Little Manila, Taipei, Taiwan


I was on the MRT in Taipei on my way to a rock concert when I overheard a few words in Tagalog. Since I’ve arrived in Taiwan, I’ve been swathed in Chinese conversation. Being a long way from home, the familiar accents piqued my homesickness. I slowly worked up the courage to approach these three Pilipino women and as soon as I greeted them, the women started beaming. They introduced themselves, and after a bit of small talk, I asked them: “Do you miss the Philippines?” One of the women bit her lip, looked up at the ceiling on the train and murmured a quiet yes before she quickly changed the topic.

“Do you go to church?” she asked me.

Normally, it would seem a bit brash to hear such a question from a stranger, but it was one of the most Pilipino things I had heard in awhile! I nodded vehemently and said that I would try to go to the one in Little Manila. The women smiled and gave me directions. Soon I was at my stop, so I told the women that I’d see them at church as I scurried out of the MRT.

My first excursion to Little Manila was my first time traveling around Taipei alone. Within an hour, I was overwhelmed by the rain; my phone’s GPS was going haywire. As I was just about to give up, I saw a sign that was unmistakably Pilipino, and in that moment, I swear my heart dropped.

Little Manila is true to its name. With four stores and a church scattered on the corner of two streets, Little Manila was under- and overwhelming at the same time. Having been away from anything remotely Pilipino, I was craving some comfort food. I inched into an empty restaurant and spotted an elderly woman pop out from the kitchen at the back of the restaurant. As I ordered tocino and rice, I kept staring at her with teary eyes, wondering if she was real. She noticed my obvious homesickness and smiled. She chatted with me as I ate, and we discussed our respective homes, our families, the Philippines, etc.

As I was leaving, she told me to come back on Sunday.

“I’m now your lola,” she said, and I beamed back at her, trying not to look like an idiot.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end up seeing those Pilipinas from the MRT when I went to church, but I hope to cross paths with them again soon. According to the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, there are over 90,000 Pilipinos working in Taiwan; they are the third largest minority group in Taiwan. Most Pilipinos, like the ones I met on the MRT, work in factories. With so many overseas Pilipino workers in Taiwan, you would think there would be a larger Little Manila. The impression that I received from the neighborhood was that the Pilipino residents were trying to make do with what they had. The women in the MRT and the lola in the restaurant both spoke about the Philippines with great nostalgia, a little sigh of longing in their voice.

Perhaps the women feel the same as me. As tiny as Little Manila was, it’s big enough to fit the small, homesick hole in my heart.

Singing, Dancing and Crying: Thoughts on Pilipino Television

One great amusement of going back to visit my folks’ place in New Jersey is their love of Pilipino television. Throughout the day, the television blares a medley of emotive music and phrases in Tagalog. The sounds coming from the TV act almost like an alarm clock; I know what time of day it is, based on which show's opening theme reverberates down the hall. showtime-to-end-soon-abs-cbn

Growing up, I found Pilipino television to be absolutely maddening. “Teleserye” (or, Pilipino drama series) rotate every few months, though it can be hard to tell one from another. There is always an angel-faced “inosente” who never stops crying versus an angry “contrabida” who can be counted on to throw objects and dirty looks. The variety shows are even more bewildering. Scantily-clad dancers gyrate to repetitive pop songs and hand out prizes during game sequences to modestly-dressed winners hailing from faraway provinces, crying in gratitude to accept their winnings.

“These people are being exploited,” my sister said once, as we watched these shows together with critical eyes. And perhaps that is one reason why Pilipino television was and sometimes still is an outrage to me. There is an exploitive quality to these shows: human emotion and relationships are reduced to banal storylines. Glamour and status are reserved for roles played by actors with perfect pale skin and flawless figures. The true-life stories of the Pilipino working class are only told when contestants become champions in some childish game, and then these heroes-for-a-moment are whisked offstage and forgotten once the segment is over. It concerns me that this is what Pilipino culture looks like to the outside world: an over-the-top circus of nonstop singing, dancing and crying.

When I was younger, I often asked my family what value they saw in these programs. Allow me to paraphrase and translate my grandmother’s elegant reply. She said, “People who watch these have nothing to lose. I see hope when someone wins a prize.”

Now that I haven't been living at my parents' house for quite some time, these TV shows stir up more nostalgia than annoyance. Being home, in front of the TV with my parents is one of the rare times and places that I can listen to Tagalog all day, refreshing my memory and keeping the language alive. I can only imagine the joy and comfort the shows can give to Fil-Ams who had to leave their traditions, families and native tongues behind, like my parents. It’s a link to their home, and it’s become a link to home and roots for me as well.

The existing programs on Pilipino television may not be the perfect or even the best representation of the Pilipino spirit, but it’s the best we've got for now. And there are a handful of shows that convey true stories of Pilipinos of all backgrounds (“MMK” comes to mind). My hope is that the first generation Fil-Am community that I belong to will continue to be critical of Pilipino media. I hope that we'll strive to study the richness of our heritage and history beyond what Pilipino pop culture now offers, branching out to reinterpret what we have to create something even better, and more meaningful for future generations.