Janet Hsieh (謝怡芬) is everywhere. Her image graces supermarket aisles, delivery vans and bus shelters. But there is one of her in a pink cowboy hat, from a few years ago promoting Fun Taiwan, that stands out. Side on, head tilted, lips pursed, with fingers pointed up toward them like a gun, she appears quite the pastiche cowgirl.
It seems an appropriate appellation. Cowboys were frontiersmen, using their wits to charm and conquer, and push America’s territory westward. In the process, they formed a new national identity built on adventure and charisma. Is Hsieh doing the same in Taiwan?
She has certainly made the spirit of adventure her metier.
Cowboys, as pioneers, were the masters of reinvention, and like many a migrant before her, so is Hsieh, and it seems the MIT graduate is following in her mother’s footsteps. When Hsieh speaks, she has the air of confiding something, which has obviously helped in creating the link between her and her TV viewers; her phrasing is short and simple, which again gives the directness and intimacy that make up her appeal; and “show, don’t tell” comes naturally to her, giving ample examples to illustrate her points, like all good communicators.
“That is part of the nature of my family. Like my mother, [in Taiwan] she studied homemaking and then she went to the US, and she was like, ‘You know what, I want to get a career, I wanna study accounting, I want to get my CPA. I want to become the top position.’ So in a way she kind of went against tradition in her family’s mind.”
While tradition is a part of Hsieh’s story, migration, reinvention and change predominate.
With Fun Taiwan, she introduced Taiwan to reality TV in the form of a global competition to win NT$1 million as Hsieh’s co-host. The program has all the reality TV gimmicks we have come to expect: the elimination nail-biters, the tears, the heart-to-heart pieces, while still getting non-Taiwanese to experience Taiwan, and for Taiwanese to see their country through foreign eyes.
But Hsieh is also breaking new ground in terms of second-generation Taiwanese, and arguably for Taiwanese women, and this is closer to the forging of a new national identity.
“Look at these suckers!” she says on an episode of Fun Taiwan, as she hoists up two 10kg fish she caught in Penghu. Coming from a pure Taiwanese — or a pure American — it would sound different — more artificial, perhaps, or more brash.
Hsieh is East with a lot of West; an ABT (American Born Taiwanese), and the “Janet magic” is this special recipe, presented at the right place, at the right time. It has been her lightning rod.
So, Hsieh isn’t just a cowgirl. She’s also a native. When she first came to Taiwan in September, 2001, she couldn’t speak three words of Chinese. She spoke something much better: Taiwanese. For audiences, this gave her genuine, bonafide credentials and immediate entry into people’s homes and hearts. Her agent knew it and one of her early advertisements for cough medicine cashes in on this.
On Fun Taiwan, she shines a light into remote parts of Taiwan with her TV crew, illuminating traditional and obscure industries and customs for an English, Mandarin and Taiwanese-speaking audience. Communities open up to her, because she is also one of them. From shell fishing and cactus farming to stone masonry, she manages to elevate the banality of the day-to-day into something core to the story of Taiwan.