By Jocelle Koh & Matt Taylor
In an overwhelmingly positive and progressive move, Taiwan announced in February 2018 that it would be moving full speed towards a blanket ban on single-use plastic drinking straws, takeaway beverage cups, plastic bags and disposable utensils by 2030, one of the farthest reaching bans on plastic in the world. Originally promoted by the government since the early 1990s due to worries about diseases and cross-contamination, single use utensils and plastic bags soon became a huge problem, producing over 160,000 tonnes plastic waste annually. As a result, there have been consistent efforts by the government to become more environmentally conscious since 2000. Although this may seem an unwieldy task for residents outside Taiwan, locals have already had a culture of environmental friendliness going for years; something which has been reflected in their music scene in a big way.
And when we say ‘big’, we don’t mean a huge gaggle of artists releasing songs about loving the earth in one spurt because it was trendy before petering off to a dying trickle. We mean a consistent and encouraging history of artists within the Taiwanese independent and mainstream scenes who have expressed their concern at the state of the environment, and used their influence and visibility to keep the cause going. From Luo Ta-Yu in 1984 to Wang Leehom in 2007, and the aptly titled ‘Quit Plastic Poison’ by the Sheng Xiang band in 2016, here’s a crash course on how Taiwanese music’s authenticity and outspoken nature has lent itself perfectly to the island’s journey to greater environmental wellbeing.
Luo Ta-Yu – Super Citizens 超級市民 (1984)
It’s impossible to overstate how influential veteran singer Luo Ta-yu 羅大佑 has been on the development of popular Chinese language music. Since his initial contribution to the campus folk movement (校園民歌運動) of the 1970s, Luo has deservedly been credited with not only broadening the horizons of Chinese music sonically, but also setting a new model for lyricism in Mandarin. Luo’s lyrics, conversational in nature, often touch on social responsibility and political problems with a critical strain of dark humour, which has meant that on many occasions, his music has been banned in both Taiwan & China.
One of the finest examples of this is 1984’s Super Citizen 超級市民, a scathing attack on the environmental and political problems of 1980s Taiwan, deemed so dangerous to society that it was resolutely banned by the then authoritarian government. Over an infallible beat, representative of the slow and constant rally cry against injustice, Luo laments about the pollution that has engulfed his hometown Taipei:
“That year, we sat by the Tamsui River, watching the trash in Taipei blow around in front of our eyes/A mountain of smoke blew in the distance – a pile of garbage was set alight. We cheered/My dear Taipei citizens, in colourful Taipei, the trash will never end/Until we unite as one heart”
Alongside the environmental issues, what Luo attempts to convey is that in order to make a change to how the government behaves in terms of protecting the environment, it is up to the people who live there to make a difference. Until everyone comes together to fight against injustice and environmental degradation, the problems will continue. Indeed, we have to be Super Citizens.
Labor Exchange 交工樂隊 – Let Us Sing Mountain Songs 我等就來唱山歌 (1999, Album)
Originally four college students who attended environmental protests, the members of Labor Exchange 交工樂隊 were galvanized by the Anti-Meinung Dam Movement (美濃反水庫運動) in 1993, and decided to use the power of music to bring attention to a geographically catastrophic building project disproportionately affecting a politically weak group of people.
Described as rock music with Hakka instruments, Labor Exchange cleverly incorporated Hakka elements (every track was sung in the Hakka dialect 客家語, and instruments such as the Three String 三弦 were used in place of electric guitars), whilst combining them with essential elements of rock music, creating powerful, anthemic environmentally-conscious protest music, tailored to fit the movement’s goals.
The result was 1999’s Let Us Sing Mountain Songs 我等就來唱山歌. The album was referred to by many as rock and roll for farmers, a tribute to those who lived in Taiwan’s remote villages, and was a statement about the continued intrusion of large conglomerates on the traditional rural life of Taiwanese aboriginals. Recorded in an old tobacco factory, the record is rich in lyrics depicting the struggles of indigenous peoples, rural life and the challenges they face from urban development.
