By Dan Bloom
Special to The Wild East
TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Despite how the U.S. was transformed by the 1969 Woodstock musical festival in upstate New York, Taiwanese filmgoers are only now able to see what the fuss was all about. In those days, Taiwan was still under martial law. Local newspapers characterized Woodstock as “a hippie invasion” and most young people here had no idea what was really going on outside of Taiwan, most observers here agree.
Ang Lee (李安) — Taiwan’s most celebrated film director and one of the world’s most acclaimed — has most recently directed a hilarious comedy about Woodstock shenanigans, “Taking Woodstock” [胡士托風波], which opened in the U.S. last summer and here this month, in October.
“Taking Woodstock” was a book before it became Ang Lee’s latest movie. Elliot Tiber, now in his 70s, wrote the book a few years ago, and it was translated into Mandarin this year by Josephine Liao and published locally by Yuan-Liou Publishing Company in Taipei. The book is subtitled in English on the psychedelic-art Mandarin-language cover: “A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life.”
The book’s English title, “Taking Woodstock'” — and by extension, the movie’s
title, too — means two things, according to the book’s U.S. publisher.
“It means taking stock of your life and, in a sense, taking control of
your destiny,” Rudy Shur said in a recent email. “Anthony Pomes, our
marketing director, came up with the title, and Ang Lee used it for his movie as well.”
This reporter asked several expats here if Woodstock was a part of
their lives and how it impacted them, and here are their stories.
“I was six years old in the summer of 1969, mostly grubbing around on the floor and in the back lot of the apartment complex in St. Louis where we lived,” said Paul Cox in Taipei. “I was entirely unaware of Woodstock. Maybe a bit of the Woodstock spirit lives on in the rock and other kinds of music festivals around the world, including the annual ones in Taiwan such as Ho Hai Yan, Formoz, Migrant Music Fest, and Peace Fest,” Cox added.
For Jerome Keating, Woodstock was close but “too far away” as well, he
said, noting: “That summer, I was just starting my doctoral program at Syracuse University, so the concert was not too far away from where I was, but I could not spare the time to go there.”
“I still like the songs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez,” Keating, the author of three books about Taiwan, said. “The songs expressed a philosophy of protest and need for change in priority of values. The Sixties included the civil rights movment and the Vietnam War protests, of course.”
When asked if he felt that the philosophy of hippie life had any impact in Taiwan, Keating — who worked as a university professor here and was former manager of technology transfer for Taipei’s MRT systems — noted: “Hippie life and freedom was more a symbolic challenge to re-examine people’s and the government’s priorities; it did not advocate permanency of a new structure. How it affected Taiwan? That’s hard to say. Taiwan at that time was under
martial law and the Kaohsiung Incident was still a decade away. Was there a ripple effect? Perhaps.”
For Gerrit van der Wees of Holland, who now works for the Formosan Association for Public Affairs in Washington, the summer of 1969 brings back old memories. “Woodstock was a statement against the establishment of those days, and it questioned authority, especially in regards to the Vietnam War. Many of the songs at Woodstock were anti-war songs.”
“In the summer of 1969, I was just on my way back to The Netherlands from spending a year in Houston, where I worked on the Apollo program,” he recalled. “I drove through the U.S. for a few weeks, travelling from Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona, and up to Wyoming and Montana. During that trip, I met quite a number of folks who were on their way to Woodstock, driving beat-up Volkswagen bugs and even old buses.”
“In 1970, a year later, I went to a Woodstock-like event in Rotterdam, in my native Holland, where we listened to the Byrds and other bands,” he said. “But after a while, the hippie movement drifted too far in the direction of ‘anything goes’ and it lost its original purpose, I think.”
For Eddie Tsai, a Taipei native who graduated from Chung Cheng
University in Chiayi in 2008, Woodstock was something he learned about from his father and uncle.
“I wasn’t even born yet, in 1969,” Tsai says. “I learned about Woodstock frm my dad and from some books about American history. I am sort of liberal in my own thinking, this was the way I was raised, and I always admired what many young people in America did in
the Sixties, way back then. I like those concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘simple living’ that hippies talked about — and lived. But those ideas are hard practice in Taiwan’s society.”
