Starring Role for New Residents
The producers and participants of the TV series Happy New Residents, which is scheduled to premiere in July, aim to highlight the cultures and lifestyles of immigrants in Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of Phyllis Tran)
Publication Date：06/01/2015 By line：JENS KASTNER
Upcoming television series seeks to highlight the lifestyles and social contributions of recent immigrants from mainland China and Southeast Asia.
The number of foreign residents in Taiwan has surged in recent decades, significantly boosting the nation’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Yet despite this influx, relatively few entertainment programs have been created to cater to this growing demographic. To help address this, television producer Allen Chien (簡志榮) and his Vietnam-born wife Phyllis Tran(陳凰鳳) have since early March been shooting Happy New Residents, a new TV series showcasing the lives and cultures of some of the country’s recent immigrants. “I’d always hoped that my fellow immigrants would one day get a show like this because everybody who works hard also deserves some good entertainment at the end of the day,” says Tran, who came to the country in 2007 as a result of her relationship with Chien and has since presented several educational programs aimed at foreign residents. “And our other main objectives are to help our Taiwanese viewers understand the perspectives of new immigrant residents and instill pride in the children of transnational marriages.”
Each episode of Happy New Residents will run for 60 minutes and follow a different foreign resident. Audiences will join participants as they enjoy some of the simple pleasures of living in Taiwan, such as checking out the latest fashion trends, going for afternoon tea with friends, or traveling around Taipei on bicycles from the city’s YouBike rental system. The episodes will be presented in a variety of formats, ranging from dramas and documentaries to talk shows. Crucially, the participants, who hail from such countries as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, will be speaking in their native tongues. The series will also have Chinese subtitles and is expected to premiere on Chinese Television System’s (CTS) Education and Culture channel in late July. Its creators hope that the show will help increase public awareness of the cultural backgrounds and lifestyles of foreign residents in addition to encouraging other immigrants to integrate more fully into Taiwanese society.
Part of the financing for Happy New Residents comes from Chien and Tran’s various community-based fundraising efforts. The series also received NT$8.85 million (US$285,000) in financial support from the National Immigration Agency (NIA) on the condition that it feature not just Vietnamese immigrants, but those from other nations and territories that are also large sources of foreign residents, such as mainland China, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Meanwhile, CTS is covering technical expenditures up to NT$20 million (US$645,000), Tran explains.
Taiwan’s pool of immigrant residents is primarily comprised of spouses of Republic of China (ROC) nationals from mainland China and Southeast Asia. According to the NIA, the total number of foreign and mainland Chinese spouses in Taiwan stood at almost 500,000 as of early 2015. Meanwhile, statistics from the Ministry of Education show that last year approximately 211,500 elementary and junior high school pupils in Taiwan, or around 10 percent of the total number of such students, had at least one foreign parent.
Despite the growing importance of new immigrants in Taiwanese society, these residents remain underrepresented in entertainment programming. One prominent exception to this is the series Don’t Call Me Overseas Bride Anymore, a soap opera about four Vietnamese migrant spouses released in 2007 by Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS), another of the country’s major TV stations. The plot of this program followed the women’s struggles as they were exploited by their husbands and in-laws after coming to Taiwan as a result of agent-brokered marriages. While this series proved very popular and showed the reality faced by some new immigrants, it also caused a degree of controversy as some critics claimed that it stigmatized Southeast Asian spouses and created a perception among the general public that all such residents are victims of abuse.
“I remember feeling quite uncomfortable when I showed my students in England Don’t Call Me Overseas Bride Anymore,” recalls Isabelle Cheng, a Taiwanese academic conducting research on marriage migration, among other subjects, at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. “That TV series cemented negative stereotypes and severely embarrassed migrant spouses and their children by showing Taiwanese men traveling to Vietnam for the sole purpose of purchasing wives.”
