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social sciences

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Silvio shows that romantic and sexual relations between actresses or between actresses and their female fans are a form of female relationship that is widely recognized within the broader community. But interestingly, such relationships are not necessarily understood by the actresses themselves as "lesbian" (nütongxinglian). Instead, these relations are seen by actresses, their fans, and to some extent the general public as specific to the local culture of the koa-a-hi theater world, and therefore not primarily related to the implicitly western concept of lesbianism per se (although as Silvio also emphasizes, these two knowledge systems on erotic relations between women are increasingly difficult to pry apart).

The coexistence of the modern, western-style discourse of nütongxinglian with local folk understandings of love between women in the koa-a-hi world mirrors the general situation of understandings of sexuality in contemporary Taiwan, where local folk understandings interpenetrate modern western-style knowledges to produce complex, hybrid forms of sexual culture.

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Subcultural Histories

Prior to the mid 1980s, the same-sex and transgender subcultures that existed in Taiwan were relatively discreet, low profile, and ephemeral. Male same-sex sociality revolved initially around cruising and sex work, most famously in Taipei's New Park, which has been a center of male cruising and sexual cultures since at least the 1940s and is celebrated in Pai Hsien-yung's classic 1983 novel, Crystal Boys.

Mixed gay-straight bars and a limited gay commercial and sexual subculture have probably been in existence in some form in urban Taiwan since the 1960s. In the mid-1960s, the presence of large numbers of American GIs in Taipei on R&R leave from the Vietnam war fueled the development of an extensive bar and entertainment culture in Taipei City. More public, exclusively gay bars had emerged in Taiwan's major cities by the 1980s, foreshadowing the more extensive commercial gay culture that would appear in the 1990s.

Aside from the relatively discreet world of erotic relations between women that formed around koa-a-hi troupes, between the 1960s and the 1980s lesbians tended to socialize in general public venues such as western hotels, as well as in the gay male and gay-affiliated bars. It was not until the mid-1980s that an independent lesbian bar culture began to emerge.

As the research of Taiwanese cultural anthropologist Antonia Yengning Chao shows, Taipei's female same-sex subcultures between the 1960s and the late 1980s were largely structured around the dimorphous secondary genders of T and po--comparable in some ways to the English categories butch and femme--hence the common designation of "T bar" for lesbian bar. T bars in the 1980s tended to be small, relatively private, "underground" social spaces, with some proof of a social connection with the T/po subculture often required as a condition of entry.

This style of bar is historically related to Japanese bar culture: karaoke performance is often a central element, and paid "hostesses" (gongguan) may be provided to socialize with patrons and encourage drinking. As with the gay male bars, the appearance of the small, underground T bars during the 1980s prefigures the rise of a more public lesbian commercial culture in the decade that followed.

The 1990s "Queer Boom": Tongzhi Politics, Subcultures, and Commercial and Artistic Cultures

After the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987, widespread social change occurred along with urbanization, the rise of commodity culture, and the emergence of a range of grassroots political movements including feminism and the tongzhi, or lesbian and gay, movement.

The term tongzhi, literally meaning "comrade" but appropriated as a politicized marker of sexual identity, arrived in Taiwan from Hong Kong in 1992: prior to this there had existed no generic term that both politicizes sexual identity and encompasses both men and women. The rise of tongzhi as a category of sexual identification was accompanied by transformations across the fields of movement politics, commercial culture, subcultural practice, and artistic production.

As a form of politicized identity politics, the tongzhi movement initially emerged in large part from Taiwan's nascent feminist movement, and was spearheaded in the first instance by lesbians. The first formal lesbian or gay organization in Taiwan was a lesbian social group, Women zhi Jian (Between Us), formed in 1990 and based on the principles of lesbian feminism. Three years later the first publicly available lesbian or gay publication emerged: Ai Bao (Love Paper), again a product of the new lesbian feminist culture.

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