Divas: Pop and Politics in Taiwan

[December 1st, 2014]

I remember my dad showing me his music collection, from jazz to Chinese pop to Taiwanese classics. My mom always had favorite Taiwanese divas. My aunt is usually up with the latest trend in Mando-pop and fill me in on all the recent changes in pop culture that I missed while in Chicago. Although I don’t spend time with my grandparents as much anymore, I remember that they are fluent in Japanese. When we would karaoke, they always picked Enke (a Japanese style musical ballad). My brother used to love rock, punk rock, and metal when he was younger. Now he listens to techno and is currently “raving” it up in Sacramento, CA. I started with music from the radio, and absorbed everything around me like a sponge. Growing up, I inclined towards Mando-pop, European rock bands, UK R&B, US punk rock. In Chicago, I started revisiting older classics such as Taiwanese (dialect) pop, Taiwanese aboriginal music, Chinese classics, karaoke must-sings, Cantonese pop as well as “newer” genres such as Trip-hop, experimental, electronica, Chicago House-inspired music, and Soul. I have always been curious at music tastes. Do they reflect someone’s background, where they grew up, in what era, or the types of people and resources they were able to come in contact with?

In histories, we have seen charismatic individuals lead revolution and create change. In this essay, I want to explore relationships between politics and popular culture in Taiwan. Local artists and intellectuals resisted in forms of arts and culture through political events such as Japanese occupation, “Martial Law” and “228”. Although the music industry usually represents a consolidation of business and capitalism, I argue that in Taiwan, the music industry actually reflects political climates and modes of survival through times of repressive regimes and intolerant governments.


I propose that pop and political “divas” of Taiwan provide alternative histories on mainstream accounts of revolution and resistance against dominant regimes. These stories are usually dominated by male figures. I choose to highlight Soong May-ling, Annette Lu, and artists such as Feng Fei-fei and Jody Chiang to provide alternative entries into Taiwan’s history. The puzzle I want to solve is how we can draw inspiration from discussing pop and political icons together. Through this essay, I hope to explore ways of imagining a different conversation on discussing the history of Taiwan and the pivotal roles that female icons play.

Taiwan was ceded in full sovereignty to Japan after Qing Dynasty was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Taiwanese (those who are ethnically Chinese and Aboriginal) were classified as second and third class citizens by the new government. Opposition to Japanese colonial rule was common; guerrilla fighting occurred regularly until 1905, and about 14,000 Taiwanese died in these uprisings. After World War II, most Japanese were repatriated to Japan. The government of Republic of China (R.O.C.) escaped to Taiwan, defeated by the Chinese Communists in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). (Tierney 2010)

Throughout Japanese occupation, Chinese Civil War, and the reign of Republic of China, there were three prominent sisters who became tremendously influential in Chinese and international politics during this time. The Soong Sisters were daughters of Charlie Soong, a migrant worker who worked as a clerk for his uncle’s tea shop. He later converted to Christianity and was able to utilize the connection to gain admission to college and receive a degree in theology in 1885. He returned to China as a missionary and business man. His three daughters, later known as the “Soong sisters” eventually set sail for the US and studied at Wesleyan College in Georgia. The youngest, Mei-Ling, transferred and graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. They are the first Chinese women to have gone to US colleges. (Brannon 1997)


The Republic of China (R.O.C.), preceded by the Qing Dynasty, occupied modern-day areas of China, Mongolia, and Taiwan between 1912-1949 until its defeat by the People’s Republic of China led by Mao Zedong. The Republic’s first president was Sun Yat Sen who took office in 191, and instability that followed was unified by military general Chiang Kai Shek in 1928 as third president. (Taiwan Timeline)

The eldest sister, Soong Ai-ling was married to H.H. Kung, the finance minister of China under Chiang Kai-Shek’s one party rule. The second sister, Soong Ching-ling, was married to Sun Yat-sen. Ching-ling later left the Nationalists in support of Mao’s Communist Party and is celebrated in mainland China as the “mother of Modern China”. In 1968 to 1972 she was the join President of the People’s Republic of China and Honrary President in 1981. The youngest Soong sister became wife of Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) and president of the R.O.C. who ruled mainland China for twenty-two years and Taiwan for thirty years. Although their husbands, Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek, and H.H.Kung are recognized as forefathers of the Republic of China, the sisters had acquired tremendous power and influence in politics during early 20th century. (Brannon 1997)


