concrete houses as a mediating form

i have a problem in my research. because i focus on far ocean fishing, an occupation that many taiwanese indigenous political and cultural activists consider deleterious to indigenous communities, the narratives that i collect can never be authentic from the vantage of either official or opposition discourses of indigeneity. and the houses that men built from their sojourns have no apparent symbolic value from the vantage of local culture. to an approved cultural eye, these houses are invisible. and yet, they reveal histories of the far ocean fishing trade and its attendant ‘amis modernity. making this history visible is my challenge

i cannot make these houses visible through the kind of symbolic interpretation anthropologists have followed since the symbolic turn, however. they look much like any other taiwanese houses built in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in their extensive use of tile, in which i’ve been interested as a kind of taiwanese vernacular modernity. we might, however, think of these tile surfaced concrete houses as a form that bundles several types of desires with state projects for the “improvement” of indigenous communities. and this is where, i think, an anthropological treatment of far ocean fishing might have more traction: the concrete houses mediated between state sponsored development projects and local conditions. as such, an exploration of the concrete houses will get at how indigenous communities were hailed and mobilized as well as a set of local desires and conceptions through which these communities survived

how else are we to understand a 1976 memo from the republic of china (taiwan) ministry of education outlining how to “encourage middle school boys to participate in the far ocean fishing fleet,” or a book describing the urgent need to replace “primitive, casually constructed [sic] bamboo and thatch houses” with “durable, hygienic, and comfortable concrete houses”? when discussing why the men would build houses with the money they earned in the far ocean fishing fleet, men who spent time on the boats will invariably say that they needed to build more “durable” housing for their families. the coincidence in language here suggests hegemony, but i would avoid employing the notion of false consciousness here: rather than a deracinated cohort, the far ocean fishermen built the houses in response to both development projects and ‘amis notions of masculinity, particularly contradictions within the overall kinship structure of ‘amis communities

in other words, while the KMT state sought to assimilate indigenous people in a variety of development projects, far ocean fishing mediated between these state projects, local kinship and age set structures, and personal desires. it is in this sense that the concrete houses are part of a particular formation of identity. you will note here that my emphasis is on form: the far ocean fishing trade crystallized wage labor, experiences in port, local kinship structures, and state agency into a particular form that we could call a vernacular ‘amis cosmopolitanism. the settler colonial state (let me not mince words here, please) desired that ‘amis live in concrete houses, transform a “primitive” kinship system in which men married into their wives’ households into a “modern” one, and that they participate as wage laborers in the far ocean fishing trade. and in fact the latter served as a means for the first two objectives to be met, much as an earlier settler colonial state managed to develop railways and irrigation projects on the east coast, as well as participation of indigenous people in a cash economy, through indigenous wage labor. nonetheless, KMT colonial projects did not exactly coerce ‘amis people to live as modern wage laboring citizens of the republic of china (taiwan): rather, they enticed ‘amis women and men to transform their lives out of real, if limited, freedom to desire modernity in the context of taiwan’s industrial development

the voting habits of indigenous communities through the 1990s and 2000s demonstrate the KMT’s hegemony as a type of consensus in which ‘amis came to be hailed as citizens (of course, as a particular type, shandiren or aboriginals). if there is a disjuncture between the far ocean fishing cohort and discourses of indigenousness today, it may be a signal that the forms in which ‘amis became modern citizens persist in spite of the change in political economic conditions. in other words, some formations are more durable than others, perduring after the particular constellation that created them has been revamped. why has this formation persisted? it might be that the previous hegemony held real promises for a particular kind of indigenous life, promises that some ‘amis people might still want to collect upon

and yet it is difficult to read the ministry of education memo calling for school personnel to encourage middle school boys to sign up for the far ocean fishing fleet, and more difficult to hear that representatives of the fishing companies took boys as young as 14 from school to a nearby port for physical examinations, after which they counseled the boys to convince their parents to let them take to the boats after graduation. but many ‘amis men will tell you, “I have a degree from the ocean academy,” meaning that they studied abroad, learning how to speak some english and various other lessons on the boats. the far ocean fishing fleet certainly afforded teenage men an education, perhaps more than they would have ever learned in taiwanese high schools or colleges of the 1970s and 1980s. yet this particular education meant that they would come to perform an indigenous life distinct from the indigeneity promoted among those token aboriginal students who made it into top tier academic institutions in taipei or tainan. the latter formation of indigeneity of course is the dominant one today. and hence it remains a challenge to narrate the experience of the far ocean fishing cohort within the dominant framework. this is not only my problem, but the problem of real indigenous experience. because the dominant form equally traces a peculiar relationship with the state, but one that denies and obfuscates the patterns of life in communities like ‘atolan today, where concrete houses have long replaced traditional architecture

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