A 1998 Taiwanese soap opera prompts a family history quest

A 1998 Taiwanese soap opera prompts a family history quest

I have an anecdote to share. It’s an unusual story, and contains a bit of a mystery that touches upon everything from media preservation to family history to Family Guy.

Many of you understand the importance of preserving stories for future generations. They can be serious, funny, profound, or connected to historical events. We tell them to our children. If we find a story that interests them, it’s a potential hook for further exploration of family history.

So here’s my story. 25 years ago, I worked as a journalist in the beautiful country of Taiwan, located roughly between Japan and the Philippines in the East China Sea. I was the editor for the arts & culture section of an English-language newspaper, and was constantly on the lookout for article ideas relating to local music, food, movies, technology, exhibitions, or culture.

China News Taiwan newspaper in English

One day, a Canadian colleague came into the office and announced, “Anyone want to be on a TV show?”

A Soap Opera called 神仙一個半

A handful of us gathered around. He said he had been walking down the street in Taipei when a minivan screeched to a halt next to him and two people leaped out, one of them waving a clipboard.

“Can you speak Chinese,” the guy with the clipboard asked.

“Yes,” said my Canadian friend.

“Great! Do you want to be in our soap opera tomorrow?”

The show was called 神仙一個半 ("Angels One and a Half"). The episode, 我爸爸是舶來品 ("My father is imported goods") required a foreign extra to play an American veteran returning to Taiwan (from 1945 to 1979, the U.S. maintained a large military presence on the island) to reconnect with his long-lost son. The script had about 20 lines for the foreign extra.

taiwanese soap opera script in chinese

My colleague couldn’t do it because he had another engagement, but he said he would ask around. I saw an opportunity - maybe I could write about the TV production for the newspaper. I called up, and they agreed to my proposal - I would “act” in this soap opera (note: I am not an actor!) as long as I could interview the cast and crew and take some photos for an article.

newspaper article

It was a strange experience. The show was very local, and could best be described as Highway to Heaven meets The 3 Stooges ... in Taiwanese! But I got my article. And then I pretty much forgot about it, except to occasionally bring it up as a funny anecdote with friends or relatives.

Until, one day last summer, our daughter texted me:

text message family guy

She was right. Family Guy does have an episode (Season 14, Episode 10) in which Quagmire starred in a Korean soap opera in the 1990s as “American Johnny.” You can see the clip here.

The parallel with Family Guy and #kdrama made my anecdote a bit more relatable to our kids. They wanted to see the Taiwanese soap opera I was in … but there was a problem.

While I still have a copy of the newspaper article, as well as my script, I never got a copy of the tape. The series never made the transition to DVD, and apparently doesn’t exist online, either.

It’s a common issue for lesser-known media. Popular programs like 60 Minutes or All In The Family have been digitized and are available via YouTube. However, when it comes to a sitcom that only lasted one season in the 1980s, or an obscure documentary that aired on the Seattle PBS affiliate in 1973, or a Taiwanese soap opera from the 1990s, it may never have been digitized, let alone shared online.

The Library of Congress explained the challenges of acquiring and preserving old television shows:

Most programs such as talk shows, sporting events, news, variety and game shows were only aired once and never syndicated at all, so these technicalities tended to emphasize the registration of prime-time entertainment series, as opposed to programs aired only once. Because the Library depended heavily on copyright deposits--through voluntary registration--for its television acquisitions, the result of this legal morass was that the collection grew unevenly. ...

A major factor in the development of the collection was an attitude held by Library of Congress acquisitions officers toward television programming which paralleled that of the scholarly community in general. The Library simply underestimated the social and historical significance of the full range of television programming. There was no appreciation of television's future research value.

I don't harbor any illusion that an obscure Taiwanese soap opera from 1998 holds any great cultural value. Regardless, I am on a mission to track down this video - not just for me, but for my kids. Nicole and I will visit Taiwan for Lunar New Year to see her family, and I hope to do some research to see if a videotape exists. I’ve enlisted some friends to help me, and will post updates to EasyGenie’s social media accounts. You can see the first three videos on YouTube (part 1, part 2, part 3).

If I’m successful, I will be sure to share the news here … and upload a copy of the video on our YouTube channel!

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