I want to highlight Soong May-ling’s role during the reign of R.O.C. She was a member of the Legislative Yuan from 1930-32, Secretary-General of the Chinese Aeronautical Affairs Commission from 1936 to 1938, and member of the Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang in 1945. She was also Chiang Kai-Shek’s English translator, secretary and advisor. (Faison 2003)

Wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, Soong May-ling was described by Western media as a  “dazzling and imperious politician” (Faison 2003) .She was known as the official spokesperson and “ambassador of China” in relationship to the West during post-imperial China and World War II. She appeared on the cover of TIME in 1931 and 1937 as “Man and Wife of the Year”, and later in 1943 for the third time. May-ling captured America’s’ imagination with her passion, diplomacy, and charm while touring the US in 1943 to lobby support for the Nationalists in the United States and brought in billions of dollars in aid for the R.O.C.  May-ling was well-aware of her image in the US; she utilized Americans’ orientalist gaze on her and fulfilled their imperial hopes of a modern, educated, anti-communist, and pro-US China. She presented herself as a devout Christian, and spoke English with a tint of Southern accent she acquired from going to school in Georgia. (Fiason 2003)

On February 18, 1943, Soon May-ling’s speech at the White House drew 30,000 people that year, as she condemned Japanese imperialism and called for unification in China for Chinese war efforts. Although this event could also be interpreted as an effort made by the US in attempt to create alliance against Japan during World War II, the speech allowed Soong May-ling to become first Chinese and the second woman to address both houses of the US congress.


During Japanese occupation, arts and culture that were perceived as promoting local culture were “banned”. The music industry responded by combining Japanese “Enke” music with popular folk songs to create a new genre of Taiwanese pop. (Tsai 2002) Although WWII formally ended Japanese occupation, Taiwan’s music industry was met again with restrictions on what was deemed as “anti-government” by the KMT. Chiang Kai Shek declared Martial Law in 1949 and imposed a series of regulations that prohibited “unlawful” assembly, procession, petition, strike, newspapers, magazines, book publications, and rebellions. (Taiwan Timeline) The new Republic discouraged the use of Taiwanese languages and thousands of songs and records were banned, and television stations were allowed to show only two Taiwanese songs per day until the lifting of Martial law in 1987. Modern-day critics described how the government came up with extremely “creative” justifications for bans; a song that contained the lyrics “red flower” was deemed communist, while “dark night” symbolized underground resistance that needed to be suppressed. During 1955-1970, he KMT implemented a four-year economic plan that resulted in populations leaving the countryside in search of work in the cities. Popular songs reflected the exodus of young people from rural areas; lyrics became focused on themes surrounding leaving home for work, being homesick, and missing mothers.


According to Annette Lu, an activist turned politician and vice president, “The military police, special agents and secrete informers were used to monitor meetings, tap telephones, inspect mail and carry out surveillance”. (Lu 2014) Resistance against a suffocating political climate came in the form arts and music, a trend that started since the Japanese occupation era. Taiwan’s history and various governments brought to prominence several singers whose songs remain popular and karaoke regulars until this day. The history of Taiwanese music is usually divided into three periods: pre-war (1932-39), post-war (1946-52), and Martial Law (50’s to 80’s). (Tsai 2002) During martial law, people became nostalgic of the Japanese era and expressed themselves through writing, arts, and music. My grandpa always told me how he prefered the Japanese over the KMT, although the Japanese had committed atrocities against peoples of Taiwan. During this “nostalgic” period of time, local makeshift studios were created with tents for Taiwanese artists to showcase their music in the Taiwanese language or Japanese Enke which were banned during Martial Law. Chi Lu-Hsia (紀露霞) also known as “Island Queen” had published records during the pre-war era, but rose to prominence during Martial Law when she would lead chorales in Taiwanese language at makeshift studios and sing along-side farmers, older folks, and people escaping repressive city scenes to join in chorus by mountains and rivers in the countryside.