Tsai said that due to the influence of his father and uncle, he knew the songs of Bob Dylan. “I still listen to his song titled “We Shall Overcome”. Even now. I like it,” but that the music concert and the worldwide publicity it engendered on TV and in newspapers at the time, had almost no impact on Taiwan.
“You have to understand, at that time, Taiwan was pretty much a closed society, especially to Western culture or ideas,” Tsai said. “The government in those days even treated what was called ‘the Beatles culture’ as an enemy, as forbidden fruit, and there even an ‘Anti-Beatles movement’ in Taiwan, where police would stand on the streets in Taipei. If they saw any young guys with hair similar to the Beatle’s long hair, the police would bring the young men back to the police station and cut their hair. Maybe Ang Lee knew about this, too.”
“In general, I don’t think Woodstock had any impact on Taiwan,” he said. “And today, as you know, most young people don’t care much about the history of Woodstock, it is a forgotten era, even in America. There are few people here who really know anything about Woodstock,
and as you know, Taiwanese young people are still very conservative in many respects, and they always listen to what their parents tell them. Just like the lyrics in the Jay Chou song titled ‘Listen to What Your Mother Told You [聽媽媽的話].”
Don Shapiro, editor-in-chief of Taiwan Business Topics magazine now, was spending the summer of 1969 doing a fourth-year Chinese-language course at Columbia University, preparing to head to Taiwan that fall.
“I remember reading and hearing about Woodstock when it was going on — particularly wondering how a New York state farm could be big enough to accommodate the huge crowds that reportedly turned up,” he said. “I did like the music of the Woodstock groups, particularly Joan Baez, but my tastes now run more to classical and jazz.”
“Woodstock was part of a whole trend in the Sixties to break down cultural barriers and to question what had been the conventional wisdom,” Shapiro added.
“It had a big impact on the U.S. and then gradually on the rest of the world, including Taiwan. Without that change in mindset, the U.S. wouldn’t have equality for women or the widespread acceptance of homosexuality that exists today. And America
certainly wouldn’t have an African-American as president today.”
Louise Bystrom, a Swede and chief editor of Taiwan This Month magazine, says she was in her middle teens that summer of 1969. “I just turned fifteen at the time and was still living with my parents, of course. I didn’t understand the real impact on what was going on at Woodstock. In addition, at that age and that time, I was very conservative, much more than what I am now, so all those strange clothes and flowers and people walking around naked that I saw on television, it was nothing I could relate to, personally. But, of course, I was curious about all that. Later, the influence of
Woodstock filtered into Europe and Sweden, and it began to have a greater impact on my life, but not in any big way. However, I still listen to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and I enjoy them, but I don’t have their CDs at home here.”
When asked how Woodstock might have influenced Taiwan, Bystrom said:
“From what I can see, it hasn’t had much impact on Taiwan at all. Taiwan’s society is still very conservative and traditional. Here, young couples are just beginning to hold hands in public, and it’s still unusual to see people expressing their real emotions in public or in private.”
Brian Funshine, a Taipei musician and voice-over actor, has his own
take on Woodstock, noting: “I was born in 1972, and my parents weren’t at all hippies, but my life has been profoundly influenced by elements of the ‘love generation’, which Woodstock helped promote, beyond a doubt. With so much of the East and West coming together, perhaps this was one reason I pursued such interests as yoga, world music,
international travel, meditation, and a general sense of open-mindedness. I believe that the Woodstock era also contributed — deeply — to the current movements of compassion, humanitarianism and a new respect for animals and the environment in Western societies.”
For another American expat who spent long periods in Taiwan, the Woodstock festival itself had no direct impact on his life, he said, but the longtime friend of Taiwan, who has visited here many times over the years and is the author of several books about this island nation, tells a good story full of interesting recollections.
“I was a nerd,” one respondent said in an email note, preferring to remain anonymous. “In the summer of 1969, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I had a four-year-old child and a wife who was in graduate school at Harvard. I was finishing my Ph.D thesis, which I completed the following winter. Woodstock had no direct impact on my life.”
