Interview: Sophie Ping-ya Hsu

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu was a member of Taiwan Voice and is currently the owner of several restaurants in Taiwan. The following interview was conducted on September 26th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did first become involved in Taiwanese activism? What kind of issues were you involved in?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Well, I don’t know if it would be called activism, but I started being involved in Taiwan because I worked at the DPP. That’s how I learned more about Taiwanese politics and its standing in the international world. What they do, what kind of promotions they do, what kind of principles they want Taiwan to move forward with. That’s how I started learning more about Taiwan.

Because as you might remember, I grew up in Latin America, in Costa Rica. My family did, of course, talk about Taiwan all the time.  We were involved in the Taiwanese community over there. But growing up, you kind of don’t really understand or grasp the situation until you are in Taiwan. And I found kind of a difference in thinking overseas and in Taiwan. So that was really interesting.

Brian Hioe:  Is that how began participating in the DPP, that you participated in Taiwan-related activities when you were growing up?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Yeah, I did actually many events when I was growing up. Not just Taiwan-related. I did many things in school and in college and overseas, so I’ve always been very interested in social activism, not just related in Taiwan. Women’s rights, human rights…so basically Taiwan issues just came naturally to me. Because it was something I did before, not really related to Taiwan, but I was so active doing other things that when I saw there were opportunities in Taiwanese social activism, I was sort of just like, “Okay, sure, it’s something believe in.” And it was normal.

DPP headquarters at Huashan Business Building near Shandao Temple. Photo credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing at the time of the Sunflower Movement?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  During the Sunflower Movement, that was real interesting, because that happened really fast and it was very unexpected. That whole first week, I didn’t sleep much. I was so involved in making sure that we caught up the news at the last minute. There were so many news updates that kept changing, so many nuances, and so I didn’t sleep much that whole first week.

And what kind of activities did I do? I was involved already with Amnesty International Taiwan. It was a group of us that were already friends there. We created a Facebook group and it just kept growing and growing. Then they added more and more people and then we created a translation group. So the translation group kept doing simultaneous translation as they saw things happening and it was really cool to see people doing not just English, but also Spanish, French, German, all kinds of different languages. That was a truly international group and I was happy to be involved with that.

Then, for some reason, I don’t know how, from out of that group came out Taiwan Voice, which became a platform where we put last-minute updates. It was done in different languages. But the majority was in English. So we had meetings the whole day, the whole day was just meetings and meetings, and at night, we would try to have a conference call on Skype to discuss what to do, what kind of things we could post, what kind of things were interesting, and there were some people going to the Legislative Yuan every day. Not just every day, every hour, and they would take pictures and provide us with pictures. That was actually very interesting.

My main role in Taiwan Voice was to do editing of the material and translations, as well as posting on the main Facebook page, and coordinating with the people on the ground, talking to them and etc. I think I was the oldest one in the group. There was another person that was really experienced and he provided a lot of advice. He was in Germany. I think he was involved in Amnesty International as well. I think me and him, we were the oldest people in the group. So with my experience, I just used that to direct and tell people that “This is good, this is not good,” or “Let’s do this” or not, and discuss it among the group.

It was quite easy in the beginning. It got really hard towards the end, because it kind of got a little frustrating.

Brian Hioe:  How so?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Well, the social movement was not structured or organized at all. It was just very disorganized in my eyes. And all my life, I had been working in a very organized, structured way.

Brian Hioe:  Such as in the DPP.

Yeah. It was for me a job. Or when I was in England, I was involved with some different NGOs over there. Not just NGOs there, everything that they do involved in social activism in Europe is very organized and very structured. You didn’t feel like you were thrown out into the wild.

Of course, there are hot tempers around, but it felt like in Taiwan it was more like that. It was more emotional, and I didn’t like that. I got really frustrated at the end. Especially the part where a lot of people seemed like they were in it, not because they truly believed in social activism, but because they were kind of in it for their own interests. And the interests is not money or power, more about gaining attention. It was more like, “Me! Me! Me!”

Brian Hioe:  Being in the spotlight?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Being in the spotlight. That really shouldn’t be a one person show. It should never be. It should always be a common principle that you follow, and what was really disappointing in my opinion was to see people that were kind of crying out, “We need to this! We need to do this in this way! We need to follow this principle!” But at the same time, they didn’t do that themselves.

Brian Hioe:  That was in Taiwan Voice?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  That was in the Taiwan Voice group. So I just decided I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore and that was the end of my participation in the Taiwan Voice group. Which kind of came out of as a result of the Sunflower Movement. But I still continued doing my writing through Global Voices. I still continued doing my own things.

