The New Tai-ker: Southeast Asian Migrant Workers and Immigrants in Taiwan
Many Southeast Asian faces can be seen in Taiwan. The number of immigrants from Southeast Asia has surpassed 140,000, and there are 680,000 foreign workers. Whichever country they come from, and however long they stay here, they have become an undeniable part of Taiwanese culture. Whether 400 years ago or at the present time, the arrival of immigrants from different places has shaped Taiwan’s multifaceted and diverse culture.
Southeast Asian immigrants are often seen as “new residents” of Taiwan, though, as a matter of fact, they are not as new as one might think. It’s often said they came here only after the 1990s. But, looking back, there is evidence of quite a number of Southeast Asian immigrants in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, most of whom were driven here by political factors.
This exhibition focuses on Southeast Asian migrants and immigrant workers in Taiwan during the past fifty years. These once-foreign faces have now become familiar to us across all walks of life. They have become our colleagues, our friends, our family. If we all agree that, just like for our immigrant ancestors, identity is a fluid state of mind, then the stories of these “new” Taiwanese—the new “Tai-ker”—are the stories of us all.
Displace and Place
Boxes of different sizes are filled with immigrants’ and migrant workers’ dreams for the future, responsibilities to their families, and thoughts of their hometowns. From Taiwan to their home countries, the displacement of these boxes and their savings show their regard for relatives and friends far away.
Knowing and understanding this assumption, “the Taiwanese,” then become family and friends of newcomers, and the place between you and I becomes a place of “us,” with warm regards given to each other.
The Cold War, Anti-Communism, and the Chinese Exclusion Movement: Southeast Asian Immigrants Half-a-Century Ago
Many Southeast Asian immigrants moved to Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. Those who came in the 1960s were mostly Hakka Chinese from Indonesia, in response to riots against Chinese Indonesians. In 1976, many Chinese Vietnamese also came to Taiwan, fleeing the newly founded Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Southeast Asian Chinese moved to Taiwan over fifty years ago mainly for political reasons. As anti-Communist movements swept across the world, and violence targeted Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, many ethnic Chinese relocated to Taiwan. They had been promised Republic of China nationality by the government in Taipei, which had a policy of trying to unite all ethnic Chinese overseas against Communist China. Anti-Communist propaganda targeted Southeast Asians of Chinese descent, and such communities were actively absorbed as members of the Republic of China, as Taipei tried to build its legitimacy as the rightful government of all China.
For many of these new Chinese-Taiwanese, moving to Taiwan was their family’s second immigration. The first was when their forefathers, from the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, moved to Southeast Asia for economic reasons during the late 19th century or early 20th century. The second immigration, to Taiwan this time, was political. With the ending of the Cold War and the changing cross-strait situation, those from Southeast Asia and mainland China were no longer welcomed by Taiwan’s government. They gradually became “foreigners,” restricted and even rejected by the government.
Reasons for Relocation: Stories of Him and Her
Since the 1990s, most Southeast Asian migrant workers and immigrants in Taiwan have been from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia. These immigrants were not driven to relocate by politics, but for work, studies, marriage, or dreams. Each of them has his/her own experiences and stories.
Through personal objects, videos, voices, and artistic creations, this exhibition displays the stories of 14 migrant workers and immigrants from different Southeast Asian countries, from both an intimate angle and a broader horizon, to demonstrate various facets of the new Taiwanese, or the new Tai-ker. Through these life stories, we learn not only the pride and values of different groups, but also the overall concept of the new Taiwan which has emerged in this era of transition.
New Residents from Southeast Asia
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, international marriage brokers began to do business in Taiwan, matching Taiwanese women with men in Europe, the US, and Japan, as well as introducing Thai and Indonesian women to rural villages in Taiwan. However, as society was rather conservative at that time regarding marrying foreign women, the number of Southeast Asian brides was small. It was only in the 1980s that the number of transnational marriages in Taiwan started to grow. This was due to the lifting of the travel ban between mainland China and Taiwan. Also, because many Taiwanese men working in Southeast Asia married local women, Southeast Asian communities in Taiwan developed. In the 1990s and beyond, Taiwan underwent a series of economic and industrial transformations that greatly impacted the labor market. To relieve the labor pressure from such transformation, the government allowed companies to import Southeast Asian workers, which further worsened employment prospects for local blue-collar males. This, along with greater education, economic autonomy and self-awareness among Taiwanese women, accelerated the phenomenon of Taiwanese men seeking “marriage material” in China and Southeast Asia. Since then, foreign spouses have not only become a frequent topic in society, but also altered the overall structure of marriage in Taiwan.
By November 2016, the number of spouses in Taiwan of foreign origin exceeded 520,000, of whom Chinese are about 350,000 and Southeast Asians approximately 140,000. Other nationalities account for a very small proportion. Of Southeast Asians, most are from Vietnam (around 96,000), followed by Indonesians and Thais. These new residents/immigrants have rooted themselves in Taiwan and enriched local culture.
Southeast Asian Migrant Workers
Migrant workers in Taiwan can be categorized into two types: laborers (blue collar) and experts (white collar), with most of the laborers coming from Southeast Asia. The first foreign laborers permitted by the Taiwanese government were from Thailand in 1989, due to a shortage of available labor. Since then, the categories of businesses which can recruit foreign labor have been gradually extended in response to industry demands. Taiwan’s government has also implemented a policy of “supplementary labor,” allowing human resources agencies in Taiwan and other countries to introduce workers to labor-intensive and time-consuming jobs.
It is common to see foreign faces in all kinds of industries these days. Train stations have become popular places for migrant workers to hang out with friends on days off. Currently, more than 610,000 blue-collar migrant workers from countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand, form a solid force driving the development of traditional and electronic industries, such as construction, agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, and even social services. Over 60,000 white-collar foreign workers also serve in diverse fields across Taiwan.
The Becoming of the New Tai-ker
Since the 1990s, Taiwan has seen an explosion in the number of migrant workers and immigrants from Southeast Asia. This resulted from massive demand, and these massive demands have led to the reform of migration laws. Although the law has made progress, issues of human rights and social equality have also emerged, bringing into existence civic groups such as the Taiwan International Workers’ Association and the Taiwan International Family Association. These groups not only fight for immigrants’ and migrant workers’ rights, but also serve as the supervising force as the government actively regulates social conditions for new residents. Protests, therefore, have always been a factor leading to changes in Taiwan’s immigration laws.
In addition to activist groups, other organizations and actions have been initiated to assist Southeast Asian immigrants living in Taiwan. An early one was the “Foreign Brides Literacy Program” in Kaohsiung’s Meinong District. Others include the TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan, the 4-Way Voice, and even personal movements, such as “Migrating Together” (yi qi zai Taiwan) in Changhua’s Nanguo Elementary School. Friendships between Taiwanese and Southeast Asian people have moved from a “us and others” mindset to simply “between us.”
Looking back through history, we can witness the past and present of Southeast Asian immigrants and migrant workers in Taiwan, as well as the changes that have come along with them over the years. By embracing these new Tai-ker, what will the future of Taiwan look like? If the future is built by our joint endeavors, are we making enough of an effort?