The story of “American Po”

American Po (林博文, 美國博仔), so called because he was the son of an American GI and a Taiwanese nightclub hostess, was a mixed-race Taichung gangster active in the 1980s  (Heijin, Chpt 5, p 89). His deadbeat father was in the US Air Force, and his mom, who was 16 at the time, abandoned him or left him to live with his grandmother (uncertain). At a young age he became a member of the 15 Divine Tigers (十五神虎幫), a triad gang that had been active in Taichung City since the 1960s. After that the story is a bit muddled, but after a shootout with Yan Qing-biao’s men (the well-known thug who runs the Ma Zu temple in Dajia) and the police, he was executed by state. There was a film made about him in Taiwan “槍擊犯變英才” (臺灣電視公司, 1985/05/22: Wiki) and one in HK called《美國博仔》 (1991/full film, which is terrible, in mandarin). Found this crappy TW documentary about him too, and also this article is informative.

*Interestingly, there is also an online book called <中台灣黑道風雲> (in 105 chapters!) by a guy called Yue Zhongxing (岳中興 which I assume is a pseudonym) documenting organized crime activities in my adoptive city.

The failures of college education in Taiwan

Back when I was teenager considering my academic future in the USA, I would obsessively read through college catalogs and practically drool on the sections that included department descriptions and course offerings. Since I was mainly interested in the humanities I focused on History, Philosophy, English and even toyed with idea of studying Art. Invariably these descriptions began or ended with a phrase like “the main goal the X Department at Y University is to prepare students to pursue graduate level studies in the future.” It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now realize this simple phrase summarized the key difference between the values upheld by liberal arts colleges and vocational or technical schools: the former prepares you to become a scholar, the latter to become a tradesman or technician. The liberal arts college I finally attended was a large, state-sponsored research institute in the south where we were required to study a diverse set of subjects (including history, science, mathematics, English, the arts, etc.) intended to give us the broad understanding of the world necessary for future scholars.

I feel like that’s what I got, and today, as a professor with more than a decade of teaching in Taiwanese universities behind me, one of the saddest things about working in the educational system here is that it does not assume that our students will go on to become scholars. On the contrary, it largely understands Education (教育) as vocational or remedial training. I’m on the faculty of a fairly large (23 member) Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at a national university and the biggest news lately is that we will soon undergo major down-sizing because the official trend is to have English become an elective course at all national universities like ours. This trend is baffling to many us, particularly since President Tsai has said she plans to make Taiwan a bilingual (Mandarin & English) nation by 2030, but also because it means dramatic cutbacks will be made to our branch of the humanities across Taiwan. Demoting English from a 3 credit required course for all freshmen means less faculty are needed so, according to the Dean of Liberal Arts at my university, we will likely shrink from a faculty of 30 to one of 16. English, which Taiwanese students mainly learn as a skill and universities like mine treat as a vocational subject, will thereby be marginalized even further.

Although we are treated as a vocational department, most of our faculty were trained in the study of literature at good US liberal arts colleges and share a deep respect for scholarship in the humanities. Unfortunately, no one else in the university or government does. I’m not being at all facetious when I say this because our College of Liberal Arts (文學院) currently consists of just three departments: History, Chinese, and Foreign Languages and these are just barely holding on. Just for the sake of contrast, at my home university in the US, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences was on an equal footing with the College of Science and housed the Departments of English, Drama, History, Philosophy, Art, Anthropology, etc.—in five or six large buildings. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, which underwent state-driven modernization in the 50s-60s by promoting engineering and techno-science in its educational system, it’s simply impossible to imagine the liberal arts on par with the sciences. For example, if a scholar in the liberal arts wants to apply for a grant, s/he must do so through the Ministry of Science and Technology—not to the Ministry of Culture or a National Endowment for the Arts (which doesn’t exist).

A big part of the problem with the scenario I’m describing is that the college entrance exam system remains firmly in place so every university in Taiwan is packed with students who don’t want to be in their respective departments. That is, the students in my department didn’t sort through college catalogs and drool over course offerings in Detective Fiction or Native American Literature, but instead were able to pick a college/department based on their exam scores (the goal being to get into the ‘best’ college, regardless of the department). If they want to get out of a department they hate or find a real interest in something else and want to change departments, they must then take an exam which is even more difficult than the first one! If nothing else, this system teaches students that “getting ahead” is more important than scholarship or pursuing your interests, and besides, no one wants to let their parents down by studying Art at some no-name college in Pingtung.
Another important outgrowth of the exam system is that it also teaches students that they’re not expected to learn anything in university in the first place, or as the Taiwanese play on the word for university goes, “it’s up to you to play for four years” (由你玩四年). Your reward for getting into that ‘good university’ is that you can cruise through 4 years of courses that probably do not matter to you in the least since it’s nearly impossible to “flunk out” of this system. Most laughably is, if, for some reason, you do feel the urge to go to graduate school and have the financial ability to do so, you probably will need to go to a cram-school (補習班) to prepare for the entrance exams! Yes, alongside the entire state system of education in Taiwan there is a private education industry whose entire existence proves the official system has utterly failed–otherwise, why would people need to go to cram-schools after 4 years of college?!