Brian Hioe:  Continuing to try to connect Taiwan to the international world?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  That was my main goal. Exactly. It was to connect Taiwan with the international world. That has always been the main principle behind what I do. Because when I was abroad, you kind of felt, “You are Taiwanese,” but you also want to be part of the world. You try to understand the situation, why do we have such a hard time sometimes getting through some countries. Why are we not in the UN? That kind of thing.

Taiwan Voice logo. Photo credit: Taiwan Voice

Brian Hioe:  How did you view the development of the movement? Did you disagree with any of the decisions made by the leadership? For example, the criticisms you made about people wanting the spotlight with regard to Taiwan Voice, that’s also a criticism leveled at the movement leaders of the Sunflower Movement. That they were in it for the attention and so forth.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Yeah. I didn’t feel that they kind of knew what they were doing. I didn’t take that against them, because they were young. Some of them were like, 19, 20, 21? And what do you know at 19, 20, or 21? You can be a genius, but still…

Brian Hioe:  No real world experience.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Yeah. And I felt sorry that some of them were manipulated by some forces behind them. Being used by them. So that’s how it is.

Brian Hioe:  That’s politics, I guess. Did you disagree with some of the decisions? Such as on 324 or with the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Yeah, I don’t know. It happened so suddenly, I didn’t really have time to think about it. And now that you remind me, I’m not sure. But I definitely disagreed with the decision of the police to bring water guns in. That whole imagery looked really bad, I didn’t like that. That really made a deep impact on me. Because for me, it was young people trying to make a protest and so all they had to do was listen and negotiate, but…

Brian Hioe:  Ma wasn’t too willing to do that.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  President Ma wasn’t really responsive, you know? Did he come out at all? I don’t remember if he did, it was all through his premier. With President Chen Shui-Bian, when he faced the Redshirts, when he reacted, it was very different from Ma. At the very least ,President Chen did come out and he responded directly to them. But it kind of felt like President Ma was hiding. And that made the tensions worse, I think.

Brian Hioe:  How do you understand Taiwanese identity in regards to participating in the Sunflower movement? Or with regards to Taiwanese social movements. You touched on some of that earlier.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  I felt really proud to be Taiwanese. Because at that time, it felt like the whole country was confused, given the policies of the government of pushing closer relations with China. A lot of people felt unstable in that regard, like, “Are we losing our Taiwanese identity?” Do we need to accommodate to the Chinese identity?

But I don’t think the Sunflower Movement was mainly about that. It was mainly about the rise of citizens for Taiwan. What I mean is, it had nothing to do with China. It was more about Taiwanese identity and rights as a Taiwanese. So if the international media associate it with China, they have it wrong. It was not about being anti-China at all. That’s what I felt.

Photo credit: Toomore Chiang/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  So yeah, I think maybe most people opposed the black box, as the procedural wrongdoing, and I think the least amount of people opposed free trade, from a more left-wing point of view. And in the middle, do you think most people were opposed to China or the KMT? Opposition to the KMT doesn’t always mean opposition to China, after all, in that sense.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Yeah, exactly. People made it look anti-China, but it wasn’t. It was opposed to the undemocratic way in which the government handled the whole passage of the bill. I don’t know what trick they pulled, the KMT, to pass it. That was not very democratic, and that was not where the Taiwanese people wanted to move forward with.

It was not just young people that were against it, it was pretty much the majority of Taiwan, when they found out the way they did that in the legislature. The majority was unhappy about it. It wasn’t about the trade with China, it was more about the way they went about doing it. If they would have taken a different approach, I think it would have ended with a much better result. But they didn’t, so that was the mistake that the government at that time made.

Brian Hioe:  In general, how would describe the views that social movement participants in Taiwan stand for? Because I do think they tend to be more progressive or lean more politically left. For example, I think there’s a consensus on a lot of issues such as opposing capital punishment or supporting gay marriage. That’s always been quite interesting to me. The pan-Green camp is still more center-left.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  I kind of feel that social movements in Taiwan tend to be too emotional. So it frustrates me. Because you can have a very structured and organized way of pushing your ideas, through campaigns, promotions, and it doesn’t need to be extremely radical. And in Taiwan, I felt like it was too emotional for certain people to handle it.

So that’s my only thing here that I wish in order to improve social movements, for example, with regards to gay marriage or opposition to capital punishment, it needs to go through a lot of social dialogue, campaigns. Like everyone knows where they stand. Either you’re for or you’re against something.

But the way to go about promoting for or against, certain principles, that’s what’s lacking here. The planning, the structure of how you should do things. Many social groups do not have an idea of what to do by next year.

