Archive for October, 2018

Why LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN still matters: Romance, culture and soft power

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Bringing it all back home, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

Although the iconic Taiwan Love Boat, with 1200 college-aged Taiwanese American running rampant in Taipei for six weeks every summer, doesn’t really exist any more, the program is still completely relevant in today’s cultural and political climate. Because Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, has yet to agree to the “one-China” principle that claims that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, the cold war between Taiwan and China is hotting up. China is pressuring international airlines to erase the name of Taiwan from any flights to the island nation, US warships are patrolling the straits between the two countries, and more and more of Taiwan’s sparse diplomatic allies are switching support to China, the latest being El Salvador and Burkino Faso. The latter switched because of what some observers describe as “intense pressure” from China to changed alliances, leaving Taiwan with only seventeen diplomatic allies around the world.

A recent New York Times article lauded Taiwan as a new bastion of free speech in Asia, but because of the ongoing tensions with its huge and influential neighbor, Taiwan’s status as a sovereign nation is anything but secure.

The bad blood between Taiwan and China goes way back, with the main source of the conflict beginning in 1949, when the Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces fled from China to Taiwan after their defeat by the Chinese Communist army. This laid the groundwork for the ongoing strife between China and Taiwan that came to a head in 1971 when the United Nations recognized the PRC over Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Enter the Taiwan Love Boat as one of Taiwan’s main forms of soft power, filling the void of Taiwan’s official diplomatic recognition in the UN and among most nations around the world.

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Soft power, 1990s style, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

Soft power as defined by political scientist Joseph Nye is diplomacy through attraction and persuasion, as opposed to “hard power,” or diplomacy through coercion and strength. The Love Boat’s brand of cultural exchange, which presents a highly appealing, enticing, and sexy version of Taiwan, is in opposition to the more overt political pressure that China practices. Referring to Taiwan’s soft power push, the Brookings Institute recently stated, “Though less measurable than the number of diplomatic allies it maintains or international conferences it attends, such goodwill—or “soft power”—may prove every bit as valuable for strengthening Taiwan’s standing over the long run.”

In the late 1960s Taiwan’s government established the Expatriate Youth Language and Study Tour as an outreach program designed in part to convince Taiwanese youth in the US, Canada, and Europe to support Taiwan in its ongoing conflicts with China, and after the UN kicked Taiwan to the curb in 1971, Taiwan’s government ramped up its support for the Study Tour. Around the same time, many Taiwanese were immigrating to the US and raising families there. But parents found that their American-born kids were growing up speaking English, watching Western television, and a lot of times, marrying non-Taiwanese mates.  Thus many Taiwanese immigrants sent their American-born children on the Study Tour in hopes that they would learn more about their Taiwanese heritage and perhaps meet their ideal Taiwanese American mate.

The Study Tour’s high-minded cultural aspirations included Mandarin-language classes, martial arts, and brush painting, but the program’s popularity among young Taiwanese Americans came from another source: its reputation as an excellent place to hook up and find romance. Because of this, the Study Tour is more commonly known by its nickname, the Taiwan Love Boat. LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN looks at the multifaceted aspects the program, both as a government-sponsored cultural exchange and as a rollicking summer trip famed for romantic opportunities. The Love Boat is also an example of Taiwan’s soft power at its finest.

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Culture by day, party by night, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN investigates the ways in which the Love Boat uses soft power to gain support for Taiwan. Many Love Boat alumni who were born and raised in North America were so affected by their summer sojourn on the Love Boat that they resettled in Asia. Conversely, as a result of their involvement with the Love Boat, some Taiwanese-born counselors and staff migrated to the US and live and work there today. Other participants met on the Love Boat and eventually married. And many more continue to foster deep friendships that started decades before on the Love Boat.

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Justin Tan falling in love, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

As Love Boat alumnus Justin Tan recalls,

“While I was there, I just remember I felt a very deep connection to Taiwan. I was like, ‘What is happening to me right now? Am I falling in love with this country?’ And I was, I was absolutely like falling in love with the culture, the people. To me at that time in my life it was like the coolest country ever, the Taiwanese were the coolest people ever.”

 

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Congresswoman Judy Chu, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

As a content producer for the popular website buzzfeed.com, Justin Tan has a significant platform for boosting his love for Taiwan, thus increasing Taiwan’s pull on cultural trends. Perhaps more significantly to Taiwan’s government, other Love Boat alumni have risen to political influence in the US, including Congresswoman Judy Chu, who went on the Love Boat in the 1970s. She now represents the 27th Congressional district in the US House of Representatives and is a staunch supporter of Taiwan, sitting on the Congressional Taiwan Caucus. Congresswoman Chu was interviewed for LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN and will appear in the finished film.

So although it may seem like an innocuous place for Taiwanese American kids to hook up and party, in fact the Love Boat is a much more subtle and clever tool in Taiwan’s diplomatic arsenal. Lacking the economic, political, or military sway of China, Taiwan instead has chosen to achieve influence by other means. By examining the Love Boat’s efforts to win over young, impressionable Taiwanese Americans and their families, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN enlightens and educates viewers about this brilliant and subtle form of soft power diplomacy.

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On location, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN is about to wrap up production, with a shoot in Taiwan in late November of the wedding banquet of a couple who met on the Love Boat and are now getting married. We’re now in the thick of an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for postproduction and with luck the film will be completed in 2019. We need to raise at least $20,000 to hire an editor, sound designer, composer, computer graphics designer, and more, so please go here to join in supporting the film and to bring this important story to the screen. Any help is much appreciated!

