INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Valerie Soe on Life Aboard the Taiwan Love Boat

INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Valerie Soe on Life Aboard the Taiwan Love Boat
Credit: Valerie Soe
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Filmmaker Valerie Soe shares her experience of tracing Taiwan's history through the eyes of thousands of hormone-heightened college kids.

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Have you heard of the Taiwan Love Boat?

Launched in 1967 by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission (OCAC) and the China Youth Corps, the program has run for almost half a century and is one of the longest-running summer camps in the world, hosting anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand Chinese and Taiwanese diaspora college kids each year.

The aim was to educate participants on the customs, culture, history and language of Taiwan, and strengthen interpersonal links between Taiwan and the rest of the world,.

But for the teenage and 20-somethings involved, the Love Boat provided space to indulge in a more romantic form of ‘cultural exploration.’

YouTube clips of past trips present a heady mix of cultural weirdness, drunken antics, and even a slave auction, but dodgy behavior aside, Love Boat alumni invariably treasure fond memories of their time aboard Taiwan’s most infamous land cruise.

Since its inception, the trip has since been whittled down, first in 2000 when Taiwan’s the new Democratic Progressive Party government took umbrage at its Kuomintang (KMT) origins, and later as cultural exchange became less of a priority under the administration of KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Now, inspired by her own experience on the trip as a college student, San Francisco State University Asian American Studies professor and filmmaker Valerie Soe stands on the cusp of bringing to fruition a project to document the Love Boat that began back in the late ‘90s.

As she prepares to take on postproduction in the editing suite, The News Lens spoke to Soe about the Love Boat, her film, and what it shows about Taiwan and its history.

LoveBoatTaiwan_FilmmakerValerieSoe_1982_
Credit: Valerie Soe
Filmmaker Valerie Soe feels the love during her time on the Love Boat in 1982.

The News Lens: What inspired Taiwan’s government to create the ‘Love Boat’?

Valerie Soe: The government of Taiwan, which when Love Boat started was the Kuomintang, were very invested in getting global support for Taiwan. In the early mid-70s the ROC was kicked out of the UN, and lost a lot of diplomatic support, including the U.S, which recognized the PRC. Taiwan was out in the cold.

They figured out other ways to get support, particularly in the U.S. – not through diplomatic channels, so they decided to reach out to Taiwanese and Chinese Americans kids and invite them to Taiwan.

TNL: What made the trip so popular?

VS: A lot of immigrants from Taiwan and China were having families and discovering that their kids didn’t know much about Taiwanese history; they were getting very Americanized. On another level, they were worried that their kids would not produce Taiwanese grandchildren. So they were sent their kids to meet other Asian kids. And the kids wanted to go because they heard it was all one big party.

LoveBoatTaiwan_passedout
Credit: Valerie Soe
Passed out passengers on the Love Boat.

TNL: How much of the Love Boat’s romantic side do you think parents understood when they sent their kids on the trip?

VS: I suspect parents knew in the back of their heads. On the surface they thought it would be good for their kids to get in touch with their roots and from there become interested in marrying other Taiwanese.

Some people said their parents told them, “you can only marry a CH/TW person.” So some parents were more actively looking for that – there was a lot of parental pressure – but it was a great trip, all expenses paid, toured around Taiwan in luxury buses, police escort everywhere you went, and not expensive – maybe only US$400 for six weeks, plus air fare.

TNL: Do you have any relationships that held over from your experience?

VS: When I went on the trip, it was pre-internet but when I started working on this movie I posted pictures of people on the trip for a crowdfunding campaign and those people contacted me and said “That’s me! – it’s Ben and Susie.” They had dated but were no longer together.

I’ve met and talked with people since then. I teach at San Francisco State University and one of my student’s mothers went on the trip with me, and I had pictures of her.

love_boat_taiwan_jamie_sabrina
Credit: Valerie Soe
Footage from Soe's return to Taiwan to shoot the modern incarnation of the program in 2016.

TNL: The aim of the Love Boat is to have the people on the trip be involved in supporting Taiwan in some way – did you find evidence of that?

VS: I talked to several people who now live in Taiwan who went on the trip — one guy Belgium, he became enamored with the culture and now lives there. A couple set up businesses: one guy set up Tern Bikes in New Taipei, another one lives in Macau, he’s from Ohio, but he moved back to Asia because of the trip. Maybe there are half a dozen people who have moved to Taipei alone.

One of the people who I talked to was a congresswoman here in the U.S. [Judy Chu] who went on the trip when she was in college – in some ways that’s exactly the kind of person the organizers wanted on the trip — someone who would grow up to become influential in politics, culture or finance, or whatever. There are a whole bunch of well to do people who went and now have means of influence — I’m making a movie about it so it must have worked on me!

