpins at the root of this problem. The local media is also living up to its sterling reputation for finding people guilty before they have been convicted of a crime. Despite the fact that only two of the nine suspected players are facing detention (the rest, including Tsao, have been released), there is the possibility that there will be no professional baseball in Taiwan next year.

Election fraud, vote-buying, and throwing ballgames are hardly new features of modern Taiwanese life. Political scandals are also party-blind, having afflicted the DPP as well as the KMT. Nonetheless, the nagging persistence of these problems indicates systematic political and social failings that must be addressed. It is high time for Taiwan’s leaders to do their utmost in purging these ills, for while corruption may rank among the world’s oldest cultural phenomena, its vigorous uprooting represents one key hallmark of a successful society.

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