Independent band Country Boys (農村武裝青年) are not strangers to sit-ins or rallies, using their satirical lyrics to present the plight of farmers and disadvantaged groups, or questioning whether happiness based on large manor houses and developed economies was really happiness.
To many, the band represents the contradictions of the younger generation, and to an extent their longing to go back to their roots.
Hailing from Changhua County’s Tianjhong Township (田中), Chiang Yu-ta (江育達), the band’s guitarist and lead singer, said he started on the music scene when he was in college, at a time when punk rock was the craze in Taichung.
Feirenbang (廢人幫) and other punk bands were the stars of the period, and served as catalysts that led to the rise of Live House, an establishment which to this day still offers a great platform for music performances, Chiang said.
Chiang was a student then at Tunghai University’s Department of Philosophy, and he, along with anti-nuclear song writer Wu Chih-ning (吳志寧), were among the first staff at the establishment.
Fast forward a few years, and Chiang had completed his compulsory military service, worked as a salesperson at Yamaha Musical Instruments, started his first band — Guan Tui Tsng Kha lai (阮對庄腳來), which means “We come from the countryside,” in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) — and performed at Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium.
The sanatorium in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Sinjhuang District (新莊) was built in the 1930s to house leprosy patients, a disease at the time believed to be highly contagious and incurable.
Decades after its completion, the complex’s residents were forcibly relocated as the Taipei City Department of Rapid Transit Systems planned to demolish the sanatorium complex and build a maintenance depot for the Sinjhuang MRT line, a plan heavily opposed by Losheng residents and preservation activists.
It was an event that led Chiang to meet farming activist Yang Ru-men (楊儒門) and the beginning of a close partnership with Yang on agricultural protest events and also the start of Chiang’s social activism.
Yang, popularly known as the “rice bomber,” drew national attention in 2004 when he was arrested for placing 17 homemade bombs in public spaces, including telephone booths. Only two of the bombs exploded, but no one was injured. At his trial, Yang said he had made the bombs to draw the government’s attention to the plight of local farmers after the nation started importing rice.
Sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison, Yang was released in June 2007 on special pardon by then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Chiang said he then formed the Country Boys band with schoolmate Hsiao Chang-chan (蕭長展), a friend he met at the Rock Music club at Tunghai University, adding that the naming of the band was a tip of the hat to Yang and his efforts.
Chiang said he used several incidents that happened at the time — such as governmental policies on relocating the Losheng Sanatorium, forced relocation of Aboriginal villages from New Taipei City’s (新北市) Sanying District (三鶯) and Changhua County’s Sijhou Township (溪州) — as the creative spark to write the Dirge for the Tribes (部落哀歌), No to Farming (不願再種田) and the famed No Justice, No Peace (沒正義就沒和平) often heard in recent protests and rallies.
All three songs were included in the album Fuck! Government! (幹！政府), Chiang said, adding that the band has another album with songs on controversial issues concerning the Central Taiwan Science Park, namely water and land grabbing.
The establishment of the Central Taiwan Science Park has long been controversial due to the amount of farmland it was expropriating. Farmers said the location of the park, in Changhua County’s Erlin Township (二林), was a fertile rice-producing area and the policy was stepping on farmers’ rights of ownership.
The establishment of the park has also led to questions of water usage. The government’s plans to install pipes capable of channeling 130,000 tonnes of water for park use — water that was originally used by farmers in the area to irrigate their fields — has come under fire from the media and activists.
“The band is very active in central and southern Taiwan and often receives invitations to perform at temple-hosted events or rural areas. It is also very active in social affairs,” Chiang said.
The band has been at Sijhou for more than 24 hours to lend moral support to a farmers’ protest, Chiang said, adding that he has also taught the farmers several songs to better convey their dissatisfaction.
During protests against a naphtha cracker that Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology intended to set up in Changhua County’s Dacheng Township (大城), Chiang attended a press conference and sang for Formosa Petrochemical general manager Tsao Mihn (曹明) Song of the White Dolphins (白海豚之歌) to voice his feelings against the project.
Faced with Tsao’s impatience and anger, Chiang stood his ground and asked Tsao to “respect my profession as a singer” and stayed to finish the song.
The Kuokuang Petrochemical project was part of a government plan to stimulate the economy under the Chen administration. However, the project has been controversial because the location is close to the habitat of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, which was declared an endangered species in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.
Despite being a social activist, Chiang said social activists needed to look inward and think about how to implement their ideologies instead of succumbing to the feelings of self-satisfaction that their slogans and songs arouse.
Chiang said he often asked himself: “What am I going to do with my life after cussing the government?”
He said that he came to the conclusion that he did not want to use music to incite his fans to become anti-government or to oppose certain issues.
“I just want to settle down in an agricultural society and live out my ideals,” Chiang said, adding that by living what he was preaching, he was sending out a stronger message.
When asked about his own ideals, Chiang laughed deprecatingly and said he had no grand ideologies, wishing only to live a simple life and make friends through performances and talks.
Chiang said he hoped to be a part of helping society change, adding that ein very performance or talk he attended, he usually asked an assortment of questions and listened to other musician’s answers to better understand them.
Having grown up in Changhua County, Chiang said many of the development projects in central Taiwan were ridiculous.
“Changhua is one of the main rice and grain production areas in Taiwan, but instead farmers are asked to let their fields lie fallow and decrease overall food production,” Chiang said.
What is even more infuriating is after the fallow farmland is expropriated for public constructions, such as the Central Taiwan Science Park, it is not used due to policy changes by the government.
The government is fickle and mercurial, one moment saying that the park is being closed down due to a lack of investing companies, then making a policy U-turn and saying that it is redefining the park’s purpose, he said.
No one knows what is going to happen, and the only people who are benefiting from the government’s indecisiveness are the land speculators, Chiang said.
Hsiao also said that village after village in Nantun (南屯) and Beitun (北屯) were disappearing due to ongoing constructions hoping to attract investors.
“The freedom that once symbolized [Greater] Taichung is disappearing,” Hsiao said.
“Life in Taichung has increasingly become similar to the oppressed atmosphere in Taipe,.” he said.
“People of my generation who have lived in an urban environment know what I’m talking about, that sense of indecision, of foreignness, of oppression and mild depression,” Hsiao said.
Most people try to cope with the necessity of life and stay in cities for work, but a majority of them are only trying to tolerate city life, he said.
One day they will find it to be too much, quit their work and leave the city, Hsiao said, adding that he was one such person.
However, Hsiao and Chiang said they have noticed a growing number of highly educated young people who have chosen to stay in the more rural areas of Taiwan, opening coffee shops or bookstores.
Naming such stores such as the Hung Ya Bookshop in Chiayi, the Huwei Salon in Yunlin and the Mango Coffee Shop in Cihtong (莿桐), Yunlin, Chiang and Hsiao said the shops help host communal activities and bring people together on a local level.