Chinese New Year in black and white



February 15 2010, the date the TELDAP newsletter was published, was the second day of Chinese New Year, the time when married daughters traditionally return home to visit their mother. How did you pass the Chinese New Year? Despite many being government propaganda films the black and white news films in Chinese Taipei Film Archives give us a view of Taiwan in the mid 20th Century. Let’s watch these old films and see what Chinese New Year in Taiwan was like in days gone by.

This film “Celebrating the Chinese New Year in the provincial capital” was shot in Taipei in 1948. Taipei was the provincial capital until the provincial government moved to Taichung in 1956. The February 28th Incident occurred just a year before and the wounds were still not healed, however, the people are happy and smiling as they go to hike on Caoshan (Yangmingshan) which was a popular New Year activity. From this film we see another face of 1940s Taiwan.

In 1953 the Korean War was coming to an end. Although the military stand-off across the Taiwan Straits that was to last for 50 years had just begun, the KMT government was already firmly in position as a strategically important outpost in Asia of the US led “Free World.” The servicemen who were ready at any time to spill their blood to “reclaim the mainland” were the most revered members of society in the ROC at the time so every time there was an important festival activities to entertain the servicemen would be held. In this news film we see that even after just seven or eight years of government Taiwan’s aborigines had become part of the state system, with the young and beautiful aborigine girls mobilized to sing and dance for the troops on the outlying islands. Han-aborigine and gender relations of the time are worthy of study.

On a lighter note, part of this film is about” overcoming difficulty.” Today it is widely known that servicemen and civil servants can’t have other jobs but in the 1950s when government had a large deficit and couldn’t afford to raise the salaries of government employees, servicemen, civil servants and teachers, whose salaries were fixed, had a tough time. Materials were in short supply and US aid had not begun to flood in. To help government employees get by the government launched the “overcoming difficulty movement” encouraging government departments and ordinary people to use all easily available materials and labor that could be used without cost in production. The result was that even the soldiers stationed on Kinmen had to grow vegetables or rear rabbits as well as stand guard. As well as its economic benefits this movement helps to foster a positive way of thinking and was a form of “spiritual mobilization.” Through the concerts held to entertain servicemen and the information broadcast by the media the public developed a closer material and spiritual link with the front line troops, and this provide a solid mass base for later mobilizations.
Interestingly, the subtitles in the film say “Without visiting Kinmen you don’t know how great Kinmen is”. Indeed, Kinmen has played an incomparable role in Taiwan’s post WW2 military history. However, in 1953 it is certain that the servicemen and people on Kinmen  didn’t know then that the most testing time of their whole lives (the 1958 artillery battle) had yet to come.

Lantern Festival, 1958. In the first half of 1958, before the artillery battle, Taipei was gradually recovering from the effects of war, the economy was improving and the people began to enjoy various traditional festivals once again. This film shows a Lantern Festival activity held at Qingshan Temple in Taipei. We first see stationery animal lanterns and lucky lanterns, then the lens moves to electric lanterns recreating the decisive scenes in some Chinese myths. The “character” lanterns repeats the same movement but the way the kids in the film still look on expectantly and the crowds filling the temple clearly shows us that in the days when there was no TV, no Internet and no Avatar, viewing lanterns at Lantern Festival was something that both children and adults looked forward to.
These film archives show us the people of Taiwan 50 years and more ago. Even though materials were in short supply, the people still carried on with life and enjoyed the important festivals. The use of what should have been a lighthearted happy festival was used for propaganda purposes, meaning that people could not break free from the grip of the state apparatus even during Chinese New Year …. is a reflection of the harsh reality of those strange times. By watching these films let’s take a trip back in time to those happy days of innocence.
Teldap e-newsletter/ Chen Tai-ying
Text and films are provided by TELDAP e-Newsletter (April, 2010)