Taiwanese modernity

One of my colleagues asked me a question about Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times. For those of you who have not seen it, it is a set of three love stories all set on Taiwan with the same two actors, one in 1966, one in 1911 and one in 2005. She had a question about the middle story. In this segment the female lead (Shu Qi 舒淇) works in a fairly high class brothel, and the story revolves around the possibility that Chang Chen (張震) will buy out her contract. He is portrayed as an idealistic young man who is opposed to concubinage and is tied up with the idealistic Mr. Liang (I assume Liang Qichao).My colleague asked me how accurate the movie’s portrayal of Taiwanese politics was. I was a bit stumped by that.

Visually at least it was hard for me to see the middle segment as being Taiwan in 1911. It was all interior shots in the brothel, so I suppose you would not expect to see some of the signs of colonial rule. On the other hand.

-The male lead wears a queue. Would a follower of Liang Qichao outside China in 1911 have done that? I know that in some contexts on Taiwan keeping the queue was a sign of anti-japanese feeling, but obviously cutting it off was a sign of being a radical modernizer, which is what he seems to be. Is this a mistake or was Taiwan different?

-When one courtesan is sold the contract is in Chinese. Would a legal contract have been in Japanese by that point? (I did not see the date on it )

-The only signs of Japanese rule or of any change at all is that the money used to buy the one girl is Japanese-issued money.

I was just bothered by that fact that the whole segment (physically at least) could have been set in 1860 or 1720 for that matter. Both of the other segments had a strong sense of place and time, but not this one. It seemed to me like a timeless “traditional China” with the date of 1911 stuck on it. Did anyone else get this impression, or am I ignorant of the material culture of Colonial Taiwan? Or was there some point Hou was trying to make that I am missing?

1 Comment

  1. 1911 signifies, does it not? A wealthy patron purchasing a high-class whore? Businessmen buying out democracy that wants to sell out? The revolution bought and sold like a whore? A commentary on Yuan Shi-kai? Sun Yat-sen? Hard to tell.

    The FLICKR pool for Taiwan before 1946 is here:


    There might be pictures of people with queues. But either way, it doesn’t matter. I sifted through all my picture books of the 1910s and 20s here, and I couldn’t find a single one. But 90% are taken outdoors and everyone is wearing hats; no picture with uncovered heads has a queue.

    Aha! George Kerr writes in Formosa: Licensed Revolution…. that a great queue-cutting ceremony was held in Tainan in 1910. No reason why someone wouldn’t still be wearing one in 1911. He also says that the chinese contracts and agreements were legal in Japanese courts when they carried out the land reform and ownership rationalization during this same period.


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