Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Paper on Parade: Half Mountain – Half Sea

After a short hiatus thanks to increased workload, Paper on Parade is back with a great article in the current issue of Intersections out of Australian National University on women in the Kaohsiung fishing communities entitled:
Half Mountain – Half Sea: Women's Roles in the Fishing Communities of Post-War Kaohsiung, 1945–1975. The article was written by a man, Chen Da-yuan, which has certain implications....

Initially, I had difficulties in interviewing the female relatives of fishers in these conservative and patriarchal fishing communities. However, with help from locals, I gradually earned their trust and successively built up a small social network. Even so, because I am an unmarried male and girls and women are considered the property of their husbands and fathers it was impossible for me to interview the female relatives of fishers alone. There was always at least one male member of the family present. Consequently, the questions I was able to ask the women were always influenced by the presence of these male relatives. Sometimes, however, the information I collected was incidental to the original purpose of the interview with one or other female relative interrupting and having her say to a question I had asked the male relative.

Also, I need to make something clear here so as not to be accused of insensitivity. In Taiwan it is culturally prohibited for a young man to ask an old woman's name, especially before her husband. Hence, the names of the old fishers' wives remain unknown and throughout the paper I can, unfortunately, refer to them only as 'the wife of A' or 'the female relative of B'.
I had no idea that it was culturally prohibited in Taiwan for a younger man to ask an older woman's name.

The article contains a detailed discussion of what women did in this period, including the usual manual labor:

In the early years, fishing nets and lines produced by factories were too expensive for many fishing families. To save on the expenditures of offshore fishing activities some women in the Cijin fishing communities traditionally made fishing nets or longlines for neighbouring villagers. The fishing nets they produced were small and could be used only for the coastal and offshore fisheries.[5] Traditionally, fishing nets and longlines were made from bark thread; some were also woven from cotton yarn.[6] People in the fishing villages had to buy bark at the local shop, and then manufacture nets or longlines on vacant lots in their village. My informant, the wife of Chen Shuteng, explained that making bark thread required two steps: first, the bark had to be soaked in water. After it turned soft it was torn into strips. Second, the strips needed to be exposed to the sun until they dried, after which the strips were twisted into strings. The whole process of making the thread and weaving a net was complicated and time-consuming, because the strings broke all the time.[7] Normally, women in the fishing communities took charge of this task, because it was not too physically demanding but it required patience, which, according to a female relative of Cai Bian, not many men possessed.[8]

In the 1950s, fishing nets and longlines made from bark thread gradually were replaced by factory-made cotton fishing nets and longlines. Cotton-made nets and longlines were sold in fishing tackle shops at reasonable prices which every fishing family could afford. Hence, women in Taiwanese fishing communities were eventually liberated from the burden of making bark thread and nets.[9]

Neither locally made nor factory-made fishing nets and longlines could be used for a long period of time. They easily rotted or tore in the salt water. To lengthen the use-by date of nets made from either bark or cotton, people in fishing communities had to spend a lot of time on the maintenance of these fishing nets and longlines. Some women were hired to do this arduous but important work; however, the money they earned was very little and never enough to help cover the overall family expenses.[10]

Apart from darning fishing nets every day, women also had to clean and add a protective coating on the fishing nets and longlines at least once a week. The protection of the fibre in fishing nets and longlines was an extremely laborious job that required the cooperation of both sexes in the fishing communities. Women took charge of extracting the starch from red potatoes. They grated red potatoes on a wooden board embedded with nails, then they mixed the potato paste with some water, before immersing the fishing nets and longlines into the extracted starch mixture. The fishing nets and longlines were then hung out on racks and exposed to the sun until the starch was totally dry. During this period, the people in the fishing village also had to collect pigs' blood from the pig farms, dry it, and then grind it into a blood red powder. The women would mix the blood powder with some water and immerse the fishing nets and longlines once again—to provide yet another layer of protection from the sea water.[11]

...and something everyone will recognize: handling the money:

Women in the fishing communities were in charge of the money matters for their families, although their social status was comparatively lower to that of men. In Gushan District, a large number of vessel owners' wives, daughters and even daughters-in-law worked as accountants in their fishing companies. There were two advantages in this practice: firstly, it was believed in this Taiwanese culture that women were very good at managing money matters, and secondly, vessel owners did not need to spend extra money hiring an accountant from outside. A well-known murder happened in the early 1960s, when the mistress of Lin M.Y., who served as the Head of Kaohsiung Fishermen's Association, was killed by a fisher after a violent quarrel in the company office simply because she took charge of the financial affairs of Lin's fishing company and the fisherman thought she was cheating him.[25] This practice of women taking charge of the financial affairs of fishing companies still widely exists nowadays. When I conducted my fieldwork in Kaohsiung in 2002, most accountants who worked in the fishing companies were vessel owners' wives, daughters or daughters-in-law.

A fascinating look at a different time, the author is also well versed in the literature on other fishing communities, which shows up in the informative footnotes -- well worth perusing:

Gushan was the cradle of Taiwan's distant water fishing industry. Cijin was a less developed area. Its major fishing activities were aquaculture, coastal and offshore fisheries. The Fishing Ports of Kaohsiung City, Taipei, Fisheries Agency, 2003, p. 9. The Cianjhen fishing port was completed in 1967, which encouraged numerous distant water fishing companies to shift their offices and fleets from Gushan to Cianjhen by the late 1960s. However, Cianjhen fishing port looks like an industrial area; it would be incorrect to regard Cianjhen as a bona fide fishing community.
In addition to the useful text, the article also contains photographs and maps. A good read in a long tradition of work on women and their communities in Taiwan anthropology.

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