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Pan Africana: Taiwan

Posted Oct 5 2009

A discussion with three members of the Pan Africana Cultural Troupe of Taiwan. Music was our entry point but hardly the focus of our conversation as we touched on a number of topics, including being Black in Taiwan and their impact on Taiwanese identity.

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Despite a popular perception of Taiwan as a homogeneous society it’s always been a mixture of cultures, particularly from China, indigenous Taiwanese groups, and Japan, as well as southeast Asia. In recent years this mixture has grown to include more people from the African diaspora. Although there have been individuals of African descent in Taiwan for some time, the community continues to expand and make its mark on Taiwanese society. This is no better exemplified than by the Pan African Cultural Troupe, whose members represent nations as diverse as Senegal, Ghana, St. Vincent, Gabon, and the United States. Among Pan Africana’s activities are live musical performances, fashion shows, and workshops. During a recent visit I spent some time with three of its members, which currently has eight members in total. We first met up at the Insomnia Café in Taipei’s ShiDa district. Perhaps reflecting Taipei’s growing sophistication, I noticed barely any heads turning as three Black men and two Taiwanese of mixed Australian and Mexican ancestry entered the café. Granted, we were near a university, but I still found it to be a pleasant surprise. Of course, Taiwan still has a long way to go in race relations.

Pan Africana is about much more than just music. Its very existence in a country so dominated by Asian cultures is arguably a political act, educating locals while giving voice to a segment of society often relegated to the outskirts. Talking to members Shaibu, a native of Accra, Ghana, Kim, from the Caribbean island country of Dominica, and Harra of Togo proved to give a very insightful view of Taiwan’s constantly morphing sense of identity.

Since its founding roughly five years ago Pan African has made quite a name for itself, performing all over the island for dignitaries, festivals, charity events, schools, museums and night clubs, often performing multiple times in the same day. According to Kim, there are there are many different social circles so even though Taiwan is small island the members feel like they’re always making new fans and connecting with new people. The audience tends to be mixed, with foreigners composing a large portion.
However, the foreigner population is in constant fluctuation, as are the members of Pan Africana, reflecting high turn over due to jobs and many foreigners coming to Taiwan as students.  This has proven to be a challenge, as is the fact that many members are not professional musicians. However, two of the founders, Gee and Alex, were formally trained and imported instruments due to their desire to promote African music and culture. The group has continued to evolve, formally adding Caribbean music forms such as steel band and reggae.

Shaibu, Kim and Harra all agreed that the Troupe has been a difficult undertaking at times and there has been little support at the mainstream level, with fairly little media coverage. Yet as nobody else is providing this type of service the market is not saturated so the potential is limitless. As Taiwan becomes more international more African and Caribbean students are coming over to study, generating more interest in their culture by locals and even a market for commercial recordings. Pan African’s members speak varying levels of Mandarin and Taiwanese, the dominant local languages of the island, which has led to collaborations with indigenous Taiwanese performers and musicians trained in traditional Chinese instruments.

But what brought them to Taiwan in the first place? Although rich in history and natural beauty, it’s not a stretch to say that Taiwan isn’t on most people’s “must see” places to visit, much less move to.

As with just about any country, the majority of immigrants come due to work or school, with those in relationships or with families more likely to stay for the long haul. Both Harra and Shaibu had Taiwanese wives and had been living in Taiwan for eight months and two years respectively.  Although single, Kim had spent the most time on the island, having just finished his degree in Chinese politics, although he planned on sticking around for awhile. Over the years he’s become fluent in spoken and written Mandarin, opening up both social and professional opportunities, including stints on Taiwanese television.

The other two worked in business with Shaibu exporting scooters to Ghana. The Taiwanese police sell confiscated scooters if no one comes to claim them. According to Shaibu these auctions attract a number of foreigners, including Indians, Iranians, and various Africans. He added that many of the Africans in Taiwan worked in the technology and manufacturing sectors. As countries such as Taiwan invest heavily in the African continent it makes sense that the number of Africans flocking to Asia has steadily increased.

Socially speaking,
The Taipei Grand Mosque is a popular

gathering place, as is Da An Park. Soccer is very important with members of Pan Africana playing on the Taipei Black Stars, competing in the Carnegie Premeire League, a 10-team foreigners’ league which includes representation from countries such as Japan, Ireland, and Nigeria. The 18-game season runs roughly six months long, culminating in a foreigners’ cup. For obvious reasons, matches between Ghana and Nigeria can be particularly intense! Although the Black community in Taiwan is not large, it’s still quite diverse and there are divisions from both within and from outsiders.

