35 Generation: Asuka Lee, Editor in Chief of Migrants’ Park
Our Generation Sees ‘Others’ More Openly
Bearing a journalist’s sense of mission, Asuka Lee chose a path rarely taken, writing about anonymous figures hard at work in Taiwan and speaking on behalf of the rights of migrants.
Our Generation Sees ‘Others’ More OpenlyBy Lucy Chao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 632 )
Asuka is the name of a character in the popular Japanese animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as the nickname Migrants’ Park editor in chief Asuka Lee has gone by for two decades. A big fan of comic books from a young age, he once aspired to becoming a cartoonist. Instead, he grew up to become a journalist. Similarly using a pen, instead of bringing to life heroes that save the world, he began writing about the anonymous Southeast Asian people working hard in Taiwan.
“When I was in high school I used to have fanciful notions that journalists could change the world with a pen and a camera,” he recalls. It was with such ideals and aspirations in mind that he began his studies in journalism at National Chengchi University. He remembers watching documentaries on Huang Wen-hsiung(黃文雄) and Jheng Nan Rong(鄭南榕) in Professor Lin Yuan-hui’s class on reportage literature. Watching the films impressed upon him how freedom does not come easily. “I practically watched the two films through tears the entire time,” he recounts. “That’s how strong an impact they had on me.”
Holding the journalism profession in such high regard, Lee sensed the continued degradation of the media environment upon his graduation. Unwilling to become an accomplice to copying dash cam videos or echoing rumor mills, he had no choice but to give up his dream of becoming a journalist. That is, until he fortuitously found himself at 4-Way Voice, an independent media outlet reporting on migrant workers from Southeast Asia and other recent migrants to Taiwan.
“I was looking for people that hadn’t become rigid, who were willing to butt heads and push the envelope,” relates Chang Cheng, founder of Brilliant Time bookstore and then editor-in-chief at 4-Way Voice, with a chuckle. “Someone not fully formed, with a strong sense of justice willing to speak on behalf of immigrants - all qualities Asuka had,” Chang says.
On his second day on the job, Chang Cheng took Lee to “Indonesia Street” near Taipei Main Station, where his world changed completely. “I love searching for fresh new things. This subject and this area were something I’d never encountered before, and I found it pretty cool,” recalls Lee.
One story truly struck a chord with him and his journalist’s sense of mission: while there, he received a series of cartoon submissions to 4-Way Voice featuring the story of a reformed drug addict. Very well rendered, the story was also quite inspirational, and he resolved to look into the source of the cartoons, only to discover that they had been made by a convict serving time in a women’s prison in Longtan, Taoyuan County.
Thinking back on his visit to the penitentiary, Lee recalls seeing a diminutive, gray-haired Filipina grandmother. When he took out her cartoons, “As soon as she saw them, the tears started flowing,” he relates.
It turns out that she had married a Taiwanese man 20 years before. Her husband drank, gambled, and cheated before finally running out on their family, suddenly making her a single mother in her new country. A licensed midwife back home, between the differences in medical systems and the language barrier, she was forced to seek a living working in a factory. In order to feed her two children, she then began dealing drugs, selling drugs to Filipino factory workers. It was only a matter of time before she was caught and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
“Of course, she knew this wasn’t right. But she really had no choice and was pushed to it by the circumstances,” says Lee. “It must have been her sorrow that turned her hair white. When I asked her how old she was, I found she was only 49, although she looked like she was 65,” he recalls.
if only Taiwanese society had treated her better, or been a bit more tolerant of her language gap; if only the social welfare system had lent a little support to her two children for their schooling, perhaps she would never have chosen to make such a deal with the devil.
“If you get down to it, our society knows way too little about these people, and shows too little concern for them. Even so, with 4-Way Voice before and Migrants' Park now, we’re obliged to keep making reports like these.” Clearly, for Lee, this is more of a calling than an interest.
A Mission to Establish Independent Media
Shortly after the untimely closure of 4-Way Voice last year, the former editorial team resolved in May of 2016 to establish the new independent on-line media Migrants' Park, keeping the cause of caring for Southeast Asian migrants and other newcomers to Taiwan going strong.
Lee relates that his reports most frequently focus on foreign guest workers and recent migrants to Taiwan, along with a host of events around the calendar like the Thai Water Festival in April, the Philippine Holy Cross Festival in May, Ramadan in July, Christmas observed by Filipinos in December, Vietnamese Tet, and Chinese occasions like the Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival. “I often go to these events, and invariably am the only Taiwanese reporter there, so I come away with a scoop every time,” he says with a laugh.
“Asuka works hard, and he’s even learning Southeast Asian languages, which makes him as friendly and familiar as a friend to them,” says Annie Ding, an Indonesian host at National Education Radio who worked with Lee for five years as an Indonesian-language editor at 4-Way Voice. In its day 4-Way Voice provided vital legal and health information to Southeast Asian guest workers in Taiwan, while these days Migrants' Park informs Taiwanese people about how they can help new arrivals to their country, Ding says.
Lee observes that 4-Way Voice, with reports in Vietnamese, Thai, Bahasa Indonesian, Tagalog, Khmer (Cambodian), and Burmese, targeted an audience of Southeast Asians, thus excluding Taiwanese readers by its very linguistic nature. Over time, its focus became too narrow and insular, which led to Migrants' Park adjusting its positioning, instead targeting the majority audience of Chinese language readers with reporting on migrants from Southeast Asia for Taiwanese society to read. “We want to influence Chinese-language readers, as they have the most impact on this society, being the ones with voting power. By extension, voters can influence legislators who are open to amending legislation related to these issues,” he observes.
Lee wants more Taiwanese people to understand the culture and stories of Southeast Asian migrant workers and foreign spouses, to ultimately bring about real improvements to the lives of the 600,000 people from Southeast Asia living together here in Taiwan.
Currently, the only full-time employees at Migrants’ Park are editor-in-chief Lee and administrative director Peng Yi-wen, with all other positions covered by part-time colleagues. Looking back, Lee recalls watching his bank account dwindle from June through December last year, just after Migrants’ Park’s founding while he drew no salary. Slowly but surely, public fundraising and cooperative ventures have started to kick in, and operations are finally on the right track.
“There aren’t many media outlets that report exclusively on migrant workers, so Migrants' Park occupies a significant position,” observes Chang Cheng.
“This is not the kind of work where the more effort you put in, the more money you make. It takes more than a little idealism, in my estimation,” says Lee, whose passion has not dwindled in the least in spite of the unstable income.
He is not alone; there are many like-minded people from all over Taiwan, like Taipei’s Brilliant Time bookstore and One-Forty, Taoyuan’s SEAMi bookstore, Taichung’s 1095 culture and history workshop, and Tainan’s Nan-Nan. Despite not becoming a cartoonist creating dreams on paper, he is perfectly happy having become a journalist helping people from other nations pursue their dreams in reality in Taiwan.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman