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One of Taiwan's biggest pop stars is challenging the boundaries of Taiwanese identity


I just got back from three months reporting in Taiwan, a place I've always loved visiting, in part because they're a cultural powerhouse for producing Chinese-language pop ballads.


TERESA TENG: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: But a whole new generation of musicians is emerging who sing not in Chinese but in languages native to Taiwan - musicians like Abao, one of Taiwan's biggest pop stars. Abao is Paiwan, one of the island's 16 recognized Indigenous groups, and she sings in Paiwan, an Austronesian language. It's genre-bending music that is challenging the boundaries of Taiwanese identity. In person, Abao is vibrant. We met for dinner recently in the recesses of Taiwan's national theater. Our conversation was frequently punctuated by her belly laughs...

ABAO: (Laughter) (non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...And the jingle of her jewelry. That love of life and curiosity is also evident in her music, which spans electronic dance hits...


ABAO: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: ...Draws on gospel....


ABAO: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: ...And is also heavily shaped by R&B.


ABAO: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: Abao credits her love of mixing music styles to her ability to code switch among Taiwan's many ethnicities and languages. When she was 7, her parents moved her out of Taiwan's rural east to the southern city of Kaohsiung so she could be near better schools with Han Chinese people. This is Taiwan's main ethnic group.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) My parents' generation had a tough life. They had few opportunities, so they wanted me and my sister to get the same education as the Han Chinese and not just spend time with other Indigenous people.

FENG: But she'd often make weekend trips back to the Paiwan community to see her parents.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) I was always going between my tribal life and my city life, so I got very used to code switching, and I got used to mixing a lot of things together, and that influences my music.

FENG: Just under 2.5% of Taiwanese are Indigenous, part of the original Austronesian people who lived on the island long before Chinese settlers and various colonial governments came and went. It's really only in the last decade that Taiwan's now ethnically Han Chinese-dominant society has begun to recognize Indigenous culture. And the discrimination and stereotypes Indigenous people face continued even after Taiwan became a democracy.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) We've all met not-very-nice people who ask why my skin is so dark or joke that my parents are alcoholics.

FENG: So Abao used her skill for languages to her advantage.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) My father was the first person who pushed me to learn the Taiwan language because he feared we would be bullied, and we wouldn't even understand.

FENG: And during his job as a taxi driver, she'd sit in the front seat with him and listen in on him in his multilingual passengers.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) His taxi also had a radio. And I'd listen to all sorts of music - music sung in Taiwanese, in the Hakka language and Western music. I remember ABBA was big then.

FENG: Abao once sang Mandarin Chinese pop songs but switched to writing in Paiwan after recording an album of traditional songs with her grandmother. And her music has let her rediscover and relearn the Paiwan language. Much of her songwriting process began with recording her long conversations with her mother, who died last year.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) People say my lyrics are like poems, but my mother and I would just chat and chat and suddenly get to a phrase and think, wow, that sentence is so funny. And that would become a lyric.

FENG: That process was one of the inspirations behind one of Abao's biggest hits, called "Mother Tongue," or "Kinakaian" in Paiwan.


ABAO: (Singing in non-English language).

FENG: "Mother Tongue" is part of an album of the same name that won her album of the year and best Indigenous-language album at Taiwan's Golden Melody Awards, its top music accolade, in 2020.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) When people think of music, they think of some elder pounding the drum. That's important, too. But young Indigenous people have their own way of living in their own community, and they want to be able to mix their culture with what they like.

FENG: Music, she believes, is one of the most accessible ways to connect people in Taiwan.

ABAO: (Through interpreter) I want to slowly reduce the concept of what the other must be like.

FENG: And Abao has gotten so big in Taiwan that when she gives a concert, her fans, no matter their age or ethnicity or mother tongue - they now sing the Paiwan lyrics right back at her.


ABAO: (Singing) To all of my angels, I wanna say thank you. I wanna say thank you, thank you, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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