by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Zhenjiang Official YouTube Channel/Screenshot
A RECENT SCANDAL involved singer Rainie Yang (楊丞琳) claiming not to be Taiwanese, but a “Guangdong person that grew up in Taiwan” on a Chinese program. Yang claimed this despite being born in Taipei in 1984 because her father is of Cantonese descent.
Backlash was immediate, with particular mockery of that Yang also claimed to her Chinese audience on the program that seafood is a rare luxury in Taiwan that is not commonly eaten, and that she had not actually eaten much seafood in Taiwan.
This claim is, of course, absurd. Taiwan is an island and seafood is plentiful and cheap, for the most part. Such claims would have been more believable had they not been made about a country that was surrounded on every side by the ocean. Taiwanese netizens subsequently began ridiculing Yang by posting images of supposedly rare seafood on Facebook and Twitter. Netizens also unearthed past photos of Yang eating seafood in Taiwan.
The reaction by Taiwanese netizens reminds of other incidents in which Taiwanese took to online social media platforms to dispel what they viewed as misleading depictions of Taiwan.
For example, in April 2020, World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus claimed to be the victim of state-directed “racist attacks” from Taiwanese netizens. This was due to the fact that Tedros and the WHO had come under fire for excluding Taiwan from participation as an observer, in spite of Taiwan’s successes fighting COVID-19. Apart from shrugging off mounting pressure from the US, the WHO also was mocked internationally after an incident in which WHO assistant director-general Bruce Aylward attempted to hang up on Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK reporter Yvonne Tong when asked about Taiwan during an interview, then pretended not to hear what she had said.
Rainie Yang on the program. Photo credit: Zhenjiang Official YouTube Channel/Screenshot
As there was no campaign against Tedros, state-directed or otherwise, subsequently Taiwanese began posting photos of themselves eating food or engaged in other mundane activities with the hashtag #ThisAttackComesFromTaiwan.
Another similar incident, then, was in response to an article in The Economist that labeled Taiwan to be “the most dangerous place in the world.” As life often continues normally in Taiwan in spite of feverish news reports internationally about the possibility of conflict, similarly, Taiwanese took to social media with the hashtag #TheMostDangerousPlaceInTheWorld to post pictures of life as usual in Taiwan. More generally, one notes how Taiwanese reacted against perceptions of Taiwan as overly dangerous, since this contrasts to their daily lived experience.
So, too, with the Yang incident. However, the phenomenon of Taiwanese entertainers seeking to depict Taiwan as very different than it actually is for Chinese consumption is of significance. Taiwanese entertainers working in China can be seen as no different than other Taiwanese who do business in China, who may prefer to cater to Chinese desires and projections of Taiwan rather than provide more accurate viewpoints.
This, however, leads to views of Taiwan that do not correspond to reality circulating in China in a way that may be dangerous, such as convincing Chinese that Taiwanese are much more welcome to the idea of unification than they actually are. The circulation of such inaccurate perceptions may contribute to the likelihood of invasion, if Chinese become convinced that an invasion will be welcomed with open arms when this would likely not be the case.
Yet the incident also points to how ancestral place associations that have greater salience in China or other majority Han societies do not have the same salience in Taiwan. While Yang reportedly spoke Cantonese at home growing up, Yang referred to herself as a “Guangdong person” because of her patrilineal ancestry from Guangdong. Nevertheless, for most Taiwanese–even “waishengren” descended from those that came to Taiwan with the KMT–home is Taiwan rather than one’s place of ancestry in China.
As indicated in the response of Taiwanese netizens to Yang’s comments, place of ancestry is not seen as a significant marker of identity, to the extent that Yang would be sharply criticized for drawing on the notion of ancestral place to refer to herself as being from Guangdong and not from Taiwan. For many Taiwanese today, it is contemporary life experience, as in where someone was born and grew up, rather than place of ancestry that defines identity.
At the same time, perhaps part of the larger significance of the controversy also returns to perceptions of Taiwanese in China. Taiwanese entertainers once enjoyed significant cachet in China, particularly because the Taiwanese culture industry was earlier to develop than China’s. One notes that many of the judges on contemporary Chinese talent competition programs are established Taiwanese artists, for example.
However, it may be that now being seen as Taiwanese is a risk, with Taiwanese entertainers facing the risk of being politically targeted for perceived pro-independence views–even when they make statements that would hardly be perceived as pro-independence within Taiwan, but which Chinese audiences might misread, not grasping nuances specific to Taiwan. This is what led Jolin Tsai and television host Xiao S to come under fire for congratulating Taiwanese Olympic athletes in August last year, for example, or TWICE member Chou Tzuyu to be accused of being pro-independence for waving the ROC flag in a promotional clip shortly before 2016 presidential elections. In this way, the Yang controversy may reflect larger dynamics regarding the perception of Taiwanese in China.