The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is Ramadan. During this month, almost every Muslim abstains from all kinds of food or drink during the day until the fast ends in the evening. Even if they are not currently living in a Muslim country, they still adhere to this Islamic tradition.
In 2012, Indonesian migrant workers who had just finished their month-long fast sat on the ground inside Taipei Main Station, sharing beautiful food and humbly celebrating the end of Ramadan. In no time, the hall was filled with tens of thousands of people. After this event, a cordon started to be put up around the hall of Taipei Main Station every weekend, preventing migrant workers from gathering there.
After receiving strong criticism, Taipei Main Station took down the cordon, but this move was not nearly enough to bridge the distance between Taiwanese people and migrant workers. The cultural conflict between these two groups originates from 1989, when Taiwan started to recruit construction workers, factory operators, carers and domestic helpers from Southeast Asia. Because migrant workers from this region are generally low-paid and hardworking, they have been so welcomed by Taiwanese businesses that their number has increased to 570,000 in Taiwan, not to mention another 40,000 “runaways”.
Migrant workers pay excessively high agency fees to get to Taiwan, where they are paid little and do not have regular holidays. Sometimes they are even treated badly due to improper management, which might have been the cause of a demonstration against maltreatment on an MRT construction site in 2005. On the other hand, Southeast Asians who immigrate after marrying Taiwanese spouses do not necessarily have a better life. Even those who have not come to be labourers are often subject to discrimination simply because of their accent or appearance.
Eight hundred thousand Southeast Asian migrant workers had to wait until the appearance of the newspaper 4-Way Voice before they could find any psychological comfort in Taiwan.
An “illiterate” started the newspaper with the highest sales rate in Taiwan
This newspaper in five languages was able to be born despite all sorts of suspicions and doubts entirely because former chief editor Chang Cheng had experienced similar difficulties to those faced by migrant workers.
Chang Cheng used to work as a journalist at Lihpao Daily before he decided to suspend his work and instead attend a Southeast Asian studies graduate institute. During his time as a student, he even went to Vietnam for a short-term language programme. However, in Vietnam, he could not even express himself accurately in his daily life when ordering food or going to a barber shop, let alone when undertaking research in Vietnamese.
After four months, he came back to Taiwan without having made any progress on his thesis. One day, Lihpao Daily’s publisher suggested out of the blue that someone should create a newspaper for migrant workers in their native languages. Upon hearing the idea, Chang Cheng felt both surprised and excited. However, as he knew his Vietnamese language skills to be just kindergarten level, he needed to bring the news he chose at his office during the day to an immigrant selling takoyaki at a night market who was willing to help with translation.
In 2006, 4-Way Voice was officially launched. Finally, Vietnamese migrant workers could read in their native language in a foreign land. Their long pent-up desire to write was also released, as waves of letters flooded Chang Cheng’s office. Many migrants even sent to the newspaper office articles for publication that they had secretly written on calendars, leaflets or toilet paper in fear that their employers would discover them.
Despite a great reaction from migrant worker communities, Chang Cheng was becoming more and more nervous, saying “What on earth are they writing about? What’s on their mind?” He who sarcastically called himself an “illiterate newspaper publisher” went again to his immigrant friend, who he asked to read all the letters and tell him what were they about. Later, she was invited to work with Chang Cheng at the newspaper, leaving the takoyaki business to her husband.
Out of a desire to help the public, the team started off by placing newspapers in many Southeast Asian grocery stores and posting newspapers to subscribers free of charge. Later, when they found out that some employers were secretly discarding the newspaper, they decided to talk to convenience stores about the possibility of consignment sales in order to increase its accessibility.
However, convenience stores rejected the proposal, worrying that the sales volume would be too small. In the end, only some small-scale businesses agreed to work with them. But to everyone’s surprise, 4-Way Voice reached an 80% sales rate, much higher than any other newspaper. After that, the most widespread store in Taiwan, 7-Eleven, finally agreed to stock the newspaper on its shelves.
Defeated by smartphones but revived with the help of multimedia
In response to the nostalgic support it received, 4-Way Voice was expanded from 16 pages to 80 pages and its circulation increased from 4000 to 38,000 copies. It later also published Thai, Indonesian, Filipino and Cambodian versions. Because of its specific audience and language advantage, the team never worried about being replaced by a competitor.
However, unexpectedly, it was not other newspapers that they should have been worried about anyway, but smartphones instead. “Migrant workers didn’t have access to televisions, movies or magazines before, only newspapers. Now that they all have smartphones, they can read what they want to read and express their opinions on Facebook. They don’t read newspapers anymore,” said Chang Cheng. The newspaper used to receive more than 300 letters a month, but this has now dropped to only three letters.
However, Chang Cheng saw the silver lining to this change. In 2013, he established 4-Way Voice Culture and Creativity Ltd and set up “4-Way Gallery”, to which migrant workers were invited to submit artworks that would later be displayed around Taiwan. Every weekend, he also went to construction sites, fishing ports, railway stations, dormitories and other places, randomly inviting immigrants and migrant workers to sing and talk to their relatives via camera. Many people were so moved that they shed tears as they spoke. These moments were recorded and edited into a YouTube video called “Singing 4-Way”, which was even broadcast on television.
Chang Cheng has also organised the “Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants”, soliciting the participation of migrant workers, immigrants and their children, and encouraging them to write in their mother language. In 2015, Chang Cheng opened “Brilliant Time Bookstore”, which encourages Taiwanese people who travel to Southeast Asia to bring back a book that they “cannot read” and lend these books to immigrants and migrant workers. In the same year, he invited all kinds of stores around Taiwan to install a small bookshelf, sending them these books for display. Today, there are already more than 30 stores participating in this project.
Even though working conditions are unlikely to be changed through art and cultural activities alone, the 4-Way Voice team is trying to remind the Taiwanese population that migrant workers are humans of flesh and bone who also laugh and cry. Just as the team might have wished, Taipei Main Station has finally set up a prayer room for Muslims, where blankets, washing equipment and an indicator of Mecca’s direction are provided. This move has totally surprised many Indonesian migrant workers and heralded a new chapter of ethnic integration in Taiwan.