Salbakuta in Taipei’s “The Quoting Room”

In the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, there’s an ongoing exhibit called “The Quoting Room: Creative Reading and Writing“. The interactive space laments the demise of leisurely reading these days. To demonstrate the creative energy of literature, the exhibit asks visitors to “read the novels on display and then write down passages that they feel are particularly resonant.”

Inside the room are sofas, chairs, tables, and a shelf of reading materials (mostly Chinese texts, mixed in with a few English titles such as “The Little Prince”). Organized on one side of the wall are the chosen excerpts written by participating visitors. As expected, majority of the quotes are in traditional Mandarin characters. Scanning the intricately strewn pieces of paper on the wall, I spotted a familiar line. It’s written in Filipino, and it goes:

“Nang ma-inlove ako sayo kala ko pag-ibig mo ay tunay…”

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It’s lyrics from Salbakuta’s hit single, “S2pid love”! The quote is the first line of a rap song about a wronged lover’s list of his ex’s dirty laundry (in colorful language). I can’t help but smile at my find. I’m amused if what I’m looking at is a playful disregard of the instruction; a gentle act of subversion even. For one, there are definitely no books in Filipino there. And of course, the line is lifted out not from a literary classic but from a popular radio hit from the early 2000s.

It’s not hard to imagine why the Salbakuta line ended where it did. The museum is under 10-minute walk from the Chungshan area, where the St. Christopher’s Church and Taipei’s so-called Little Manila are located. The area is the default hangout of migrant workers, who usually spend their day off there to remit money to their families, buy imported groceries, or eat Filipino food.

Maybe the quote was posted by a caregiver passing time before returning to another grueling shift. It could also be by a heart-broken factory worker. Or perhaps the physical characteristics of the room itself inspired the the quote writer. The song’s chorus says, “Love…soft as an easy chair.”

By itself, the act of quoting is a way for migrants to write their presence in Taiwanese society even when they can’t assimilate with the local culture. It’s not just the language barrier. The social division based on their labor status drives them to the periphery as unwanted but needed warm body imports. They are the same people who were driven out of an apartment complex because the locals thought their dark skin would cause an everyday social crisis.

Knowing the background of the quoted text and the writer, would the curator rethink the selection? For sure, there’s a vetting process to what goes into the exhibit more than penmanship. For what it’s worth, I love the idea of this Salbakuta line finding its way to a modern museum, poking fun at an otherwise earnest, if high-brow, exhibit.

Authorship, publishing, and the business of visibility

With the information barrage we face on a daily basis, everyone and their dog are competing for attention. Advertisers have always known that attention is worth big money. This is what they need media for: eyeballs. In today’s digital world, this is all the more truer with sophisticated consumer profiling from analytics.

While commanding attention is fleeting, aiming for visibility is more longer lasting. To be an authority on anything these days, you not only need expertise but relevancy, accessibility, and findability. This means search engine optimization. Boosted social media posts for maximum engagement potential. And as in the case of being an actual “author”, maybe a selfie update here and there, or at the very least a decent profile photo to appeal to likeability.

These are among the important takeaways I’ve had from attending the 2016 Frankfurt Publishers Training Program organized by the Taipei International Book Exhibition. It’s held right after the Chinese New Year holidays at the World Trade Center from across Taipei 101. Among the trends covered were internationalization, glocalization, and personalization.

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The concepts of attention and visibility were discussed in the lecture by Prof. Vincent Kaufmann of the St. Gallen University. He mapped the evolution of the book according to media spheres, or the environment that shapes an era such as dominant technologies and socio-cultural revolutions. The idea of the author also closely relates to these spheres – from scholars, celebrities, to digital influencers. Moreover, a critical look at the publishing industry would reveal that authorship isn’t confined to actual writers and creators, but is determined by market and network forces.

Prof. Kaufmann also said to treat books not just as a product but as a service. Categorizing the intent – such as whether to educate or to entertain, to advance knowledge or to offer a novelty gift item, and the like – is key to unlocking business potential. This is beyond “positioning” (which apparently originated from book-selling, as in on-shelf placement). Service is where publishers can extend opportunities for visibility and continued engagement beyond the page.

