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Tea Leaf Nation

The Limits of Mandopop

With mainland money flooding into Taiwanese celebrity coffers, activism takes a back seat.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Everyone in Taiwan seems to have an opinion about the island’s controversial trade agreement with mainland China, which would open up Taiwan to further mainland investment. College-age students paralyzed the island’s legislature for more than three weeks from mid-March to early April to protest its hasty passage. Over 100,000 marched on the streets to clamor for its withdrawal. (As of this writing, the pact has not been anulled.) But one group of Taiwanese with a great deal of name recognition, deep media expertise, and ample experience with China has chosen to hold their tongues: Top Taiwanese celebrities, who have observed a studious silence in the weeks of raging debate over Taiwan’s future.

Some celebrities who did speak — albeit sotto voce — are part of mega-popular Taiwanese alternative rock band Mayday. Shortly after students occupied Taiwan’s legislature on March 18, a link to Mayday’s rousing song "Rise Up" appeared on lead vocalist Ashin’s page on Facebook, the social network of choice in Taiwan. On the same day, Mayday bassist Masa closed the coffee shop he owns in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, posting a paper note urging customers to join the rally outside the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s law-making body. "We cannot sacrifice the future of Taiwan just for a bit of business," the note read. Taiwanese fans interpreted these posts as Mayday’s endorsement of the occupation, and "Rise Up" soon became the protest’s de facto anthem.

Even such cursory support for the movement incurred a heavy cost. In the aftermath, China’s largest microblogging platform, Weibo, lit up with messages accusing Ashin and Masa of being "pro-Taiwan independence" — almost an epithet on the mainland — and "breaking the hearts of Chinese citizens." (Ashin has 18.2 million followers on Weibo, while Masa has 320,000.) A few days later, a rumor circulated that Chinese authorities had blacklisted Mayday and banned their music from China’s largest radio station, Music Radio.

The group tried to patch things up, insisting on Weibo that Mayday was in fact not opposed to the trade pact. Ashin removed the "Rise Up" post from Facebook. At a March 22 concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden, he referred to the protests only obliquely, choking up as he delivered an emotionally wrought but vague speech about his concerns for the future. Mayday drew a large adoring crowd at a sponsorship event in Beijing’s Forbidden Palace in early April, refuting the rumor they had been banned. All appeared well again, but Mayday’s brush with the collective ire of millions of Chinese fans surely did not go unnoticed.   

Show business ranks near the top of service industries that are highly integrated between the mainland and Taiwan. Many Taiwanese celebrities enjoy enormous popularity across the Strait, scoring juicy endorsement deals with international brands and Chinese companies. According to Apple Daily, a Taiwanese newspaper, Mayday commanded almost $1 million per sponsorship deal in mainland China in 2013, but less than $200,000 in Taiwan. Other top Taiwanese celebrities posted similar numbers. Ashin, with 18.3 million followers, is only the 17th most followed Taiwanese on Weibo. Actress-producer Ruby Lin has more than 56 million followers, or more than twice the total population of Taiwan.

Higher pay in a larger market is the main attraction for Taiwanese entertainers. An April 2013 article in Want Daily, a Taiwanese newspaper, claimed that Taiwanese stars made approximately five times more if they work in a mainland television production than they would in a local production in Taiwan. The article also states that Taiwanese directors, producers, and cinematographers are paid more across the Strait than on the island. The average budget per episode for mainland variety shows is reportedly at least twice the Taiwanese average, and sometimes tenfold, or more.

As Mandarin popular music hits (also known as "Mandopop") bounce on airwaves from Taipei to Shanghai and Beijing, Taiwanese musicians who have already established deep roots in the mainland cannot afford to lose support from their Chinese fans. In Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations, author Marc L. Moskowitz explains that while the unchecked piracy of cassette tapes and CDs, beginning in the mid-1980’s, helped make Taiwanese Mandopop popular in China, the subsequent downloading of MP3s ultimately caused huge losses for the industry as a whole, dragging down annual revenue from $500 million in 1996 to $94 million in 2005. To remain lucrative, Moskowitz writes, Mandopop bands like Mayday, formed in 1999, have had to rely on profits from concerts, as well as from sponsorship, movies, and licensing deals with karaoke bars. They can make more from all of these sectors in the mainland.    

