a wedding story

One thing that (successful) Taiwanese politicians do it is attend every wedding and funeral they can. The usual understanding is that weddings help win a few votes, but funerals are much more powerful.
This past weekend I went to Pingtung for a friend’s wedding. Perhaps it should be no surprise that lots of candidates showed up at a wedding seven weeks before a local election. What made this one more interesting than usual was that our friend is a Paiwan Aborigine, so this wedding was a bit different.
We were in Tsaopu 草埔 Village, which you might have driven through without paying much attention. Tsaopu is the last village in Pingtung on the main highway from Pingtung to Taitung across the southern tip of the island.
My group was seated at a table in the back of the community activity center. (Note: Unlike most Han weddings, which are at fancy and soulless hotels or wedding banquet centers these days, they chose to go the old-fashioned way and set up tables outdoors but inside their community. And this was very much a community affair.) As we sat down, another late-arriving guest was seated at our table. She turned out to be the incumbent county assembly member, and she was there running for re-election. I had lots of questions to ask her, but the noise was so loud that I had to wait for a lull in the program. About an hour in, I realized there was never going to be a lull in the program. (Afterward, I said something about this to one of our party, an Amis Aborigine. She laughed at my ignorance and said that Aborignal wedding banquets are always nonstop noise, adding “You should hear one of our weddings.”)
Anyway, about halfway through the banquet, they started handing the microphone over to the politicians. The incumbent county assembly member was first. She gave a talk that I wouldn’t classify as feminist. She praised the bride as being the most valuable girl the village had produced and congratulated the groom on being smart enough to snap her up. This was to be a recurring theme. Our friend was an outstanding student and the first graduate of NTU Law School from the village (and maybe from the township). Apparently in their eyes, that made her a valuable export. After talking for about five minutes, the candidate did something I haven’t seen before. She sang a song. Welcome to Paiwan Kala OK! In fact, every politician who got on stage sang at least one song after his or her speech. I wonder which one was more important for winning votes.
After a couple other people, legislator Chien Tung-ming 簡東明 showed up. Chien is from Tsaopu Village, so everyone there knows him personally. His speech was, how shall we say, not charismatic, progressive, or entertaining. At least he remembered to praise our friend for being such a valuable bride. His song was pretty good too. He got 80% of the votes in Tsaopu last time, and he probably will next time too.
The last speaker was the challenger for the county assembly seat. The incumbent was from a village on the coast, and she had already left the event. The challenger was from Tsaopu. I can’t say that the audience responded more enthusiastically to the local candidate, since everyone mostly ignored the people on the stage. However, this candidate did work the audience much harder than the other candidates. She was the only one who went around and toasted each table. (Some people who weren’t paying attention thought she was from the bride’s family.)
I’m not sure how much any of this campaigning helped anyone. They were merely reinforcing long-standing social bonds. Still, it’s interesting for those of us who live in atomized urban environments to see actual communities celebrating as a community once in a while. We city-dwellers don’t have those kinds of ties. When it comes time to vote, urban people have a much simpler choice. All we can judge candidates on are their ideas, party label, policy proposals, and so on. Rural people in real communities have to consider an additional factor. They also have to ask what their social obligations are, and what the penalties for violating those social obligations will be. We tend to think that rural politicians are more corrupt because they often build clientelist networks and win votes on non-policy appeals, such as personal ties or vote-buying. It is helpful to remember that those sorts of non-policy appeals are usually built on the foundation of a thriving, tight-knit community.

11 Responses to “a wedding story”

  1. Kungwan Says:

    perhaps I should share here my experience in Kaohsiung city of a city counsillor’s fundraising gig at a fancy hotel?

  2. Brido Says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking vignette. I seem to recall reading that LY seats in the aboriginal constituencies are safely Blue. Is it true and if so do you think this reflects better candidate selection by the KMT for those areas?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Safely blue is an understatement. In all the years of national level elections (legislative, national assembly, provincial assembly), the DPP has won exactly one Aboriginal seat. In 2004, they convinced a KMT politician to defect by giving him a cabinet position, and in return he used his personal network to get his daughter elected to the legislature. Every other seat has gone to a blue-associated candidate.

      Why do Aborigines vote blue? That’s a good question that I’ve been asking for years without ever finding a satisfactory answer. The usual answer is that the KMT uses patronage networks very effectively in Aboriginal societies. I don’t completely buy that because we haven’t seen any big shifts when the DPP took control of local or national resources. My hunch is that there is a deeper antipathy that predates the ROC era. I suspect that Min-nan chauvinism drives Aborigines into alliance with any group that isn’t Min-nan. Mainlanders (and the KMT) are simply the group that isn’t Min-nan and is therefore less threatening. But I can’t be sure about this.

  3. Jenna Cody Says:

    Well…when I lived in Jingmei those “ban dou” outdoor wedding banquets were actually quite common. They tended to take place in one particular lane which was wider than the others, and the Doraemon Breakfast Shop (not making that name up) rented out its kitchen for the food preparation. And that was in Taipei, just a few MRT stops from what you could call part of downtown. I would hardly call these banquets slick or urban. I always wanted to be invited to one (genuinely invited, not just as a courtesy) but never was.

    The thing about tight-knit communities electing people out of obligation is…well, I’m from a small town in the USA, and it was also very much a “we’re voting for _____ because s/he’s from our town” atmosphere. And I always thought, I get the idea that people like to elect someone who is ‘one of them’ to represent them and not someone from outside. Okay. But what if the person who’s decided to run for that position, and is one of them, is a terrible person who doesn’t do the village any favors and uses his or her seat for personal gain? Wouldn’t it then be better for the community to find a way to get that person out and vote someone else who is ‘one of them’ in?

