At the sneak preview in San Francisco, someone came up to me and asked about the last song in the film, Marching Forward (向前走) by Lim Giong (林強). He was surprised to discover that the song was a hit back in 1990 and exclaimed, “So it was from a previous generation?!” Well, 1990 doesn’t seem so very long ago to me, but actually yes, it was nearly 25 years ago when Lim Giong pranced about in the Taipei Main Station in his acid-wash jeans and his page-boy ‘do.
At that time, I was too busy with theater in the East Village and dealing with various guys who broke my heart to be aware of what was going on in Taiwan. In fact, I was trying really hard to get away from Taiwan and anything to do with my dysfunctional immigrant family. But the enigma of Taiwan kept following me like a shadow that grew longer and more distorted as the day went on.
I somehow discovered George Kerr’s FORMOSA BETRAYED while I was digging through the bargain bin of a bookstore that was closing. Formosa? Like Taiwan? I thought looking at the cover which depicted the island of Taiwan skewered by a sword like a shish kebob or maybe a particularly lumpy oblong fish. I opened the book and my eye fell instantly onto his account of 228. I think I must have read half the book at the store before deciding that I just had to take it home. Later, I found another book about the Hakka people (what? we’re related to the Huns?!) and another book about matriarchal society of the aborigines (Taiwan was the land of Amazons?!)…
But it wasn’t until I was deep in research for the film in 2008 that I found an essay about Taiwanese music that mentioned the song Marching Forward, which I promptly hunted down on youtube.
The song opens with a catchy riff evocative of locomotion. It’s a rhythm that’s ingrained in the collective unconscious of everyone born in the last hundred and fifty years, the circular churning instantly conjuring up the bittersweet twinge of saying goodbye to your past, of shedding the old you and leaping into a future unknown. Lim taps fully into this myth but gives the song an added political dimension by singing in Taiwanese.
It’s always sweet to hear the language that you grew up speaking. Every immigrant has felt the comfort of slipping back into their native language like a beloved pair of fuzzy pajamas. It’s no accident that it’s called your mother tongue. Language is a mother to your understanding of the world. But hearing the Min Nan dialect is inexpressively sweet to any Taiwanese person who grew up being forced to speak Mandarin. Someone once explained to me that Taiwanese is in a lower register than Mandarin, so you speak from somewhere deeper in your soul. Taiwanese is not only the mother tongue of 70% of everyone on Taiwan, it’s also a dare. It’s being able to open the box and walk out in the sunshine. Taiwanese was banned in Taiwan. For Lim to sing a pop tune in Taiwanese, he had to walk in front of a freight train. He had to thumb his nose at a big humorless armed thug. And he knows it. “Oh! I’m not afraid of anything!” he crows, “Oh! Marching Forward!”
Fear was something that deeply permeated the Taiwan that I grew up in. It was so deeply ingrained, it was taken for granted, sort of like a loud noise in the background that drowned out anything you might want to say beyond simple platitudes like, “Hi, have you eaten yet?” Which we said a lot since we are definitely a culture that likes to eat. But in between meals, my mother and my aunt whispered about disappearances. Students were fined or whacked by their teachers for speaking Taiwanese. Everyone learned that politics were dangerous. It could cost you your future. You could be blacklisted, deported, or worse if you went public with a dissenting opinion. Intellectual wreckages were seen everywhere: the promising student who ends up working in a noodle stall since he is unable to find any work; the brilliant writer who was tortured to the point that he barely can string together a sentence.
When I visited Taiwan in 2001 after a hiatus of fifteen years, it felt like a huge smothering blanket had been removed and everyone could finally breathe. I realized I had been in the habit of searching out little old ladies to talk to. And now, Taiwanese was everywhere! I could speak Taiwanese to anyone! It must have been seismic in 1990 to hear someone declaring in Taiwanese that they were completely unafraid.
As if this weren’t enough, in the last verse of the song, Lim makes a breathtakingly succinct radical statement about Taiwan. It’s at 04:44 in the video. Those of you who don’t speak Mandarin and Taiwanese are truly missing out on one of those rare moments when a phrase hits on a truth so hard, it instantly splits a rock-solid bedrock of assumptions that you didn’t even know you had. So the whole song is in Taiwanese right? Well, there is one phrase in Mandarin at the end, which I’ve bolded:
There was a time when people used to sing
Taipei isn’t my home
But I don’t really feel that.
Boom! Taipei bu shu wo de jia. With these seven Chinese words, Lim drops a hefty political statement that catapults Taiwanese identity straight into the air where it’s finally free to spread its wings and fly. Of course Taiwan isn’t home to the Taiwanese if they have to speak Mandarin. Listen to how he literally growls those Mandarin words. It’s the sound of a caged spirit, of clipped wings, of a tiger on a leash. It’s not a coincidence that the song came out the same year as the Wild Lily Student Movement.
When I was looking for interview subjects, I did my best to contact Lim Giong, who is now better known for electronic music and soundtracks for films by Hou Hsiao Hsien and Jia Zhangke. First, someone emailed a mutual friend on my behalf. No response. Then I found him online and contacted him directly. This time, he responded to tell me that I could use Marching Forward any way I wanted in the film, but he wouldn’t feel comfortable being interviewed. My written Chinese is execrable, but it seemed from what I could read that he’s no longer the guy who once bopped around Taipei Main Station defiantly declaring that he wasn’t afraid of anything. I wonder what he thought of the students that occupied the Legislative Yuan a few weeks ago.