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Life of Pi and Bubble Tea

Written By Tara Jackson
Cover Art by


Life of Pi is a book written by a White Canadian man about a Pondicherry Indian boy which somehow became a Taiwanese icon in 2012.

Editors’ Note

After a long time apart, my boyfriend Waliul has come to see me in London, and we’ve gone to see Life of Pi on the West End. It’s well worth the experience, because as I look in awe I can see that somehow, they have managed to bring the ocean into this small theatre. I look over at Waliul and see that he is also wide eyed and leaning forward. We are both drawn in, captivated by the spectacle of the show. 

Nothing could break this magic, except–

Hm. Waliul and I make eye contact again, and I know that he has noticed the same thing I have. 

The Taiwanese sailors that are supposed to be working on the ship Tsimsum, where are they?

The rest of Life of Pi is beautifully acted, and the lighting effects are phenomenal, but I walked out of Wyndham theatre that day a little crestfallen. Not only was Life of Pi one of my childhood staples, it was one of his, and for both of us it was largely because of the representation it gave to us as children of POC immigrants, although in very different ways. 

For Waliul, as a Bangladeshi boy growing up in New York, Life of Pi was one of the first Western stories he had seen about a Brown person where the Brown Person wasn’t a novelty character or a stereotype. (Other stories- but far too few- did eventually join that list, such as Slumdog Millionaire and Lion.) Not only that, the other main character on the screen was a Bengal tiger!

For me, Life of Pi became one of the few instances in my formative childhood years in which I could recall seeing Taiwan mentioned out of the context of my own home. For both of us, a mixed Taiwanese girl and a Bangladeshi boy growing up in America, Life of Pi was a mainstream story that provided us with the representation that we were sorely lacking. 

Here’s a quick summary for those who aren’t familiar with what Life of Pi is about: we follow Piscine Patel, (a.k.a. Pi) on his journey lost at sea after a shipwreck drowns his family and all of the crew. The only other survivor becomes his companion on the small lifeboat: Richard Parker, a 450 pound Bengal tiger. For 227 days Pi and Richard Parker survive life at sea with a tumultuous concoction of both fear, love, and desperation. It’s a captivating story about spirituality and survival.

Kurttz, Ellie. Puppeteer Owain Gwynn and Nuwan Hugh Perrera in Life of Pi. Sourced from https://playbill.com/article/check-out-new-photos-from-west-ends-olivier-winning-life-of-pi

A decade after its publication as a novel by Yann Martel, the hype for this modern day classic still hasn’t died. In 2012, it was adapted into an Academy Award winning film by Ang Lee (also director of Brokeback Mountain and the Incredible Hulk) In 2021 the story premiered as a play on the West End and now in 2023, Life of Pi is making its way to a New York City Broadway debut. 

Life of Pi is a book written by a White Canadian man about a Pondicherry Indian boy, but it somehow became a Taiwanese icon in 2012.  And it all started from this quote, the first few lines of Chapter 35 in the book:

“We left Madras on June 21st, 1977, on the Panamanian-registered Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum. Her officers were Japanese, her crew was Taiwanese, and she was large and impressive. “

Despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, there are people that insist that Taiwan is not an independent country and should be considered a Chinese territory. Even though it’s a part of my personal heritage, saying the words “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese ” became inherently political. If the word ever came up in a history class, from elementary to high school, there was always somebody in the class who would immediately roll their eyes and grunt out the classic phrase, “Taiwan is not a real country.”  

On top of being mixed race, being Taiwanese delegitimized my “Asian-ness” to my peers and their parents. Some parents even went so far as to prohibit their kids from talking to me at all. Teachers would look at me, then my name, and inevitably ask where my family and I were from. When I answered with Taiwan, I would get a variety of responses, including: “Thailand. Nice!” “Does that mean you’re Japanese?” and “Oh, so you’re Chinese.” To which I would have to respond, “No, I’m Taiwanese,” and explain a little more about the history of Taiwan, only to be ignored anyways.

So when I was 12 years old, it was a very big deal to me when a Taiwanese filmmaker —Ang Lee— adapted the book for the cinematic screens in 2012. My mom rallied the household for weeks before the show, insisting for the first time in my life that we get outside and go to the movies. My family even chose to go to one of the nicer theatres further away from home that had vintage movie posters lining the walls with bedazzled sparkling lights in the hallway. 

I remember looking at posters of old Hollywood glamour and thinking that what I was about to watch would eventually join them in the movie theatre’s hallowed halls, because if this movie was important to my mom, it must be a big deal. I resolved to pay attention, and promptly forgot the entire plot of the movie the second the credits rolled. In my defence, I was twelve years old and as far as I was concerned, most of the movie was a bootleg Calvin and Hobbes napping on a lifeboat.  I think much more highly of the story nowadays. 

Life of Pi features a Taiwanese Black Bear with its characteristic V-neck stripe (also known as a Formosan Bear) in its opening sequence. Still image taken from a screenshot of the movie.

