For eight days in January, five students of the Asian Institute travelled to Taipei, Taiwan to conduct field research. Timed to coincide with Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections, Aaron Wilson, Mimi Liu, Melinda Jacobs, Remi Kanji and Betty Xie conducted academic interviews and filmed footage for a forthcoming documentary on Taiwan’s electoral dynamics, and the significance of the election for Taiwanese democracy and identity.

The election, closely watched by the international media, was significant because of its implications for Taiwan’s relations with China, and the presence of Taiwan’s first female presidential candidate. Students met with members of each political party, the electoral commission, former government officials, and attended political rallies and other observation events. “We were given unprecedented access to Taiwan’s leading experts. The Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped us connect with many opportunities to witness Taiwan’s democracy before and on election night, and our connections through the Asian Institute were invaluable in shaping our experience,” says Melinda Jacobs, a fourth year AI student.

Trip highlights include watching the casting and counting of ballots, attending rallies the night before elections, and meeting with officials in the Canadian Trade Office. “For me, the best part of the trip was being part of it all, each event, each person we talked to about the election changed our perspective of Taiwan and the election.” says Aaron Wytze Wilson, a third year AI student. “The more people we talked to, the more excited I felt about the election day; there really was a tension of anticipation in the air and a feeling that anything could happen.”

The forthcoming documentary will be edited by Betty Xie over the coming months. A second year Asia Pacific Studies student, Betty double majors in Cinema and Asia Pacific Studies and serves as President of the Pan-Asia Student Society (PASS). “In Cinema Studies classes I was taught the traditions, forms, and political potential of documentary, but I don’t think I fully appreciate such knowledge until I held my camera, running down the street to interview pedestrians, standing among the crowds of KMT or DPP supporters to capture the hope on their faces and walking through old alleys in Taipei to record its urban white noise.” The finished product will be roughly 30 minutes, and aims explore Taiwanese identity politics through this election.

The students will be writing a feature article for Dispatches International, and publishing pieces for other academic journals. “We are so thankful for this absolutely incredible learning experience, which has given us a more complex and nuanced understanding of Taiwan and Taiwanese politics,” says Mimi Liu, a second year AI student. “It is one thing to read about Taiwanese identity and cross-strait relations and quite another to get some sense of people’s lived experiences of them – for instance, their frustration and helplessness with regards to Taiwan’s ambiguous international status. We were greatly inspired by this trip and we are very excited about documenting our findings and sharing what we learned.”

Aaron Wytze Wilson is a third year Asia-Pacific Studies and Political Science student. His interest in Taiwan began after seeing Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “City of Sadness” at a Waterloo video store he worked at 10 years ago. He moved to Nanjing, China in 2005 to experience Asia first hand and teach English to less than enthusiastic primary school students. His continuing interest in the region led him to study East Asia at the University of Toronto, and is currently based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University in a foolish attempt to perfect his Mandarin Chinese. This was his first trip to Taiwan.

Betty Xie is a second year Cinema Studies and Asia Pacific Studies Student. Her academic interest centers on cinema as an ideological apparatus in contemporary Asia. A cinephile and devoted book lover, her understanding towards Taiwanese culture prior to this trip was rooted in the Taiwanese films and literature. After the trip, she is excited and unsettled by many new perspectives she has gained and looks forward to present them in the documentary.

Mimi Liu is a second year student specializing in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region. She is fascinated by Chinese politics, foreign relations, and China-Taiwan-US relations. This trip was Mimi’s first to Taiwan, and she fell in love with the friendly people, progressive culture, and democratic ethos.

Melinda Jacobs is a fourth year International Relations Specialist. Melinda became interested in Taiwanese politics following her experience at Fudan University, and participating in JPA411 Global Taiwan. Although she speaks no Mandarin, Melinda was captivated by the Taiwanese political culture, and their passion for democracy. Following graduation, Melinda is considering returning to Taiwan to learn Mandarin and to eat all the dumplings she can.

Remi Kanji is in her final year in Asia-Pacific Studies and International Relations. This is her second trip to Taiwan – she returned to witness the intense and interesting political discussions occurring prior to the election and to enjoy internationally renowned Taiwanese cuisine. The trip has inspired her to restart learning Chinese. Remi is also extremely interested in development work and has spent the last two summers living, travelling, and doing research in Indonesia.