Engaging with Southeast Asia

A People-Centered Cross-Cultural Dialogue

2018 / June

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Scott Williams

Taiwanese have a habit of overlooking Southeast Asia, even though it is a culturally rich region with a great many ties to our island. Most of us also fail to recognize how closely Taiwan’s development has been connected to Southeast Asia. Somehow, we in Taiwan are much more familiar with Japan than with the Philip­pines, even though the Philippines are much closer.


When Taiwanese Aboriginal author Sa­kinu Ya­long­long spoke at the recently concluded 2018 Bangkok International Book Fair about his experience visiting the Philippines, he mentioned that the Filipinos he met described him as having come from the “mother island.”

There was a good reason for that. Taiwan is sometimes known as the “mother of Austronesia” because the Austronesian languages have their roots in a group of people who came to Taiwan around 5,000 BCE. According to the “out of Taiwan” model, those people subsequently sailed south to destinations around the Pacific Ocean.

Taiwan and Southeast Asia share other cultural constituents beyond their Austronesian heritage, including their experience of immigration from China and colon­iza­tion by the Great Powers, their tropical and subtropical climates, and their proximity to the ocean. “Taiwan could be said to be a part of Southeast Asia,” says Deputy Minister of Culture Ting ­Hsiao-ching. “We just never think about it that way.” At the very least, there is an urgent need for Taiwan to reevaluate its view of Southeast Asia.

Diverse, complex Southeast Asia

Though Taiwan and Southeast Asia share many similarities, they also differ in important ways. For example, while Taiwan is home to several Austronesian languages, its proximity to the mainland Chinese coast has made it a popular destination for ethnic Chinese migrants since the 1600s. These migrants built an ethnically Chinese society that established itself as the island’s cultural mainstream and overwhelmed that of Taiwan’s indigen­ous peoples. In contrast, Austronesian cultures remained much more prevalent in Southeast Asia. 

Taiwan also has a very different topography to most of Southeast Asia. Formed by violent tectonic plate movements that thrust it out of the sea, Taiwan is an island of tall peaks and coastal plains. Southeast Asia’s gentler terrain lent itself to the construction of ports, which fostered vibrant trade and led in turn to immigration by people of various ethnicities, including Indian, Persian, Arabian, and Chinese. Over time, these contacts and collisions engendered a portion of what we now think of as Southeast-Asian culture. The historical opulence of the courts of many Southeast-Asian monarchs is a case in point in that it owed much to the influence of Hinduism.

As Lim Khay-­thiong, an associate professor in National Chi Nan University’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies, says: “We may have been slow to come to grips with Southeast Asia in part because it is so complex. It’s incredibly diverse!”

Treasures hidden by prejudice

While folklorists, anthropologists and political scientists have drawn from Southeast Asia’s cultural riches in their theories, the general public has more often ignored or harbored prejudice towards the region. 

According to Lim, this attitude traces back, at least in part, to the views of the European merchants and travelers who visited Southeast Asia during the Age of Discovery, deemed it an uncivilized hinterland, and passed on their views to the colonizers who came later. In Taiwan, the attitude also grows out of our inherited Chinese cultural disdain for the region, which lingers on in the shadows even today.

In spite of large numbers of Southeast-Asian ethnic Chinese students long having studied in Taiwan, and some having even remained to work, the fact that the Chinese generally occupy marginal positions in Southeast-Asian societies (excepting that of Singapore) makes it more difficult for them to discuss the region’s positives in a way that Taiwanese find persuasive, limiting their ability to influence the general public’s impressions of Southeast Asia.

Professor Lee Mei-­hsien of Chi Nan University’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies says that in our present capitalist era, people are particularly prone to focusing on material culture. This focus affects our worldview, causing our mainstream culture to valorize the advanced countries of Europe, the Americas and Northeast Asia, and to denigrate the less developed ones, which reduces the public’s interest in learning about Southeast Asia.

A first step to eliminating prejudice

Prejudice against migrant workers persists, but Lee notes that Taiwan is not unique in this: migrants are looked down upon by mainstream societies the world over. She sees material culture’s implicit cultural hier­archy as being at the root of the problem. A lack of interest in understanding and an unwillingness to understand lead to the labeling of ethnicities with arbitrary stereotypes, which deepens oppositions between cultures and creates a vicious cycle.

Lee says: “The first step to eliminating prejudice is for people to get to know one another. The notion of cultural equality is also important. But these things are difficult, and take long-term education to achieve.”