Political uprisings during the Martial Law period included the “Kaohsiung Incident”, where activists Annette Lu and Kiku Chen rose to prominence as political icons. Activists gathered on December 10, 1979 to hold a Human Rights Day Celebration at an indoor stadium in the city of Kaohsiung. During that time, Taiwan was still under Martial Law which forbids political dissent and congregation. Before the demonstrators arrived, police and the military were already positioned and proceeded to arrest activists in leadership positions. (Taiwan timeline) “The Kaohsiung Eight”, eight of the most prominent leaders, were tried in military court and sentenced to terms that ranged from 12 years to life. Kiku Chen 陳菊 and Annette Lu 呂秀蓮 were the only women arrested in the uprising. The Incident was significant because it united Taiwanese locals with overseas Taiwanese communities and inspired people to take political actions. The work that grew out of this movement formed the foundation for today’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the only opposition party to KMT in Taiwan. (Lu 2014)


Kiku Chen later became the mayor of Kaohsiung City in 2006, while Annette Lu rose to vice-presidency in 2000. In 1970, Lu had already become a well-known feminist in Taiwan. She founded a feminist printing press, established a coffee shop for conversations on women’s empowerment, and created a hotline for domestic violence victims. During Martial Law, secret police continued to infiltrate her organizations. In an article from Taipei Times, Lu writes, “Most astonishingly, no one would have dreamed that 20 years after the military trial following the Kaohsiung Incident on Dec. 10, 1979, a defense lawyer, Chen Shui-bian, and a defendant, me, would be elected in March 2000 as the president and vice president at the crowning moment of Taiwan’s struggle for democracy.” However, Lu faced many challenges as the first female vice president, which she describes as “a culture shock for society”. She was called a “lunatic” and “the scum of the nation”. During her vice presidency, she had traveled to Latin America and Africa to create alliance and friendship with leaders. She also states that in Taiwan, “women’s liberation went hand-in-hand with the political liberation from autocracy to democracy”. (Lu 2014)


After the Martial Law was lifted, the music industry began to rise.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, population who viewed themselves as “Taiwanese” rose and a movement for eventual independence began. (Ng 1998) In 1996, the first direct presidential election took place, and Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first elected president.  With the rise of the “Taiwanese national identity” came popular hakkien songs. Jody Chiang 江蕙, Chang Hsiu Ching 張秀卿, Stella Chang 張清芳. Some of the most prominent female singers in the decade that followed included Feng Fei-fei 鳳飛飛, Teresa Teng 鄧麗君, and Chen Ying Git 陳盈潔. It was no coincidence that the lifting of Martial Law ushered the music industry into decades of unprecedented success. Taiwanese music, Taiwanese pop, and Aboriginal music started playing on television and radio stations. Although Mandopop continue to dominate the market, these artists were able to reclaim a tradition that was lost during previous political climates. Some prominent male singers during this time included Jung Hung (known for “One Umbrella” 一枝小雨傘)  and Chen Lei (“Happy”  歡喜就好), who are two of the many popular singers who began to produce “happy “ and “spirited” songs that contrasted the “dark” and “tired” songs that came out during Martial Law. (Tsai 2002)

Prominent female singers during this time included Feng Fei-fei, Jody Chiang, and Teresa Teng. These are some of my parents’ favorite singers. I chose to highlight these three artists because of their prominence in Taiwanese (dialect) songs. I have always known about them even though I was not born during their time. They are still widely talked about by mainstream media today, and I hear their songs everywhere. These female “divas” have made a lasting impression in Taiwanese pop culture, and their fame symbolize more than just a successful music industry. It also represents a new era in Taiwan’s cultural expression. With the lifting of the Martial Law, these female icons were able to rise and expand the scope of Taiwanese music to more than just Japanese and Mandarin renditions of art. Feng Fei-Fei is known for her brilliant outfits and was known as the “Queen of Hats” because of her signature headwears. Jody Chiang became known as the “Queen of Taiwanese Music” as she brought her trademark Taiwanese ballads and folk songs to unprecedented levels of artistry. Chang Hsiu Ching, who is from a city not far from my grandparents, rose to prominence especially in the 90’s for her style, humble backgrounds, and songs that resonated with local people and their daily lives. One of her most famous songs is  “Chhia-chām” or “Train Station 車站”

Since the early 20th century, influence of female pop icons and female political figures have reached a wide audience and resulted in response from the government, local people, international communities and economies. I believe that in modern Taiwan, the far reaching effects of pop that actually mirrors political climate and rhetoric of local regimes and speaks to a globalized and international audience through the Internet.


