Imaged and imagined threat to the nation: the media construction of the 'foreign brides' phenomenon' as social problems in Taiwan

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Imaged and imagined threat to the nation: the media construction of the 'foreign brides' phenomenon' as social problems in Taiwan
  Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 8, Number 1, 2007 ISSN 1464–9373 Print/ISSN 1469–8447 Online/07/010055–31 © 2007 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/14649370601119006 51015202530354045 Imaged and imagined threat to the nation: the media construction of the ‘foreign brides’ phenomenon’ as social problems in Taiwan Hsiao-Chuan HSIA Taylor and FrancisLtdRIAC_A_211834.sgm10.1080/14649370601119006Inter-AsiaCultural Studies1464-9373 (print)/1469-8447 (online)Original Article2007Taylor & Francis81000000April ABSTRACT By analyzing the media construction of the ‘foreign brides phenomenon,’ this paperexamines ‘what’ is described in the media, ‘how’ it is constructed, and ‘why’ this construction seemsbelievable in Taiwan. Based on the narrative analysis of the media reports of the ‘foreign brides’ phenomenon, this paper argues that ‘social problems’ are products of ‘interpretative work’ accom- plished by various effective narrative strategies, including overlapping media coverage, authorizingdescription, fabricated statistics and equivocal wording, and collaboration with governmental agen-cies. The Taiwanese media construct the ‘foreign brides phenomenon’ as a social problem. The bridesare portrayed either as passive victims or materialist gold-diggers, and prone to committing crimes,while the bridegrooms are portrayed as the ‘socially undesirable,’ including physically or mentallydisabled, and morally inferior. Personal interaction with media workers helps deepen the analysis intothe dynamic process of media construction, revealing the power struggles over reality construction. It further analyzes the national anxiety behind these media constructions, explaining why the mediaconstantly construct the ‘foreign brides’ as social problems and threats to Taiwanese society. K EYWORDS :Foreign brides, social problems, media construction, national anxiety The problematic Beginning in the late 1980s, hundred of thousands of Taiwanese peasants and working-classmen left the countryside in search of brides. According to the Ministry of Interior, there are240,837 foreign spouses who entered Taiwan between 1987 and 2003, including those fromSoutheast Asia (42.2%) and Mainland China (57.8%). Ninety-three percent of these foreignspouses are women. Among those from Southeast Asia, 57.5% are from Vietnam, 23.2%from Indonesia, 5.3% from Thailand and another 5.3% from the Philippines. I have analyzedthe structural causes of the ‘foreign brides phenomenon’ (Hsia 2000 and 2004a). 1  In thispaper, I will focus on how media work has helped constructed this phenomenon as a ‘socialproblem.’This phenomenon of Taiwanese men going to Southeast Asia for wives began to catchthe media’s attention in late 1980s. In addition to reports of ‘tracing’ the most recent trends,i.e. the newest favorite target country for ‘foreign brides,’ several common themes emerge.In most of these, ‘foreign brides’ and their husbands are portrayed as the causes of socialproblems. The media have been overwhelmed by stories of the prevalence of run-away‘foreign brides,’ divorce, domestic violence, and recently, the ‘poor quality of the children of foreign brides.’ The primary concern has been how serious the problems actually are. As thefirst scholar studying this issue in Taiwan, the reporters have targeted me as their key infor-mant. In the first few years of my research, without any exception, every reporter anxiouslyasked, ‘How serious are the problems of runaways, divorce and domestic violence? Whatare the percentages?’ In addition to the media, governmental officials have also shown their Page 55 Saturday, February 10, 2007 9:41 AM  56  Hsiao-Chuan Hsia 5101520253035404550concern, and even outrage, about these ‘problems.’ To take some recent incidents as exam-ples, in July 2004, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education publicly denouncedthese transnational marriages as problems urging the ‘foreign brides’ to control theirfertility, because their children’s poor quality would deteriorate the quality of the Taiwan-ese population! In April 2006, a legislator publicly argued that many Vietnamese suffered birth defects and poor health conditions as a result of poisoning by Agent Orange, a defoli-ant sprayed all over the Vietnamese countryside by the US army during the Vietnam War,and therefore warning the government not to waste taxpayers’ money by supporting‘foreign brides’ who may have serious health problems.From the situations described above, one can argue that the ‘foreign brides phenomenon’as a ‘social problem’ has been accepted as a given ‘fact’ in mainstream Taiwan society. Theissues now have become how the problems can be corrected. Indeed, governmental fundshave been poured into projects on ‘solving’ the problems, epitomized in 2003 by formerPremier Yu Shyi-kun’s initiation of establishing the ‘Three Billion Fund for Foreign Brides’. 