by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: PXMart

CONTROVERSY BROKE out recently following a PXMart commercial featuring a man who appeared to be murdered political dissident Chen Wen-Chen. Chen was an assistant professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University whose dead body was found on the National Taiwan University (NTU) campus in 1981 after Chen had been taken away for questioning by members of the Taiwan Garrison Command the day before. Chen’s body bore signs of torture, suggesting that he had been murdered by the Taiwan Garrison Command, which served as a secret police for the KMT during the authoritarian period.

Yet despite this, a 1981 report by the Control Yuan states that Chen’s death had been an accident, and it has not been officially acknowledged that Chen was murdered by the Taiwan Garrison Command, nor has it been made public who was responsible. Chen was 31 at the time of his death.

The ad featuring Chen Wen-Chen. Film credit: PXMart

In the ad, an actor resembling Chen discusses how he originally did not believe in the spiritual practices of Ghost Month. However, he states that in the “past few years” all sorts of people from fathers and mothers with their children to elderly grandparents have brought out dishes and drinks and food, and so he would like to thank them. The actor resembling Chen has no reflection in a mirror in the commercial and a calendar shows Minguo 70, which corresponds to 1981, the year that Chen died. The implication, then, is that this is Chen’s ghost.

A Facebook account and Instagram account for a man purporting to be the actor in the film, named “Allen Chen,” would also list the actor as having been born in 1950 and having studied at NTU from 1968 to 1972, which corresponds to Chen Wen-Chen’s life. This account later disappeared, prompting further comparisons to Chen Wen-Chen’s disappearance. Subsequently, although stating that the Chen family had no response to the ad, the Chen Wen-Chen Memorial Foundation would also state that the ad could allow more young people to learn about the history of the White Terror, and seems to have later started a Chen Wen-Chen Facebook account as a way of engaging further with the issue, conducting a livestream dialogue with civil society media outlet Watchout through this account.

Controversy about the commercial led PXMart to pull the initial Chen Wen-Chen commercial, with PXMart denying that the man in the commercial was Chen Wen-Chen, but uploading the commercial online. Two other commercials with a White Terror theme were later also uploaded, featuring protagonists resembling White Terror victims. The first was of a woman who physically resembles Lin Jiang-mai—the woman selling cigarettes confronted by police during the series of events which set off the 228 Incident—and is wearing a dress resembling that worn by Ting Yao-Tiao—a woman executed in 1956 during the White Terror for accusations that she was a communist—during her execution. The second commercial was of an older man resembling Yang Bo—the comic artist persecuted by the KMT for translating a Popeye comic strip perceived as political criticism of the KMT—and Yin Haiguang—a waishengren scholar best known for translating Frederick Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom into Chinese, who politically persecuted by the KMT after returning to Taiwan from studying at Harvard.

Some praise of PXMart has followed for being willing to depict such history. Namely, much of the history of the White Terror remains untaught in Taiwanese school textbooks, even at the high school or college level. Many young people in Taiwan still only discover the history of the White Terror through independent reading, something more likely to happen during college rather than high school.

The complete set of three White Terror-themed commercials from PXMart. Film credit: PXMart

Nevertheless, there have also been those who have criticized PXMart for removing the ads, showing a lack of nerve. Likewise, as has been pointed out by many social commentators, PXMart would not have released the ads if it had not thought that it would benefit in some way from them. Identity trends in Taiwan being what they are, in terms of rising Taiwanese identity, it has been observed in past years that ads featuring a strong, local Taiwanese flavor have received strong positive responses.

Furthermore, in order to attract the youth demographic in the years after the Sunflower Movement, following which a great deal of social awareness was upon what young people were thinking and feeling, Taiwanese companies have sometimes taken to flaunting purportedly politically progressive stances. The most famous example would be a March 2016 ad by McDonald’s featuring a young man coming out to his father at a McDonald’s restaurant, suggesting support of same-sex marriage by McDonald’s. This commercial was released during a period before strong opposition to gay marriage emerged following the Council of Grand Justices’ ruling that same-sex marriage had to be legalized within two years in May 2017, during a period in which it was generally thought that gay marriage would be quickly legalized in Taiwan, with little opposition.

As such, McDonald’s likely viewed indications of support for gay marriage as a “safe” political stance, but one which would still win accolades for taking a stand nonetheless. On the other hand, in the current political climate, with a referendum against gay marriage organized by Christian church groups, it would be unlikely for such a commercial to be released now.

McDonald’s LGBTQ-themed ad from March 2016. Film credit: McDonald’s

In all probability, PXMart had similar intentions with its White Terror-themed ad campaign. It may be due to backlash from pan-Blue consumers—still a sizeable part of society—that it pulled the ad campaign, PXMart having miscalculated in that regard. It may also be that PXMart was hoping to better its reputation with young people, who lean more strongly towards Taiwanese identity.

PXMart CEO Hsu Chung-jen (徐重仁) caused controversy in April 2017 by claiming that young people spend too much money and deriding complaints by young people about low salaries, stating that he had survived on less than today’s salaries when he was younger. In the outrage which followed, it was pointed out that, factoring in inflation, Hsu made several times what young people make today as his starting salary when he entered the workforce. This damaged PXMart’s reputation among young people. Even if no formal boycott was organized, many vowed not to shop at PXMart. PXMart also provoked controversy in past months by provoking a panic about toilet paper prices along with other supermarket retailers in such a manner as to later lead to fines for price fixing for some of the involved supermarkets.

Indeed, controversy regarding PXMart commercials did not become much larger than a tempest in a teapot. Nevertheless, perhaps the controversy does point to something about the way in which Taiwanese companies attempt to relate to or capitalize off of identity among young people.

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