    Even as someone who is from that sort of close-knit community, I never felt any strong obligation to vote for someone from that community if I felt they had their own, rather than the community’s, interests at heart.

    And what are the ramifications of not doing so? Unless the votes are not really secret…

    • Brido Says:

      I’d guess being frozen out of social networks is as big a fear in people’s voting habits as in any other social act. If you don’t vote for the home town boy, nobody’s going to pitch a home town boy to stand as your representative and you’ll only be left with outsiders.

      It’s not the only factor by a long shot but I’m from a small village that was lumped in a constituency with several others and a larger town so I recognise the thought process. “If we don’t vote for one of our own, they’ll get one of theirs in.”

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Jenna, not everyone sees things the same way. You might be one of those people who sees voting as an individual act rather than a community act. It also sounds like you did not view any social sanctions as seriously as others might have. After all, you left that community and moved elsewhere. Someone who planned to stay their entire life might be more worried about offending the dominant local ideas.

      Now I want to eat Doraemon breakfast/wedding food!

  4. Kungwan Says:

    Recently, my parents bought a table (NT$100,000) for a KMT city councillor’s fundraising gig at the Kaohsiung Arena Hanshin Dept. Store. Although my parents are politically green leaning, they are clients to some KMT legislators and councillors for services rendered that DPP candidates are unable to provide. Thus, we had difficulty in finding the remaining guests to fill up our table (10 seats) given the councillor’s KMT credentials and her lack of experience (she is only 35 years of age and ran in place for her father). Nonetheless, we managed to convince some friends to come along to give face. There were about 80 tables as I recall, which means the gig raised at least NT$8,000,000.

    Upon entering the banquet hall, we were greeted by staff in blue vests and led to our table. It was a relief to me that we were not located too close to the front stage. Thankfully the political aggrandizing speeches were limited to 7:30pm when it was decided that the guests had enough of being held hostage for the food to arrive- people tend to each much earlier in the south. Oddly enough, there was no mayor Chen Chu bashing in the speeches, even with a waishengren speaker to address the deep blue portion of the crowd and post-gas explosion efforts underway.

    Later, it became quite obvious the young staff were only temporary workers- the feigned passion was a dead giveaway, particularly when it came to yelling the “dong suan” part. Even more telling was when the councillor’s staff decided to pump up the atmosphere midway through the meal by forming a line (aboriginal style) and circling the perimeter of the hall to the tune of “我們都是一家人(We are family)”. The embarrassment of the “youth corps” was palpable and cringeworthy in their befuddled efforts to look engaged. Thankfully, there was not enough social pressure to make us join the line or to yell “dong suan!” when the councillor came to our table to toast. Our lack of effort and conviction would have embarrassed all of us.

    Taking advantage of the hi-tech venue, there was also a powerpoint video projected onto the upper part of the walls of the banquet hall, showing the guests the councillor’s achievements and work in the community. Here is a moment of belated modernity in the quality of the presentation- the powerpoint, replete with a pop soundtrack, was replayed in an continuous loop that ended up being really annoying after the 3rd time. The animations of the slides transition and the font were so outdated that you wondered if the presentation was made on an Windows XP machine. The photography in those slides consisted of stereotypical shots of the councillor standing with a bunch of people with their thumbs up smiling awkwardly. They really need to hire a better PR person for this kind of stuff. Then again, it was quite telling what kind of people were running the councillor’s campaign.

    Hosting the fundraiser at a hotel has its inconveniences to a local crowd. Many of the guests had to travel very far to light up their cigarettes outside of the department store. Most ended up sneakily lighting up at the nearby toilets to the chagrin of the cleaning lady and other guests.

    We went home feeling bemused. The young councillor projected a modern and hip facade but suffered from poor and outdated execution of style and substance. Her lack of charisma and dependency on her father’s connections (some of them really dodgy) was becoming apparent. I began to feel sorry for her…

    • frozengarlic Says:

      That’s a fantastic story. I’m writing a series of papers on female representation, and I want to delve into political families. So you are combining two of my interests. A higher proportion of women than men enter politics by inheritance. On thing I’m interested in is whether they eventually take over the family business. For example, Yu Chen Yueh-ying 余陳月瑛 started as a political wife and daughter-in-law before eventually taking over the family business and becoming the actual boss of the Kaohsiung Black faction (and all of Kaohsiung County).

      • Kungwan Says:

        Interesting that you are looking into gender and Taiwan politics. It does appear that female candidates are performing better than males. My father was joking with me the other day that all the men in DPP are worthless (無路用), it is the women that are holding it together and pulling it forward!

        I think that the martial law era may have pushed forward the participation of women in politics for the Dangwai, especially with the incarceration of the dissidents, leading to the now-established tradition of wives or daughters running in the stead of their menfolk in absentia for various reasons. Over time, these women have proven to be effective and shrewd politicians and have entrenched themselves into the political landscape on their own terms.

      • jsmyth Says:

        Speaking of which, just today in Japanese trade minister Yuko Obuchi, daughter of former prime minister Keizo Obuchi and expected to be a future PM herself, stepped down over a political funds scandal. (And also, I suspect, to avoid being the politician that has to sell Japan on restarting its nuclear reactors.)

        The LDP seems to promote two kinds of female politicians: hardliners, especially on social issues, that give a female face to a reactionary position, and heirs of former leaders. A consequence of that seems to be passing over true talents, like the Lower House leader (and Socialist) Takako Doi.

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