Even as a pre-teen, I knew that it was significant that a mainstream Taiwanese director had filmed such a critically acclaimed hit. Life of Pi won 4 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Music. And the director had taken great care to pay homage to where he grew up. 90% of the work for the film was shot in Taiwan, with many scenes taking place in Ang Lee’s hometown Pingtung. Even the animals in the film were sourced from the Taipei City Zoo.  Yet, even with Taiwan being such a significant backdrop for this movie, it isn’t mentioned once in the film– not even in the Taiwanese ethnicities of the sailors that Yann Martel takes the time to point out in the original book.

To most audiences, it may be easy to chalk up the ‘non-mentioning’ of Taiwan in the West End and film adaptation of Life of Pi as an oversight. It’s a detail that can be somewhat erased. After all, the Tsimsum is a Japanese run ship registered in Panama, Pi is an Indian boy, Everyone is headed to Canada. The sailors may as well be from Thailand, or anywhere else. 

But what seems to be an inconsequential decision is incredibly political. It appeases Chinese nationalist audiences who would immediately protest the show or film for any indication of Taiwanese culture or identity. It’s a financial decision. Life of Pi pulled in over $90 million dollars when the film showed in China, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened had there been any mention of Taiwan in the film. There’s a lot of money to be made for Hollywood in China as the world’s second largest box office market, so it’s common to see Hollywood trying to avoid controversy and cater to Chinese censors. 

You may recall the viral burbling apology video John Cena made to Chinese audiences after calling Taiwan a country in 2021. In Top Gun: Maverick, a patch with the Taiwanese flag was removed from Tom Cruise’s jacket in a 2019 trailer in an attempt to appease Chinese audiences and censors, but was reinstated in 2022. With the flag’s reappearance, it’s no surprise that the movie has not been released in China. And just like how my mom took her family to see Life of Pi when it came out in theatres because of Taiwanese pride, Taiwanese moviegoers were similarly bolstered by their flag’s appearance in Top Gun: Maverick. Top Gun broke box office records in Taiwan, bringing in over 100 million Taiwan dollars in the opening week.

Yann Martel took the time to clarify that the sailors were Taiwanese on a Japanese ship, indicating his research into the geographical and political setting of his story.  As an island nation, Taiwan has historically been very connected to the sea. The country has a long history of fishing and maritime trade. Even now, a significant portion of maritime trade and shipping is done by Taiwanese companies. Remember when that shipping container got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021? That belonged to Taiwanese company Evergreen Marine Corporation, the sixth largest container shipping company in the world. Out of the globe’s top 20 largest container shipping companies, 4 of them are Taiwanese. 

Furthermore, the omission of the Taiwanese sailors from Life of Pi adaptations ignores history and impact of Japanese colonisation in Taiwan. Taiwan was Japan’s first colony, taken over in 1895. For about 50 years, Japan controlled and ruled over the country until they renounced sovereignty in 1952 post World War II. Pi’s journey takes place in 1977. Despite Taiwanese independence, the remnants of colonisation and power structures remain: The Japanese officers are in control, and Taiwanese sailors are posed as second-class citizens.

When Waliul and I watched the show on the West End, it was amazing for both of us to see for the first time in our lives, South Asian actors of a wide variety of ages on the stage. With so much care taken to cast actors that represented Yann Martel’s characters faithfully in the show, The West End adaptation of Life of Pi fell short when it came to the other half of its cast: the Taiwanese sailors/would-be puppeteers. The irony is not lost on me that there is this disregard for the casting of East Asian actors and puppeteers with the West End being only a block away from Chinatown. It’s not as if there isn’t a 5,000 year old tradition of lion dance in East Asia that would come in handy when there’s a massive tiger body puppet in need of puppeteering. (That’s sarcasm. There is.)

Life of Pi isn’t the only current cultural phenomenon that benefits and distances itself from its Taiwanese connections. Bubble Tea is a Taiwanese invention that has hit New York, the US, and the rest of the world in a massive wave of popularity, and yet most people still aren’t aware of the country it comes from. Similarly, there is an uptick in trendy foods such as Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Taiwanese Fried Chicken, Shaved Ice, and Gua-Bao (Pork Belly Buns) with little to no mention in mainstream culture how these foods are incredibly popular and rooted in Taiwanese food culture and cuisine. Even as Taiwan lends itself to big hits in cinema, cuisine, and trade it’s existence is often forgotten by people, and worse, intentionally omitted, erasing the identities of Taiwanese people in the process. I feel the ache of having to remind people of my own existence every time I see Taiwan in the blank spaces of media and culture .

A friend of mine went to see Life of Pi when it debuted in America for the first time at Harvard and informed me that in the American rendition, the sailors were now played by an Asian cast. Now as Life of Pi’s Broadway debut approaches today on March 30, I’ll be keeping my eyes open to see what choices they will be making when casting.

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