There have been several celebrities One of the actors in the Star Trek movies went on it, Garrett Wang, as well as one of the Buzzfeed – he says he ‘literally fell in love with Taiwan’ as a result of the trip. It’s soft power – a smart way of gaining influence.

TNL: How did you go about piecing the documentary together?

VS: There’s a lot of material on YouTube, especially in the late 90s early 2000s. A lot of people shot stuff earlier than that on VHS so they gave me those, and a lot of pictures. When I went, you could get pictures developed in the hour-photo place, which they had in the 80s – that was really fun.

The organizer also put out a yearbook every year – a huge volume the size of a college yearbook. There was no shortage of documentation – people have written articles and blogged about it. It was really a big cultural phenomenon for many years, if you think about a thousand or so kids going on the trip each year – that's close to 30,000 people.

LoveBoatTaiwan_KristinaWong1
Credit: Valerie Soe
Former Love Boat passenger Kristina Wong shares her stories.

TNL: You’re coming to Taiwan to shoot a wedding ceremony of a couple who went on the trip, right?

VS: They met on the trip 10 years ago, lost touch, and got together few years ago and then got married. I just shot their civil ceremony in Colorado, and so they are going to get married in Hsinchu in November.

Many people told me they had met their partner on the trip – and then had children who later went on the trip. I spoke to one fella who went on one of the first ones back in 1968. He’s in his ‘70s now, and he sent both his sons in the ‘90s when they were in their early 20s. If it was still as huge as it used to be they would definitely send their kids in 10 years time.

TNL: How did the trip you went on to shoot the documentary compare with your college experience?

VS: It’s much smaller now. The OCAC will tell you the Love Boat doesn’t exist anymore the form that it used to when there were hundreds of kids on a six-week trip around the island.

The trip I followed in 2016, kids still referred to it as the Love Boat, but it was not really the same. There were only about 100 students and they only stayed three weeks.

I think they now farm out the program to different universities, it’s not centrally located like it used to be and they were in Taichung rather than Taipei. They’ve largely replaced it with other programs — you can go and teach English in rural parts of Taiwan, there’s another where you intern for tech companies called Taiwan Tech Trek, and there’s an academic one where you just learn Mandarin.

LoveBoatTaiwan_MartialArts
Credit: Valerie Soe
Learning martial arts is one of the cultural experiences offered on previous trips.

TNL: Why do you think the government curtailed the program – the government is just as focused as ever on trying to attract talent to Taiwan?

VS: Probably because it was primarily sponsored by the KMT and was very expensive – 1,200 kids every summer fo six weeks – they must have subsidized it quite a bit.

TNL: What are some of the steamiest romantic stories you came across?

VS: Some people are very shy about admitting anything that happened to them on the trip, but one girl who went on the last Love Boat in 2013, she said that it became really unruly and she thinks that’s why it was cancelled.

She said people would drink night and day, and when they went to places like the National Palace Museum they would sleep under tables in the lobby, and that there were illicit relationships – a lack of discipline. I’m sure that no matter how much parents wanted those grandchildren they wanted their kids to be safe – and there were probably liability issues.

LoveBoatTaiwan_disco3
Credit: Valerie Soe
Clubbing in Taipei is a consistent feature of the Love Boat experience.

TNL: Taiwan is engaged in a struggle to preserve its identity amid consistent pressure from China on it international space, how is the Taiwanese American community responding to that?

VS: Here in the U.S. there is a strong movement among young people to call themselves Taiwanese and not Chinese — and reviving various dialects, even identifying as indigenous people.

Taiwan is also perceived as being very LGBT friendly, a place where there is more free speech, especially now with the horrible crackdown in Hong Kong. Taiwan is getting a reputation as a more liberal and progressive place than many Asian countries and that’s getting a lot of support from people in the U.S., so it’s ironic in some ways as there seems to be more awareness of Taiwan and what is happening there even as China is trying to oppress Taiwan and its identity.

The whole thing with the airlines changing their destinations to ‘Taipei, China’ – little things like that. Looking at your Skype ID, it says you live in Taipei, China…

TNL: Where are you at with the development of the film and what do you hope its impact will be?

VS: We're finishing shooting and entering post-production. I must have talked to more than 30 people — way too many people. I’m trying to whittle it down to a workable, interesting story. The history of Taiwan is so complicated, and making it digestible to a general audience is going to be tricky.

People will see how the history of the Love Boat parallels the history of Taiwan in the second half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century – it really does. Taiwan has changed so much since the ‘60s and ‘70s – from martial law to democracy and now its tenuous status. For me that’s really interesting – how the trip becomes a prism of Taiwan’s history and culture.

Those that wish to support the film through post-production, can contribute to Valerie Soe’s crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

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TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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