“I was into classical music. My first companion had no aesthetic sense at all. She did not care for any music or art. We were intellectual soulmates. We studied and went to Ingmar Bergman movies from Sweden. Most of us in the China field were not very cultural or modern. Learning Chinese took up all of our energies. Also my companion was a graduate student and I was getting a job teaching. We were not part of the undergraduate community, so were not even into the Kingston Trio. But the Weavers and Pete Seeger were my favorites. I did enjoy the Beatles,” he said.
“The hippie dress — or undress –was not a fantasy of mine. As for drugs, I took the Jewish very of things: my brain was all I had. To screw up my brain with drugs was a form of suicide, I felt. Also, I had two children then. We had a natural child in 1965 and then we
adopted a two-year-old African-American boy in 1971. Preparing for that, and being pioneers in this type of inter-racial adoption took up a lot of time,” he recalled.
“As for nakedness and the Woodstock days. You might ask a longtime expat in Taiwan named Lynn Miles. He went on a day-long hiking trip with me and my students one day outside Taipei, in the mountains. Lynn swam in a mountain pond in the nude. My Taiwanese students wore clothes. Then we ate a picnic lunch while sitting on the rocks. Lynn did not bother to put his clothes back on. This seemed natural to him. My students thought it was weird, but nobody complained.”
My second companion was really part of that Woodstock-era culture. I was born in 1938. She was born ten years later. Culturally and Woodstock-wise, we have two different anchors. The Vietnam War affected me much more than the Woodstock era did.”
Another longtime expat in Taiwan who didn’t wish to be named in this story, said from his home in urban Taiwan that the music of the Woodstock era helps to keep memories of ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon, Gen. William ‘fierce fire fight’ Westmoreland, and the Kent State University shootings from fading away.”
“I still listen to Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, the Who, Santana and other artists from the days of Woodstock. I was just watching some Richie Havens videos from Woodstock on YouTube not too long ago,” he said.
When asked if he thought Woodstock had any impact on Taiwan, he said: “I’ve never noticed any. Spring Scream — [A yearly concert in Kenting promoted by expats Wade Davis and Jimi Moe ] — is probably the closest thing a small minority of Taiwanese have ever had to the Woodstock experience.”
He added: “Taiwanese were struggling too hard during those years to worry about the ‘freedom’ to go naked. The KMT had used up all of Taiwan’s resources, people had been wearing underwear made from sacks of flour donated by the US, and everyone’s living room was a ‘factory.’ There was no time for ‘fun.’ The lifting of martial law and the White Lily student movement were still two decades in the future.”
For Syd Goldsmith, who served as director of the AIT branch office in Kaohsiung from 1985 to 1989, first came to Taiwan in 1968, he said. “I barely had heard of Woodstock at the time,” he added.
“The songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were good, and I liked them, but
I can’t remember when I last had a chance to listen to them,” said Goldsmith, who is the author of a prize-winning novel about Taiwan titled “Jade Phoenix.”
Don Silver, an editor for Taiwan Review magazine in Taipei, was just
seven years old in the summer of 1969, he said, so he was “too young for Woodstock to have any impact.”
He added: “My parents are pretty conservative, so I can’t even recall any conversation about it at home. The summer of 1969, the thing I remember is the moon walk — the first time I’d ever stayed up so late to watch TV — 11pm, waiting for the moon monsters to attack the astronauts.”
Silver said he “still listens to Neil Young on occasion, as well as Dylan’s new stuff — his last CD was pretty good.”
When asked about Woodstock’s impact on Taiwan, if any, Silver said:
“If the US was in the 1960s at the time, Taiwan was in the 1950s, and probably stayed that way until the late 1980s. I do think that young people in Taiwan today are kind of Woodstockish –looking around at the area near the Red House in Ximending shows me that they’re much more individualistic, more free-spirited than their parents. Not much tie dye, though…!”
For Trista di Genova, an American writer, artist, musician and filmmaker here, said she was “the proverbial twinkle in my father’s eye at that time” noted that she has asked her father “and many, many other people about their recollections of Woodstock, and everyone has had the same thing to say: It was a major musical and cultural event.”
