A documentary showcases why some Taiwanese consider Southeast Asia a land of opportunity

Screenshot from the trailer of the documentary on the of the YouTube channel of the Taipei Film Festival.

A documentary telling the real story of a Taiwanese shrimp expert looking to find success as a foreign investor in Myanmar offers a nuanced portrait of how many Taiwanese misinterpret Southeast Asia. The documentary “Marine Diamond World” (in Chinese: 鑽石水族世界) tells the story of a Taiwanese man who moves to Myanmar and creates the first local white shrimp farm alongside a Taiwanese-Myanmar woman. The movie describes the challenges met by the two business partners in Rakhine state, a seaside region on the Bay of Bengal. It focuses on their efforts to build the farm and then sell their product to high-end restaurants in Yangon. The film won the Grand Prize and Best Documentary awards at the 2023 Taipei Film Awards in July.  Here is a scene from the movie:  

Filmmaker Huang Hsiu-yi (黃琇怡) filmed on location for many years to create this fascinating documentary. Global Voices met with Hsiu-yi to discuss Taiwanese people's perceptions of Myanmar and Southeast Asia and why some in Taiwan consider the region a land of opportunity. The interview was conducted over email in Chinese after a meeting during the screening at the Taipei Film Festival. It has been edited for style and brevity.

Filip Noubel (FN): You mentioned the issue of discrimination towards people from Southeast Asia in Taiwan in a discussion after showing the documentary. What are the roots of this discrimination? How can your film help overcome this attitude? 

黃琇怡: 台灣對於東南亞的陌生與歧視,有很複雜的脈絡。其中一個根源,就臺灣過往經濟發展上,對於勞力上的需求,從東南亞國家大量輸入勞工,以及台灣家庭在社會與經濟的轉變下,30年前陸續有東南亞女孩嫁來台灣,成為新住民母親。這些本應該可以成為文化融合的機會,但歧視無所不在,台灣人在許多地方會展現自己的優越感。就如同在西方國家,也有歧視亞洲人的狀況,這是全世界都有的問題。


Huang Hsiu-yi (HHY): Taiwan's unfamiliarity and discrimination against Southeast Asia has a complicated context. One of its main causes is Taiwan's previous economic development model that demanded labor, which led to the massive influx of workers from Southeast Asian countries, but also caused social and economic changes in Taiwanese families. Thirty years ago, Southeast Asian girls married Taiwanese men and became new residents by virtue of becoming mothers. This could have turned into  an opportunity for cultural integration, but the result is that discrimination is everywhere. Taiwanese people show a sense of superiority in many situations. In the same way that in the West, there is discrimination against Asian people, which is a problem all over the world. In the film, in fact, I can only let the audience understand how to consider foreigners and how to form their own judgment on the basis of different perspectives and values.

FN: The male protagonist seems to both resent and miss Taiwan. He says, “Myanmar is like Taiwan in the '50s or China in the '80s.” Do certain Taiwanese people see Myanmar as a land of opportunities that are denied to them in Taiwan? 

黃琇怡:  緬甸是一個中低度發展的國家,加上她的政經情勢不穩定,對某些人來說,反而看見機會。不是每個人都有膽量這樣嘗試。其實更多中國人在緬甸發展。整個東南亞都是中國的後花園,很多人會到這些國家尋找原料等等的資源,然後輸回中國。我在緬甸遇到許多中國人,都是要把緬甸的蝦子、蝦仁帶回中國去賣。緬甸到處也開著中國老闆的火鍋店。



HHY: Myanmar is a still developing country that also experiences an unstable political and economic situations. For certain people, this is actually an opportunity, but of course, not everyone has the guts to give it a try. In fact, it is mostly Chinese people who invest into Myanmar. Indeed the whole of Southeast Asia is China's back garden. Many people will go to these countries to find raw materials and other resources, and then import them back to China.

I met many Chinese in Myanmar, and they all want to import shrimp and shrimp meat from Myanmar back to China to sell it there. There are also hotpot restaurants owned by Chinese people everywhere in Myanmar. Taiwanese people want to go to Myanmar to look for opportunities. But because the environment there is unstable, they need to have the ability to withstand pressure. The whole thing depends on what sector they want to develop in Myanmar.

