Love Boat: Taiwan (Taiwan/USA, 2019) [Reel Asian 2019]

In 1967 Taiwan launched a summer exchange program for overseas second-generation Taiwanese and Chinese students. The six-week program introduced the participants to Mandarin language, Taiwanese culture, crafts and food, and took them around for sightseeing. The humble beginning with 102 exchange students in 1967 expanded to over 1000 yearly participants throughout the 1990s. The title of the program changed several times, starting with ‘The Overseas Compatriot Youth Formosa Study Tour’, but amongst the participants it was known as ‘Love Boat’, a reference to the popular TV program. This nickname already tells a lot about the experience for many: when you gather a bunch of college-age undergrads to the same place, there are likely to be romances and sex within the official program and partying. Actually, many couples were formed and several marriages started within the program.

Filmmaker Valerie Soe, who is also San Francisco State University Asian American Studies professor, was one of the participants in this program years ago, and has now completed a documentary on the topic. She interviews several former participants from several countries – although the bulk came from the U.S. and Canada, many were also from South America, Europe and Australia. One woman reads her diary from the time. One man actually comes back to the campuses in Taipei and Taichung, where the program took place. So there was no actual boat involved.

The participants remember doing traditional brush painting and martial arts within the official program. For many the crowdy streets of Taipei were a culture shock after having grown up in Midwest America. Many participants grew up in white neighborhoods, and this program was their first encounter in being in a completely Chinese place. For many it launched a search for identity. Many were sent to the program by their parents, who were hoping their children to gain some idea about being Chinese and Taiwanese.

The reasons for establishing the program are brought out in the documentary. Republic of China, aka Taiwan needed some PR to compete against the other China, PRC. Kuomingtang, the former opponent of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army receded to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949, and was in power for several decades. In the documentary, participants remember, how they were taken to numerous Chiang Kai-shek (the leader of KMT during the civil war) related places, and they also met with the military at numerous occasions. It was clear that one purpose of the program was to influence overseas Chinese youngsters, amongst whom some would be in influential positions within their countries in the future, about the position of Taiwan. A couple of the interviewees bring out their negative view of the KMT rule: “It was a police state”, one affirms.

The need for Taiwanese PR got more urgent once Nixon visited PRC in 1972, PRC and U.S. established diplomatic relationships, and Taiwan got kicked out of UN. The monetary support for the program grew and so did the participant numbers. Once the KMT loses power to the opposition in 2000, the monetary aid diminishes and most applicants don’t get into the program. Nowadays, Taiwan is running an abridged 3-week program for some 100 participants.

From the participant’s point-of-view, ‘Love Boat’ was mostly a long youthful summer party. The remembrances, and photos and videos shot by former generations of Love Boat alumni reveal a lot of booze being consumed, sneaking over the fence to party in Taipei bars during the curfew, and, naturally, romances. Many of us have taken part in summer and exchange programs during our high school and college days, but ‘Love Boat’ was surely one of the most peculiar programs of that kind.

Love Boat: Taiwan is showing at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 9.