The sooner we understand the challenges of publishing in today’s generation, the easier it will be to deliver value. Some two years ago, I’m the prospective book buyer looking between shelves for any interesting book I could devote time for. Now as greenhorn publisher with three books out and a couple more on the pipeline soon, it’s only clearer to me that a cross-media strategy is the way to go.

Reader’s block of a genre-switching writer

I spent hours in Taipei and Manila bookstores the past month, intending to buy a novel, something literary, a book that knows an essential truth. I scanned titles, read the blurbs, and customarily checked out the bestseller shelves. I saw new work by authors who were otherwise personal rock stars when I was younger: Murakami, Palahniuk, Coupland. Still unmoved. A short story collection by Munro and a tome by Campbell I feverishly looked for before had me closer to pulling out my wallet. I browsed contemporary Philippine titles on a weekend visit, but I still came home empty-handed.

Or not. Since I did buy something, but it’s title was “The Personal MBA”. I’m not sure if my younger self – brooding, existential fiction-reading Literature major – would have approved.

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What seems to be blocking my literary appetite? Changing interests, yes. And maybe coming to terms with the professional identity of a corporate scribe where I once romantically fashioned myself as a poet-reporter. Seeing good web analytics for what I’ve published in online and social media pumps me up the way acceptance notices did before. The translation is loose, but I’ve become what a Taiwanese colleague referred me as: a “content generator”. In a few days, I will turn 30. Hopefully I won’t have to “write 30” to the young word-drunk writer I once was. Maybe a book out there could reignite the spark.

Taipei tourism billboard legitimizes the migrant/expat divide

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Of the many foreigners living in Taiwan, a tourism billboard in Taipei Main Station singles out four nationalities as “migrants”. These countries are all located in Southeast Asia – Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – where Taiwan sources the technicians for its factories or the caregivers for its aging population, among other blue collar jobs. The intention to showcase the popular landmarks, shopping centers, and leisure activities accessible by train rides is commendable. But at the same time, it also marginalizes the citizens of these four countries in Taiwan society. It assumes a lower status for them as compared to other foreign groups also employed in the island, such as Americans or Japanese who are instead “expatriates”.

Notice too that the migrants represented in the map are all female. It further points to the increasingly feminized face of labor migration. The social cost for this phenomenon is immeasurable as back home these women are mothers, daughters, and community leaders who needed to separate from their loved ones (barring family emigration) for the promise of higher incomes abroad. While generations of children grow up without mothers, these women devotedly take care of other people’s kids. The other tragedy, as the ILO also noted, is that the work context for these women make them vulnerable to abuse, violence, and exploitation. All smiling and donning traditional costumes from their home countries, the cartoon images in the billboard are a far cry from the exhaustion and desperation that many of these women struggle with.

My stake is that I too am part of the foreign workforce in Taiwan (and my wife is too). I’m Filipino, but since I’m in a professional job, I don’t have a contract that “expires” as in the case of other “migrants”. I should be happy with that, but I couldn’t be for majority of my compatriots’ work contracts are only good for three years, thrice renewable. It’s as good as labeling them temporary or contingent help, until they’re used up enough to be let go. Migrant workers are unable to apply for permanent residency, so come time that they’re enforced to leave Taiwan after a maximum of 12 years stay, they’re also much older to compete for other jobs in their home countries or elsewhere.

Arguably, from personal experience and anecdotes I’ve heard, Taiwan’s working condition for foreigners is far better than in many labor-receiving Asian countries. But as long as it discriminates and demarcates the line between “migrants” and “expats” in policies and cultural representations, it can’t be considered a truly equitable society for foreigners. Even if it cares enough to point to where the best that Taiwan offers could be enjoyed by all.

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Baby’s First Book: Simulacra and Social Construction in action

Simulacra, as Baudrillard tells us, “is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real”. Baby’s First Book (Little Golden Books, 1955; 2007) alerts us on this with its cover illustration: a toddler is reading a book (within a book) that has the exact cover of the “original” printed book on our hands. How a book from the 1950s saw that many republishing to come into our present is beyond me. Plain sticky.

