The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Jonathan S. Parhusip, an Indonesian PhD student of National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University.
I was walking in Qianzhen port when a Taiwanese taxi driver wound down his window and shouted ‘Tukar uang! Ciki-ciki! Atau Pussy Cat!’ at me. Tukar uang is a moneychanger in Indonesian, ciki-ciki is a shorthand for prostitution used amongst Indonesian fishermen in Taiwan, and Pussy Cat (pseudonym) is a nightclub I have heard about for years. Qianzhen is one of the boroughs in Kaohsiung City, the largest port in Taiwan. Kaohsiung made its name in international maritime trade for processing a large number of container ships passing through the Taiwan Strait. It is less known for also being a major port of call for Indonesian fishermen working on deep-sea vessels hired by Taiwanese employers. Apparently, I was mistaken by the taxi driver for an Indonesian fisherman who could be given a ride by him to go to any of these places, when the men had time off after spending months or years on the high seas.
Being an Indonesian doctoral student focusing on labour migration to Taiwan, I had based myself in Kaohsiung for nearly a year and a half before this brief encounter. Since I had known Pussy Cat for years, I decided to pay it a visit. I had met the owner before at one of the events organised by a migrant fishermen’s association, so the owner knew me as a worker at a local civic organisation. The owner greeted me with a big smile, offered me a seat with six bottles of Black Label on the table, and told me ‘Drink as much as you wish!’ I sat down with a group of eight Indonesian fishermen and an Indonesian woman in her late 30s to early 40s who filled our glasses. She was our bartender and watched us finish one glass after another. After several rounds of drinks, she whispered to the man next to her with seductive gestures and he gave her NT $200 (approximately US $7) as a tip. After midnight, the DJ changed the music from classic Dangdut genre to remix version. This meant that it was the time for the customers to come on the dancefloor. A man next to me invited the middle-aged woman across the table to enjoy one dance with him and I saw him pull out some cash from his pocket and give it to her.
In between drinks, dance, music, and bank notes, these men were having great fun with their hard-earned cash. One of them, Fay (pseudonym), approached me and was keen to know why the club owner treated me differently. After we introduced ourselves to each other, I learnt that Fay was Bataknese and his parents originally came from the same city as mine, but he was born and grew up in another province in Sumatera Island. Our ethnic similarities brought us closer in this unexpected encounter. Fay proudly introduced me to all of his five friends from the same vessel and invited me to dance with them. As a sign of respect, I gave him my business card with my name and contact number.
A few days later, one evening, Fay rang me with a specific request: he wanted to run away. Fay wanted me to help him abscond from his current employer and get a job elsewhere before the vessel left port at noon the next day. Perhaps, he wondered, he could become a farmworker in Taiwan. Knowing too well the risk of being an undocumented and irregular worker in the informal labour market, my first instinct was to dissuade him.
‘If you run away, you won’t be protected by law; any injury at work won’t be covered by insurance; you won’t be able to go out and about as you wish.’ I was trying to explain to him the disadvantages he would put himself under.
‘Come on, my friend! Would working at a farm be more dangerous than working in the vast open ocean and getting hit by the waves every night?’ His reply struck me. In a few seconds of silence, I was imagining him being cut by farm tools or working under the scorching sun for hours. That did seem like nothing, however, compared to being isolated for months or years under tremendous work pressure, having no contact with any humans except for his male boss and peers, and being remote from a land-based ‘normal’ life. I realised Fay was taking a measured risk and, as far as he could see, the gains outweighed the odds.
‘You don’t need to run away to get better pay’ was my reply to him, after I cleared my thoughts. I recalculated the options he had, whilst listening to all the reasons why he wanted to abscond. What was perhaps unknown to Fay was that during the pandemic, when the border closure disrupted labour supply from Indonesia to Taiwan, the number of migrant workers was reduced significantly and recruitment became more difficult even after the government permitted Indonesian migrant workers to re-enter Taiwan in November 2021. Labour shortage had not resulted in a universal pay rise, yet hiring a migrant worker has become more cumbersome to the degree that some employers may want to avoid the red tape and wasted time for a broker to find a worker for them. ‘Tell your manager if he does not raise your salary by US $100, you will just go back to Indonesia.’ Later on, I heard that his negotiation was successful and he did get a pay raise.
Having helped migrant workers in various industries, sectors, and locations in Taiwan, I know that all of my encounters, planned or unexpected, are part of my fieldwork. However, I had not expected that my first visit to a nightclub could also become a part of my advocacy work. My prior experiences told me that deep-sea fishermen would seek help from a local NGO, organisation, church, or mosque, if they have a local contact who knows the existence of these resources. Regardless of whether they have such a local contact, moneychangers and nightclubs are places where they are most likely to go for remittance, relief, and relaxation after having a hard time at sea. Not until this brief encounter with him had I realised that nightclubs are actually a critical part of the network interwoven into their intermittent contact with, or a seemingly unlikely extension of, our activism on the ground in this hustling and bustling port city.
Jonathan S. Parhusip is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. His research interests include the politics of migration, the logistical chain of the Indonesia–Taiwan migration industry, and Southeast Asian Studies. His Ph.D. research explores the employment practices of Southeast Asian migrant fishermen onboard Taiwanese fishing vessels, migrant solidarity, and labour rights activism in Taiwan. He is an external consultant for Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN) mission in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. His recent article is entitled “The making of freedom and common forms of struggle of runaways in Taiwan” (SAQ, 2021). He is also actively advocating for the rights of migrant fishermen in Taiwanese fishing ports, working closely with self-organised migrant groups and NGOs.
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.