In 1985, as Taiwan headed out of its martial law era (formally ending in 1987), director Edward Yang released Taipei Story, titled “Green Plums and a Bamboo Horse” in Mandarin (青梅竹馬). The film is famous for being “among the first to depict Taiwan as a place with a burgeoning sense of its own social and historical integrity,” as opposed to simply an outgrowth of the Republic of China. However, a little uncannily, the details within that depiction now operate as a kind of specter, haunting the Taiwanese “midterm” elections this weekend.
Yang used Taipei Story to take aim in two directions. First, at the rigidly patriarchal order he arrived into as a child from Shanghai in 1947, depositing it in the father of main character Tsai Chin, a helpless fool reduced to begging his daughter’s boyfriend for money. Second, in the middle of the boom years of Taiwan’s Economic Miracle, he targeted the “encroaching forces of Western values and money,” lamenting the depthlessness of high-rise buildings that “all look the same” and the precarity that came with living under faceless corporate rule — as well as the (emerging, yet slightly hidden in government accounting) reality of growing inequality. The film is, in short, a story of profound disillusionment with modern capitalism’s hall of mirrors as a route out of a Confucian-tinged old order that had nothing left to offer.
While there have been significant social success stories along the way, much of that critique still resonates with the material reality of Taipei and Taiwan as a whole today. Inequality has continued to grow. Office buildings still dominate skylines. Glossy advertising boards still sit in awkward juxtaposition with the relentless grind of the fourth-longest office hours in the world, and the “informalization” of formal employment has hidden the rise in precarity — insecure, unstable work — under the guise of “flexible” or “nonstandard” contract arrangements with employers. The residual impact of Confucian-tinged patriarchy still lingers, with American-flavored free-market capitalism’s ability to close the gender income gap (itself a narrow measure compared to harder to attain figures on wealth) waning in recent years. The gap in disposable income in Taipei was almost exactly the same between 2008 and 2018, if one wants a measure of material freedom that’s closer to the ground. One of the only really dramatic shifts is that younger generations have simply not tasted the high salaries of previous generations, as wages have fallen in relation to corporate profits.
In response to those circumstances, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the incumbent government, has mainly offered a status quo package at this year’s “midterms”. Its policy briefing prioritizes economic stability and defends the party’s record at managing COVID-19. There has been talk of managing demographic aging. There has been sporadic but mostly vague talk of infrastructure renewal on top of improved transport links. There has been of course the odd word on doubling down on Taiwan’s greatest hits (semiconductors) without grappling with where that industry came from. Most radically, the party has also set up a referendum on lowering the voting age to 18, but this is a change of process rather than (immediate) outcomes. Where candidates have offered variations on these themes, they have looked like gimmicks, and recently the wider party has pivoted toward highlighting its credentials in warding off the outside threat of China. Regarding any more transformative internal agenda, the party’s “net zero” policy for 2050 has been pulled apart as fundamentally unserious.
There is no grand new dream here. And this is where the ghostly connection to Taipei Story kicks in. Because rather than any antidote, the primary forces of opposition, and advocates of “change,” are an almost ludicrously on-point embodiment of the two forces Yang’s film warned against.
The two most high-profile opposition politicians in Taiwan right now are Kuomintang (KMT) Taipei mayoral candidate Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安) and Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the KMT’s last presidential candidate, who has hit headlines again as he travels the country to speak at rallies in support of KMT candidates. Chiang is the purported great-grandson of the country’s former authoritarian leader, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正), while Han rose up through (knowingly) 1980s-style promises that “we’ll all get rich” and “make big money.” They are, then, ghostly mirror images of: 1. Taiwan’s rigid conservative history, through Chiang’s family background, (which he has selectively emphasized and benefited from despite some apparently progressive credentials) and 2. Taiwan’s explosive 1980s boom and culture of laissez faire, get rich quick individualism, as Courtney Donovan Smith has pointed out about Han.
Though it is a little strange just how easy the connection is to make, it is of course no coincidence. When new, optimistic visions for the future don’t enter popular consciousness, or popular politics, the same old ones play out on a zombified rotation instead: One can choose the holding pattern of the DPP’s tinkering, or full-blown nostalgia in the form of Han and Chiang. One cannot choose something else.
Edward Yang died in 2007, but his response to these “midterms” — whatever the results — would be easy to gauge. Taipei Story’s final shot frames its main character “against a bleak Taipei skyline, with reflections of relentless traffic lines tracking across her face, indifferently answering a question about her future [from her boss].” As that future now operates as a replay of the past, Taipei Story operates as a preemptive dismissal of the present, whoever wins big this weekend.