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October 31, 2018 at 6:11 pm 2 comments

Comes and Goes: Hyukoh at the UC Theater

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Rock, Hyukoh, UC Theater 2018. Photo: Matthew Abaya

Because BTS is currently winning at life, South Korean music agencies are sending all the acts they can over to the US to play live shows, throwing them against the wall to see if they’ll stick. This means that even the mediocre and derivative Kpop idol group Day6 is getting a North America tour, as well as South Korean dance groups like Got7 and Monsta X. Luckily, this also means that some more interesting Korean acts are also showing up stateside, including rockers Hyukoh, who recently played the UC Theater in Berkeley.

Hyukoh is billed as an indie group but that’s a bit of a misnomer, strictly speaking. They came up through the ranks in the clubs of Seoul’s Hongdae district but they’re now signed to HIGHGRND, a subsidiary of one of the biggest agencies in South Korea, YG Entertainment, which also handles the mega-super group BIGBANG. But Hyukoh’s style definitely owes a lot to the indie sound, as it leans more toward guitar-based rock than the techno EDM sound of their famous labelmates. This was in full effect at their show at the UC, a sold-out event that was packed with Asian rock aficionados of all stripes.

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Oh Hyuk, UC Theater, 2018. photo: Laurel Nakamura

Hyukoh’s been making their way across North America since mid-September and will have played a grueling seventeen shows in less than a month by the time the exit they continent on October 9. Led by frontman Oh Hyuk, the four-man band has the standard two guitar/bass/drums rock band configuration and for the most part their sound doesn’t stray far from rock conventions. What sets them apart is Oh Hyuk’s rich, growly voice and his quirky compositions, both on display at their UC show.

They began the show with a couple of their trademark emo tunes, but quickly transitioned to a set of heavier tunes that showcased their rock chops. This included Wanli, which consists of four repeated lines of Mandarin lyrics over a crashing cymbals and driving pentatonic guitar riff. They also performed my personal favorite, the jazzy uptempo jam Comes and Goes, with Oh Hyuk’s fluid and flexible tenor moving up and down his range over the confident jamming of the rest of the band.

Other highlights included their 2017 hit Tomboy, which demonstrates their more sensitive side. A delicate and emotional ballad, the song’s plaintive lament filled the UC to the rafters, with rapturous audience members crooning along to the hooky chorus.

For all of their intensity Hyukoh still remained on the mellower side of the rock spectrum, and if I have any complaint about their otherwise stellar performance it would be that it was a bit too detached for someone like myself who prefers live shows to burn hot, not slow. But for the rest of the adoring crowd Hyukoh was perfect, and everyone left the show smiling and pleased.

NOTE: In its past life the UC Theater was the movie theater where cut my teeth on Hong Kong films every Thursday night back in the nineties and where I started my interest in Asian pop culture. So it was fun to revisit my old haunts all these years later—full circle indeed.

October 9, 2018 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

Remake/Re-Model: Alifu the Prince/ss at the Mill Valley Film Festival

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Fierce, Alifu The Prince/ss, 2017

Taiwan is perhaps the most queer-friendly territory in Asia, with very liberal laws that will most likely lead to the island nation to be the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in a couple years. That tolerance and welcoming for all types of sexualities is reflected in Alifu The Prince/ss, a great little movie about the various shades of queerness in Taiwan.

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Quotidian, Alifu The Prince/ss, 2017

The film focuses on a small group of gender non-conforming people in Taipei, centering around Alifu, the son of a Paiwan tribal leader (one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups) who is also considering gender-reassignment surgery. Alifu lives and works in Taipei as a hairdresser and the film follows their daily life in Taiwan’s capital city.

The relationship between Bamboo Chen as Sherry, a transgender woman, and Wu Peng-fang as Wu, her gruff but loving friend, also form a small but significant part of the film. Their relationship also delineates the fluidity of gender and sexuality as the longstanding platonic partners demonstrate another point along the spectrum of human relationships and identities. The film also includes short bits at the bar that Sherry and Wu own and featuring some of Taipei’s drag performers, including an ex-pat het Aussie, which reps the complexities of the city’s genderfluid community.

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Serene, Alifu The Prince/ss, 2017

Director Wang Yu-lin gets great performances out of his cast of younger as well as veteran actors and Bamboo Chen won Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Golden Horse Awards for his role as Sherry. The film’s camerawork is also quite beautiful, creating a serene, quotidian portrait of Taiwan. Wang never allows the film to become overly melodramatic despite the various conflicts and dilemmas it presents, instead opting for a more naturalistic, somewhat observational style.  The dialog, in Taiwanese Hokkien/Hoklo, Mandarin, and a bit of English, is also a nod toward Taiwan’s great cultural and linguistic diversity. Although the development of the key relationship between two of the main characters seems a bit contrived, it allows the film to conclude on an idyllic and optimistic note on a beautiful Taiwan beach.

Alifu The Princ/ess shows at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, which is also including a boatload of other great Asian films including Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, Shoplifters, Jia Zhanke’s Ash Is The Purest White, and Burning, South Korea’s Academy Award entry starring The Walking Dead’s Steve Yeun and directed by Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy; Poetry). I’m heading across the Golden Gate Bridge to see these if I can, because Asian movies on the big screen are life.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct. 4-14, 2018

various venues

October 5, 2018 at 4:58 pm Leave a comment


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