Category Archives: Social issues

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…”


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.


Taipei tourism billboard legitimizes the migrant/expat divide


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.