The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Chen Kuan-chiao, a Vietnamese spouse based in Touliu.
I came to Taiwan in 1999 and gave birth to my only daughter in 2000. I did not go out in the first few months after my arrival. I cleaned my in-laws’ house where I lived together with them, cooked meals for the family, and, after my daughter was born, I also looked after her. Without working outside of home, my life in the countryside in southern Taiwan was boring compared to my life in Vietnam. Over there, I was always working or running businesses.
When I was not doing housework, I took my daughter out and strolled on the street. One day, I saw a woman processing spring onions there. Large bundles of spring onions freshly picked from the field by male workers were stacked together on her van. Without speaking much Mandarin or Taiwanese, I plucked up enough courage and asked her whether I could work for her, cleaning her produce. She asked where I lived and her neighbour told her who my father-in-law was. The next morning around nine, she delivered four bundles, each weighing roughly 30-40 kg, to my in-laws’ house. Before noon, I had cleaned the dirt off, peeled dirty layers of the onion, and rearranged them into bundles. This paid me NT 200 dollars (approximately US $6). I was overjoyed by this, the first ever wage I had earned since arriving in Taiwan! I asked the woman to continue to hire me to process her spring onions. Although I did not earn much, the wage felt like a significant amount. After all, NT 500 dollars were enough to buy five fishes, which were enough to feed the entire family for one meal. I became very efficient and my record earnings for one day was NT 1,200 dollars. This kind of work was mostly done by women and old people in the village, who mostly did not have regular jobs.
I did this job for nine months and managed to have some savings. I dreamed of opening a shop and running my own business. I saw that, on the high street of my town, close to the office of the Farmers’ Association, there were spaces to let. They were not shops but merely spaces on the corridor in front of the shops. It cost NT 5,000 dollars to rent one place and I was asked to pay six months’ rent upfront in one instalment. So that cost me NT 30,000 dollars. The remaining money was spent on pans, cooking utensils, folded tables, and plastic chairs. Two wooden planks were fixed into a stand on which were displayed ‘pho,’ Vietnamese flat rice noodles. My pho was sold at NT 35 dollar per bowl. When I had saved up NT 300,000 dollars by selling my pho at a very affordable price, I opened my restaurant in Touliu.
At that time, around 2002, Vietnamese cuisine was not so popular but my cooking attracted a lot of customers, some of whom were police officers and civil servants. My restaurant became the place where I started helping my fellow Vietnamese migrants in Touliu. At that time, the number of Vietnamese spouses in Taiwan increased, and so did the cases of domestic abuse. The surge of domestic abuse cases raised public awareness. The 113 special hotline was set up for migrant spouses from Southeast Asia to seek help when they suffered from physical, sexual, or verbal abuse from their husbands or in-laws. The police force in Touliu was also challenged by such cases but they were unable to communicate with migrant spouses due to the language barrier. They thought of me and came to ask me to help with communicating with Vietnamese people.
A particular case I was involved in changed my life entirely. One day the police came to my restaurant asking me to go with them to the police station. A Vietnamese woman was in their custody but she had not eaten anything nor spoken for three days. They could not communicate with her and they were seriously concerned about her mental and physical health. I went with them with my greasy apron still on. I was taken to their detention room and met the woman. I asked her in Vietnamese ‘What happened to you?’ The woman began to cry and hold me tightly. She cried uncontrollably for a long time. I tried to comfort her and ask her to tell me what happened to her so that the police could help her. The first thing she said was ‘I don’t want to die in Taiwan; I wanted to go home.’ She then explained that she was hired as a home-based carer and had been raped by her employer day after day. She could not take it anymore and decided to leave her employer’s home. She dragged her suitcase onto the street but had nowhere to go. She saw a police car passing and the flashing light of the car convinced her that this was a police car. She waved it down and asked for help.
The police took her testimony and went to her employer’s home. The employer had been concerned about her whereabouts since in Taiwan by law a migrant worker leaving his/her registered address for more than three days would be considered missing. The employer was surprised by the police’s visit but cleverly found a way out for himself. Before she left, the Vietnamese woman took a hairdryer and coins worth NT 300 dollars from the living room. The employer accused her of stealing. The case was brought to court where the employer was charged with rape but the Vietnamese woman was accused of stealing. She did not want to pursue this case and returned home. From then onwards, I never turned off my mobile phone at night because I did not want to miss any phone calls from the police in case they needed me.
Isabelle Cockel is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on labour and marriage migration in East Asia. Her recent research interests are the Cold War in East Asia, specifically the use of women’s voices for propaganda broadcasting.