New Taiwan TV series tackles sensitive issue of race and makes it to Netflix

Screenshot from the series “Port of Lies” from the Mirror Fiction YouTube channel.

This story by Yeh Kuan-yin and Chung Yu-chen originally appeared at Focus Taiwan, the English-language branch of Taiwan's Central News Agency (CNA). An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.

A Taiwanese TV series called “Port of Lies” (in Chinese: 八尺門的辯護人) is addressing one of the most sensitive issues in Taiwan today: race. Indeed Taiwan was initially inhabited by Indigenous people — who make up less than three percent of the population today, and is also home to a large population of migrants largely from Southeast Asia. The series was released on Netflix on July 24. 

“Port of Lies” by lawyer-turned-director Tang Fu-jui (唐福睿) is adapted from a namesake novel also written by Tang. The story starts when public defender Tung Pao-chu (佟寶駒), a member of the Amis tribe, one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, is assigned to defend an Indonesian migrant fisherman accused of murdering an Amis boat captain and his family. Tung leads a defense team composed of Lien Chin-ping (連晉平) from a renowned family of legal scholars and Leena, an Indonesian caregiver who serves as a translator. As the team looks into the case, they uncover a plot that involves government officials and businessmen.

In a recent interview with CNA, Tang said that when he first came up with the story, he wanted to address the issue of the death penalty, which still applies in Taiwan,  and tensions around ethnicity, which led him to recall a case from 1986 in which a person named Tang Ying-shen (湯英伸) of the Indigenous Tsou tribe, was executed for murdering the employer's family, despite being subjected to forced labor and mistreatment. In “Port of Lies,” the protagonist, named Abdul-Adl, who also faces the death sentence, endures abuse from his employer and has his passport illegally confiscated, something that remains a problem in Taiwan.

Fiction tells reality best

With more than 30 years separating the Tang Ying-shen case from the fictional story detailed in the TV show, the director wanted to consider how a similar event from the past would unfold in a modern-day setting. According to Tang, ethnicity is sensitive in all countries because the majority population often fears that resources will be shared with others and frequently overlooks problems faced by people of different races, thus treating them as second-class citizens.

“In the past, it was Indigenous people; now it's migrant workers [treated as second-class citizens], and in the future, another ethnic group could replace them,” he said. The ending of the story makes viewers question whether the law can be trusted. Tang himself believes that although the law is not perfect, it is the only recourse people have. “Believing in the law doesn't mean refraining from questioning it; on the contrary, we should continuously challenge [the law].” He points out that although the law changes slowly, it strives to improve.

While urging the public not to lose confidence in the law, he said the pursuit of fairness and justice or caring for the human rights of minorities has no end point, adding, “This is a struggle that never ends.” Tang noted that even though society may seem to never change, there are gradual differences in many areas, and groups of people strive to change things. This is the message of “Port of Lies” which he hopes will resonate with viewers.

With a master's degree in law, nearly 10 years of legal training, and five years practicing law, Tang said he has spent nearly half his life immersed in legal issues, and his interest in the field is set to continue — whether in life or the creative process, which allows him to showcase his core principle: caring about human rights. Tang explained that human rights are an issue of direct concern to “minorities” because the majority can defend itself and has more resources to protect its rights. From a lawyer to a creator, Tang notes that as a former lawyer, his primary concern was the best interests of his clients, and he only took individual cases. “You can only accomplish one thing at a time, if you still have ideals in law and hope for justice. In contrast, storytelling allows you to touch more people.”

For instance, during the heated debate in Taiwanese society over the death penalty, Tang noticed that the two sides seemed to adopt positions that are sharply divergent, making it difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue. “A story can provide a starting point for a conversation. When we have all read the same story, we gradually understand what each other wants to say and identify the points of difference.”

In “Port of Lies,” the story discusses controversial topics extensively such as the death penalty, migrant workers, and racial discrimination. Tang admitted that he was a little bit worried about touching on such issues but suggests that a good story naturally unsettles or offends certain individuals. “If my creation can reflect reality and expose the truth, then I have enough ground to face criticism, which also compels me to be more careful when handling [these issues].”

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