2 The main concern in this article, however, is not to treat social problems as objectiveconditions that need to be efficiently corrected. Rather, social problems are understood as‘interpretive processes that constitute what come to be seen as oppressive, intolerable, orunjust conditions’ (Holstein and Miller 1993: 6). Contrary to a dominant positivisticapproach treating reality as an objective fact, this paper takes the alternative approach thatperceives social reality as an ‘ongoing accomplishment’ of social actors who continuallyconstruct a social world via ‘the organized artful practices of everyday life’ (Garfinkel 1967).From this social constructionist perspective, social problems are perceived as the definitional activities of people around conditions and conduct they find troublesome, including others’definitional activities. In short, social problems are socially constructed, both in terms of theparticular acts and interactions problems participants pursue, and in terms of the process of such activities through time. The attempts are to ‘account for the emergence and mainte-nance of claim-making and responding activities’ (Kitsuse and Spector 1973: 415). Theconstructionist sociology of ‘social problem work’ addresses how social problemscategories, once publicly established, are attached to experience in order to enact identifi-able objects of social problems discourse. The issue for the study of social problems work isthus the local articulation of the collective representation with a concrete aspect of experi-ence. The analytical focus is on how the claimants use the culturally available labelingresources to interpret the experience that come to be portrayed as problems (Holstein andMiller 1993).My previous research shows that governmental agents and the general public, as wellas those involved in the transnational marriages, all largely depend on the media coverageas the primary resources for their understanding of the ‘foreign brides phenomenon,’ whichclearly indicates the influence of the media (Hsia 1997). 3  To take governmental agents as anexample, they often referred to the media to support their opinions when interviewed.Indeed, three of the media reports analyzed in the following were provided by officialsduring the interviews regarding how they perceived the phenomenon. The men involved inthe transnational marriages ironically also internalize the negative media images of ‘foreign brides,’ and hence constantly worry that their wives might run away (Hsia 2000). From aconstructive perspective, the media do not function simply as mirrors that claimants canuse to reflect ‘what is really going.’ Rather, they decidedly shape the images they convey.News workers, are, in short, the true ‘news makers’.By ‘bracketing’ the ‘facts’ of the ‘foreign brides phenomenon,’ this paper analyzes howthe media portray ‘social problems’ and construct the ‘validity’ of their arguments. Itfurther examines the ‘political’ aspects of social construction of reality by looking into myexperiences of participating in the process of ‘manufacturing’ the reports and analyzingwhy media workers constantly construct the ‘foreign brides’ phenomenon as problematic. Page 56 Saturday, February 10, 2007 9:41 AM  Imaged and imagined threat to the nation 57 5101520253035404550Thirty-three Taiwanese reports related to ‘foreign brides’ issues from newspapers, TVreports, and magazines in the period from 1988 to 1996 are analyzed. These reports are allwritten in Chinese, with an exception of one bilingual magazine article (Chinese andEnglish). Paragraphs abridged from the media reports are the author’s translations writtenas closely as possible to the Chinese srcinals. The period from 1988 to 1996 is selected because it reflects the time after the phenomenon caught the media’s attention and beforeNGO and social movement organizations began to intervene. Since 1997, NGOs andgovernmental agencies began to pay more attention to the issues, which have graduallyshifted the narratives prevalent in the media coverage. Especially, since the im/migrantmovement emerged, efforts have been made to transform public perceptions of the‘foreign brides phenomenon’ and one can notice significant change in the media narrativesthereof (Hsia 2006a). The primary focus of this paper is on the media’s process of constructing the social atmosphere hence the analysis is focused on reports appearing before 1997.Moreover, I initiated the ‘Literacy Program for the Foreign Brides’ with the collabora-tion of the Meinung Peoples Association (MPA) 4  in 1995. It was the first and only programup until 2000 that was developed for ‘foreign brides’ specifically, and consequently hascaught enormous media attention ever since its first class (Hsia 2006b). I have been theprimary contact for the media, and