We’re in October right now. So what’s the plan from here to October of next year, except that you only say that, “Yes, we stand for gay marriage. We have a parade every year.” But I would like to know, “What’s the plan?” [Laughs] Is there one? If there is, that’s really good, but where is it? Are they talking about it? Are they following the guidelines?

Brian Hioe:  So what do you think about the effects of the movement, three years later? Do you think the movement has had lasting effects on Taiwanese politics or Taiwanese identity? Tsai did get elected at the very least.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  I think it helped to only change the political situation. It shifted the political situation two years later. But in terms of now, has the movement had a lasting effect? I don’t think so, I think the majority of people have forgotten about it, and they have moved on with their lives. They’re more concerned with the economy, or moving on with their daily lives.

But at that time, it was quite tense for everybody. And now three years later if you ask people to talk about it, maybe some people might not even remember much. [Laughs]

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  I see. Do you think that it had effects on Taiwanese identity?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  I don’t think so, because Taiwanese identity had always been strong. At that time, like I said before, people were having doubts. So it didn’t really bring a plus or minus to what Taiwanese already felt. Taiwanese people are pretty sure what kind of life they want or who they are.

Brian Hioe:  So what do you think that social movement activists such as yourself are doing now, three years later? We’re sitting here in the restaurant that you opened, of course. [Laughs]

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  For me, it made a huge impact in my life, because I decided I didn’t want to be involved so much in social activism. It didn’t bring me the joy that it brought me in my earlier days and I felt like I didn’t see my future working more on it. Especially because you spend so much energy and the results that you see are not immediate.

So I felt that after almost twenty years of social activism, it made me feel like I needed to evaluate personally, about my life, what to do, and what to focus on. It didn’t mean that I completely abandoned social activism.

I kept writing my articles and reading articles and catching up with the news and things like that. And attending rallies whenever I can. But I think what the Sunflower movement did to me was it made me realize that it was a time to make a good shift in my life. And I’m happy about that actually. I think it’s one of the best things that happened for me after the Sunflower movement.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China reacts to the Sunflower Movement? How do you think they look at the political situation afterwards? Obviously, they are probably unhappy with it in some way. [Laughs]

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  Yeah. I don’t know really how they feel about it. Because for us, it was never about China. I hope they look at it and they can use it as a model for their own internal struggles. But what they think or what they do not think about the Sunflower Movement is up for them to decide. There are so many different opinions, I’m sure, so I don’t really know.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there could be another movement like the Sunflower movement in Taiwan? Down the line. If so, how?

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  I think there’ll be another movement. Yeah, for sure. Taiwan has always, historically speaking, had movements.

I don’t think it’s going to come from the young people. I think it’s going to come from the older generation, because they are quite upset about their retirement plans, as with the pension reform issue.

Eventually, in a couple of years, I think they are going to come out and they will demand from the government more explanation on how they intend to pay for their pensions, if it’s going to be bankrupt, and what they should do with their money. That’s one of the things I think is going to happen.

Another thing is still the energy issue. Because I think for the first time in a long time, Taipei had a blackout. I haven’t heard of blackouts in so many years. I heard of blackouts when I was in Manila in the Philippines but in Taiwan, I didn’t think it would happen. The price of electricity keeps rising.

So I think people are going to be real upset. If you have electricity prices rising, everything is going to trickle down. You’re going to have gas prices rising, people are going to pay more for food, for expenses, and they will not be happy about that. So the government really has to come out with solutions on what to do, at the same time, they are trying to promote a nuclear-free Taiwan. But is that sufficient energy? And how much is it going to cost?

A lot of people are going to be upset about that. It worries a lot of people. I think eventually, there’s going to be a kind of struggle between the environmentalists that hope for a nuclear-free Taiwan because, rightly so, we are a small island and it’s not very safe to have four nuclear power plants.

But then at the same time, we are an industrialized country, so we need a lot of energy to survive. To provide cheaper products to the world. So that it is going to affect the economy. It’s going to be security versus the economy.

Photo credit: Toomore Chiang/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower Movement could have an international effect on international social movements or the international situation? A lot of people raise Hong Kong, for example, with the Umbrella Movement.

Sophie Ping-ya Hsu:  It will. I think it had a minimal impact on the western world, but it did help a lot to influence Hong Kong, Singapore, and those two countries. Perhaps a little bit in China. But to the western world, it didn’t really have much of an impact, mostly because a lot of people don’t really understand Taiwanese.

And that’s one of the things that Taiwan needs to continue to promoting, to make people from all over the world learn about Taiwan, and its domestic issues, or its issues with the world.