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Monsters and Postcolonial Taiwan Reinvention of Folklore Tradition in the Works of Fevervine Dance Theatre

The legend "CHEN Shou Niang" in Tainan in the Night , 2018. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung

Looking for Taiwanese Monsters and Mythical Beings

Compared to the long tradition of Japanese demonology which began more than a hundred years ago, the studies of Taiwanese spectral heritage started fairly recently. It was not until the publication of An Anthropological Imagination of Mô-sîn-á, an essay by Academia Sinica scholar LIN Mei-rong, did it start to gain its prominence—what used to be considered “folk legends and rumors in the countryside” was now investigated with anthropological and folkloristic approaches. What followed was a craze for monsters and the mythical: writers like HO Ching-Yao, Taipei Legend Studio, Affiliated Monster Research Team of Flaneur Culture Lab all endeavored to rediscover Taiwanese literature of spectral subject matters, and to contribute to a new discourse with their diverse visions. Novels, board games, video games and other related cultural products thematizing monsters and mythical beings also appeared on the market. In 2018, the National Museum of Taiwan Literature curated Enchanted Taiwan・Ghouls & Goblins: A Special Exhibition of Taiwanese Horror Fiction, addressing changes and developments of Taiwanese horror legends throughout history. Folk legends and rumors such as “Sister Lin Tou” and “Mô-sîn-á” known to many in the past eventually became part of the discussion and representation in the official context of Taiwanese history.

Whereas trends and crazes for monsters prevail in the literary world, few theatrical pieces thematizing monsters and the mythical in folklores are seen in Taiwanese contemporary theater. In 2013, IS Theatre Labo, a theater group from Tainan, presents The Bridal Fan, an adaptation of a novel written by Japanese author Haruo SATŌ in 1925 named Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (Jokai ōgi Kidan). This short novel draws upon the legend of a haunting female ghost in a derelict building in Anping, Tainan, and gives off a “dreamy, mysterious, exotic and romantic sentiment”1 of the colonial time. Delivered at “Anping Tree House,” a listed historical building brutally wrapped by intertwined branches and tree trunks, The Bridal Fan conveys an uncanny eeriness of blended Japanese and Taiwanese elements. On the other hand, a different approach to existing folklores is proposed by Representation Theatre’s Village of Monsters (2018) which emphasizes that “the knowledge of monsters lends us the best tools to comprehend how a set of cultural codes and rules operate in the back alley of a society.”2 The performance includes known monsters, such as “Chair Prophet (Yi-zi-gu)” and “Old Monkey (Lao-hou-mei),” as well as “monster” allegories created to address phenomena in modern society. Instead of delving into horror legends with folkloristic methodologies, the theater piece utilizes monsters as metaphors to stress the impacts of “modernity.” For instance, “Stone Lady (Shi-niang)” is a mutant existence resulted from water pollution, and “Cocoon Monster (Jian-yao)” refers to NEETs who lead a secluded life. Fevervine Dance Theatre also comes from Tainan. Their self-introduction, “We’re Fevervine Dance Theatre and we tell you stories of Tainan!” declares a strong interest in the old “capital” Tainan, Taiwanese folk tradition, history, and literature. For instance, Spirited Away of Tainan (2015) is an adaptation of Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn), a novel by KHÓO Píng-Ting who was a writer based in Tainan under Japanese rule. A Taiwanese Girl – HUANG Feng-Zi (2016) tells the story of female writer HUANG Feng-Zi in the Japanese colonial period and her writings on Taiwanese folk religions. And Tainan in the Night (2018) pays tributes to three local legends—”CHEN Shou Niang,” “White Horse Tomb in Tsiu-á-bué,” and “Case of Tainan Canal”3—and further “endeavors to create a documentary dance theater which rediscovers stories through field studies, interviews, Koa-á books, and locally found documentation.”4 In order to contextualize “Taiwanese monsters” with contemporary interpretations and reinventions, I, as the director of Fevervine Dance Theatre, intend to illustrate the spirits, ghosts, monsters and other supernatural mythical beings mentioned in Spirited Away of Tainan and Tainan in the Night. Furthermore, I will also elaborate on creative strategies to re-establish “sense of place” in the postcolonial and globalized era.