hence observed their process of producing reports,which becomes another set of data for this analysis. Media construction: causes of social problems The most common narrative found in the mass media regarding ‘foreign brides’ issues isthat of social problems: …The Taiwanese men still continue to ‘Go South,’ bringing back those poorly-educated, dull,and sometimes even ugly Southeast Asian women to marry. What problems of Taiwan’ssocial structure, marriage, sex ratio, etc. does this phenomenon reveal? ( China Times  1995a:17)… They [foreign brides] will have negative impacts on our population quality, demographicpressure, social and cultural structures…( United Daily  1992) Foreign brides’ tendency to prostitution One of the common links to ‘foreign brides’ is the claimed propensity of the ‘foreign brides’to harlotry. For example: The police said the ‘Cutie,’ ‘Chia-Hsiang’ and ‘Happy’ Whorehouse contain the three larg-est groups of Southeast Asian prostitutes in the North [of Taiwan]. The criminal pattern isthat they look for prostitutes abroad and then the human traffickers bring them to Taiwanunder the guises of traveling or ‘fake marriages, real prostitution ‘… ( United Evening News 1995a) In a most detailed analytical report, written by a journalist with a PhD in PoliticalSciences, entitled ‘Southeast Asian Brides, Thousands Miles Marriage’ the focus is on differ-ent social problems that transnational marriages between Taiwanese men and SoutheastAsian women have caused. The readers’ attention is quickly captured by a huge picture of ayoung woman with her face covered by her left hand and long hair covering almost onequarter of the whole page. This dramatic picture is captioned: ‘Fake Marriage, Real Prostitu-tion—Thai Bride Caught in Taiwan’ ( China Times  1995a: 17). A smaller picture located at the bottom of the page is captioned: ‘Filipina Prostitutes Being Deported from Taipei to Manila’.However, in the analyses following these pictures, not much is said about the claimed facts Page 57 Saturday, February 10, 2007 9:41 AM  58  Hsiao-Chuan Hsia 5101520253035404550of prostitution, except for a very brief phrase ‘Many problems such as the women coming toTaiwan for prostitution, running away, and having fake household registration.’ The ‘socialproblem work’ done by this journalist is to use the picture to catch attention by the taken-for-granted association between foreign (mainly from Third World countries) women andprostitution to construct an ‘imagined and imaged’ ‘other’ of Taiwan being increasinglytroubled by waves of Southeast Asian brides (Naficy and Gabriel 1993).  High risks of broken family It was the Taiwanese Holiday for Respecting the Elderly. Most newspapers devoted at leastone page to activities celebrating the contribution of the elderly. Taiwan Daily was noexception. Several articles and pictures were complimenting couples who have beenmarried for over 50 years. Interestingly, among those articles and pictures in the center of the page were two articles regarding ‘foreign brides.’ One entitled, ‘Trade Marriage likeGambling, Broker as Dealer, All Depends on Luck,’ states, …Lee She-Tung says, when the members of ‘matchmaking tours’ go abroad for match-making, they all have a swift campaign and bring it to a rapid conclusion so they (the businessmen) can reduce costs. Of course, the wives may have the mercenary motivationsfor marrying in the first place, plus the differences in languages and ways of life, and lackof time for adjustment, which all wreck marriages or drive the women to run away. LeeShe-Tung said, ‘Marriage is for the whole life, a long way to go.’ He hopes local residentswill not choose ‘fast food’ marriages, thus avoiding regrets in the future. ( Taiwan Daily 1996b) It continues, In recent years foreign brides have become popular. The male uses his economic clout toobtain a spouse, while marriage gives the female a means to ensure her economic well-being, both sides hope to better their prospects through marriage, like something of a gamble.Winning or losing all depend one’s fate. This type of union doesn’t always resemble the beautiful fantasy, however, being built on weak emotional foundations and joining peoplewith such disparate backgrounds. It’s better to think three times than regret in the future( Taiwan Daily  1996b). These two related articles serve as a contrast to the surrounding pictures and articles of oldcouples. It implies that the transnational marriages will not survive and one should ‘thinkthree times’ rather than ‘regret in the future.’ It further implies that the ‘normal,’ ‘good’traditional marriages (i.e. heterosexual couples of the same nationality) that those oldmarried couples represent are being threatened by the ‘abnormal,’ ‘bad,’ transnationalmarriages.Media reports often cite official narratives, which almost always emphasize the prob-lems the ‘foreign brides’ have caused, or will cause. The Foreign Affairs Department of the Police Administration Bureau has done a study on the‘foreign brides’ from Southeast Asia areas who have married and obtained Taiwan’s nation-ality in the past ten years. The results are that more than 60% have reported marital prob-lems, which have generated very serious social and family problems… The police often findthat the immigration of these women to Taiwan through ‘fake marriage’ is only to obtainTaiwanese nationality. ( United Daily  1992) Another newspaper article refers to an official report by the Police AdministrationBureau. In this official report, seven negative impacts of the marriages between Taiwanesefolks and foreigners are alleged. Two of these impacts regard broken families, whichsupposedly lead to social problems. Page 58 Saturday, February 10, 2007 9:41 AM  Imaged and imagined threat to the nation 59 5101520253035404550 Retired old soldiers marrying foreign women consist of 205 of those marriages. And the agedifference between spouses is over 5 years. Once the husband dies, it will have negativeimpacts on children’s education [because the foreign women have education much lowerthan the average Taiwanese], which leads to juvenile delinquency and endangers society.Remarriages are inevitable, because the marital statuses of the foreigners in their homecountries are hard to verify accurately. Thus many of our people will be deceived and havemisfortunes. ( China Times , 11 December 1991) ‘Runaway’ is the most popular narrative link the media use to illustrate why they thinkthe ‘foreign brides’ have caused and will cause broken families, a threat to the assumed‘traditional’ family structures and values, and hence critical social problem. Earlier, there were some Thai, Filipina or Vietnamese women who were deceived and broughtto Meinung to marry local young men. Due to differences in habits and language, many ranaway shortly after their marriage. The Indonesian and Malaysian women of Chinese descentwere found. At least they can communicate [with the Taiwanese]. So recently, the foreign brides are mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia. ( Overseas Chinese Scholars  1996: 31–32) This ‘runaway’ narrative is male-centered, because it is constructed from the perspective of how the ‘foreign brides’ have used and hurt their husbands, rather than exploring whythese women would run away by at least including voices of the ‘foreign brides’ them-selves. Moreover, it is imaged as the opposition of ‘those heartless foreign women’ to ‘ourdefenseless brothers and compatriots’. Indonesian brides have become ‘hot commodities’ in Pei-Pu… Reportedly, the marriages of those who married Thai women cannot last more than two years. The divorce rate is as highas 90 percent. Some left after the men’s money was used up; some ran away after they gotTaiwanese nationality. These Thai brides’ performances have been very poor, and the Pei-Pufolks are very hurt… They hope that the Indonesian brides will not follow the steps of Thai brides in hurting the men of Pei-Pu. ( Taiwan Lih-Pao , 30 May 1994)The number of foreign brides in Meinung is number one in Kaohsiung county. ‘Run-away’cases are numerous. Meinung people often ask the Service Center for the People for help,which causes the officers many headaches. The Director of the Service Center for the People,Lee She-Tung said he feels sympathetic with those lost men looking for their wives, but hecannot help but advise Meinung residents to think thoroughly before they marry foreign brides. ( Taiwan Daily  1996a) One should note that the journalists often use statistics to illustrate the imagined seri-ousness of divorces and runaways. However, no official statistics specifically regarding thedivorce rate or the ‘runaway rate’ of the transnational marriages were available. The onlyaccess to obtaining the exact number of these transnational marriages at that time was tolook into the Household Registration files piled in every township. Every Taiwaneseresident couple is required to send their marriage certificate to the local Household Admin-istration Affair Office. However, there were no separate files for couples in transnationalmarriages. To calculate the divorce rate of a certain township, one had to go through possi- bly tens of thousands of files to get the total number of transnational marriages first andthen figure out the divorce rate among these marriages. This process required an enormousamount of work and had not been done by anyone. Without this tedious process, onecannot obtain accurate statistics about transnational marriages. In regard to ‘runaway rate,’the statistics were almost non-existent, because the claimed ‘runaway’ wife was not offi-cially divorced and thus was not recorded in any official files. However, the point beingmade is not about the accuracy of statistics. Rather, statistics are viewed as one of the manynarrative strategies used to make the account believable. Thus, statistics represent, ratherthan prove, what is imagined. Page 59 Saturday, February 10, 2007 9:41 AM
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