Taiwanese people's understanding of their neighbors (Southeast Asia) is too shallow, and this increases the cost of their transition, but also the chances of failure. Because the people's conditions, working methods, personalities, and living needs of each country are different, it takes a lot of time to go to the field to understand what opportunities there are.

In the past, due to economic development and over-farming, the environment was damaged in Taiwan. At present, Taiwanese shrimp farmers are also working hard to improve the quality of shrimp seedlings and to overcome the impact of extreme weather. Regarding overall economic development, I think it is necessary to think carefully whether economic development should indeed be unlimited, or whether it is necessary to leave a better living space for future generations, given that there is a lot of biodiversity in this land.

FN: At one point in the movie, you move from behind to in front of the camera to share complex emotions, partially because the main heroine had a miscarriage during the long period when you made the movie. What made you decide to do this, as documentary filmmakers rarely appear in their movies?

黃琇怡: 我原本非常排斥這麼做,希望我不用出現在鏡頭前,或是我出現的時間不需要太長。但是這對我來說是一種跟自己的「和解」的過程。影片快接近完成時,我覺得還少了「什麼」,以至於讓我無法結束影片。後來我的剪接師說,把我自白的片段剪進來好嗎?我認為可以試試看。


HHY: I resisted this very idea at first, hoping that I would not have to appear in front of the camera, or that the time I would appear would not need to be very long. But this is in fact a process of ‘reconciliation’ with myself. As the film neared completion, I felt like there was ‘something’ missing that prevented me from ending it. Later my editor said, ‘Can I add the part of your confession into the film?’ I thought we could give it a try. In reality, I apologized to the heroine, but those emotions do affect the temporal and spatial narrative of the movie. I found that expressing my apology well in the movie would seem to be the last piece of the puzzle of the documentary. After the editor added my confession into the film, I worked up the courage to watch it, and then had a very clear voice in my heart saying: the film is over, finally over.

FN: The film mixes Taiwanese, Chinese, Burmese and English. Can you explain your strategy for the choice of languages? 

黃琇怡: 影片以台語作為我的第一人稱口白,第一個原因是因為片中幾位台灣人都是以台語交談;第二個原因是我跟男主角在溝通時,是以台語為主要語言,因為我們不想讓緬甸員工知道我們對話的內容;最後一個原因是在東南亞有許多華人,他們的祖先從中國福建、廣東等地,過去因為戰爭等因素而移民過去。我在拍攝過程經常遇到跟我說福建話(也就是台語)及廣東話、客家話的華人。所以最後我決定以台語作為我的第一人稱旁白語言。


HHY: The film uses Taiwanese when I speak in it in the first-person. The first reason is that several Taiwanese people speak Taiwanese in the film. The second reason is that when I communicate with the main male character, Taiwanese is our main language because we don’t want the Myanmar employees to understand the content of our conversations. The last reason is that there are many Chinese in Southeast Asia. Their ancestors immigrated from the coastal provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and other places in China because of wars and other factors. During the filming process, I often met Chinese who spoke Hokkien (that is, Taiwanese), Cantonese, and Hakka to me. So in the end I decided to use Taiwanese as my first person narration language. As for the other languages, the protagonists communicate in Chinese, English, Burmese, and use body language when working in the shrimp farm.

FN: What are the reactions to the movie in Taiwan? Will it be shown in Myanmar?

黃琇怡: 台灣觀眾會因為每個人的價值與生活經驗而有不同的回饋,但基本上都認為這是一部好看的影片。緬甸因為目前是由軍政府執政,政治不穩定,所以現在不太可能有機會上映。但希望有一天可以回到緬甸放映。

HHY: Taiwanese audiences give different feedback based on their value system and life experience, but basically they all think this is a beautiful film. Because Myanmar is currently governed by a military government and is politically unstable, it is unlikely there will be any opportunity to release the documentary there now. But I do hope to return to Myanmar for a screening one day.

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