Over the course of the discussion mention was made of Panamanians, Belizeans, Costa Ricans, Haitians, St. Lucians, and a number of African countries, with Gambians, Nigerians, Malians, Cameroonians, and Liberians seemingly having the largest representation. Overall, the majority of people were in Taiwan as students and few stayed for more than a few years. Although not too much discussion was made regarding individual experiences with racism or discrimination, there was agreement that Nigerians were singled out and associated with running scams on Taiwanese locals. Supposedly Nigerians are so frowned upon by the Taiwanese government that they can’t get visas and Shaibu talked about meeting “Ghanaians” who were quite clearly Nigerian. As more Taiwanese locals become more sophisticated there’s also distinction made between African Americans and Black people from other countries and the relationship between African Americans and other Black people was complex. Still, locals who don’t know geography would group those of Caribbean descent with Africans. It was made very clear that African Americans got treated better than Africans, both real and perceived, in everything from immigration to jobs, to dealing with the police. According to Kim, “even the ladies treat you better. On the dance floor the question comes up. If you say you’re from Africa it could blow up the whole encounter. You can just say New York and they don’t know the difference and you can run with it. The media about Africa is so negative.”

Adding another layer of difficulty is the extreme gender balance. As one example, Shaibu said there were maybe four women from Ghana, compared to three or four hundred men. Overall, they said there a few dozen African women compared to hundreds of men, making them quite popular. Added Kim, “Black girls are very expensive because the ratio is so skewed and they’re in demand.”

Although his affection for Taiwan is apparent, Kim hardly had rose colored glasses about life on the island. “I’ll stay as long as China doesn’t come over. In a sense, Taiwan is an experiment. It’s not a country yet. It’s unstable politically, despite financial success. I’m from the Caribbean, my family has a lot of land. Dominica went from a tropical rainforest. British tried to develop it and grow sugar cane, but that didn’t work out. My grandfather able to buy a lot of land and you see independence happening. You’re able to see progress in Caribbean. In Taiwan, we don’t have people to emulate. It’s hard to see the possibilities here. A lot of locals don’t cherish their own island so it’s hard for us. A blue print would be nice. Beyond Pan Africana, there’s no successful band or even restaurant.”

Unlike more established Black communities in countries such as mainland China and Japan, Taiwan’s still seems fairly young and still seeking stability. The local Black infrastructure is minimal with no local restaurants and few Black-owned businesses. Ingredients for traditional foods are often substituted with spices and seasonings found at Thai or Indonesian grocery stores. Yet with its sub-tropical climate many of Taiwan’s fruits and vegetables are similar. A short-lived Jamaican restaurant had recently closed down, although the cook, a Guyanese-Canadian, still lives in Taipei and continues her catering business and a Sunday brunch. While opening up some, Taiwanese society still isn’t quite sure of what to do with its immigrants, often leading to blatant discrimination. This is despite the fact that as mentioned above, immigrants are not new to the island with some Africans having lived in Taiwan for decades. In fact, there are multiracial citizens of African and Taiwanese descent whose first language is Mandarin or Taiwanese, who only know Taiwan, and consider themselves Taiwanese. Stories of discrimination abounded, yet they naturally considered Taiwan to be home.

Harra and Shaibu were also open to settling down in Taiwan, yet
didn’t seem totally bought into the idea, despite their family ties to the island. Nonetheless, all three were obviously passionate about spreading their culture and heritage and Taiwan is fortunate to have them. The legacy they’re creating has already laid the foundation for increased dialogue and growth on both sides and hopefully locals will appreciate how necessary Pan Africana is to the island being seen as a world class, cosmopolitan nation!

Comments

1. Johnathan H. said at October 11, 2009 10:21 am:

Very interesting. I had no idea there were black people in Taiwan! The world's getting smaller.

2. Kim said at November 21, 2010 3:20 pm:

Wow that is awesome! I'm from Dominica too and I'm looking for work in Taiwan. Great to know there are other Dominican's. Big Up.

3. Daniel said at November 21, 2010 8:36 pm:

Kim, I'm glad that this article was useful and I wish you all the best in Taiwan!

4. paker said at July 14, 2013 1:48 pm:

whats guys, how are doing? do you guys still perform sometime or train, coming to organize you back, i remember shaibu and osman and ebee dancing

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