I hope to Create Star SEA Immigrant Representation in My Films
The following narrative was constructed by Hsin-Chin Evelyn Hsieh, based on an interview that she conducted with Rina B. Tsou, a film-maker based in Taiwan and Malaysia.
My name is Rina B. Tsou and I am a film-maker. I was born in Taiwan to a Filipino mother and a Taiwanese father, but I was raised in the Philippines from the age of one and a half. While both my parents lived in Taiwan, my brother and I grew up and were educated in Manila, the Philippines. Originally, the plan was to settle in the Philippines after my parents retired. However, public safety in Manilla was poor and kidnapping was rampant in the 1990s, especially among ethnic Chinese children. Therefore, we moved back and went to school in Taiwan when I was ten. We studied in a Chinese school in Manila so we had a certain proficiency in Mandarin. I was so young, and do not recall any painful experiences during the transition. Nonetheless, I was confused about why we used Hokkien (often referred as Taiwanese in Taiwan) to memorise multiplication tables in Manila. My father is a mainlander and because of this, I cannot speak Taiwanese. I smoothly adapted to my new life probably because of my mixed background. Even though I was a straight-A student, I had never really thought about my interests and what I wanted to major in. I was enrolled in the Department of Finance at the National Taiwan University before realising that I had no passion for the subject. After two years, I decided to transfer to the National Taiwan University of Arts and study film, a major interest of mine to this very day.
I do not know what would have happened if we had stayed in the Philippines, but I am grateful that I lived there for a period of time. The lived experience and cultural influence of Manila have shaped my identity construction and indirectly formed how I conduct myself in life. Growing up in Taiwan, I did not have many opportunities to speak Tagalog. My Tagalog is pretty formal and keeps a ‘good-child’ style, but is not colloquial. There are tons of spoken words and slang relating to modern developments, and I frequently need to check my friends’ Facebook posts to learn new usages. Therefore, I sometimes regret leaving the Philippines. If I had stayed there, I would not feel out of place in both countries the way I do now. In Taiwan, my godmother would sometimes say, without meaning any harm, ‘She cannot be counted because she is a foreigner.’ When I am back in the Philippines, my friends and family would introduce me as Taiwanese. No matter which side I was on, I was always identified as the ‘other.’ If there was a war between Taiwan and the Philippines, who would I side with? I have always had mixed feelings like this growing up.
The term ‘second-generation immigrant’ did not exist in my childhood. I was either a foreigner or a mixed-race child. This was back in the 1990s when there was no social media and children were relatively innocent. I lived in Linkou, a suburb of New Taipei City. Looking back, it was a great time to move back. I was the only Filipino–Taiwanese mixed-race student at my school, and nobody knew where or even what Southeast Asia was. My classmates called me ‘Felix The Cat’, the only name they could relate to the Philippines. I wasn’t offended and would usually retort that the name was outdated and jokingly ask for a better name. I probably got this nickname because of my accent. Even if my accent has been greatly watered down, I still have a ‘fake-ABC’ accent according to my friends.
I have mixed feelings regarding this term ‘second-generation immigrant.’ On the one hand, it can positively publicise issues relevant to migration, and people can instantly understand what you are talking about. The term ‘second-generation immigrant’ is very convenient for advocating certain policies, legal reforms, or social activism. On the other hand, in my film-making, I prefer not to use the term and instead try my best to normalise migration. In fact, I would even like people to see migration as a good thing. When I watched Hollywood movies in my childhood, I did not know Jennifer Lopez was an immigrant whose parents were from Puerto Rico. I admired her because she was hot, attractive, and desirable. Unfortunately, I think a Taiwanese Jennifer Lopez from Southeast Asia with a darker skin tone is still wishful thinking at this point. The point is, people admired her for her beauty and talent as an actress without referring to her identity as an immigrant. In contrast to the tragic and sorrowful representations of immigrants in Taiwanese cinema, I would like to create a protagonist whom the audience can identify with without focusing on his/her identity as an immigrant. Even though I am Taiwanese, I did not think about who she was and what she was doing when I watched Jennifer Lopez perform. Rather, I was attracted and engrossed by the story, which helps me identify with her role. This is my current reflection on the term ‘second-generation immigrant’.
My film-making is intensely personal. For instance, my graduation production Chicharon (2013) is semi-autobiographical, which reflects on the cultural shock and identity issues I encountered when I moved back to Taiwan aged ten. After graduating from college, I accidentally met a group of foreign fishing workers and Chinese spouses in Taiwan and was invited to shoot a film on environmental issues. It is pure serendipity that I managed to shoot films on immigrants and migrant workers. What keeps me shooting them is my desire to speak up for someone who has experiencing a certain injustice or struggle. While I believe film-making is powerful and effective, it can sometimes be an echo chamber. If I want to change my audience’s ideologies and stereotypes with my films, I am thinking of doing so imperceptibly by creating a ‘Jennifer Lopez’ for them to identify with before changing their mind. Therefore, my film-making will hopefully expand in two new directions. For feature films, I want to adopt a more recreational approach which influences the audience imperceptibly instead of directly speaking on the issue, which might turn them off. For documentary film-making, I will focus on policy-making, even if I am still struggling with how to shoot a documentary that can maintain and arouse the audience’s interest.
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, I recall something from the first wave in Taiwan in May 2021. A government official said something like ‘migrant workers could easily be a flaw in our epidemic prevention strategy.’ The more I pondered his statement – ‘We are pretty separated in Taiwan. Is it okay to say so?’ – the sadder and angrier I got. This is how COVID-19 has influenced us in my view. More issues are catalysed and the true face of humanity comes into view during times of crisis and misfortune. People feel isolated from each other, which makes it challenging to promote and advocate any issues. For this reason, migrant workers are treated as less than human. Second-generation immigrants might fare better because they are identified as Taiwanese to a certain extent. However, I do still feel bad for the migrant workers who were sacrificed to protect Taiwan during the pandemic.
Hsin-Chin Evelyn Hsieh is an Associate Professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University. Her research interests include contemporary Taiwan literature, film and documentary, migration studies, Sinophone studies, and women studies. She is particularly interested in looking at the relation between contemporary cultural production and the inbound and outbound migration of Taiwan. By conducting interviews with cultural producers, she hopes that every story becomes a seed that makes the world meaningful, colorful, and peaceful.