Cheng says that the television industry in South Korea, which like Taiwan has been experiencing a significant rise in immigration from Southeast Asia as a result of transnational marriages, has produced a number of TV series with very similar themes. “Often shot to resemble documentaries or reality shows, these programs cause viewers to incorrectly assume that the situations shown are an accurate reflection of what life is like for all new immigrants,” she says. In contrast, Happy New Residents will give foreign residents a voice and allow them to tell their own stories, Cheng notes. “It’s important to show depictions beyond those involving despair and hardship,” she says. “Though some immigrants endure difficulties, we must remember that most foreign residents lead happy and fulfilling lives.”
The stark differences in the perspectives and tones of Don’t Call Me Overseas Bride Anymore and Happy New Residents are perhaps most apparent to Vy Fann, a Vietnamese actress and broadcaster based in Taiwan. Fann came to the country in 2005 to study Mandarin before landing a role as one of the four Vietnamese spouses in Don’t Call Me Overseas Bride Anymore. In the soap opera, Fann played the character of Huang Shi Jin-hui, a young woman bought by the family of a mentally impaired Taiwanese man to be his wife. Since starring in the series, Fann has become a Vietnamese-language presenter for Radio Taiwan International, an ROC government-owned station that broadcasts in 13 languages around the world, and is now the host of Happy New Residents. “This new TV series shows that foreign residents are more confident and open about expressing themselves than they were a few years ago,” she says.
Fann predicts that Taiwanese viewers will find Happy New Residents very refreshing, which in turn will encourage them to learn more about the lifestyles of recent immigrants. “The show will help people realize that foreign residents, myself included, have gained a deep appreciation for this country,” she says. Indeed, the host adds she is pleased to see the growing efforts to integrate immigrants into Taiwan’s “friendly society,” and believes that new residents can overcome all linguistic and cultural barriers in time.
Another recent example of immigrants taking center stage in the nation’s broadcast media—albeit a much less prominent one—is the show Singing in Taiwan. This program is the brainchild of ROC national Chang Chang-cheng , who founded Taiwan’s only newspaper for Southeast Asian immigrants, 4-Way Voice, in 2006 and served as the publication’s editor-in-chief until 2013.
Since leaving his position at the paper, Chang has been traveling around the country with a small film crew in search of immigrant workers willing to sing, dance or otherwise perform in their native tongues. He then invites the participants to address their families back home. “We go to restaurants, factories, ports and other places where immigrants work, film them performing, and then put the videos up on YouTube so their loved ones in their home countries can see the clips,” he explains. “We also give the videos to Taiwan Zonghe TV channel, which presents them to local audiences as the show Singing in Taiwan.”
Chang says that the participants quite often start shedding tears when delivering messages for their relatives back home, demonstrating the anguish that many migrant workers experience as a result of being separated from their families for extended periods. According to the former editor-in-chief, the show highlights the sacrifices that such workers make for their loved ones and their contributions to Taiwanese society. Furthermore, Chang says that the employers of the foreign laborers, caregivers and domestic helpers shown on Singing in Taiwan are generally very pleased and surprised when they see their employees on TV. “Although there are a lot of immigrants around us, many Taiwanese tend not to pay attention to them,” he says. “But with Singing in Taiwan, we’re slowly changing this mindset, making this country a happier place for all its residents.”
This goal of promoting cultural understanding and making Taiwan a more joyous place resonates with Happy New Residents producer Tran, who has spent much of her recent professional career building bridges between people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and helping foreign residents maintain their links to their homelands. “Despite starting new lives in Taiwan, immigrants still want to have cultural connections with their own countries and territories,” Tran said at a pre-shoot event for the new series in March. “Entertainment shows are a good way to preserve and spotlight these ties.”
The show’s host Fann, meanwhile, believes that Happy New Residents underscores growing efforts to integrate foreign residents and provide them with outlets to express their thoughts about Taiwanese society. “I’m very happy about this new TV series because it demonstrates that the cultural environment for immigrants in Taiwan has developed significantly in recent years,” she says.
Jens Kastner is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.
Copyright © 2015 by Jens Kastner