Skip to main content

Why Ang Lee's Oscar puts identity center stage

By Andrew Ryan, Special to CNN
February 28, 2013 -- Updated 0655 GMT (1455 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ang Lee's name beamed on building in Taiwan after Oscar win
  • Lee, born in Taiwan, won award for best director for "Life of Pi"
  • Lee's win created excitement in Taiwan and China, both claimed him as their own
  • Ryan: "In some ways it feels like 'Linsanity' all over again"

Editor's note: Andrew Ryan is a host and producer at Radio Taiwan International, a government-owned station that broadcasts in several languages and countries. He first came to Taiwan in 1996 as a Fulbright scholar and has spent the last 16 years as a translator and observer of politics and culture.

Taipei (CNN) -- It's not every territory in the world that puts an Oscar-winning director's name up in lights on a towering building. But that's just the sort of thing that happens in Taiwan -- and it did on Monday night after Ang Lee picked up his second "Best Director" Oscar, this time for "Life of Pi."

The moment wasn't just celebrated in grand statements, but in small scenes played out in front of televisions across Taiwan when his name was announced.

I was at a TV station in Taipei that was broadcasting live coverage of the Oscars, working with a team of translators that was creating the subtitles for the rebroadcast. When Lee's name was announced the office erupted in applause. Down the hallway, more cheering could be heard.

READ: Oscar winners: Analysis of who won

I couldn't help but think back to the Athens Games in 2004, when Chen Shih-hsin won Taiwan's first ever Olympic gold medal (under the team name "Chinese Taipei"). Even veteran news anchors shed tears when the young taekwondo star defeated her Cuban rival.

Ang Lee on winning Best Director Oscar
China's Hollywood dream
China's Hollywood dream

It would be reductive to suggest that these displays of patriotism are simply the response of a small country that just doesn't crank out that many Oscar winners or Olympic golds. It also speaks of a place that has been largely marginalized in the international community.

Today, Taiwan has just 23 official diplomatic allies -- mostly other marginalized nations, in Central America and Africa. That's because China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory more than 60 years after the Chinese Nationalists retreated to the island at the end of a Civil War against the Communists. The Nationalists -- or Kuomintang -- are now the ruling party in a democratic Taiwan, which is officially called the Republic of China (ROC) -- not to be confused with the People's Republic of China on the Mainland.

Having lost its seat at the United Nations to the PRC in 1971, the ROC found itself with a diminished voice in the international community. It turned to manufacturing and technology in the 1980s, spurring on what is now referred to as an "economic miracle." Today, with its economy struggling to move past the global economic downturn, Taiwan has added the arts, sports, and even baking to its repertoire.

READ: Oscars 2013: Hollywood gets political

What's striking about Lee's win is that it's not just people in Taiwan who were quick to claim him as one of their own. In China, the state-run Xinhua news agency referred to him as "Chinese-American." While Taiwanese media latched onto the portion of Lee's acceptance speech when he thanked Taiwan and the central city of Taichung where much of the movie was filmed, Xinhua's main story included Lee's line of thanks to the 3,000 people who worked on the film for "believing this story and sharing this incredible journey with me."

In some ways it feels like "Linsanity" all over again, when Taiwan and China both claimed basketball star Jeremy Lin as their own, leaving the international media struggling to chart the dangerous waters of identity politics to correctly describe him.

VIEW: Photos from the red carpet

A very small voice at the fringe of the discussion wonders why it's important for people to know that Lin's paternal grandmother lives in Taiwan and referred to him as "a real Taiwanese," or that Lee grew up in Tainan and still loves to visit his favorite noodle shop there. Others in Taiwan question why a nation's confidence should be based on its success in the international community.

When Ang Lee's name was announced, the office erupted in applause. Down the hallway, more cheering could be heard.
Andrew Ryan

With China looming to the north, now the world's second biggest economy and wielding an influence that's verging on "superpower" status, the metaphor of Jonah and the whale comes to mind. The Taiwanese electorate is sharply divided on how it feels about the way ties with China have warmed ever since President Ma Ying-jeou first took office in 2008. The benefits are obvious, considering China is Taiwan's largest trade partner, but some worry that it could lead to a loss in autonomy.

INTERACTIVE: Oscars by numbers

The Ma administration has been mindful of the nationalistic rhetoric of the opposition, and although the president was born in Hong Kong, he has referred to himself in the past as "Taiwanese as well as Chinese." Ma was also quick to congratulate Lee following the Oscars, and to urge others to follow in the director's footsteps and "work hard at promoting Taiwan to the world."

Lee is just one name on a growing list of national heroes that both the government and the private sector have celebrated in recent years for putting Taiwan on the map: people like fashion designer Jason Wu, who moved to Canada from Taiwan and has created garments for U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama; master baker Wu Pao-chun, who beat the French patissiers at their own competition -- Les Masters de la Boulangerie in 2010; Yani Tseng, the world's number one female golfer; and even the humble vegetable seller-turned-philanthropist Chen Shu-chu, who was selected by Time Magazine as one of its heroes of 2010.

So what are people saying when they embrace these heroes as Taiwanese? They are saying "Taiwan may be small and diplomatically isolated, but it deserves to have a voice in the international community." While Lee may not speak about politics and no longer creates movies about Taiwan, he does have a voice and people do listen. And that's worth spreading in lights across the world's second-tallest building.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Ryan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT