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«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»

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One of the factors underlying Taiwan’s industrial growth over the past two decades has been the availability of a pool of underemployed, young workers who will accept relatively low wages, who are unlikely to raise demands for higher pay, shorter hours, or seniority benefits and who, in many instances, expect only short-term employment. Women are a significant segment of this industrial work force.21 Diamond’s research has suggested the situation that Taiwanese working-class women have experienced and this condition is seen as a form of patriarchy that oppresses women’s economic status. Apart from working as low-skilled and low-paid labourers during Taiwan’s industrialisation, most of the women are also mothers, daughters-in-law, and wives, from which roles they are still experiencing traditional patriarchy from Han culture. As a consequence, Taiwanese working-class women suffer not only from double colonisation but also the third layer of oppression, patriarchal and even global capitalism.

The Subalterns and Women of the Developing World Sinjhuang is located on the West side of the Tamsui River, which separates Sinjhuang from the Taipei metropolis. It takes around thirty minutes to travel on the bus from Taipei’s main station to Sinjhuang, however, the differences in living standards and the quality of life between these locations is like the contrast between the developed and the developing Worlds. Taipei city is a Diamond, Norma. ‘Women and Industry in Taiwan’ in Modern China, Vol 5, No 3, July 1979, p 317.

M. Turner, © 2008 modern, commercial and developed metropolis where Taiwan’s essentially political and economic centres are located, whereas Sinjhuang is a typical busy industrial town full of traffic, factories and blue-collar workers. As already demonstrated in the introduction, Taiwan is not evenly developed, and when travelling between the cities and the less modern counties, it is like moving between the developed and the developing Worlds. The difference between Taipei and Sinjhuang is an example of this observation.

In the first chapter, I used the term ‘subaltern’ to refer to Taiwanese women who experienced trauma and oppression because of the 228 Incident; here the term applies to Taiwanese women as a disempowered group of people who

are viewed as victims of the capitalist system.22 In Under Western Eyes:

Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses (1988), Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues that ‘“third world” women as a homogeneous “powerless” group are often located as implicit victims of particular cultural and socio-economic systems’.23 Thus, the women’s labour force which works for the textile industry in the Sinjhuang area can be considered both as women of the developing region and as subalterns.

During an interview with Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean in 1993, Spivak has explicitly suggested that women labourers in Southeast Asia are good Both Wang Jin-Hua and Chien Ying-Ying have used the term ‘subaltern’ to label Taiwanese working-class women but they have never clarified this term, nor have they explained the reason why this term is appropriate to describe the situation of the women’s labour force in Taiwan. See Wang, J. H., op cit, p 66 and Chien, Y.Y. (2000), p 90.

Mohanty categorises ‘Third World women’ as victims of male violence, the colonial process, the Arab familial system, the economic development process and the Islamic code. For a detailed discussion, refer to Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ in Lewis, Reina and Sara Mills (eds). Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh University Press, 2003, p 54.

M. Turner, © 2008 sources as the subject for subaltern studies. She stated that ‘[i]f one wants to look at the construction of the subaltern subject in neo-colonialism, that whole area of Southeast Asia is wonderful, especially [books written] from the women’s labour point of view’.24 As a consequence, it is appropriate to adopt the concepts of subaltern, originally referring to the awakening-consciousness of peasants in India, for the investigation of working-class women in Taiwan.

The method I have employed from the Subaltern Studies group is to re-construct the historiography of the hidden women’s labour force in Taiwan’s economy. Women artists’ practice visualises this situation by making the concealed ‘voices’ heard and visible.

Further to the argument regarding the subaltern in Chapter I, I now explore this term in more depth, with regard to how it relates to women in economic history.