It’s all very exasperating, but if you consider all of the above I think it’s pretty obvious what needs to be done: a) universities in Taiwan should all be fairly funded throughout the country (Taipei’s ‘good’ universities get the lion’s share of government funding), b) public universities should shift to an open admissions policy, and c) academic standards should be upheld so that students who underperform do get “flunked out.” In addition, it would be great if the nation would adequately fund the liberal arts, but I dare not dream that big. Probably nothing would ever convince Auntie Chen that her daughter really should major in Dance or Art History if she wants to.

Missing the MTV experience

As far as I can recall Takeshi Miike’s Rainy Dog (極道黒社会 1997) wasn’t released in the theaters in Taipei, instead I watched it in an MTV with a few friends, ca. 1999. An MTV is basically a living room you can rent, with room service. You pay a fee (US2$ in those days), pick a few movies off the rack, and the guy escorts you to your own private AV space with sofas. There’s a bigass television, a DVD player and sound system that isn’t too terrible. Young folks who have no where else to make out go to MTVs, but my friends and I just went there to watch movies, smoke, and eat cheap food. Although I sometimes went alone, usually it was with the Crew: my Korean friend Y-C and the young Japanese kid, H.–and sometimes the girls (also Korean and Japanese), though none of us had a romantic interest in them. Once though, while I was searching through the DVDs (these places had huge movie collections), a truly hot young lady came up to me and asked what I was thinking of watching. I averred I hadn’t a clue because my friends were nearby, and she said she wanted to watch this –> (some Harrison Ford movie) while leaning in close to me. That was one of the few times women have ever hit on me, so whenever I think of MTVs…But I digress.

Anyway, the movie takes place during Taiwan’s Plum Rains, in May, and is about an exiled yakuza living in Taipei. He works as a freelance assassin but his day job is in a slaughter house, and one night, after work, he silently watches a young man stabbed to death in a back alley. One day, out of the blue, a woman shows up with a kid she claims is his, and leaves yelling “The kid’s a mute” from the window of the taxi. Of course the yakuza, aka Rainy Dog, is a misanthropist and hitman so he wants to have nothing to do with the kid. But the kid refuses to go away, and how can he really? He’s got no fucking place to go and can’t speak. Miike made the film on a tiny budget and it’s full of gangster cliches, but the thing pulls at you in strange ways, especially if you’ve ever lived in East Asia for any length time. It’s hard to explain but seeing Taipei, my city, filmed in this stylish way as the seasonal rains pour down, really made an impression on me–as did the other films in the Black Society Trilogy (黒社会三部作: Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, and Ley Lines) when I saw them.

All this makes me want to go see what MTVs are like nowadays, but unfortunately only that one chain is still in business.

Chen Chieh-Jen (陳界仁)

“History has been lingchi-ed, that is, chopped and severed as human bodies. Violence is also gradually internalized, institutionalized and hidden. We do not see where we are and what was before us. We do not see the violence of history or that of the State either. That is the reason why we need to gaze at the images of horror and penetrate through them. Is the dark abyss of wounds not the very crack that we need to pass through so as to arrive at the state of full-realization and self-abandonment?” –Chen Chieh-Jen, “About the Forms of My Works” ~ from Joyce Liu essay

MOST Crap, pt 2

Frustrationwise and in terms of raw busy, this has been the worst weekend of my entire semester. Application deadline for MOST (Ministry of Sci & Tech) grants is once again near, so had to finish that up and try for my Ethical Researcher Scout badge from them. This involves reading through 19 chapters of random facts and taking an exam that you must pass having missed no more than 4 questions. (I keep missing 5 or more for reasons soon to be explicated). They say it’s only 6 hrs, but here’s a case where time really is relative and subjective. The contents of those 19 chapters are about 50% idiotic information every college sophomore should know, and 50% arbitrary facts about what they call “ethical science” and regulations/laws for copyright infringement. I get questions like the following:

The right answer is 3,  but you probably wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t been indoctrinated into their belief system over the past 3 hours. You see, there isn’t anything about “emotional release” in the text, however, they did supply us with this convenient illustration explaining what that privacy business is all about:

Pretty arbitrary stuff but I’d be lying if I denied the perverse pleasure I’ve taken in “mastering” this whacko ethical info system from the MOST. I just tell myself someone took the Kevin Walker approach to ethics, making it a set of tables and rules to memorize so your lvl 64 Paladin can make killer savings throws every turn in AD&D. I fail my ethics savings throws when encountering questions like these:

Now isn’t the right answer, 2, just saying that these two profs did research on the same topic, got together and co-authored two separate papers? My answer, 1, was given because I’d think re-writing someone else’s work and listing them as a co-author would automatically be considered unethical, but that’s just me. Careless wording in English combined with the arbitrariness of the content is what academic ethics is about:

This example captures the spirit of the whole exam: not only arbitrary, but they do not consistently translate the official names of these so-called “ethics norms.” Why wife saw these and was like “why don’t you just take it in Chinese, probably a lot easier to understand?” I thought about that too but the problem is, once you begin using one language it doesn’t allow you to switch to the other. Plus I read the “textbook” chapters in English so it would be like starting over and wasting even more of life!

 To be cont’d.