In a recent email, Trista said:
“I’m listening to Donovan right now.
Music lovers everywhere are still mining through the mountain of folk
tales, poetry and iconoclastic sentiments that come from that era.
Myself included! It would take a lifetime.”
When asked if she thought that Woodstock had influenced Taiwan at all, she replied:
“Absolutely not. Very little. It was a shock at first to realize this is one of the few places on Earth that never experienced a rock revolution. As a result, the music here in Taiwan is little more than a time capsule from the 1950s, with very few changes or experimentation over time, compared to the West. Taiwanese people — except for a tiny fraction of cool, tuned-in young folks — rarely know or even recognize the names of any of the multitude of bands that transformed American and Western culture.”
For Bo Tedards, Woodstock happened before he was born, but he says: “My mother always says she blames me for ‘missing the cultural event of
my generation,’ because she was eight months pregnant with me at the time.”
Tedards, who is a longitme social activist here, said: “It’s hard to say how or whether Woodstock had any direct effect on Taiwan or the Taiwanese people,
since those days were the depth of the White Terror period here. However, at least one group of Taiwanese activists living overseas was inspired by the events of 1968 — not Woodstock per se, but the more militant, political 1960s movements in the U.S. and Europe — to take matters into their hands, and that’s the group who attempted to assassinate Chiang Ching-kuo in New York.”
Tedards went on: “It might be true — but also pure speculation on my part — that the hippie, or at least the progressive culture and counterculture of the 1960s influenced the emergence of social movements here in Taiwan in the late 1970s, with a bit of a lag time,
of course. Michael Hsiao has written how these social movements in
Taiwan began with the literary and cultural movements first, so the news about Woodstock in 1969 might have been an entry point for such ideas here in Taiwan, but again, I’m just speculating.”
“But there were also indirect effects, I think, such as when Taiwan absorbed later waves of U.S. popular culture, which themselves were influenced by Woodstock and the Sixties,” Tedards said.
David Reid, an Aussie born in 1973, said that he still listens to music from the Woodstock days — “Neil Young (he was with Crosby, Stills & Nash), Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.”
Reid, who is a blogger and a post-graduate student at National Chengchi University here, notes: “At the time of Woodstock, Taiwan was still under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. White Terror and and the lack of freedom associated with it were hardly the conditions for a counter-cultural movement to flourish.”
For Eric Mader, a writer in Taipei, Woodstock happened when he was
just three years old, and he noted with humor: In 1969, I was three, so if I took my clothes off it didn’t quite have the same charge to it.”
But Mader added: “I will say, however, that when I was in high school in the 1980s, Woodstock was much on my mind, as was Sixties music. I had an album collecting the Woodstock performances and was part of a large contingent of classmates in my school who admired the 1960s and the music and the politics too — the countercultural stance in
“I loved listening to the Doors, The Who, Pink Floyd, CSN, and others whose albums — and lyrics — I basically had memorized. Which is somewhat odd, considering that Madonna and 1980s pop were everywhere on the radio and TV. But my group of friends at high school were quite entrenched against that Madonna pop stuff.”
“It’s hard to assess how the 1960s and 1970s of the Western world impacted contemporary Taiwan,” Mader went on. “In a way, the generation now of older middle-aged Taiwanese seems to have no connection whatsoever to what went on in the U.S. and Europe back
then. Taiwan was under martial law and censorship in 1969, of course. And the younger generations here who now get washed over by wave after wave of retro-Western fashion — they don’t have a sense of what, in terms of ideological conflict, was behind the 1960s. They certainly don’t have any sense of critique of the commodifcation of people or
music. There is no notion that a singer, for instance, might have good reasons not to do TV commercials for MacDonald’s.”
“However, I think in the last few years Taiwanese youth have been actively exploring a broad range of music and fashion styles. Events like the Hohaiyan Festival, which has been going for about ten years now, might be Taiwan’s version of Woodstock.”
For a Taiwanese book editor in Taipei who is now now in his 50s, Woodstock had and has little meaning for him, he said.