Chika Lin, a spokeswoman for Mayday’s record label, B’in Music, declined to tell Foreign Policy how much annual revenue the band earns in China, Taiwan, or elsewhere, saying the figures were "classified." But a survey of Mayday’s touring schedule shows just how vital China is to the band’s bottom line. According to a media kit distributed by B’in Music, Mayday performed 71 concerts in front of 2.48 million fans during their NOWHERE World Tour from December 23, 2011, to September 15, 2013. Fifty were held in China or Hong Kong, and only 15 in Taiwan. (Mayday also performed five concerts in Singapore and Malaysia and one in Los Angeles.) In 2012, on the tour’s first two nights in Beijing, all 200,000 tickets to Beijing’s signature Bird Nest Stadium sold out. Ticket prices for an August 17, 2013 Mayday concert at the Bird Nest Stadium ranged from $41 to $330.

Taiwanese celebrities rushing for Chinese gold in China run the risk alienating fans at home who have come to demand more from their performers. Like Western celebrities, Taiwanese entertainers are expected to use their cachet to promote awareness of social causes. Beginning around March 2011, more than a half-dozen controversial domestic issues sparked frequent protests and rallies in Taiwan, creating ample opportunities for Taiwanese celebrities in music, television, film, art and literature to get involved. Among the most popular: Taiwan’s reliance on nuclear energy, legislation to prevent media monopolies, government seizure of land to build an industrial complex, and a soldier who fatally collapsed in 2013 during a punishment training exercise after speaking out against superiors.

As recently as September 2013, Mayday released a single called "Battle Song," its accompanying music video packed with heady symbolism and imagery including sketches of riot police standing behind barbed wire in front of the presidential building in Taipei, and nuclear power plants juxtaposed with mushroom clouds. At the time, Ashin remarked, "Don’t ask me my views about [these] social causes. They are all written into the song." Taiwanese netizens proudly marveled over how "mainstream" entertainers like Mayday "dared to fool around like this."

Now, less than a year later, Mayday’s vacillations on the occupation, also called the Sunflower Movement, have made the band appear Janus-faced. Lin, the B’in Music spokeswoman, explained to FP that Mayday "has never taken a stance on the trade agreement." Taiwanese fans, however, see it differently. In a March 31 open letter to Mayday posted on PTT, Taiwan’s popular bulletin board service, also reported in Taiwan’s mainstream media, an "old Mayday fan" wrote that it is understandable that Mayday’s many "considerations" have rendered the band "unable to continue to have the courage of their convictions." The letter continued, "I can understand the importance of the Renminbi" — China’s currency — "but don’t tell me that the trust Taiwanese fans place in you is not important."

This frustration has cleared a space for lesser-known Taiwanese indie bands — who don’t have as much Renminbi on the line — to channel the Zeitgeist of college-age student protesters. Arguably the most popular is Fire EX, formed in 2000, which wrote what has become the Sunflower Movement’s theme song, "Island’s Sunrise," replacing Mayday’s "Rise Up." In a statement, lead vocalist Sam Yang told FP that he respects the opinions of both supporters and critics of the trade pact, but decided to back the Sunflower Movement because he "cannot accept the sloppy manner in which the government handled" negotiations over the trade pact. Yang said Fire EX, which stood with protesters outside the Legislative Yuan for six days before writing "Island’s Sunrise," views its past and present participation in social movements as a way to "awaken even more people" to the "hardships" endured by others. Fire EX spokeswoman Jean Liu said the band "hasn’t thought too much" about possible backlash from fans in China, even though they performed on the mainland last October.

It’s too soon to tell what lasting impact, if any, the Sunflower Movement might have on Mayday or Taiwanese celebrities who have spoken out, remained quiet, or waffled on the trade-pact agreement. Taiwanese pop singer A-Mei, for instance, was blacklisted in China after performing at the 2000 inauguration of former President Chen Shui-bian, a pro-independence candidate, but later was able to salvage her seemingly doomed mainland career. On April 5, Mayday had no trouble attracting 12,000 Taiwanese to an outdoor performance in Kenting, a resort town in the south of Taiwan.

It’s clear that celebrity tentativeness, backpedaling, or silence on sensitive cross-strait issues can have a chilling effect on Taiwanese celebrity activism, which protest organizers have increasingly used to foster awareness of social and political causes that otherwise might get overlooked. If Mayday, a veteran of the Mandopop circuit, finds itself so easily caught in a cultural tug-of-war between Chinese fans (now a big part of its ticket sales) and Taiwanese fans (who put the rock group on the map), Taiwanese entertainers chasing the China market might find their own celebrity activism increasingly governed by profits, not personal convictions, in an industry whose base continues to pivot toward the mainland. 

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