What I am doing in Taiwan

One and half months ago when I arrived in Taiwan, I had no idea where I would be picking a case from. One month into my research here, I was at the peak of uncertainty — I could not find definitive sources while digging a few village cases, and I did not know whether I should retreat and try new cases, or dig deeper until I find no paths left to pursue. I decided to give another week to my original hunch, and eventually had a breakthrough by contacting local historians and local elderly who witnessed the youth groups in one of the villages of my interest.

My case is Beipu (北埔)in Xinzhu (新竹). Xinzhu is now famous for the advanced technology industry, which the government designed to make a silicon valley of Taiwan. Back in the colonial period, although it is relatively close to Taipei, it was, of course, an agriculture-centered region just like the other parts of the island. It was also famous for its large population of Hakka people, who immigrated from Southern China between 17th and 19th century. Beipu, now a cute touristee town with the Hakka old streets, was actually a newly developed town that was only occupied by the Hakkanese in the 19th century.

First I became interested in Beipu (and also Xinpu) when I was flipping through a journal called Xinzhu Wenxian (新竹文獻), which the Xinzhu provincial government’s cultural division publishes. There has been a flourish of local histories since the democratization of Taiwan in the 1990s, and Xinzhu is not an exception in devoting new attention to its own histories and cultures. Xinzhu Wenxian is a good forum for various historical and anthropological issues related to the region, not necessarily academically sophisticated, but introduces new sources and many oral interviews of old people. It also gives contact information of many local historians working on these issues.

Outside of this journal, I also found an increasing number of academic works related to Beipu. Historians’ biggest interest is the development of Beipu in the 19th century, and the dominant family Jiang 姜家’s social networks and business endeavors. Anthropologists study Hakka culture and religious customs evolving around the central shrine Citiangong 慈天宮, as well as the architecture and the town planning. It looked like, however, there is very little done on the colonial period. It made me worried if there were no local sources left in Beipu.

I contacted and met 黃榮洛, a local researcher with no official affiliation who contributes a lot of articles to Xinzhu Wenxian and Hakka-related journals. He usually writes about pre-colonial Hakka histories, so I did not have high expectation about getting extensive information. In retrospect, I should have known, because when I called him nervously in Mandarin Chinese, we quickly switched to Japanese because he does not speak Mandarin. It turned out that he was educated during the colonial period, and had a lot to say about my topic. Without me planning, it became my first oral history interview with a “material witness.”

The chain of contacts hence started. I have found one guy after another who experienced and played a role in youth groups in Beipu. They still have some personal documents about these groups. As I talk with them, I am convinced that — this is my personal blog so please excuse me for my self celebratory tone — my topic is fascinating. By focusing on youth groups, I found people who otherwise would never appear in the history. If you look at the history of Beipu township, you would definitely look at details of Jiang family’s business. If you look at colonial schools, you would also end up looking at Jiang family’s official roles. The youth’s experiences described in Taiwanese novels would also lead you to well-educated elite youth. Youth groups were more prevalent among peasant youth. One of my interviewees said, “my life was so ordinary (「私の人生はとても平凡でね」). ” That is exactly what I am looking for. I feel extremely honored to be able to talk about their experiences in my work.

It appears that the relative lack of studies on Beipu of the colonial period is largely owing to the language barrier. Those who are interested in local micro-histories usually do not develop interests in foreign languages like Japanese. This is creating a blank period in their projects. Usually I do not do history to “fill the gap,” but I am also glad if my work will fill this important gap in the end.

Category(s): History, My Grad School Life, Research, Taiwan

4 Responses to What I am doing in Taiwan

  1. This is great, Sayaka! Way to go!

    angelusnovus says:

    We really enjoyed hearing about your project over lunch! In my opinion, what makes your methodology and topic valuable is that you uncover the stories of those who have been marginalized by changing governments, ethnicity, social class, and the passage of time. Enough time has now passed, and you draw attention to this unique episode in their otherwise would-be ordinary lives in an exceptional colonial wartime period. We look forward to hearing more!

  2. Thank you Chelsea and Angelusnovus!

    You put it very nicely — “the unique episode in their otherwise would-be ordinary lives in an exceptional colonial wartime period” — that’s exactly how I feel about their stories.

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