Taiwan Panorama Forum: New Southbound Cultural Salon

A People-Centered Exchange

2020 / October

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Goef Aberhart

On an afternoon that alternated between brilliant sun and cracking thunder, Taiwan Panorama joined forces with the Taiwan‑­Asia Exchange Foundation at Thinkers’ Studio for “Southeast Asia in Transition: Immigrant Perspectives on Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy.” Through its participants, this forum was a showcase not only for how immigrants from Southeast Asia have enriched Taiwan’s cultural diversity, but also for the unbridled vitality they bring with them.

The New Southbound Policy is an important economic and strategic objective of Taiwan’s government. In 1994, President Lee Teng-hui began the process with what could be termed the “Southbound Policy 1.0,” encouraging the government, state-owned enterprises and party-run businesses to invest in Southeast-­Asian nations. In 2003, President Chen Shui-bian ushered in a second iteration of this initiative, but its effective­ness was limited and there was no involvement from the private sector.

So what is “new” about the New Southbound Policy, launched by President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration in 2016? First, there’s its focus on people-­to-­people contacts; second, its richer and more diverse content, and the involvement of the private sector.

I believe that if you handle the interpersonal aspects well, then money will naturally come. Taiwan is in a great place to implement something like the New Southbound Policy. Immigrants who come to Taiwan for work, study, and marriage, and especially the ones who stay and set down roots here, are our people, and we should take good care of them.

Taiwan Panorama has done much reporting on topics concerning New Southbound Policy partner countries’ cultures, and immigrants from those countries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the agency behind Taiwan Panorama, always gets a look at each issue before publication, and as each issue’s first reader, I always peruse it with great interest.

Southeast-Asian immigrants are not only a source of cultural exchange and fusion, but also enrich Taiwan’s cultural diversity, as well as bringing an inexhaustible vitality. Everyone here is part of that.

On the cultural level, Taiwan Panorama travels the length and breadth of Taiwan to cover cultural and human-interest stor­ies about immigrants, in hopes of fostering better understanding among the people of Taiwan and encouraging beautiful cultural interactions.

Moderator—Ivan Chen (editor-in-chief, Taiwan Panorama): The government plays a crucial role in the New Southbound Policy, but to enact that policy it also needs the support of various NGOs and foundations. Next, we will hear from the Executive ­Yuan’s Office of Trade Negotiation and the Taiwan‑­Asia Exchange Foundation on how the policy has been put into action and the concrete results achieved since 2016. 

Morris Huang (deputy assistant trade representative, Office of Trade Negotiation, Executive Yuan): Our office is responsible for Taiwan’s outward-­facing negotiations and the New Southbound Policy, but we’re not just concerned with money, but with people too! For example, in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare has also been an essen­tial element of the policy. According to Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics, even with the pandemic, exports of Taiwanese medical products to Southeast Asia grew by more than 10% between January and March this year, surpassing those to Europe and the US.

In terms of trade and investment, Taiwan’s biggest competitors in Southeast Asia—Japan and South ­Korea—have experienced double-digit recessions in the wake of the pandemic, while Taiwan is still experi­encing some degree of growth, proving that pivoting to Southeast Asia was the right decision.

As for education, starting last year, thanks to the New Southbound Policy, students coming from Vietnam exceeded 20,000, even more than from Malaysia, and the number of Taiwanese traveling to Southeast Asia to study has also been growing. 

Chen Ding-liang (assistant research fellow, Taiwan‑­Asia Exchange Foundation): I have been studying Southeast-Asian and Pacific literatures and documentaries since college. People often ask me, “What is Southeast-Asian literature?” and “What is Paci­fic art?” In return, I would like to ask a question of my own: Are not the standards by which we mentally judge Southeast-­Asian art and cultures institutionalized, canon­ized cri­teria? If we look beyond these standards, we see that Southeast Asia is home to a diverse, complex, and prosper­ous array of cultures. This is a cultural value that I believe in, and that I strive to bring to the foundation’s cultural exchanges under the New Southbound Policy.

The Taiwan‑­Asia Exchange Foundation is currently executing a cultural exchange program focused on four main axes, including this cultural salon in collaboration with Taiwan Panorama. In addition, the program includes working with the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies and the Mekong Cultural Hub to estab­lish a mechanism for institutional exchange through visits by artists and curators from both sides. Finally, we will also be focusing on whether art and culture workers can play an important role in cultural exchanges with Southeast Asia in the post-Covid era, opening up possibili­ties for healing in the wake of this trauma.