Spirited Away of Tainan, 2017. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung

Where is the “place”?

Having been ruled by multiple and consecutive colonial regimes5, Taiwan’s decolonization project isn’t officially initiated until the lifting of martial law in the 80s. Although one after another social movement has shaken the society politically and culturally, there hasn’t been a consensus of what “Taiwanese culture” entails.6 At this time in 2019, we are now confronted with gradual loss of a “sense of place” in our contemporary urban life under capitalist expansion and “globalization” in addition to the unfinished challenge to “eliminate a haunting colonial mentality.”7 “Re-establishing a sense of place” thus becomes a prominent strategy for grassroots activists to fight against globalization. 8 “What kind of role does theater play in representing and reshaping a sense of place” besides measures of conservation of historic buildings, urban renewal, and community development?9

Fevervine Dance Theatre started off as a “folk dance group” while the head of the group, HSU Chun-hsiang, taught folk dance in school in the early days. “Folk dance” in the pedagogical context in postwar Taiwan was understood as a kind of Chinese local folk dances under the umbrella of great “Chinese tradition” and the grand narrative of “Five Races Under One Union (the Han, the Manchus, the Mongols, the “Hui” and the Tibetans).” Since Taiwan was seen as a local region, “local folk dance” here was then adorned with elements appropriated from “aboriginal dance” or “rural and religious dance at temple gatherings.” With the production of Modern Showa, Tainan Love Song (2007) which thematizes Hayashi Department Store and the director’s family memories, Fevervine Dance Theatre starts to look for theatrical and aesthetic forms that represent diverse aspects of Taiwanese dance. By including Taiwanese narratives of different eras in the motifs, and by re-shaping the bodies for a “Taiwanese texture” in the physique of the dancers in the face of influences from multiple cultures, the attempt to confront a questionable cultural identity under globalization via the means of dance with a “sense of place” is clear.

1. Sian Piànn Sian in Tainan

About temples, I write.

Depictions of their wonders and oddities.

With humor, I write.

No intention for blasphemy or profanity.

False or true, wrong or right,

What’s all the obsession with triviality?

⸺Like that in a Dream, KHÓO Píng-Ting

KHÓO Píng-Ting

Spirited Away of Tainan premiered in 2015 at Koxinga Shrine as part of Fevervine Dance Theatre’s series Literature Dance Theatre. 10 It was an Environmental Theatre adaptation of Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn), a chapter-structured novel written in vernacular Taiwanese Hokkien by the well-known author from Tainan, KHÓO Píng-Ting (1899-1977). Representative of KHÓO’s literary style, Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn) was first published on Sam-lio̍k-kiú Tabloid in 1931. Till 1932, twenty-four chapters were released under the pen name “Li̍k-suan-am-tsú.” Titled “Foolish Tales” by KHÓO himself, the book was certainly full of humor and irony in its depiction of disputes or follies among gods and deities in three Taoist and three major temples in Tainan during Japanese colonial time. It was “Taiwan’s first published novel written in Taiwanese Hokkien”11 and the first novel in vernacular using Tainan’s deities as characters.

What’s more intriguing was that Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn) was not only a work of “fantasy literature” set in an imaginary universe. It was also full of vivid depictions specific to its time and local life which conveys certain “historicity” and “locality.” First of all, the story was set in Tainan in the 30s. Incidents in the story, such as gods’ legislative assembly, population planning, the Third Prince frightened by a bicycle race, Leizhenzi competing with airplanes, all reflected Taiwan’s development during the modernization in the 30s, a later stage of Japanese rule. “Modernization” in Taiwan referred to not only Western influences but also the “Asian Modernization” coming from Japan after the Meiji Restoration. “Modernity” thus served as one of the important tools for the Japanese colonist to show their superiority. In Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn), for example, KHÓO’s disapproval of superstitions in traditional folk religion was shown through gods and deities in the story where dichotomies of “modern/tradition,” “progressive/backward” could be observed in the words of an intellect deeply influenced by the Japanese “colonial modernity.”

Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn). Collected and photo by YANG Yeh

What’s more intriguing was that Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn) was not only a work of “fantasy literature” set in an imaginary universe. It was also full of vivid depictions specific to its time and local life which conveys certain “historicity” and “locality.”

Although KHÓO paid tribute to the Chinese classic The Investiture of the Gods by appropriating the genre, a lot of adaptation was done to “localize” the work. All the characters in the story were based on Tainan’s local gods and deities with evidential details. The geographical setting, too, was in Tainan. The story started at the Little Xuan Tian Shang Di Temple (Kaiji Ling You Temple), on the Chikan East Street, when officers were sent to “Tâng-jū Pawn Shop” on the “Phah-gîn Street” to pawn Thong-thian Crown for some silver taels. The name “Phah-gîn Street” was given in the Qing Dynasty because of a group of silverware and jewelry shops in this block along what we know nowadays as Zhongyi Road. Besides descriptions of the landscape / cityscape, the story was abundant in references to many local folk legends which were delicately and structurally weaved into the narrative of Little Deification (Sió-Hong-Sîn). For instance, the ten stone Bi-xi monsters bestowed by the Qianlong Emperor which are now honored in Chihkan Tower and Bao-an Temple became “Lady Turtle (Guei-ling-sheng-mu)” and her disciples in the story.

The complexities of the story and the large number of characters are strategically simplified and modified during adaptation as Fevervine Dance Theatre puts more emphasis on a “sense of place” and a fusion of Japanese and Taiwanese cultures specific to the era. For example, a new character is created — Lingo (Apple), a student of “Suehiro Elementary School” (now Tainan Municipal West Central District Jinsyue Elementary School). Glove puppet theater is integrated into the performance in which puppets use spoken words to read KHÓO’s distinctive literary mixture of the vernacular and the classical in commoner’s Taiwanese Hokkien. Moreover, the technique of “symbolism” in glove puppetry is used to suggest the hybrid fictionality of the narrative. The story starts with Lingo running into a puppet character, the Third Prince, while she is taking shelter in a traditional Chinese Medicine shop from the Raid on Tainan in 1945 on the way home after school. The Third Prince then leads the protagonist into the fictional world of gods and deities created by KHÓO Píng-Ting, allowing us to see the local folk tradition through the eyes of a girl living in that era.

Lingo and the Third Prince in Spirited Away of Tainan, 2018. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung
Spirited Away of Tainan was performed in front of Koxinga Shrine. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung

Other than the use of words from the novel to illustrate the specificity of Tainan and its “sense of place,” Fevervine Dance Theatre also utilizes theatrical elements to create an imagery of Tainan. Performances often take place in front of listed temples, such as Koxinga Shrine, Nanxi Beiji Temple, and Taipei Confucius Temple. These religious / spiritual spaces with each of their traditions and characteristics have already been functioning as cultural spaces. They are, too, the stage for stories to happen in KHÓO Píng-Ting’s novel. A performance like this is not merely about presenting a piece of theater work. It is about offering a possibility for the audience to “rediscover” the interlinked relations between historic buildings, stories, and contemporary audience-ship. “The viewer feels what fading local memories mean to its time through the sensory experience of the play and the surroundings.”12 What’s worth mentioning, too, is that the costume design of the play draws upon influences of Japanese, Taiwanese and Han Chinese cultures in place of highly ornate and dazzling Chinese ancient costumes often seen in “folk dance.” For instance, the protagonist Lingo is in Japanese elementary school uniform. The villain “Bé-pínn Zen Master” wears Han clothing, sunglasses and Japanese-style long hair, indicating a strong reference to the style of Taiwanese “Opera”13 in postwar years. The two deities, Golden Fish and Antler, dress as Chinese Taoist priests (Taoshi) commonly seen in martial art movies. Lady Turtle (Guei-ling-sheng-mu) “cross-dresses” in flamboyant folk dance costume with subtle “queer” hints. And the costume for five Bi-xi monsters reminds the audience of tshia-kóo-lāng performers’ flower headwear and flower-patterned clothing.

