Book Review: Eva Tsai, Tung-hung Ho and Miaoju Jian (eds), Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music by Yiu Fai Chow

Book Review: Eva Tsai, Tung-hung Ho and Miaoju Jian (eds), Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music

First Published August 5, 2020 Book Review

Yiu Fai Chow

Creative Commons Attribution, Non Commercial 4.0 License

Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular MusicEva Tsai, Tung-hung Ho & Miaoju Jian (eds), Made in Taiwan: Studies in Popular Music. New York, NY; London, England: Routledge, 2020. xix + 260 pp, with a selected bibliography: ISBN 9780815360155 (hbk, £88); 9780815360179 (pbk, £26.39); 978351119146 (ebk, £26.39).

This anthology is a sumptuous and ambitious project. It is sumptuous because the contributors offer readers a unique occasion to understand Taiwanese popular music, along an expansive time line (from the late 1890s to 2019), across an unusual musical diversity (whether in terms of what we usually understand as genres, or pop defined linguistically or cultural-historically), and informed by a wide range of disciplines (media and communication studies, sociology, anthropology, history, literature, East Asian studies and ethnomusicology). It is ambitious because the editors are not content with a sumptuous collection, or, in their words, ‘the sum of Mandarin pop, Hokkien/Hoklo pop, Hakka pop, and indigenous pop’ (p. 1); they intervene and ‘highlight certain smaller, more interstitial narratives that put these dominant historical interpretations in perspectives’ (p. 5). In other words, Made in Taiwan is not preoccupied with defining what a certain kind of popular music is or should be; rather, it is intent on breaking open hardened pop histories in order to afford more academic contemplation and empirical curiosity, ultimately to release more energy and liveliness from popular music itself. We see the editors’ mission in the 15 chapters or studies that follow their poignantly formulated Introduction.

The main body of the book is divided into the following four sections: Trajectories, Identities, Issues, and Interactions. The three chapters under Trajectories zoom in on the formative years of Taiwanese popular music, the decades following the Second World War, albeit with different perspectives. Tung-hung Ho’s opening chapter examines the intricate connections between the rise of nativism and the emergence of Taiwanese pop, with a critical reflection on the pitfalls of nativism and a proposal of what he calls ‘alternative nativism’. Szu-wei Chen’s chapter recuperates the productive encounter of two professionals – the prolific composer Chou Lan-ping and the pioneering entrepreneur Liao Chien-yuan, to argue against the dominant view that Taiwan in the 1950s was only borrowing from neighbouring centres (Shanghai, Hong Kong) and never itself a site of original music production. The following chapter by Kuo-chao Huang foregrounds indigenous music, particularly in the form of ‘Mountain Songs’ and tracks its development in the 1960s and 1970s to underline its often neglected, or ignored, importance to the development of Taiwanese popular music as a whole. The second section, as its title Identities suggests, collects four chapters dedicated to exploring the relationship between identities and social and musical practices. The chapters by C.S. Stone Shih and Yu-yuan Huang concern Taiyu ballads. While the former is a case study of composer Hsu Shih and his significance, the latter focuses on Taiyu covers of Japanese songs and dissects processes of cultural hybridization. Turning from Japanese influence to Anglo-American pop-rock, Meng Tze Chu talks to aging lovers and music practitioners and weave a life-affirming inquiry from their collective memories of the rock scene and the Cold War period. Andrew Jones, in his chapter on Hakka folk rock, unfolds the complexity of ethnic, class and musical identities through the music of Labor Exchange Band.

The third section Issues covers three pop genres in Taiwan since the late 1990s. A vivid instance of how locatedness functions to produce knowledge on popular music, Chi-Chung Wang’s chapter studies the relationship between elite high school practices and the development of rock culture in Taiwan. Informed by feminist deconstruction, Eva Tsai maps Hsieh Jin-yen’s transformation from Taiyu singer to EDM diva, teasing out its subversive potentials. Continuing the gender problematic, Lin Hao-li considers the possibility of ‘alternative masculinity’ among a group of educated, middle-class male rappers in Taiwan. The final section Interactions brings readers to the latest development in Taiwanese popular music. The first chapter, by Yu-peng Lin and Hui-ju Tsai, enters the field of cultural policy, and examines government support to promote Taiwan’s indie music abroad. Turning to one of Taiwan’s most profitable musical exports, Jay Chou, Chen-yu Lin focuses on his China Wind songs and discusses the issue of Chineseness by way of Chinese audiences’ reception of Chou’s music. The final chapter, by Chen-Ching Cheng, ends the book proper, very appropriately, with ‘the biggest Mandarin pop star in history’ (p. 170) – Teresa Teng – and an analysis of her stardom in the nationalistic context.

I wrote ‘book proper’ earlier, as following these four sections are two more chapters. Miaoju Jian’s chapter, as Coda, explores further what is going on right now in Taiwan’s music scene; she presents three paths through which indie musicians may reach audience outside Taiwan: global Mandopop market, East Asian DIY networks, and translocal entrepreneurial promoters. The final chapter of the book, modestly presented as an afterword, is a conversation between the three editors and veteran practitioner Lim Giong. Perhaps, this last choice may serve as a trigger to offer some form of criticism – as a book review is obliged to – to this highly engaging, informative and political anthology. Namely, the bulk of the book remains dedicated to the past. As someone with vested interest – both personal and professional – in music, I long to read more about what is going on, what future we can envisage, how do streaming and other forms of technological developments impact on Taiwanese popular music, what are younger generations of fans ‘prosuming’? I am also not very sure what the section titles add; would it be better to organize the book somewhat mundanely according to themes or chronology? Finally, a very minor sigh: it would be helpful to add cited names and titles in Chinese, for those who may find it difficult to recognize them in ‘English’ renditions. All in all, Made in Taiwan is a must read for anyone interested in Taiwan, Taiwanese popular music and popular music at large. For the richness of musical genres, case studies and academic disciplines included in the anthology, it is relevant to scholars operating in a wide range of fields. It should also be a good textbook for courses on popular music, globalization and area studies. The selected bibliography on popular music in Taiwan is very useful.Yiu Fai Chow
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s