“To be honest, Woodstock means almost nothing to me,” he said, and then explained why, noting: “In the summer of 1969 , I was around fourteen years old, and lived in a small city in central Taiwan in Yunlin County. As a teenager there, I knew almost nothing about the
world outside Taiwan, and as you might know, Taiwan itself was basically sealed off from the world by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT party.”
“In fact, the whole of Taiwan seemed to be Chiang’s exclusive and private domain, at least that is how he treated it. The next year, Phenn Beng-bin (Peng Ming-min) escaped from Taiwan, then a big prison, though our home. It is until much later, when I was a student in college that I found that there had been two classes in Taiwan: one class including most native Taiwanese and a few poor or “ordinary” Chinese exiles, the other was the ruling class, many generals included — and, yes, today I’ll call them the high class mainlanders; their lifestyles were totally different. Most of us knew not much about outside world, except what the KMT propaganda wanted us to know. I don’t believe they would tell us anything about Woodstock. Until much later, I realized that there were a few richer, more educated native Taiwanese families had another lifestyle. But at that time, I knew not much about that.
Perhaps it was until when I was in college in Taipei that I heard about Dylan and Baez. But I was not much in with music. It listened to their music only when my college friends played it. I seemed from another world and was still there, things in Taipei seemed still very
“foreign” to me. I knew that some friends from the South and the East seemed quite familiar to that. But I was not and still am not. A few weeks ago, in a luncheonette near my office, I heard a song that seemed familiar… I told my co-worker who had the dinner with me that the voice was beautiful. My younger co-worker cocked her ear and tried to listen to
it more clearly among noise. And then she said, “Oh, yes, it’s Baez.”
“Although I am not sure that Woodstock had much of any impact on Taiwan, when I look around at some of my friends, then maybe, yes, it did influence Taiwan in some ways. Maybe not so much in terms of people taking their clothes off in public or at music fesitvals, but the music of the Woodstock era does live on here. And, you know, when I was in college here in Taiwan, I read books about existentialism, phenomenology and post-structuralism. Do those things have anything to do with the Woodstock era? Maybe. Maybe in this way, Woodstock did influence Taiwanese artists and intellectuals and musicians.”
For Brian Chiu, Woodstock happened before he was born, but he does
have some thoughts to impart. “I was minus three years old in 1969 and an accident waiting to happen,” Chiu said in a recent email. “But my parents were the Taiwanese equivalents of ‘hippies’, and they may have heard of the concert in America. My folks used to play the Byrds, some CSN, and lots of Beatles/Lennon on Sunday mornings. I still like the Byrds and CSN — in fact, folk and bluegrass, in general.”
“From what I’ve heard, freedom was kind of illegal in the 1970s in
Taiwan,” Chiu went on. “My uncle got free room and board at a political prison on Green Island for wanting freedom and love and fields of flowers — and he sadly lost his mind in there.
“A few of my dad’s friends lost their lives in those times of martial law and white terror. For any aspiring hippies in Taiwan back then, I’m afraid it was a more grim affair than “free love” — any extra-state body (such as a free-love hippie commune would have been seen by the authorities as sedition.”
“Music in the park? The closest we came to music in the park back then was probably that old catchy patriotic tune about the superiority of the Chinese race (down to the very controlling-preoccupation with hair color and eye color) that they taught me to sing in school
when I was ‘young and impressionable’ in Taiwan. ”
“However, I think that the Woodstock ‘philosophy’ did guide my parents to react to my
singing those patriotic songs in horror and move us all the hell out of Taiwan. So we came to America. One Woodstocky memory I have as a kid in California was in high school in San Diego, being dragged by my parents to boring evening gatherings where political speeches had accoustic guitar accompaniment.”
For longtime expat Adam Guenther, Woodstock brings back memories, too.
“I grew up about 50 miles from Bethel, New York — the location of the site of Woodstock, as you probably know — but I was only nine years old at the time,” Guenther said. “I can remember the Vietnam war problems that were in the news all the time. I knew the Woodstock festival was going on and saw some of the clips on TV, but as I remember, it was raining most of the time and didn’t look like much.”
