haunted by the party state: far ocean fishing and settler concern

Settler concern for indigenous welfare has often focused on housing. On Taiwan, where I work, the Nationalist Party State focused on houses as the most visible sign of deprivation, targeting houses as the focus for life improvement projects. In many cases, this concern was distributed widely, also to the majority settler population in rural areas of the island. However, directed at indigenous people, such discourses of concern often include kinship along with architecture as needing intervention. Although governments in most settler democracies have shifted to a multicultural model of inclusion, belittling qualities of settler concern remain. On Taiwan one can see, in fact, how discourses of settler concern enrolled “indigenous issues” into the emerging democracy movement of the late 1970s. Concern, of course, is a good thing. But I wonder about how a concern haunted by the party state trivializes indigenous projects of world enlargement and self-determination

loma’ and life improvement 

In Sowal no ‘Amis as in many Austronesian languages, loma’, house, refers to both social and physical structures, architectures of kinship and dwelling. This feature distinguishes loma’ from other dwelling sites (kamaro’an) such as talowan, where people might also work, sleep, and cook. Loma’ include kinship units such as families, but also a broader notion of a community embedded in the loma’ no sfi’ or men’s house. Traditionally, children belonged to the loma’ in which they were born. Women (and to a lesser extent, men) reproduce loma’ in everyday work of feeding and adopting children. Moreover, men reproduced themselves from adolescent boys in the loma’ no sfi’, or men’s house. Thus loma’ are reproductive sites, but not exclusively of a heteronormative (or sexual) type. We could say the same of loma’ as kin groups

The composition of both kinds of loma’ (social, architectural) have been targets of settler colonial power and its associated agencies, such as farmers’ associations, public health departments, and churches. The state in its projects of social amelioration singled out both the physical and social structural form of loma’. Documents on the work of improving indigenous life promoted the replacement of traditional bamboo and thatch houses with concrete. The physical structures of loma’ were the most visible signs of backwardness to state planners. The thatch roofs and capacious, shared sleeping platforms providing space for multigenerational, extended families of women, their male partners, and little boys, lacked partitions for separate sleeping quarters. Described as lacking durability and privacy, the houses appeared unsanitary, an embarrassment to a government striving to develop and modernize the nation as “Free China.”

The loma’ no sfi’, a large homosocial space where dwelt all unmarried men and adolescent boys, also struck modernizers as a pernicious institution. Men who came of age as late as the mid-1960s remember living in the loma’ no sfi’ until marriage or leaving the niyaro’ for work. These men relate that if boys did not report to the loma’ no sfi’ in the evening, a group of young men would arrive at the offending boys’ houses and take away all of the family firewood. Collecting firewood for the loma’ no sfi’ was one of the pakalongay chores. It is difficult in this day of propane stoves and hot water heaters to understand the severity of the punishment, which meant the house would be without fuel for bathing or cooking until someone collected more firewood the next day. This interruption in cooking was, in effect, an interruption in the ability of the loma’–during this time still matrifocal–to reproduce through cooking and feeding

Although the sfi’ was useful for labor mobilization for road building and disaster relief, modernizers within the KMT charged with indigenous welfare denounced the loma’ no sfi’ as unnatural. It did not resemble the virilocal families with two to three children the Party promoted as “model families.”

For families wishing to build concrete houses, far oceaning was nearly the only source of income. The far ocean fishing trade, in which men served two to three year stints on boats plying the world’s ocean for tuna and other valuable fish, articulated with settler colonial projects of improving indigenous life. At the height of the trade, nearly every loma’ in ‘Amis communities along the coast would have several members on the boats. In this context, far oceaning and its material productions, such as concrete slab houses (solafo) became characters in settler discourses of social pathologies. Indeed, it is the failure of indigenous people adequately to reproduce in these “model houses,” villages abandoned by all but elders and small children, that engage settler discourses of concern for indigenous welfare to the present day.

emergence of democratic concern

“My Mother’s Name is Melancholy,” a [1986?] report in Fishermens’ News, a newsletter published by the Presbyterian Church’s Kaohsiung Fishermen’s Service Center, drew its power from a haunting image: A mother sits in the courtyard of an empty concrete house, sighing as she looks at photographs of her two sons, lost at sea. Drawing back from the individual woman, the narrator shows us that the mother is just one of many women, looking and waiting, sitting in identical empty houses in an urbanized village (49-50). Rather than viewing the houses and electric lights as life improvements, the narrative recasts the modernity of the village’s new townscape as indices of social decay. For the narrator, the solafos’ clean tile surfaces reflect ethical unraveling.


As we might expect the account contrasts the village before and after house construction. The first person narrator first describes the practice of uxorilocal residence and multi-surnamed families, lavishing attention on the sweet sounds of people singing in the evening after a long day of agricultural work. Construction noise interrupts this peaceful world of work, song, and worship (44-45). Nearly all of the adults in the village, captivated by the “Model Village” project, clamored for loans to build modern houses. Soon two adjoining concrete houses, one for the narrator’s grandparents and one for the narrator’s parents and siblings, replaced their old house. The narrator, thirteen when the house was completed, lived at the new house only two months before he learns why his mother sighs when looking at his older brother’s photograph. Recruiters for the boats take him to Takaw, where a relative at port tells the narrator that his older brother was lost at sea. His elder sister, he also learns, was likely sold into prostitution in Taypak. Now he, like his second brother already on the boats, “was pulled away and sold like collateral to pay the note on the new house” (48).

The first person narrative equates far oceaning and sex work as parallel forms of trafficking. Our emotional connection with the mother, an upright Christian woman, who was forced by circumstance to sell her children, deflects blame. She and parents like her were coerced into costly model village programs, which ultimately harmed their children. The article never accuses the settler government, but the argument is clear: Rather than improving indigenous lives, government programs abetted dispossession and abuse. As concerned readers, the article suggests, we should support ongoing struggles for democratization and social justice.

After ending with the image of the mother alone in the courtyard of an empty concrete house, the author assures us that the account is the “real story of a youth she met in Pisirian” near Singko in Taitung County (50). This image is a haunting one, yet it might be useful to consider that the author honed her skills as a social activist working with the families of those harmed by political violence in the wake of the 1978 Formosa Magazine Incident, which marks the beginning of Taiwan’s struggle for democracy. The piece works to situate indigenous issues as parts of a larger social movement to which the Presbyterian Church became committed from the early 1980s onward. Thus while I am haunted by the image, I wonder whether it fits too neatly into a settler vision of indigenous people as dependents requiring the ministrations of the state or, in this case, a democracy movement sheltered within the Church. I wonder whether we might allow the image to haunt us with something other than the spectral presence of the party state.

always local? always requiring assistance?

In demonstrating the article’s rhetoric, I do not want to diminish our awareness of colonial dispossession. Indigenous people enrolled in the far ocean fishing trade suffered. The articulation between the trade and settler projects to control indigenous lands and bodies, the link between bad debts and boys sold into the trade, is real; the Kaohsiung Fishermen’s Service Center was–and remains–an important institution for service provision and for documenting the history of the trade. Moreover, protests against the treatment of fisheries labor created conditions for a wider indigenous rights movement in the mid- to late 1980s. My concern here is how we might keep an awareness of the kinds of colonial violence embedded in the far ocean fishing trade while we challenge one feature of the article’s rhetoric, a depiction of indigenous people as always “local” and thus requiring settler assistance. This rhetoric is good for fundraising and reports to donors in Canada, but elides far too much. How might we see concrete houses as something other than ruins, as haunted by something other than settler projects?