Grace Lee Boggs discusses ideas surrounding leadership in We Are the Leaders We’ve Been Looking For. Boggs highlights the impact of grassroot organizing and ways of participating in “bottom-up change”. She used examples such as the the first People of Color Environmental Summit and the Allied Media Conference to provide insight on leaderships in movements. I want to draw parallels between Boggs’ insight on leadership and pop icons in Taiwan. In the context of Taiwan, pop music is one of the most influential medium through which message and politics travel through. I argue that although listeners may not be aware, they are interacting in “bottom-up change” as they become participants and consumers in a cultural change that only came after the lifting of Martial Law. Although they are not actively affecting change, I believe there is significance in the power of consumers in Taiwan in this era. I am not undermining the detrimental effect of capitalism and consumer culture, but would like to highlight the significance of having Taiwanese songs available on the market as well as the tension that arise through western pop music which can be interpreted as imperialist upon local cultural production.

Ronak Kapadia discusses the unique role of sound that provide “relational maps” to its audience (Kapadia 232). He also discusses the idea of “romantic evocation”, while drawing parallels between popular music and “international nationalism” in Sonic Contagions: Bir Flu, Bandung, and the Queer Cartographies of MIA. I believe that Taiwanese pop is doing something similar. For Taiwanese diasporic communities abroad, music becomes one of the most pivotal mediums through which nostalgia is nursed and processed through. Although not necessarily queer in sexuality, divas and female pop icons provide an alternative account for the history of Taiwan and the now booming music industry.


Taiwanese “divas” were born out of political necessity; female political activists who challenged dominant regimes with their own bodies and lives as well as female pop stars that provide a different taste for the music of local people. Through highlighting two seemingly unrelated groups of people, pop stars and political activists, I hope to bring forth a different story of power, revolution, resistance. Soong Ai-Ling influenced the politics of Kuomingtang (KMT), the ruling regime in mainland China and later Taiwan, for sixty years. She was also the international spokesperson for the Republic during her most active years. Kiku-Chen and Annette Lu two of the most prominent activists arrested during the “Kaohsiung Incident”, which was a response to KMT’s “White Terror” which resulted in 140,000 political prisoners and 4000 executions for perceived opposition to the government. (Taiwan Timeline) With the lifting of the Martial Law in 1987, the music industry also boomed. Fung Fei-fei and Jody Chiang are two out of the many divas beloved by the Taiwanese people, including my parents, in the late 80’s and 90’s.

The Music industry, and political figures reflect local and contextual political climates. Although these figures have tremendous sphere of influence and are linked with changes in histories, they are not highlighted in mainstream movements, accounts of history, or stories of resistance. I wanted to highlight these different figures throughout Taiwanese history to discuss how we may draw inspiration from icons whose ideologies may not match with our own. However, I am not trying to encourage people to buy in to political propaganda or manipulative business strategies in which any music industry employ, but rather to understand nuances between feeling the influence, understanding implications, knowing history, and gaining inspiration from different icons. I hope that this essay provides a small gateway for people, particularly youth and queer people, who fall outside mainstream “Taiwanese” identities to be inspired with a mainstream icon/idea but also become aware of their particular role/standing in this globalized world.



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Grace Lee Boggs, “We Are the Leader We’ve Been Looking For,” The Next American Revolution: 160-178

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Yenlin Ku, “Selling a Feminist Agenda on a Conservative Market– The Awakening Experience in Taiwan,” Taiwan Women Web–A History of Taiwan Women’s Movement, accessed November 12, 1998



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