“Music-wise, I didn’t really pay attention, except for what my mother played on the AM radio — Yellow Submarine by the Beatles stands out for some reason. I never really got into the 1960s music, well, maybe Neil Young and a few Dylan songs. I really started listening to music around 1977 or so when 8-tracks faded out and cassettes (and vinyl) were big.”
“Basically, Woodstock it didn’t have any effect on my life,” Guenther said. “I think for the Taiwanese, it would be seen that they wouldn’t have any clue as to what it meant. They don’t really care about freedom, only money. Look at the way they are letting the KMT sellout the country to the PRC. It’s so disappointing and depressing for me to see that most of the people just don’t care. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care anymore either. Why bother?”
For Martin de Jonge, a Canadian expat who works in Taipei and lives on a beach along the north coast, Woodstock has a place in his life, too — and when interviewed recently by email, he volunteered the information that his sister in law was the set decorator for the new Ang Lee movie about Woodstock. Small world, indeed!
He recalls today: “I was in Canada just over the border from Buffalo, only a few hours drive away from that festival that bonded the more idealistic and hedonistic members of the North American baby boomer’s bourgeoisie. I had turned twelve a few months before that, and I don’t even remember my parents or anyone else mentioning Woodstock, but in retrospect I’m just amazed that even though I was so young I didn’t hear about it until a few months after it’d happened. Still, I was so impressed by the very idea of it that I even bought a book called ”Woodstock ’69”, with stories and pictures of the four-day affair, from my elementary school’s book-of-the-month club.”
De Jonge adds: “Bubble gum music was at the height of its popularity during that weekend in the middle of August in the summer of 1969, and I remember very well listening to the number one pop tune on the local radio station: “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. Andy Kim’s “Baby I Love You” was also in the top ten. Other songs frequently airing included a rollicking part-medley, part-original romp called “Good Old Rock ‘n Roll” by Cat Mother & The All Night News Boys and an off-the-wall song about the future by Zager & Evans entitled “In The Year 2525”.
“I grew up in reverence of the Woodstock generation, which for all its claims of love, peace and understanding never quite accepted me — I was a little too young for it,” de Jonge notes. “That group just considered me a little punk.”
“And so it came to pass,” he adds, ” a mere decade after Woodstock, I was a singer in a punk band. Already by that time, hippies just made my eyes roll. Didn’t anyone tell them they *gave* peace a chance?”
He adds: “I remember one night in 1996, on one of my first days in Taiwan, three of four foreigners sitting at the bar at 45 right around closing time, arms around each others’ shoulders, all singing a very drunk, off-key version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. The first thing that struck me was that those guys had cloistered themselves in a foreigners’ bubble way, way too long. The second thing was that clinging to old pop culture is really maudlin and puky. I vowed right then and there that I would never, *ever* be like them. So far, so good…”
De Jonge said: “I’m not sure if “hippie life and freedom” ever really took hold in Taiwan. Elements of that era have certainly been subsumed by the mainstream culture here, but never to the effect that they’ve had any lasting meaning or strength. Taiwanese have certain images of the Sixties from the most popular of pop music and films from the Sixties and later music and film portraying the Sixties, but I don’t think the Taiwanese ever internalized the spirit. The individualism, the “do your own thing”, the rebellion against parents, political confrontation, and other things, those things are anathema to Taiwanese life.”
“As for nudity, Taiwanese bathe and shower with their children right up to the time when the children start to approach the age of puberty, which wouldn’t be comfortable at all for most Americans; but public nudity to Taiwanese is considered freakish — when Taiwanese see nude Europeans on the beach in Thailand, they start *photographing* them, like they’re at a circus,” de Jonge said.
“Respectable adults in Taiwan dress very modestly. Showing cleavage in middle-class environments such as offices and educational establishments, as common as that is in the West, is considered very sluttish in Taiwan. And nudity as a social expression of personal freedom is something I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Taiwanese champion, let alone defend,” he added.
“Woodstock is not really very well understood by most people in Taiwan, but the movie, and now this book, will help to serve as a kind of cross-cultural guide about what hippie and
‘counterculture’ life was like in those days,” said a Taipei publishing industry source.
Read the article on Dan Bloom’s blog