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The book also derives power from its very title: “Baby’s First Book”. No, this is your baby’s first book regardless if Baby Bunny got to you ahead. Inside its pages, we are introduced to the typical day of a child, starting with the ringing of an alarm clock. Get up early in the morning, fix the bed, go to the toilet and clean up. Do your thing until hunger for food marks the hours: make sure to eat healthy, but have room for treats at the end of day. Repeat ad infinitum.

The book is basically an initiation to daily life. Or at least the accepted version of it, with reality organized around the prescribed tasks of the day. Careful not to overstep your boundaries, and be content inside the four corners of the book where all is safe and sound. I’m the daddy and this is how my typical day goes by as well. Even if I keep the book away from my own baby, its pages will still unfold and coax our shared reality. The book ends with a paint set: a gift to the fictional baby who just turned one year old. So does it mean we’re permitted adventure, but only in our imagination?

Daddy Bunny’s free pass

The 7-month-old has been given a picture book titled Baby Bunny (Campbell, 2011). In the book, Baby Bunny is being taught by Mummy Bunny how to dig, nibble and jump. Baby Bunny is not identified as girl or boy, but the parental unit is of course female. Duh, when did guys ever care about babies? Or bunnies, except perhaps the Playboy kind? Especially after a published study correlated involved fathers with having smaller balls, maybe dads with bigger egos just won’t give a damn anymore. When it sounds to be such a disincentive being a family man, why should men even learn how to change nappies?

It’s all the more reason that dads should have space in multicultural, gender-neutral picture books to deconstruct the image of the distant/absent father. The blurb’s claim of a “simple, reassuring story” casts women to the role of devoted motherhood. It seems trivial to comment on a picture book when sexism the world over gets women belittled, abused, and raped (in more ways than one). But by erasing fathers from the metanarrative of parenthood, and with unavailing science supporting this idea, the burden of raising kids (probably the hardest task in the world) falls squarely on the woman alone. And then when the family falls short of anything but ideal, the blaming and shaming are solely hers as well to own.

If I have to teach the baby one thing, it’s to demand for equality. Along with, and even if it has, the associated inconveniences.

P.S. If books are edible, could we choke on words?

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Metadata-prompted digressions on why there’s not much “Made in the Philippines”

I’m currently taking a MOOC on Metadata over at Coursera. In one of the in-video quiz items, I got this question:

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Funny I’m Filipino but I don’t remember the last time seeing “Made in the Philippines” in any of my clothes. More like “Made in China” or some other. There are few “Made in the Philippines” tags (which to answer the quiz is not an administrative metadata, before I digress further) because many manufacturing firms in the country closed down due to diminished competitiveness post-GATT era.

My father lost his job at a bottling plant during the massive 90’s layoffs, but when I got out of college the BPOs and call centers already had wide-open recruitment. So it seems that my generation got a good bargain from globalization. This metadata course I’m taking, it’s because I’m in tech and this sort of specialist knowledge is a boost to my liberal arts background. That’s me talking about ‘competitiveness’ at the level of personal branding, how the self gets corporatized.

Well it must be OK since my generation could afford shopping at Zara and Hermes in many Metro Manila malls. What’s sold may not be “Made in the Philippines”, but salaries (add up overtime and night differential fees) from outsourcing jobs can buy them. This Mango-wearing Manila crowd sees left and right construction of condominiums and office buildings and it’s easy to succumb to the illusion of progress.

The headlines say that we’re recording the fastest economic growth in Asia this year, but the number of jobless is still quite high. It’s partly due to the fact that we still lose out manufacturing jobs, which are crucial to industrializing countries. There are those like me who had a ticket out of the country by way of an overseas job, but we know it’s not sustainable (if we’re not financial savvy enough) since many return to poverty as soon as our work contract expires.

The powers-that-be should make sure that growth trickles down especially to those in rural and underdeveloped areas. For one, the World Bank pushes for revisions to business regulations and for investments in infrastructures and social services. Current investigations on politicians leeching off public funds is welcome development as well.

I place my bet on investing in education as the great social equalizer. While holding the government accountable for ensuring the right to basic education, I hope that a culture of lifelong learning also develops among Filipinos (hey, free MOOCs!). Maybe we’ll see manufacturers among our midst once more, and possibly R&D innovators as well.