The cultural fusion seen in the plots, the choice of venue, and the costume design of Spirited Away of Tainan is indicative of the transition of Taiwanese theater from tradition to modern-day. This transition is intricately intertwined with contemporary challenges facing postcolonial Taiwan—multiple and consecutive colonial powers have etched their presence deeply in cultures, arts, and society here, which results in a fascinating hybrid seen in contemporary Taiwanese culture. The presentation of this “hybrid culture” is therefore seen by us as a strategy to construct a “sense of place” specific to Tainan, in spite of its nostalgic nature and relevant yet-to-be-dealth-with power relations among cultural groups in the past.

The villain “Bé-pínn Zen Master” wears Han clothing, sunglasses and Japanese-style long hair, and the two deities, Golden Fish and Antler, dress as Chinese Taoist priests (Taoshi) commonly seen in martial art movies. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung
Tainan in the Night, 2018. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung

2. “Places” in Legends and Rumors in Tainan

Unlike other literary adaptation in dance theater, Tainan in the Night which premiered in 2018 sees “incidents” as texts in order to re-invent three local Tainan legends in the form of “documentary theatre”—”CHEN Shou Niang,” “White Horse Tomb in Tsiu-á-bué,” and “Case of Tainan Canal.” Based on “incidents” rather than written “literature,” the work includes a wider range of materials: oral history, fieldwork, media coverage, academic research and even internet literature with a contemporary relevance in addition to traditional textual material. What kind of past of this ‘capital city’ can we see through legends and rumors when we dig deeper into the “legends”? How can the past be perceived by a contemporary audience?

A “live streamer” is included in the play, Tainan in the Night, to perform on the stage in the form of “live streaming.” Most of the time, the audience can only see what the streamer is doing from the projection on the surface of a shabby hut, whereas the actor playing the streamer is actually performing for a camera in the hut. Live streaming is a new media developing quickly in recent years.14 Through the lens of a live streamer, a contemporary take on countryside legends and rumors is incorporated in the performance. The audience not only gets to know the stories but also is led by the spoken words of the streamer and exposed to diverse perspectives.

The legend “CHEN Shou Niang” in Tainan in the Night , 2018. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung

The legend of “CHEN Shou Niang,” is one of the three most known mysterious cases in Taiwan.15 CHEN is a female ghost whose fame is only second to that of “Sister Lin Tou.” The early stories of Chen can be found in Liu Jia-mou’s Sea Tone Poems and Lian Heng’s General History of Taiwan. It is said that the legend of “CHEN Shou Niang” goes viral again in 2013 because of netizen Kokone’s humorous retelling and a modern take of the story in a post on “Board Marvel” in the PTT Bulletin Board System.16 In the retelling, CHEN Shou Niang lives near the East Market in Tainan. She is widowed at a young age. Framed, abused and eventually killed by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, her body is later buried at Suann-á-bué (now Nanmen Road). After her death, her wronged spirit haunts Tainan with boiling hatred and induces conflicts with iú-ìng-kong (the neglected spirits), Yong-hua Temple’s Guangze Zunwang, and Dehua Shrine’s Guanyin. We visited several sites and temples mentioned in the story with the dancers, and realized that CHEN Shou Niang is actually typical of Taiwanese woman of Han ethnicity suffering from multiple oppression (nationality, gender, and even the hegemonic hierarchy of deities one has to face after death). Whereas most female victims are forgotten right after their death, CHEN is brave enough to fight against deities of a higher position for her own rights. The ferocious revenge of “female ghosts” in folk legends provides an (only) outlet for Taiwanese women under continues and multiple oppression. The female ghosts can symbolize the subconscious of those who are oppressed. In order to reverse the horrifying imagery of the female ghost in the original story, five actors are chosen to play various embodiments of CHEN Shou Niang, hinting that there might not have been only one woman suffering from similar atrocity. Instead of highlighting CHEN’s ghostly image, the dancers focus on her journey from being terribly oppressed, feeling angry, to finally becoming a ghost and rebelling against the oppression. After the exploration of this journey, the score which dancers develop based on their understanding and feeling about the story has added some “essential quality of Taiwan and Tainan” to the performance.

