The Afterlife of Women Workers – Gender, Space, and Feminist Intervention in Contemporary Taiwan

Written by  Friday, 04 November 2016 15:55

 

     Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan. It is also Taiwan’s hub of heavy industry and a world-class port. The Twenty-five Ladies’ Tomb was the collective burial site of female workers who drowned during a ferry accident on their way to work at Kaohsiung’s export processing zones in 1973. Of the seventy plus passengers on board, all twenty-five who died were unmarried young women. Taiwanese culture shuns unmarried female ghosts who have no (husband’s) ancestral hall to rest in peace. This made the tomb a fearsome place. The Kaohsiung Association for the Promotion of Women’s Rights (KAPWR), a major feminist group in Kaohsiung, had for years urged the Kaohsiung City government to rename the tomb to remove the stigma of unmarried female ghost. Feminists wanted the name of the burial site to reflect the productive role of the deceased young women instead. They requested that the local government revamp the tomb site. Their calls, however, were not answered until Kaohsiung was hard hit by Taiwan’s recent deindustrialization. As a part of an effort to reinvent the city’s economy, the Mayor’s Office finally allocated money to clean up the gravesite and make it into a tourist-friendly “Memorial Park for Women Laborers.”

 

     This article focuses on the renovation of the Twenty-five Ladies’ Tomb in the 2000s and examines the politics of the feminist movement as well as the politics of memory as they are expressed through the different meanings bestowed on the deceased women. People involved in the renovation process included the families of the 25 deceased women, the Kaohsiung City government, and the KAPWR, all of which had different considerations, and therefore, diverse expectations regarding the purpose and the future of the tomb.

 

     Situating my research within the context of global capitalist expansion, I postulate that the ramifications of the different considerations and expectations expressed by the parties involved in the tomb renovation go beyond the immediate physical transformation of the tomb and its surrounding environment. The various stages of the tomb renovation exemplify the contending ideas about what the deceased women stand for and how they should be remembered. In a broader context, they represent different interpretations of remembrance of a bygone era of rapid economic expansion in post-World War II Taiwan – a period when a large number of young single women were recruited to work in global assembly lines. The way that the families reacted to the deaths of their daughters motivated the KAPWR to intervene, which, in turn, propelled the involvement of the Kaohsiung City government. The feminist intervention of the KAPWR thus resonates with feminist movements worldwide to rectify women’s history by rewriting and valorizing the contribution of women.

 

     Furthermore, the KAPWR activism that I observed in the Twenty-five Ladies’ Tomb case illustrates the fact that globally inspired feminist praxis is in practice dependent on the socio-cultural and political-economic attributes of the society in which feminist groups are embedded. The KAPWR’s effort to refashion the image of the tomb was more than a posthumous recognition of the deceased women. It was a critique of a core feature of the Taiwanese patriliny that treasures sons as true and permanent members of the family, but regards daughters as outsiders and temporary associates of their father’s family. This symbolic differentiation between sons and daughters has provided a framework on which many gender-based practices, including the preference of young women for industrial work, are constituted and justified. The approach of the KAPWR activism was therefore a strategic choice borne out of the particular patrilineal familial context of Taiwan.

 

     While I appreciate the KAPWR’s decision to highlight the importance of women’s productive labor, I am not as certain about the memorial practice that the KAPWR assented to support. Much emphasized in the literature of feminist memorializing is the dual mission of remembering particular deaths caused by violence and bringing attention to systemic violence against women. Bold et al. (2002) postulate that too often a memorializing practice becomes a technology of “active forgetting” when violent incidents are regarded as individual and psychotic – and memorializing is viewed as catharsis – and when the public is reduced to passive spectators. It is imperative, they argue, that feminist memorializing should promote “active remembering” by transcending individual-owned memory into collective memory. Only when the collective takes responsibility for the systemic nature of gendered violence can there be the potential for social change.

 

     However, this is not a simple task because too often in the feminist attempt to transform individual remembrance into collective consciousness, a specific event involving a few particular deaths is made emblematic. That is, this specific event comes to stand for an array of other acts that are assumed to share certain characteristics and, consequently, the remembrance of (this particular) one event signals the remembrance of all. Emblemization is vital to the dual mission of feminist memorializing as the very structure of being emblematic – one act standing for all – creates the force rendering a memorial practice significant. Yet, paradoxically, emblemization and enclosure are oftentimes concurrent processes– enclosure as the stabilization of a dominant public discourse that prioritizes certain readings of the memorialized event.

 

     As a result, all acts of gendered violence become identical, and all women victims become interchangeable. Not only are the complex identity formations and power relations embedded in different acts of violence absent, but the particularities of the emblematic event and the life stories of women who died in that event are also minimized. Moreover, the dilemma of emblemization is not just about the terms of substitutability among the dead, but also about how the living are positioned or struggle to position themselves in relation to the dead. Emblematic memorial practices – and enclosed memories of the dead – could be problematic because they inscribe people into a position that might be accepted by some and rejected by others because they are contradictory to or in conflict with the self-identifications of the latter vis-à-vis the dead. A feminist, emblematic representation of the dead, ironically, like “active forgetting,” could render the public passive by relieving them from the responsibility of actively reflecting on one’s own position to the dead and the violent act that took their lives.

 

     The transformation of the Twenty-five Ladies’ Tomb into a Memorial Park for Women Laborers was a strategic move endorsed by the KAPWR. It was a practice of feminist memorializing as it concomitantly sought to keep alive the memory of the deceased women and to change the public perception of these women. The memorial practice became emblematic as the deceased have come to represent all women workers whose labor helped to build the collective fortune of post-WWII Taiwan. Yet, against the KAPWR’s original intention to address the discriminatory nature of the patrilineal Taiwanese family with an emphasis on their productive role, I am concerned that the emblemization of the twenty-five deceased young women had indeed the effect of dissociating the two aforementioned causes in the public’s mind.

 

     Although presenting women’s industrial labor in a positive and celebratory light, the newly renovated park does not make explicit the intricate relationship between patriarchy and global capitalist production. The physical transformation of the burial site from its tomb appearance to a sanitized-looking park takes away the opportunity for its visitors to recall the immediate fact that these women were shunned because they died unmarried – and thus the likelihood for the visitors to contemplate on their own positions on this matter. Similarly, the emblemization of the deceased as industrial workers does not address the tension in the positionality of the deceased’s parents between their sorrow for the early deaths and unfulfilled lives of their daughters and their sense of propriety towards their patrilineal ancestry. This last problem mirrors an earlier point that globally inspired feminist praxis is always embedded in the socio-cultural and political-economic dynamics of a particular context.

 

     Here, I offer temporality – not as an object of analysis but, rather, as a method of analysis – to understand the contour of feminist politics. In this specific case, during the KAPWR’s intervention in the 2000s, industrial manufacturing was no longer the primary economic activity in Taiwan as it had been in the early 1970s when the 25 young lives were taken away in the ferry accident. By the 2000s, the Taiwanese economy had transformed from one primarily based on industrial production to one that was increasingly service-oriented. In addition, around this time, the parents of the deceased were aging. The effectiveness of the KAPWR endeavor was aided by the anxiety of the aging parents who were in constant worry about the spiritual well-being of their deceased daughters as well as by the concern of the Kaohsiung City government which needed to reinvent its deindustrialized city economy.

 

References Cited

Bold, Christine, Ric Knowles, and Belinda Leach. 2002. Feminist memorializing and cultural countermemory: The case of Marianne’s Park. Signs 28(1): 125-148.

 

 

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