Highlights include Night Bus 夜行巴士, which depicts an old farmer’s emotions as he travels to Taipei to protest unlawful encroachment on his land (“Were the government really doing something/ farmers would have been well-off/ instead of waiting until over sixty/ an age too late to change careers and too early to die”), If the Dam can be Built, S**t can be Eatable 水庫係築得, 屎嘛食得, and Our Ancestry is Written in the Tamsui River 下淡水河寫著我等介族譜, which depicts the innate relationship between rural villagers and mother nature. Closing track Reunion highlights the issue of economic migration to urban areas, and the effect this has on the loss of connection between these young people and their heritage.
Labor Exchange were awarded Best Producers and Best Songwriters at the 2000 Golden Melody Awards for their exemplary work, and more importantly, brought the attention of the nation to the environmental issues close to their hearts. Perhaps more importantly, they remain an inspiration to others who want to make a difference through music, evidencing that protest music has a place in Taiwan. Although the band disbanded in 2003, lead singer Lin Sheng Xiang has also continued to use his music as a form of environmental activism until today, something which will be further discussed towards the end of this piece.
Wang Leehom -改變自己 Change Me (2007)
Often regarded as one of the most influential pioneers for racial issues within Mandopop, yet another issue Mandopop King Wang Leehom has discussed and rallied extensively for is saving the environment. Although his passion for environmental issues has been present since his 1996 album ‘Nature大地的窗口’, the influential Taiwanese-American’s most significant act of musical-environmental activism to date was the dedication of his 2007 album ‘Change Me 改變自己’ to raising awareness for global warming. Not only were songs on the album written to address the issue at hand, but the album itself and its promotional strategies were extensively used to increase awareness. ‘Change Me’ was printed entirely out of recycled paper, with some including sets of reusable chopsticks and tote bags. Furthermore, an auction of Leehom’s clothes was held in lieu of this, with all proceeds going towards planting tree saplings to offset our carbon footprint. The album sold more than 1 million copies within its first month of release, and topped the IFPI charts that year, clocking in as one of the top ten best-selling Mandarin albums that year.
Leehom’s first single ‘Change Me’ was the song on the album that was the most direct and memorable call-to-action, using an upbeat and uplifting rock arrangement to drive listeners to think positively and take action. The song’s lyrics also encouraged audiences to change their habits and themselves in order to make a difference for the world. This became especially prominent as he sang: “Today I got out of bed/Felt a headache coming on/Perhaps it’s all the carbon dioxide/Not enough oxygen”. Using a positive and more mainstream-friendly approach to spread awareness for environmental awareness, his ability to appeal to a wider audience and his dedication to the cause have rendered Leehom a prominent figure in the island’s move towards a heightened consciousness towards the environment.
Kou Chou Ching 拷秋勤 – Gray Coastlines 灰色海岸線 (2009)
Hip hop troupe Kou Chou Ching 拷秋勤 has agricultural roots, with Kou referring to a harvesters scythe, and Chou Ching referencing the hard work of farmers during the autumn harvest. Inspired by numerous aspects of Taiwanese history, politics & culture, Kou Chou Ching infuse traditional Taiwanese melodies and instrumentation with a number of Aboriginal languages over typical hip hop beats.
From their 2009 socially conscious album Unsung Heroes 無名英雄, Gray Coastlines 灰色海岸線 highlights the environmental issues that have decimated the natural beauty of Taiwan’s seaside, and is meant to act as a method of self-reflection – in order to enact change, we have to face the brutal reality of the man made situation.
MC Fish Lin 河洛語, who wrote the track, directly targets what he sees as the primary contributors to the problem. He issues a scathing critique against the nuclear reactors for ruining the landscape with large, visually unappealing concrete structures, and this is followed by targeting the illegally established factories for dumping waste (including decomposing animal carcasses and poisons) into the water, admonishing them for their lack of morals. He then launches a tirade against the government, accusing politicians of participating in bribery in exchange for destroying the western coastline of Taiwan in favor of developing transportation links.
The attacks continue. Coral has been bleached, marine life has been decimated, the water is colored and dirty. The ocean is crying, and we continue to hurt it. He asks the elders of childhood village; what happened to the coast next to the village, where as a young boy, he would diver into the clear blue water? Because now he can’t see it, all he sees is a junkyard.