“White Horse Tomb in Tsiu-á-bué” in Tainan in the Night, 2018. Photo by HAN Cheng-Hung

“White Horse Tomb in Tsiu-á-bué,” on the other hand, is a Feng Shui legend. It is said the two white horse statues in front of the tomb of Tēnn Kî-jîn17 (also said to be the tomb of Koxinga and his grandson Zheng Kezang), a leader of voluntary armed force in the Qing Dynasty, absorbed spiritual influences from the tomb and transformed into monsters. In the middle of the night, they trod on the fields to steal crops. Deeply disturbed by the theft, villagers set up a trap with a red thread which led to the transgressors, the pair of stone horses. They then sawed their front legs off. Such legends about inanimate objects turning into spirits / monsters are not only found here at Tsiu-á-bué, Tainan. White horse monsters are also heard of at the Spanish castle on Peace Island, Keelung; Hai’an Road, Tainan; Donggang, Pingtung; as well as Huludun, Taichung. Besides white horse monsters, silverware becoming white chickens or rabbits is also a common theme across Taiwan.18 Although inanimate objects turning into spirits / monsters is a familiar motif in Japanese legends and Chinese literature, such as that in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, turning into monsters “because of Feng Shui geography” and “guarding tombs or treasure of specific people” have brought in a “sense of place.” The white horse monster guarding the treasure in the Spanish castle on Peace Island, Keelung, for example, addresses the historical fact that Taiwan was once occupied by the Spaniards. To represent the legend “White Horse Tomb in Tsiu-á-bué,” we create physical expressions that bear resemblances to the imagery of horses with legs sawed off by developing the bodies of the dancers and a score based on the stiff quality of stones. In so doing, we hope we can foster bodies with a “sense of place” in the soil fertilized with local stories.

Looking for cultural subjectivity somewhere “in between”

According to WANG Wan-Jung, Indian English scholar Homi K. BHABHA argues that theater has always been a place for cultural debates and reinvention, as well as a space for ideological expressions and symbolic productions. This “liminal space” between fixed identifications becomes an interstitial passage where existing presumptions and ideas are always ready to be repurposed into new meanings.”19 Since the lifting of martial law, progress can be seen in different social sectors in the endeavors to reinvent “Taiwanese culture” in a postcolonial setting and to reconstruct a “sense of place” in the fight against globalization. The flourishing presence of “Taiwanese monsters” or “legends and rumors” in theater after 2010 demonstrates the quest for another possibility to the “subjectivity” of Taiwanese culture in such “liminal space.” Much like theater plays, “deities, spirits, ghosts, and monsters” without a tangible existence in the physical world also lie somewhere “in between.” It is in theater, the third space where interpretation and reinvention of meanings happens, where “Taiwanese deities, spirits, ghosts, and monsters” are approached with an alternative perspective during their re-interpretation and representation. Can this perspective be a way for contemporary Taiwan to secure its own identity and tread forward in the face of globalization?

