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Make Room! Chang Cheng’s Spaces for Southeast Asian Voices


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In order to better serve Southeast Asian immigrants, spouses, and laborers living in Taiwan, Chang Cheng has studied Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and Burmese, and lately has been working on Khmer. He laughs at the notion that he has mastered any, much less all, of these tongues, but at least he knows some basic grammar and sentence patterns, which is very helpful for his work.
 

“Yeah, maybe the stories I write are not the most beautifully crafted, and maybe our publication is not the best one out there in terms of quality. But there is something we have that no one else in Taiwan can claim: we are the only ones who do what we do!” Thus declares Chang Cheng, former editor-in-chief of 4-Way Voice, a publication launched in 2006 and aimed at laborers, spouses, and domestic helpers from Southeast Asia. He explains, “The reason I got into this kind of thing is probably related to my long-time ‘habit’ of always being concerned about the disadvantaged and marginalized people in society.”
 

Chang Cheng, born in 1971, formerly worked as a reporter for the Lih Pao newspaper, where he often came into contact with foreign laborers and foreign spouses. His performance improved so much over time that in less than ten years he became deputy editor-in-chief. “But I still kept asking myself whether my reports had any particular value or significance, whether they really made any difference or had any impact at all.” ­Chang then decided to go back to graduate school. “I guess grad school was just a way of avoiding the issues that I would have to think about if I stayed in the real world.”

 


Southeast Asians living and working in Taiwan are also part of our society; “they” in fact are part of “us.”


Escape to destiny

Chang recalls with a laugh that, as he watched his savings disappear while in academia, he was often compelled to go back to Lih Pao to write copy to earn some spare cash. Fortunately, Lih Pao publisher Lucie ­Cheng never gave up on him, and she created the later circumstances that allowed ­Chang to found 4-Way Voice as Taiwan’s first periodical published for the benefit of readers from Southeast Asia.

Chang ­Cheng says that 4-Way Voice was tailor-made for him. And 2006 was “the best possible time for me to undertake a magazine like this one.” The backstory can be traced to Tsai Pai-­chuan giving to Lucie ­Cheng a book he had just translated, D.R. Sar­Desai’s Southeast Asia: Past and Present, which ­Cheng then passed on to Chang. “The more I read,” ­Chang recalls, “the more astonished I became, because I realized that I didn’t really know anything at all about Southeast Asia!” This gave ­Chang the inspiration to major in Southeast Asian Studies when he went back to grad school, which became an important turning point in his life.

At the end of 2005, ­Chang received funding from the Ministry of Education to go to Ho Chi Minh City for field research. In his four months there, not only did his Vietnamese improve dramatically, he also experienced first-hand the sense of helplessness and isolation of living in a foreign land. He could identify much more with Southeast Asians living in Taiwan, and he got the notion to create a periodical specifically addressed to them as readers, written in their native languages, as a way of doing something to help them.

 


Books in Khmer brought back by a donor.


Tailor-made magazine

And how everything fell into place! After he returned from Vietnam, Lucie ­Cheng proposed a new project: to produce a periodical directed at Southeast Asians living in Taiwan. Since it was precisely what ­Chang himself had in mind, she turned the project over to him.

The publication, christened 4-Way Voice, carries articles submitted by immigrants and workers from Southeast Asia living in Taiwan. “Mainstream newspapers would never carry articles like these, but 4-Way Voice enthusiastically welcomes Southeast Asian immigrants and laborers to participate, to describe their feelings and experiences.” 4-Way Voice has caught on with retailers, with the OK Mart convenience store chain starting to sell it in their magazine kiosks in 2009. Family Mart followed suit in 2010, as did 500 selected 7-Eleven stores in 2012.

With Chang pro-actively working to create a lasting structure for the magazine and to get financial support from government and private organizations, by 2011 4-Way Voice was coming out simultaneously in five languages: Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Tagalog, and Khmer. By this time, it had become the most comprehensive Southeast-Asian-language media group in all of Taiwan. In 2015, they have added a Burmese edition.

 


Enthusiastic readers who have brought reading materials back from Thailand.


Literary prize

On International Workers’ Day (May 1) of 2012, 4-Way Voice, in cooperation with China Times Publishing, released the book Escape: Our Formosa, Their Prison, which came out simultaneously in Chinese and Vietnamese. Next, again working with China Times Publishing, 4-Way Voice released Separation: Our Trading, Their Lives (in Chinese). The latest project, focused on the growing-up experiences of the children of Southeast Asian immigrants to Taiwan, is called Wilderness: Our Boundaries, Their Tears (also in Chinese). These books bring the Southeast Asian experience in Taiwan home to Taiwanese readers and record it for the benefit of future descendants of today’s ­immigrants.

After publishing the first two volumes of immigrant literature, ­­Chang left 4-Way Voice in 2013. But he remained passionate about this genre, and he sought out resources to come out with the first “Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants,” with a top prize of NT$100,000, in 2014. In March of 2015 he began accepting submissions for the second year of the award.

When 4-Way Voice had been up and running for seven years, ­Chang and his wife Liao Yun-­chang, along with some like-minded friends, created Taiwan’s first-ever Southeast-Asian-language TV program: Singing in Taiwan. Carrying a camera, they wander the streets in search of amateur singers from Southeast Asia. Thanks to a recommendation from the Social Enterprise Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society, the program later received funding from DBS Bank, and has been able to carry on ­uninterrupted.

After that, ­­Chang had yet another “inspired” idea, which will come to fruition on March 29, 2015 with the opening of the “Creative Cultural Studio: South East Asian Migrant Inspired” (SeaMi). Located at the rear exit of the Tao­yuan Train Station, the space will not only offer reading material but will also display handmade crafts, paintings, and other works created by immigrants, laborers, and spouses from Southeast Asia.

 


"Chang Cheng started up an activity he calls “Bringing Back Books That You Cannot Read” to encourage Taiwanese who travel to Southeast Asia to bring back reading materials and donate them to Chang’s cultural studio for Southeast Asians living in Taiwan. A number of independent bookstores have joined in to accept donated books on Chang’s behalf.


Southeast Asia book depository

In fact, SeaMi is currently more like a library because for now it doesn’t sell books, but does make them available for reading. To try to build up his stock, ­­Chang started up an activity entitled “Bringing Back Books That You Cannot Read.” It encourages tourists, investors, and commercial travelers returning from Southeast Asia to bring back or buy a local book as they come home to Taiwan. Any and every book in a Southeast-Asian language is welcome, new or second-hand, regardless of genre. To make it easier for book donors to get their books to him, ­­Chang works with a number of independent bookstores, stationery stores and eateries in areas with large foreign labor populations, and with the Commonwealth Magazine bookmobile, all of whom will accept books on his behalf. (For more details, visit www.seami.com.tw.)

Since the founding of 4-Way Voice in 2006, Chang’s “Southeast Asia Dream” has grown by leaps and bounds. This is what he has to say by way of an explanatory footnote to all the things he has done along the way: “In fact, I’m not really doing this for ‘them,’ for Southeast Asian immigrants and laborers in Taiwan; I’m doing it for myself. I hope that ‘they’ will have good lives because I want my own life to be better, because I want the place I call home, Taiwan, to be better.”