So today a return to a theme near and dear to my heart: satirical text messages, or as we have now stopped texting and use WeChat, satirical blog posts that are forwarded via WeChat. This time, the Op-Ed piece, “We were never Chinese citizens, just Chinese people who live on the Mainland (原来我们都不是中国国民！只是居住在大陆的中国人!) has caught my attention. Inquiring minds want to know, what’s up with that? Continue reading
For those inquiring minds that wonder, what was Shenzhen before it was Shenzhen, the opening scene from the 1963 classic Tracking Threats (跟踪追击) reveals a threatened border and enemies whose souls have been twisted through betrayal. After the credits, the film opens with a scene of soldiers guarding the border and the Luohu bridge opening to allow peasants (and a spy) enter the country. From the filming, it is difficult to see immediately who the heroes and villains are. Instead, we find ourselves faced with a narrative tradition that begins with a social situation which the narrative gradually analyzes.
At the border, the guard opens an old woman’s bag, in which he finds a carton of cigarettes and candies. Suspicious, he opens the carton and discovers gunpowder hidden inside. Similarly, the candies also turn out to be decoys. The old woman protests that she’s never seen these items before. Her story is confirmed when another guard discovers an unclaimed bag, which includes toy cars that have been used to smuggle gunpowder
The security officer, Li Minggang leads a team to discover what’s happening. They follow the clues to the toy factory, where old Lin Dexiang works loyally. It turns out his nephew, Lin Yonggui was the spy who replaced the goods in the old woman’s bag. Li Minggang turns Lin Yonggui, who is used as a double agent to uncover the net of spies. This network includes refugees who try to escape to Hong Kong, smugglers of commercial goods, and of course, the evil chief spy, Xu Ying.
Tracking Threats was one of a series of movies that reflected the militarization of the Sino-British border during the 1950s. Indeed, between 1956 through 1958, the Guangzhou Security Department cracked several cases of Taiwanese incursions into Guangdong, and also discovered weapon stockpiles. During the 1960s, the Pearl River Delta Studio produced a series of red spy movies. The earliest, Secret Map (秘密图纸，1960) also filmed at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, but did not actually name the border crossing.
In retrospect, the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border in Tracking Threats seems claustrophobic and artificially patriotic à la contemporary North Korea. There is heroic music. There are poor but honest peasants. The military is distinctly noble. However, we know that by the mid 60s, China had already suffered famine and that Hong Kong had begun its economic reconstruction. Thus, during production filmmakers were not allowed to film the Hong Kong side of the border. Moreover, several peasants tried to take advantage of the filming and cross the border. They were, however, caught.
And yet. In Tracking Threats, the ideal of patriotism as a source of ethical thinking appears as pure and noble and good and far, far away from where we find ourselves in the post Cold War world.
In 2009, the earliest of the 1960s spy films, Secret Map was remade into a 30 episode television series （秘密图纸）. Unlike the original movie, the television series opens with the spy murdering his godfather, who is portrayed as a Japanified elderly gentleman. The historic link, of course, was the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. In this way, the television series Secret Maps recodes race betrayals of Tracking Threats as a question of generational betrayals (the godfather raising his godson to hate the Communists). In scene two, the spy, now a sympathetic anti-hero, washes up on the Shenzhen coast, where he is immediately captured by a beautiful revolutionary, a gaggle of peasants, and a noble peasant-soldier.
And there’s the interesting neoliberal rub: in the transition from 1960s Guangdong to new millennium Shenzhen, the Mainland-Taiwan conflict has been recoded as a story of misplaced love, rather than misplaced patriotism, while the desire for forbidden consumer goods has been naturalized. Indeed, that naturalization is precisely what makes the anti-hero sympathetic; he may have loved wrongly, but he knew what the fight was about. However, as in any good neoliberal bromance, love conquers all just before the anti-hero dies.
Impressions from a roadside wedding in Qingshui, Taiwan, the groom’s hometown. Over 80 tables, overflowing with lobster, shark, and other delicacies, happy wine for happy times, and repeated exhortations to have many children.
埔里 (Puli) is a small mountain town, about an hour outside Taichung. I wandered the streets, snacking and looking at the mountains. If you go, rent wheels and go deeper into the clouds.
鹿港 (Lugang) is one of the oldest port cities in Taiwan. The winding network of alleys, streets, and boulevards knits together Ming and Qing Dynasty pirates, southern Chinese merchant families, and the influx of Nationalist troops and their families. Over 200 shrines and temples punctuate these pathways, and two of the oldest temples on the island — Matzu (1725) and Longshan (1786) — are in wonderful condition because well cared for. With industrialization and GMT rule, the importance of Lugang to the island economy has lessened, with inland Taichung gaining importance as Taipei shifted cosmographic ordering on Taiwan. Consequently, the city’s layout gives an impressive sense of the urban form of South Chinese port cities during the roughly 500 years that piracy threatened trade ships, their crews and cargo. Just recently, however, Lugang has been reintroduced to world as one of Taiwan’s top tourist destinations and the site of many traditional festivals, including Double 5th (dragon boats) and Mid-autumn (mooncakes). Worth a visit. Impressions, below:
I continue to visit neighborhoods around Taichung. One, Liming New Village was built over fifty years ago on the then outskirts of Taichung. It was complete in and of itself, with a post office and schools, police station, library, and sports center. The other, an expensive, Japanese inspired gated community was built about twenty years ago at Da Keng, on the slopes of the Taichung’s most accessible mountain. Liming is in decline because the young people have left for jobs in Taipei, or to live in more upscale, “modern” communities. The Da Keng community never took off due to banking difficulties.
Also, I have been watching a Taiwanese soap opera with my friend’s mother. My sense of the plot line: episode 1: boy meets girl; episode 2: boy and girl fall in love; episode 3-39: their mothers fight; episode 40: some kind of reunion before the birth or the first grandchild when fighting resumes.
How do the neighborhoods connect up with the soap opera plot? An older neighborhood that looks like Liming keeps getting referenced as where the poor but honest live, while the wealthy and corrupt inhabit ornate homes like the second neighborhood. However, a friend explained that Taiwan’s middle class lives somewhere in between these two extremes, where the question is not how to make more money, but rather to reveal one’s taste by purchasing the highest quality goods (or house, in this case) without becoming consumed by work. Neighborhood impressions, below:
Last night went to the night market at Chingshui, a small market under the administration of Taichung City. Once again I was reminded that history is in the making. In 1935, an earthquake flattened the town, and reconstruction gave rise to a mishmash of western and eastern modernisms, which have been further defined through later developments. Feral cats led us through winding alleyspast Japanese era housing, 60s minimalist facades on low-level row houses, and late 90s mansions. Older women burned incense at Daoist shrines and buddhist temples. We ended our tour eating savory rice ball soup, fermented tofu with garlic and pickles, oyster pancakes. Joy.