Youth Banana：Rocking Their Hometown
Cathy Teng /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byPhil Newell
The members of Youth Banana (from left: Jiang Wang, Zack Guo, Huang Tang Hsuan and Wang Kiwei) are “cultivating youth” in Qishan, hoping to bring some change to their hometown. (photo by Kent Chuang)
“Youth Banana” is a Taiwanese rock band whose very name bespeaks the younger generation’s creativity and sense of the absurd. Its four members—leader, keyboardist and lead singer Wang Kiwei (known as “Lao Wang” or “Old Wang”), bassist Jiang Wang, drummer Huang Tang Hsuan, and guitarist Zack Guo—all grew up in the little town of Qishan in Kaohsiung. They perform songs about the town’s local industry of banana farming, and have dedicated themselves to expressing what it is like to be a young person staying on in one’s small hometown.
On February 29, 2020, the “Cishan Rock” music festival kicked off for its tenth year. It has grown from a simple soapbox karaoke event at its inception to having 11 bands perform one after the other at Cishan Stadium. The organizers, the Youth Banana band, not only rocked on stage, but also put on a drawing and painting competition, an exhibition on local industries and traditional craft professions, and a market. Beyond livening up the town, they also hoped the festival activites would show the public how Qishan is being changed by young people who are active in the community.
Youth Banana rocks the Cishan Rock audience with their passion and their rhythms.
At the Cishan Rock music festival, Wang Kiwei enjoys a friendly interaction with a 95-year old from the crowd.
“My parents didn’t want me to be like them / And walk in the fields / Wearing a banana shirt with no future / Taking care of a banana plantation / They held fast at home / But didn’t give me a chance to stay / They told me / My future would be brighter if I left my hometown.”
These lyrics come from the single “His Story,” from Youth Banana’s debut EP Bananas Won’t Make You Fat. It tells the story and sentiments of young people born in Qishan in the 1990s who left home although they wished to stay. Qishan, once known as the “Banana Kingdom,” experienced a golden age in the 1960s thanks to banana exports to Japan. But the industry faded in the 1970s, and consequently many family elders wanted their children to leave Qishan and find a better future elsewhere.
Younger people rarely hear talk about the glory days of Qishan bananas. “My family grows bananas. But [the older generation] didn’t talk about these things, and I only learned about it after I grew up. Farmers didn’t feel proud of their work—they just felt they were uneducated,” says Huang Tang Hsuan, with a touch of righteous indignation.
Wang Zhongyi, the father of brothers Wang Kiwei and Jiang Wang, is the founder of Qishan’s Zun-Huai Foundation, and has long been dedicated to cultural education and community development. Jiang Wang, Zack Guo, and Huang Tang Hsuan grew up together, and are all volunteers at the foundation. They joined in community clean-ups and took part in efforts to preserve the Qishan train station, slowly cleaning up the old building, which was overgrown with weeds. Jiang Wang says: “The work to preserve the train station affected me a lot; it was only then that I really began to get to know Qishan.”
Youth Banana invited Qishan residents to join in the filming of a music video for the song “Nakasi Together.” Shot in a fun-filled atmosphere, the project brought local people closer together. (courtesy of Youth Banana)
A response from the world
From a young age Lao Wang helped his father and the foundation do things for Qishan, but he realized that “if there is no industry, then even if you improve people’s educational and cultural opportunities and put the environment into good order, people still won’t stay.”
“Bananas are the greatest common denominator for Qishan people,” says Lao Wang. They applied for a grant of NT$100,000 from the National Youth Commission (now the Youth Development Administration of the Ministry of Education) to do a field survey, engage in food processing, and undertake product development and marketing, in an effort to transform townspeople’s ideas about bananas and to increase value-added for this crop. Wang had to organize an exhibition of results at the completion of the project, and in wondering how best to communicate with the public he thought of his own experiences in bands and called together some friends to form Youth Banana in 2008.
In 2009 the band released its first banana-themed single, “Bananas Won’t Make You Fat.” They filmed a music video in this down-to-earth little town that featured the band wearing conical farmers’ hats and playing their instruments in a banana plantation, swaying back and forth with bananas in hand, and getting people in the streets of Qishan’s old commercial quarter to dance along. It was a novel idea to use music to market bananas and the young people garnered a lot of attention with their creativity.
From their small locality they called out to the world, and the world responded. The media reported their story as a real-life version of the film Cape No. 7. “In fact at the time we were really happy, because we’d never been taken so seriously in our whole lives,” says Lao Wang with a laugh. “At that time we were all very young, and the one thing you have when you’re young is time. We had our ideals and we put them into action. And when we discovered that the world was responding positively to us, this encouraged us to keep on.”
The three albums released so far by Youth Banana (clockwise from left): Community, Cultivating Youth, and Bananas Won't Make You Fat. (courtesy of Youth Banana)
Youth Banana collected the results of five years of field research into a book introducing 27 specialist businesses found in Qishan.
