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2020-05-12

The media pundit with a poet's soul — Dr. Chang Chun-yen (張春炎)

“A passionate heart and a logical mind” is a quote taken from a preface written by Charles Kao, co-founder and chairman of the Commonwealth Publishing Group, for the bestseller “The New World of Economics.” Such a description aptly captures the lifelong ethos of journalists and media professionals around the world, including National Chi Nan University’s Dr. Chang Chun-yen (張春炎).

Dr. Chang, an associate professor with NCNU’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies, fits this bill perfectly. The veteran media pundit has decades of experience under his belt, including producing newsletters for the Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award (卓越新聞獎基金會). His support for social issues and fight against injustice are crystalized by text.

Born and raised in agrarian surroundings, Chang once vowed to take up the path of literature under the tutelage of Ng Kim Chew (黃錦樹), an established writer of Malaysian literature and an esteemed professor with NCNU’s Department of Chinese Language and Literature. Upon graduating, however, Chang became enamored by the power of media, especially its ability to deliver and amplify messages through the mediums of text and imagery.

Nevertheless, there are times when sound reporting and good journalism cannot quench his literary thirst, and this is when he turns to poetry. “At the height of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, I suddenly recalled how Professor Yeh Chi-jeng (葉啓政) taught the abstract field of sociology with verse-like language,” Chang said, explaining that was how he combined poetry with the student-led social movement and garnered a China Times Literary Award that year.

Whether through literary creations or social critiques, Chang’s reflections upon contemporary society — especially those concerning social participation and under-reported issues — are neatly delineated by text. He has since taken to sharing his knowledge through a more direct way by returning to NCNU to teach at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies.There is method to his seemingly abrupt career change. Dr. Alan Hao Yang (楊昊), current executive director of NCCU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, was Chang’s friend during their college years together. Moreover, the university already had a sizable Southeast Asian population those days, with special care paid to coordinating mixed dormitory arrangements conducive to facilitating exchanges and friendships.

Chang also empathetically wanted to learn more about the lives of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. In 2009, he moved his residence close to Huaxin Street in New Taipei City’s Zhonghe District, an area colloquially known as “Little Burma” or “Zhonghe Myanmar Street” after its authentic cuisine served up by Chinese-Burmese immigrants. 

Tapping into the synergy of social reportage, Chang chose to present his findings through relatable stories relayed through simple prose. This framework allowed for their tales to be evaluated within the context and constraints of their socio-economic backgrounds, while capturing the frequency of exchanges among certain communities and groups.

Exchanges begets comradery, discussions, and networks, solidifying eventually into mature movements. He was most interested to uncover the mystery behind the inception of social uprisings and the potential of mobilizing entire social segments of society.

Through the lens of Taiwanese media reports on the resurgence of natural and manmade disasters in places like Thailand and the Philippines, Chang has also compiled research on how such outlets laud Taiwan’s advantages in comparison to the perceived disadvantages of Southeast Asia, including both typical assumptions and possible biases.

Other geographically focused investigations include a comparison of consumer culture by looking at the markets of Hong Kong and Malaysia, and a breakdown of the cultural and creative industries of the Philippines. This year, following a surge in violence against — and in some cases, murder of — journalists in the Philippines, he began to gather details on the interplay among media reports and political agendas in an attempt to trace their effects on the country’s social development and democratic trajectory.

Before challenging the golden rule of journalism — impartiality — Chang tried first to alter the status quo by changing his interview approach and giving more coverage to minority or distressed groups that lack the power of discourse. However, he came to realize that objectivity is inherently rooted in knowledge and accountability, and personal bias can only be overturned by first-hand observations from being at the scene.

“It was in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park that I truly saw the potential of migrant workers. They were documentary makers, photographers… working regular hours with paid days off. Some were even enrolled in yoga courses,” he said, summarizing an anecdote he shares with his students to emphasize how one’s understanding of the world is only as wide as the scope of one’s experiences.

Chang also founded “The Homelanders (共創互鄉誌),” an experimental program perpetuating his community-focused brand of journalism. Students learn this new approach by tracing the latest developments in Southeast Asian migrant communities and having guest speakers from career media professionals and regional development managers share relevant case studies within the context of Taiwan. “This is a very interdisciplinary curriculum designed to promote university social responsibility, the students are very receptive, and most go on to complete all the available courses in this series.”

Student loyalty is also coaxed through Chang’s liberal use of humor, encouragement, and discussion. His deft utilization of multimedia materials and digital resources to reinforce concepts and retain interest is a proverbial lifeline to students who often feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of human knowledge. Learning through exchanging information and experiences, he says, is infinitely more valuable and engaging than one-sided preaching. 

His agenda is simple — to help Taiwanese students recognize the plight of Southeast Asian migrant workers, identify the pitfalls and opportunities associated with Taiwan’s position as a host and employer of migrant labor, and search for solutions in partnership with local community groups. “The Homelanders” program has not only garnered the praise of the Ministry of Education’s “Teaching Practice Research Program (教育部計畫辦公室)” but has also caught the eye of the chief editor of The News Lens, resulting in the Hong Kong- and Taiwan-based outlet’s serialization of student works produced through the NCNU program.

To enhance the visibility of Southeast Asian affairs in Taiwan, the professor submits opinion pieces and letters to mainstream Taiwanese media like Liberty Times and Apple Daily. He also remains highly active in academic circles, attending seminars and project presentations from both private and public sectors.

Just like Southeast Asia, NCNU is a cornucopia of diverse issues and interests shaped by politics, societal expectations, history, and people. Calling the university’s fondness for research in all its forms “a core and unique strength of the school,” Chang describes the known and the unknown as “a galaxy of knowledge waiting to be explored” and students as “navigators guided by the stars.” Perhaps one day, they too will return to the shores of NCNU to share their journeys with a new generation of scholars.

Those who are interested in learning more about the professor and his field can contact Professor Chang at ­­­­­­­­­­­­cychang@mail.ncnu.edu.tw.

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