In Can the Subaltern Speak?, Spivak proposes two questions concerning the possibility of the subaltern speaking: ‘[h]ow can we touch the consciousness of the people, even as we investigate their politics? [and] [w]ith what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak?’ 25 Spivak points out two crucial aspects here, when she argues that the subaltern does ‘talk’ but wonders in what voice can they ‘speak’? From Spivak’s arguments related to ‘talk’ and ‘speak’, I have observed that the freedom to ‘speak’ indicates a certain power which formulates some ideas to the viewer, whilst the simple ability to ‘talk’ does not present any political meaning. Spivak’s contemplation is on how the ‘utterance’ can be perceived to become ‘speech’. Spivak further Landry, Donna and Gerald MacLean ‘Subaltern Talk: Interview with the Editors’ in Landry and MacLean (eds), op cit, p 293.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds). The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995, p 27.

M. Turner, © 2008

suggests that:

[S]ome of the women on the pyres did actually utter. The actual fact of giving utterance is not what I was concerned about. What I was concerned about was that even when one uttered, one was constructed by a certain kind of psychobiography, so that the utterance itself […] would have to be interpreted in the way in which we historically interpret anything.26 To make the subaltern ‘speak’, Chang Yuan-Chien visualises and represents the stories of the working-class women (for example, through metaphorical installation or photographical documents), through which the means to ‘touch’ and to ‘interpret’ the consciousness of the labouring women is shown. The historiography of the hidden women’s labour force during Taiwan’s ‘economic miracle’ is still under construction and visual exhibitions are contributing towards identifying their voices, which were formerly mute behind the so-called ‘gloriousness’ of economic development. I suggest here that the ignored group, which was not recorded and perceived as the core concern, could utilise marginal voices in its narration of the history-writing of Taiwan’s economy. But it is clearly evident that the visualisation of the experience of working-class women exposes the subalternity (the existing but often ignored reality of Taiwan’s society) to the public and to history-writing. Exhibitions become a means that provide a different view of the interpretation of written history, which was itself undertaken simply to record the quantity of industrial production rather than the contribution from, and the hardship of, the actual physical labouring. At this point, I suggest that visual art has directly recorded the documentary staging of the reality, whilst (subaltern) theory offers the See Landry and MacLean, op cit, p 291.

M. Turner, © 2008 conceptual link between both visualisation and existent lives. To clarify this point further, I shall investigate the exhibition in the following section.

Sinjhuang is an industrial town where the textile industry represents the major business and type of production, therefore Chang aimed to develop a conversation between visual artists and the women’s textile labour force in order to express her concern for the women on the margins of society.27 In addition, she tried to motivate the locals to be concerned for their living environment during and after Taiwan’s economic miracle.28 To emphasise

this point, I consider some of Chang’s statements:

Having lived for several years in the more modern and liberal cities, New York and Tokyo and after my return to Taiwan, I suddenly felt interested in those that are marginal and subaltern and actually exist in Taiwan’s society. I feel guilty about being ignorant of those aspects of society which are disadvantaged in my own motherland.29 In other words, the curator’s motivation behind the organisation of this exhibition comes from her own ‘cultural shock’ over the differences between the so-called ‘élite’ and the working class. Thus, curiosity about and the consideration for the subalterns and ‘women of the developing world’ were the driving forces behind the show. Therefore, the evidence of the curatorial statements has suggested that in this exhibition, there exists a clear concept of binarism: centre (Taipei city, where Chang is based and which is the major political core of Taiwan) and margin (Sinjhuang, an industrial town inhabited See Chang, Y. C., op cit, p 339.

The curator asserts in the curatorial statements that through the display of the exhibition, she wishes to inspire the locals to care about the environment of the city county. Ibid., p 338.


M. Turner, © 2008 mainly by the working class and the subalterns). Thus, I emphasise here that the significance of the show was to debate the discourses of class and gender;

the exhibition was curated to recognise the working-class women living in rural places and labelled as the disadvantaged class. By revealing the unseen women’s labour force’s difficulties and the fact of being the victim of the phallocentric social and economic structure, Chang has successfully exposed the marginal issue to the attention of the middle classes.