Workers on the educational front lines have no time to be discouraged. Chi Nan’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies is the only department in Taiwan focused on the region. Roughly 50 of its graduates to date have been Southeast Asians, making the department not just a forum for the transmission of knowledge, but also a venue for real-life interaction. Lee says, “Taiwanese students in this department lose their privileged position. Everyone is equal, and we all learn from one another.”

Led by Chi Nan faculty, a few teachers have also used funding from the Tai­chung City Government and the Ministry of Education to establish “SEAT” (SEA + T: Southeast Asia + Taiwan), a space that encourages Taiwan’s Southeast-Asian migrant community and mainstream Taiwanese society to sit down and get to know one another. Given that goal, the decision to locate SEAT in Tai­chung’s ASEAN Square was clearly significant. After all, the previously run-down square near Tai­chung Station has been revitalized in recent years by Southeast-Asian businesses catering to migrant workers who flock there on weekends and holidays to shop.

SEAT organizes a large number of events and activities, most of which are open to the general public. These include weekend guided tours that give Taiwanese and Southeast Asians a chance to interact.

Chi Nan has also established a master’s degree program for working professionals in Tai­pei. When you talk to the many civil servants and schoolteachers who have signed up to better meet the demands of their jobs, you can hear the gradual change in their attitudes. Such efforts are no panacea, but they do yield results over time.

Bilateral exchange on real-world issues

With the Tsai Ing-wen administration’s launch of the New Southbound Policy, Southeast Asia has again become a hot topic. But history shows that Taiwan’s interest in Southeast Asia predates the present moment. In fact, it can be traced back to the era of Japanese rule, when the Office of the Governor-General sent scholars and experts to Southeast Asia to collect information in support of Japan’s project to construct a “Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The documents they produced are now scattered throughout Taiwan. That interest reemerged when the ROC government relocated to Taiwan after World War II. The Kuo­min­tang, which had close ties to overseas Chinese communities, chose to follow the example of Sun Yat-sen’s Revive China Society by establishing offices in Singapore and Malaysia. Scholars in that period also rediscovered a passion for research into overseas Chinese communities. The Lee Teng-hui administration revived interest in the region again, many years later, with its rollout of the original Go South Policy. Taken together, these actions ­demonstrate how Taiwan’s interest in Southeast Asia has waxed and waned over the decades.

Lim Khay-­thiong notes that Taiwan’s interest in Southeast Asia has tended not to last because it has been based primarily on economic considerations and has focused largely on the region’s ethnic Chinese. The government’s current New Southbound Policy attempts to address this shortcoming by incorporating programs from the education, interior, and culture ministries. The goal is to broaden the policy’s focus to include issues that generate new and lasting interest in the region. These include aspects of economic development in which Taiwan leads most Southeast-Asian nations, such as social entrepreneurship and sustainability, and issues that arise in conjunction with development, such as cultural losses, land justice, and environmental pollution, where Taiwan can share its experience.

Taiwan’s connections to Southeast Asia may well remain primarily economic in the near term, but Lim says that if we can view the region through the lens of universal values, and if we can better understand the under­lying fabric of their political circumstances and economic networks, we may be able to make progress. “This is our real soft power,” says Lim. “We shouldn’t simply think of ourselves as ‘ethnic Chinese.’ We should look beyond that and find new ways forward.”

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先ごろ閉幕したばかりの、タイのバンコク国際ブックフェアに招かれて参加した台湾の先住民作家Sakinu Yalonglongは、交流の場でフィリピン人から、台湾は「mother island」だと言われたそうである。






























文‧蘇俐穎 圖‧林格立


在剛落幕的2018年曼谷國際書展上,受邀參展的原住民作家亞榮隆‧撒可努,分享自己到菲律賓交流的經驗,當地人說他來自「mother island」。









從學術的角度來看,東南亞豐富的內涵,一直是許多民俗學、人類學、政治學理論重要的取材來源,包括知名學者Benedict Anderson、Clifford Geertz都從東南亞發展研究。但在普羅大眾,東南亞的地位仍沒有受到重視,甚至備受歧視。












不僅如此,受惠於台中市政府與教育部的經費,以東南亞學系為首的幾位暨大老師,也在台中火車站附近的東協廣場內,成立「SEAT | 南方時驗室」。在這個曾被棄置、凋敝的空間,如今開滿了東南亞商家,每到假日就有大批移工湧入,在此消費,猶如小東南亞一般;而選擇在此設點,並以串連東南亞移民社群與台灣社會為核心宗旨,這樣的場所顯得極具意義。








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