Wong Leehom circa 1999. He is an alum of a Taiwanese root-searching program affectionately called the “Love Boat.” Many participants formed lasting friendships through the program.
Culture

Eddie Huang and Wang Leehom went on a Chinese root-searching trip. Here’s what it was like.

Jun 10, 2019

For decades, a six-week root-searching trip in Taiwan offered Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians an opportunity to learn about their cultural heritage and meet like-minded people.

In its heyday, hundreds of young people signed up, got to know each other, and, in some cases, later tied the knot.

It was officially called the Overseas Compatriot Youth Formosa Study Tour, but participants affectionately called it the “Love Boat” because of the hook-ups, partying, and drunken revelry that occurred on the trip.

Valerie Soe, left, on the “Love Boat” program in the summer of 1982. Many participants formed lasting friendships during the trip.
Valerie Soe, left, on the “Love Boat” program in the summer of 1982. Many participants formed lasting friendships during the trip. / Photo: Courtesy of Valerie Soe

Famous alumni include author and restaurateur Eddie Huang, who wrote about his trip in his memoir Fresh Off the Boat; U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu; actor Garrett Wang, who played Ensign Harry Kim in Star Trek: Voyager; and pop singer Wang Leehom.

The Taiwanese government started the program in the summer of 1967 with the hope that young overseas Chinese might grow up to support Taiwan, either by returning to live and work on the island or somehow politically.

The first class of “Love Boat” participants arrives in Taiwan in 1967.
The first class of “Love Boat” participants arrives in Taiwan in 1967. / Photo: Courtesy of Victor Wong

The program involved language classes and cultural activities, such as calligraphy, painting, and martial arts, as well as sightseeing around Taipei and southern Taiwan.

During its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, the program attracted as many as 800 students every summer.

“These connections have a bigger impact on people. I don’t think the Taiwan government thought about that.”

Pierre Wuu, Love Boat alum

“It’s such a huge phenomenon among Taiwanese-Americans,” says Valerie Soe, 57, who went on the study tour in the summer of 1982.

Valerie Soe, right, on the “Love Boat” program in 1982.
Valerie Soe, right, on the “Love Boat” program in 1982. / Photo: Courtesy of Valerie Soe

As a fourth-generation Chinese-American, Soe didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin, the main dialect of Chinese used in Taiwan. She was raised in Pinole, a mostly white suburb outside San Francisco, and was keen on learning more about her roots.

She loved her experience so much that she has since made a documentary about the program.

For many participants, their summer experiences were life-changing. Many of them ignored a 10 pm curfew and stayed off-campus into the wee hours, visiting night markets, clubs, and karaoke lounges.

(Read more: Things to do in Taiwan besides night markets and cat cafes)

Pierre Wuu, 49, went on the 1991 trip. At the time, he was living in Toledo, Ohio, where the Asian population was small.

“I had never hung out with that many Asians at one time,” he recalls. “I had a great time.”

The program included cultural activities like martial arts classes.
The program included cultural activities like martial arts classes. / Photo: Courtesy of Valerie Soe

Three years later, he applied to be an overseas counselor for the program.

He also quit his job in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles, which had a larger Asian population, and started an alumni association for the program.

For others, the “Love Boat” lived up to its romantic nickname.

The “Love Boat” program spawned many lasting friendships.
The “Love Boat” program spawned many lasting friendships. / Photo: Courtesy of Valerie Soe

Mehgan Yen and Evan Hung met on the first day of their trip and became inseparable for the entire six weeks.

But Hung was smitten, too timid to make a move, and when the tour was over, they went their separate ways—Yen back to the San Gabriel Valley in California and Hung to Yardley, Pennsylvania.

(Read more: Growing up Chinese-American, as expressed in a 3-course meal)

They didn’t speak to each other again until Hung visited his parents in Taipei seven years later.

He discovered through a mutual friend that Yen had returned to the island for work. Their reunion was serendipitous.

Another two years passed before they started dating. Most recently, late last year, they got married—with a reception in Taipei filmed by Soe.

Participants of the first “Love Boat” program in 1967.
Participants of the first “Love Boat” program in 1967. / Photo: Courtesy of Victor Wong

The program is no longer as big as it once was. After the political winds in Taiwan changed in 2000, the tour was modified considerably, with budget cuts and far fewer participants.

But for alumni of the program, it remains an indelible part of their memories. Wuu knows of 10 other couples who met on the trip and later got married.

“These connections have a bigger impact on people,” Wuu says. “I don’t think the Taiwan government thought about that.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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