Like people in a story
Media reports made them well known across Taiwan, but the main problem in their hometown remained unsolved: With no improvement in the local economy, there were few opportunities for young people to make a living and stay in the town. “When others couldn’t stay, we had to figure out some way for ourselves to remain here.” And so began another experiment by Youth Banana: becoming banana farmers. At first they aimed to “help” farmers by promoting banana sales, but this was a misnomer, explains Lao Wang, for once you become a banana farmer yourself it is no longer a question of “helping” others—it becomes your own predicament, and you have to figure out a way forward.
Rolling up their pant legs and getting down to work, they were no longer outside observers. Instead, says Jiang Wang, “We became the people in the story.” Experimenting with their own lives, they have tried out all kinds of possibilities. Over the past decade, the members of Youth Banana have extended their fields of endeavor, and you may find it hard to imagine how far this band has gone beyond just creating music and releasing albums. They developed their own banana cake, and have thought up all kinds of banana-themed souvenir and gift items. They created the “Hope Farm” banana plantation and became banana farmers, learning about banana growing from other local farmers. They devised little community tours featuring the stories of the town. And this year, after five years of field research, they compiled and published a book, adding the role of “author” to their professional resumés. The book introduces stories of 27 shops and professions (including artisans and shop owners), not only preserving the steadily disappearing feeling of life in a small town, but providing visitors to Qishan with information on old industries and businesses that will help them understand the town in depth.
“We have always made experiments with ourselves. If one road is closed, then you go around and take another, but no matter what, you have to keep moving forward—that’s just life,” says Lao Wang. This group of comrades who have stuck together through thick and thin have discovered that the struggle is not in some distant place, that success need not come only far away from home, and that movements for social change need not involve flag-waving and yelling. “Those of us in this generation feel that social movements are part of daily life. ‘Teaching everyone how to consume bananas’ is also a way of campaigning. You don’t have to go off fighting, but instead you can bring about change in daily life,” says Lao Wang.
In fact, it is also in their own interests to solve local problems. During more than ten years of community work, Lao Wang has not fallen behind in his own life, for he is married with two children. With childrearing now a part of his life, his future projects or community actions might shift toward activities related to children. “In fact my work is also about solving my own problems, but by meeting my own needs I can definitely ameliorate social conditions,” says Lao Wang.
The book that Youth Banana published on specialist businesses in Qishan includes a report on the Qianyuan Chinese herbal pharmacy. By making a record of small shops like this, the book helps preserve the steadily disappearing feeling of small-town life. (courtesy of the Zun-Huai Foundation)
This map of Qishan includes historically and culturally important locations, as well old shops and businesses. Youth Banana often organizes mini-tours of local communities, helping visitors get to know their little town. (art by Cai Zhengyu, courtesy of Youth Banana)
“From now on, you young people who are taking on responsibility for the land / From now on, as you seize opportunities for progress / Finding and cultivating an ideal life / I’ll be by your side to find sincere steadfastness / The times are changing but we are not afraid / Let us join hands to support each other / Connecting with the earth and living with courage / Cultivating youth with a firm and calm heart” —from the song “Cultivate Youth.”
In 2019, the tenth year since the founding of Youth Banana, the band released the album Cultivate Youth, recording their feelings about staying on in their small hometown.
Zack Guo describes the features of the three albums Youth Banana has released. “Bananas Won’t Make You Fat,” their first single and the title track of their first album, was an effort by young people to use music to help farmers promote sales of bananas. The second album, Community, focused on public issues, such as the realities of politics and societal conditions, with songs like “Public Hearing” and “A Crazy Place.” Their musical style at that time was angry with a punk edge, rocking harder than they did before. In their tenth year, with Cultivate Youth, their style has become gentler and more romantic, moving toward a country music sound.
As young people who have remained in their hometown, Youth Banana’s experiment is not yet completed. They have chosen to “cultivate youth” in their hometown because “no matter where you go there is no Utopia; the best place is the place where you live now,” says Lao Wang.
From meeting with us for a photo shoot early in the morning, then going into the studio for a seven-and-a-half-hour band practice session, and finally joining us again for an interview, all without a break, these young people show no sign of tiredness, in sharp contrast to the label of “frustrated by life” that society places on young people born after 1990. Each member of Youth Banana is optimistic. “Youth Banana cares very much about the existence of every individual. And the reason why we are so optimistic is because we all believe that people will grow and change for the better,” says Huang Tang Hsuan.
Are you worried about tomorrow? Zack Guo, who is already like a professional banana farmer, replies: “Tomorrow? Tomorrow I have to get up early, there’s work to do in the banana plantation!” Jiang Wang says: “Tomorrow? Probably the only thing we worry about is that our work for tomorrow isn’t finished yet!” (There is a great deal of preparatory work still to do for the Cishan Rock festival.) Their positive energy is off the charts. With rock as their spirit and bananas as their faith, the members of Youth Banana are working hard to remain in their hometown because this is “home,” this is “a good place.”
The 2020 Cishan Rock festival was accompanied by an exhibition on specialist businesses in Qishan. In the photo, Jiang Wang is helpfully serving as guide to an elderly gentleman.
The Qishan train station, completed in 1915, has been preserved thanks to community activism. Since its restoration it has been a landmark in the old quarter of Qishan.