Simohura, Sakuzirô. Introduction. A Trip to the Colony , by Haruo Satō, Taipei: Avantguard, 2016.
“CHEN Shou Niang” is a well-known legend of a female ghost in Tainan in the Qing Dynasty whose story can be found in Liu Jia-mou’s Sea Tone Poems and Lian Heng’s General History of Taiwan. “Horse Tomb in Tsiu-á-bué” is about the two white horse statues in front of the tomb of Tēnn Kî-jîn turning into monsters and causing chaos to the locals. “Case of Tainan Canal” refers to an incident of a couple committed suicide for their love which was covered in Taiwan Daily News. Since “Case of Tainan Canal” aims at discussing news-related phenomena at the time, it is not included in this article.
Tainan in the Night, Taipei: Fevervine Dance Theatre. 2018. Print
“One of the characteristics of Taiwan’s colony experience: long duration of ‘consecutive colonization’—Qing Empire, Japan, KMT—and a simultaneous dominating structure, ‘multiple colonization’—mother country (foreign regime) / Han immigrants / aboriginals.” Wu, Rwei-ren. “Thesis on Postcolonial Taiwan: A Partisan View.” Reflexion Journal, vol. 3, 2006, pp.95.
“[T]he multicultural nature of most post-colonial societies makes the issue of what constitutes the pre-colonial “native” culture obviously problematic.” Parry, Benita, “Resistance Theory / Theorising Resistance, or two cheers for Nativism,” in Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen (eds.), Colonial Discourse, Postcolonial Theory. Manchester: Manchester University, 1994. 160.
Wu, Rwei-ren. “Thesis on Postcolonial Taiwan: A Partisan View.” Reflexion Journal, vol. 3, 2006, pp.97.
Wang, Wan-Jung. “Representing and Re-establishing Sense of Place through Reminiscence Theatre Performance in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan in the Era of Globalization.” Taipei Theatre Journal, vol. 17, Taipei: School of Theatre Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts, 2013, pp.36.
Starting in 2014, Fevervine Dance Theatre plans to produce one play of the “Literature Dance Theatre” series each year, adapting works from important authors representative of Taiwanese literature, including Literature Dance Theatre: Yeh-Shyr-Tau—Spring Dream at Gourd Valley(2014); Literature Dance Theatre: KHÓO Píng-Ting—Spirited Away of Tainan(2015); A Taiwanese Girl—Huang Feng-Zi (2016) which is based on the life of Huang Feng-Zi, a female writer living in Báng-kah in Japanese colonial era; The Well(2017), a combined adaptation of Sekikanki by Taiwan-based Japanese author Nishikawa Mitsuru in Japanese colonial era and The Water Station by Japanese theater practitioner Ota Shogo.
Lü, Xingchang. Introduction: A Pioneer in Taiwanese Hokkien Literature, Selected Works of Hsu Bing-Ding, by Hsu Bing-ding. Tainan: Tainan Municipal Cultural Center, 1996, pp.5.
Wang, Wan-Jung. “Representing and Re-establishing Sense of Place through Reminiscence Theatre Performance in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan in the Era of Globalization.” Taipei Theatre Journal, vol. 17, Taipei: School of Theatre Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts, 2013, pp.38.
Taiwanese Opera actor Liao Chiung-Chih mentions during an interview that the term “opera” originally refers to “new theater” (editor’s note: a general term for modern theater developed during the Japanese colonial period). After the war, commercial theater utilizes popular songs in the performances. Viewers then start to use the Japanese pronunciation of “opera” to define this form of a mixture of singing, dance, theater loaded with Chinese, Japanese and Western cultural elements. The term is later used to refer to Taiwanese opera with inserted popular songs. See: Hwang,Yea-roog. A Study of the Performing Styles of Taiwanese Yee-tair Ge-tzyy Opera, MA Thesis. Chinese Culture University, 1995, pp. 10-11.
“In the era of virtual social space and mobile internet, live streaming based on mobile APPs has broken the limits on communication in the previous PC era, allowing diverse developments of streaming scenes and contents.” qtd. In Yu, Guo-ming. “From Technical Logic to Social Platforms: A Discussion on Internet Streaming.”
Three most known mysterious cases in Taiwan are: “CHEN Shou Niang,” “Sister Lin Tou,” “Burning Joss Paper at Lu-zu Temple.”
“Marvel” can refer to “Marvel comics.” In the PTT Bulletin Board System, Board Marvel is a sub-forum for people to share ghost stories, so it is also nicknamed “Board Piao (ghost).”
Tēnn Kî-jîn had volunteered to help the Qing Empire defeat Lin Shuangwen in the incident of Lin Shuangwen rebellion.
Ho, Ching-Yao, Monsters of Taiwan, Taipei: Linking, 2017
Bhaba, Homi. K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. qtd. in Wang, Wan-Jung. “Towards a Minority Theatre: The Practice of Minority Theatre in the Postcolonial Discourse-Reminideence Theatre Performances of Uhan Shii Theatre Group in Taiwan and Age Exchange Conter in United Kingdom,” Chung Wai Literary, vol. 5, 2004, pp. 73.
CHEN Hui-YunDirector of Fevervine Dance Theatre. Assistant Professor of Tamkang University. A genuine “Tainaner.” CHEN has long been collaborating with her mother, HSU Chun-Hsiang, the head of Fevervine Dance Theatre, and HU Tzu-Yun, the resident director of Fevervine, to produce Dance theater pieces with an aim for “Taiwanese” aesthetics and qualities by delving into her family memories, culture, and literature of Tainan city.
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