Moderator: Through what we have heard from the Office of Trade Negotiation and the Taiwan‑­Asia Exchange Foundation, we can see that the implementa­tion of the New Southbound Policy has been both broad and deep. Next up, we ask people working on the front lines of this exchange to share their work and discuss what services are being offered to Southeast-­Asian immigrants. 

Sun Ping (head, International Exchange Project, Cultural Taiwan Foundation): The Cultural Taiwan Foundation first began focusing on developing regional projects in 2019. When thinking about how to promote cultural exchange with Southeast Asia, we need to look not only at education and exchange for artists from the two sides, but also to try and go beyond the policies of the Ministry of Culture and the National Culture and Arts Foundation to dig into Taiwan’s hidden Southeast-­Asian cultural elements. In particular, we have involved Southeast-­Asian immigrant women in the planning of our outreach activities from the beginning, helping us develop themes for events and showcase the cultural development and vigor of their communities in Taiwan. 

Lee Vuochheang (chair, TransAsia Sisters Associ­ation, Taiwan): The TransAsia Sisters Associa­tion Taiwan was founded way back in 1995.

Today, two-thirds of our directors are immigrant women. Holding meetings when we don’t all share a native language can be a challenge, but at the same time it symbolizes how we are stepping out of isolation and becoming active participants in society.

The association has done a lot of cultural outreach work, like organizing culinary cultural exchange activities to tell the stories behind various dishes and promote understanding of our homelands as represented on our dining tables, and thus our own life stories as immigrants. This is also why we published the book The Homeland on Our Table.

In 2009, we founded TransAsia Sisters Theater, shooting the documentary Let’s Not Be Afraid and publishing the table­top game Floating Market: Vietnam in Waves to promote Vietnamese culture. We also released an album entitled Drifting No More, which was another heartfelt experience for our members. 

Moderator: Thank you to the representatives from the Cultural Taiwan Foundation and Trans­Asia Sisters Association, Taiwan for their engaging comments. In Taiwan Panorama’s more than four decades of covering Southeast-Asian issues, the content and narrative approach of our reports have gradually evolved from an external to an internal focus, reflecting how Taiwanese society’s attitudes toward the region have gone from un­famili­arity, to conflict, and then to coexistence and finally integra­tion. Today, Southeast-Asian immigrants are part of Taiwanese culture, and I believe that the New Southbound Policy will continue to help Taiwan move toward a better future.

For this workshop discussion, the participants divided into three groups, with the Cultural Taiwan Foundation and TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan leading the discussion and participants writing down their hopes and sugges­tions for the New Southbound Policy. Here are some excerpts from these contributions.

Tran Ngoc Thuy (lecturer in Vietnamese, National Sun Yat-Sen University Community College):

In the past, the term “foreign brides” had negative connotations, with Taiwanese people associating it with ideas like marrying for money and engaging in sham marriages. Over the years, though, I have come to under­stand that this was because Taiwanese society had not had the chance to get to know Southeast Asians, and so the discrimination was not really deliberate. Meanwhile, what immigrants want is just equal treatment.

The current 2019 syllabus for “mother tongue teaching,” that is to say Southeast-Asian languages education for second-generation-immigrant schoolchildren, is simply not enough, with just one hour of class time a week. I hope that we can provide this new generation with more teaching materials and a more diverse range of learning opportunities. 

Luu Thien Binh (executive director, TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan):

As a second-generation immigrant of Vietnamese and Taiwanese heritage, I feel that there’s a sense of us being considered second-class in Taiwan. Why are the child­ren of Taiwanese and Westerners simply called “mixed race,” while we get called “second-­generation immigrants”? Why is it considered “learning a second language” if we study Japanese, but “mother tongue education” if we study one of the seven Southeast-­Asian languages? In a sense, Taiwan is like Hogwarts, in that there’s a kind of invisible “sorting hat,” and the Taiwanese one is extremely unyielding in its sorting. Cultural outreach work should challenge this invisible sorting hat and break down this class divide.

Priya Lalwani (preparatory committee member, Alumni Association of Expatriates Staying in Taiwan):

I’ve been in Taiwan for 33 years, one of the longest-­term “new residents” of Taiwan. Taiwanese people are very friendly to foreigners, but often end up un­intention­ally asking questions that can be somewhat offensive out of simple ignorance. I hope that the govern­ment and NGOs can offer Taiwanese more ­avenues and opportunities to understand immigrants.

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