This exhibition exposes the lives and the reality of the working-class women, who have been subservient during Taiwan’s industrialisation and who have been excluded in the élitist social and economic ideology. Chien Ying-Ying points out that what this show has addressed is to ‘confirm the subjectivity of the subaltern’. 30 By the means of exhibition, the subaltern, or the silent (working-class woman) has become the subject, i.e. the spotlight and the theme of the show.

Lords of the Rim The exhibition, Lords of the Rim: in Herself/ for Herself, was held at the Sinjhuang Cultural Art Centre in Taipei county between 20 December 1997 and 18 January 1998. According to Chang, the title of the exhibition comes from Sterling Seagrave’s 1995 publication, Lords of the Rim. 31 This book addresses how Chinese merchants and the élite removed themselves to the edge of the central regime in Chinese history, as early as from the Shang dynasty (1523-1028 BC). Those merchants, who ostracised themselves from Chien, Y.Y. (2000), op cit, p 90.

The curatorial declaration can be found in Chang, Y. C., op cit, p 339. In addition, Seagrave’s Lords of the Rim was published by Corgi in London in 1996.

M. Turner, © 2008 China’s policies for thousands of years to avoid excessive public demonstrations of courtesy and obedience, became mobile, resilient and hard to detect. Seagrave’s arguments in Lords of the Rim refer to wealthy merchants from long ago in China’s ancient history, to today’s overseas Chinese businessmen, all of whom have been active and powerful around the Pacific rim.

Therefore, ‘Lords’ refer to the middle classes who have kept moving away from the political centres and who have stayed overseas to seek advantages in order to expand their businesses and personal benefits. However, in direct contrast to Seagrave’s use of the term, the ‘Lords’ of Chang’s concept indicate the blue-collar women workers in the textile industry. Not having power and not being influential, those women are actually not ‘Lords’ at all. On the contrary, they are the ones who lack any power in terms of management, and who have been suppressed in the business world. Nevertheless, even though those women are disadvantaged, they have played a significant part in Taiwan’s industrialisation, and they are the ‘heroines’ that have contributed to Taiwan’s ‘economic miracle’. Furthermore, owing to their marginal position in society, working-class women have what could be seen as the advantage of mobility. Thus, although being marginal in terms of their geopolitical location, they are as significant as their male counterparts who are usually at the management level and are the ‘lords’ of Taiwan’s economic structure. I assume therefore that Chang used the term, ‘lord’, to offer a reverse standpoint in viewing the position of working class women in the manufacturing industry.

Without a fundamental labour force, the ‘economic miracle’ would have remained as nothing more than a government plan, without ever really coming M. Turner, © 2008 into being. Perhaps, the curatorial strategy could have made more of the significance of this term.

The seven women artists who were invited to participate in the show came from Taiwan (Wu Mali, Hou Shur-Tzy, Lin Chun-Ju and Shu Maggie Hsun-We), Japan (Shimada Yoshiko), Korea (Ahn Pil Yun) and the US (Judy Chicago).

The choice of these Taiwanese artists was not unexpected, as they are some of the very few established artists whose works have clear connections with gender politics in mid-1990s Taiwan. Apart from Judy Chicago, all of the invited artists were based in East Asia where industrialisation became the major governmental strategy after the Second World War. In other words, for most of the artists participating in the show, rapid industrialisation is a part of their nations’ recent economic history and, more importantly, they have lived through a period of major industrialisation that greatly changed the shape of their society.

Chang recalls that she was invited by Tsai Jian-Fu, who was the director of the Sinjhuang Cultural Art Centre at that time, to curate an exhibition to create a connection between Sinjhuang and Taipei city.32 The strategy of using the fame of well-established East Asian artists, as well as the world-renowned Judy Chicago, effectively brought attention to the industrial town of Sinjhuang.

The show not only aimed to visualise the unseen working-class women’s lives in Sinjhuang but also intended to promote the name of Taiwan by well-known international artists, Judy Chicago, Shimada Yoshiko and Ahn Pil Yun.

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