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City noise in Taiwan: Stanford Humanities Center fellow Q&A

Jennifer Hsieh, a Stanford anthropology doctoral student, is a 2016–17 Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. During her residency, Hsieh is completing her dissertation entitled "Sound and Noise in the City: Public Sensibilities and Technocratic Translation in Urban Taiwan."

Her doctoral research incorporates environmentalism, sound studies, science and technology studies, urbanization, and governance. Through these lenses, Hsieh is completing an ethnographic and historical analysis of noise as a public problem in urban Taiwan.

During sixteen months of field ethnographic research in Taipei, Hsieh shadowed noise inspectors at the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration, learned about sound level meters, and reviewed hundreds of noise complaint records to understand how urban residents engage with their auditory environment. Her goal is to place this engagement within the context of a modernizing state like Taiwan.

Hsieh recently sat down at the Stanford Humanities Center to discuss her research.

Has there been a documented increase in noise levels in Taiwan in recent years? If not, what do you find has led to the increase in noise complaints?

According to the Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency’s noise monitoring system, the percentage of noise levels that violate noise decibel standards has decreased over the last ten years, from 10% to nearing 0%. This trend contradicts the data on noise complaints that sets new records each year. At present, noise is the number one most-complained about environmental problem by Taiwanese residents, ahead of problems related to waste and sanitation, air pollution, and noxious odors. What I show in my project is that noise is not a clearly defined object. Rather, it is culturally and scientifically constructed as a public problem through the interactions between city residents, policy makers, acoustic technicians, and environmental inspectors.

Certain sounds that one is accustomed to in the everyday become recognized as a problem as soon as more categories for noise and more ways of determining sounds as noise emerge. We see this with the case of a low frequency noise standard in Taiwan that regulates the low hum of air conditioners, fans, industrial equipment, and other sounds between 20–200 hertz. As soon as new categories for noise are in place, there is an increase in the number of people who call and report these sounds.

What is the cultural context of noise complaints being directed to a government agency rather than, say, direct communication with a noisy neighbor?

While conducting ethnographic fieldwork, I learned that one of the unique features of noise problems in Taipei was that neighbors typically do not resolve the problem directly with their neighbors. They may try to, at first, but are usually unsuccessful. As a result, residents appeal to the Taiwanese government for help.

There are many reasons that the problems cannot be solved between two neighbors, including distinct views about private and public life. Some will say that they have a right to carry on with their actions inside the privacy of their own home, regardless of whether it disturbs a neighboring household or not. Taipei is a densely populated city that is mostly zoned for mixed commercial and residential use, so work-life and home-life are not clearly delineated. Within this environment, there is the possibility that the sounds are not coming from where one expects but from somewhere else.

This is an effect of sound waves being difficult to trace within the structure of a building. What seems like an upstairs neighbor’s footsteps may actually originate from a different floor, above or below. As a related example, residents in 2015 complained about a rumbling sound in their homes that investigators later determined was coming from multiple blocks away, from rock concerts at a sports stadium. Finally, there is also a fear of retaliation if someone approaches a neighbor with a problem, a fear that has historical precedence in the post-World War II era of Martial Law. In the present moment, these fears may or may not be justified, but they play into the perception that it is better to approach the government with a problem rather than deal with it privately.

In contrast to residential noise problems that one may face in the United States, what seems apparent in Taiwan is that uncertainty about the source of the sound, as well as caution in managing affairs with neighbors, has turned urban noise into a state-level problem, rather than an interpersonal one. Citizens are requesting to be managed by the state, which tells us a lot about how subjects in one part of the world understand their relation to the state.

Political identity and the underlying tension between pro-China and pro-independence views shape all kinds of social interactions in Taiwan. When I was conducting fieldwork in Taiwan, then-President Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT party had lost more than half of their county and municipal seats during the 2014 midterm elections that foreshadowed the party’s defeat in the January 2016 presidential elections.

In contrast to noise problems in other parts of the world where religion, race, or class may be the determining factor, I would say that a number of the complaints about noise in Taiwan could be understood as citizens who were voicing their dissatisfaction with the way the regime was managing problems of urban life. Residents would call multiple times about sounds, ranging from the croaking of frogs to the rumbling of a neighbor’s food processor, and would speak about these issues with government officials at local and national levels for upwards of an hour. In this way, Taiwan residents were voicing their concerns in a manner that they could not during the years of authoritarianism.

In the course of your research, what did you find the most surprising? What didn’t you expect to find that might leave a lasting impact on your dissertation?

The main surprise was the difficulty of communicating my research topic in the field. I found many times that while I wanted to talk about noise from a broad, generalized perspective asking questions such as “What is noise?” there were translational, epistemological, and cultural differences that complicated such a seemingly simple question. When speaking with environmental inspectors, noise was a numerical value printed on a screen. When speaking with policy makers, noise was defined by the Taiwan Noise Control Act of 1983. When speaking with urban residents, noise was a subjective opinion unsettled by the above — at times contradictory — definitions of noise.

Linguistically speaking, the word “noise” (zhaoyin) in Mandarin, the official language of the state, does not share the same etymological root as noisy (chaochaonao). While chao and chaonao are used to describe a sound as noisy in a casual way, it does not imply the need for regulation in the way that zhaoyin might. Managing the various technological and cultural fields through which “noise” is understood has been an unexpected challenge in my research. It also has directed my dissertation towards examining the historical and cultural production of “noise” in Taiwan, rather than taking the idea of noise for granted.