An incredibly bleak song, it acts as a stark wake up call to the listener, and is a call to arms for anyone who cares about preserving the natural beauty of Taiwan, not just for us or our children, but for the future of Taiwan.
Hebe Tien – Insignificance 渺小 (2013)
Inspired by Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem ‘Under One Small Star’ to create a song that captures her concerns about the Earth, indie pop darling and member of S.H.E Hebe Tien kicked off her third album on a striking note with her single ‘Insignificance’. Beginning on a more bleak note, the single was a daring and revolutionary foray into electronic folk that perfectly captured feelings of helplessness and insignificance at the world’s unfortunately events.
The lyrics were particularly upfront about their criticism of mankind’s impact on the environment, with the song making various imagery-filled references to global warming and the effects of pollution. The first two lines of the song go as such: “The most bustling cities Why do they bring the most lonely polar bears/Why do the most innocent children walk across the dirtiest rubbish dumps”. Surprisingly, the song was a runaway hit, not only within Asia but also overseas, with many international audiences especially across Europe taking notice of the chanteuse on a mission, accumulating over 17 million hits on YouTube. While filming the music video in Iceland, Tien also mentioned how witnessing a falling ice cap really ran the point home for her, causing her to feel truly helpless in the face of global warming. Despite the somewhat pessimistic nature of the song, its success and critical acclaim were nevertheless important in gaining visibility for the issue in ways unique from the normal ‘heal the world’ deal the pop music world half-heartedly doles out.
Sheng Xiang Band -戒塑膠毒Quit Plastic Poison (2016)
One of Taiwan’s most passionate and critically acclaimed activist/singer-songwriters, Kaohsiung native Lin Sheng Xiang has been a longtime influence on the Taiwanese music scene’s relationship with environmental activism; first as part of various bands; most notably as frontman of The Labor Exchange Band (as covered above in this article) until they disbanded in 2003.
Following this, the seven-time Golden Melody Award Winner has continued to work with various other bands of individuals to spread deep-rooted awareness of environmental issues that affect his hometown, the Meinong district, as well as wider society through his music, sung exclusively in the Hakka dialect. In 2016, together with the Sheng Hsiang band he released ‘Quit Plastic Poison’ , a folk rock piece about the impact of our plastic use on our oceans and sea life. Using an earthy mix of acoustic guitar, jazz drums and the Chinese Suona to instill a sense of reattachment with their cultural roots and nature within listeners, Lin beseeches listeners to stop their addiction to plastic poison through gentle, yet sorrowful lyrics.
During live performances, Lin often engages in lengthy explanations of the meaning behind his songs; using the live, festive atmosphere to rally support for his movement towards the alleviation of particular issues to do with the environment. At the Simple Life Festival in 2017, he spoke at length about ‘Quit Plastic Poison’, particularly encouraging audiences not to use plastic bags as by 2050 there’s estimated to be more garbage than sea life in the ocean. Lin’s efforts in the area of musical and environmental activism have arguably surpassed many others and lasted the test of time. His tireless devotion to the cause; as seen by the recent announcement of the 2020 plastic bag ban, has fortunately paid off.
Taiwan’s resolve in light of the strict plastic bag ban has shocked many global media sites with their unparalleled dedication to environmental sustainability. But this shouldn’t shock anyone. Whether it be the infamous recycling trucks that sound Fur Elise as they navigate the streets of Taipei, a $59 billion investment in solar power, or the introduction of legislation to protect Taiwan’s indigenous species, Taiwan is at the forefront of environmental awareness.
While France banned single-use dishes and cutlery in 2016, and Scotland aims to ban plastic straws by the end of 2019, none have even come close to the promises that the Taiwanese government’s Environmental Protection Administration are making in an effort to clean up the streets and promote sustainable habits island-wide – a result of a vibrant civil society that has demanded further action from its representatives. Due to a martial law that spanned 38 years and their looming problems with international diplomacy, the island is still having a hard time being known for anything other than an irritant between China and U.S. relations. However the island’s recent ruling last year in favour of legalising same sex marriage and their fervour for environmental consciousness are landmark events that demand international recognition, setting Taiwan on a positive path towards becoming a bigger interest within the global community.