Three generations of Taiwanese-American Angelenas shaped by the Chinese White Terror on Taiwan

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“Scaring people into saying nothing in public that could be construed as critical of the armed forces…is more than the production of silence. It is silencing, which is quite different. For now the not said acquires a significance and a specific confusion befogs the spaces of the public sphere, which is where the action is…The point about silencing and the fear behind silencing is not to erase memory. Far from it. The point is to drive the memory deep within the fastness of the individual so as to create more fear and uncertainty in which dream and reality commingle”

— Michael Taussig, The Nervous System,  1992, p. 27)

228 Legacy is an ambitious first novel by Jennifer J. Chow, who, according to the book’s author blurb is” a Chinese-American, married into the Taiwanese culture. The 228 Legacy was inspired by the family stories she heard after viewing photos of a two-million-person human chain commemorating 2-28 [1947]. ” I think that it is the first American novel dealing with the Kuomintang (KMT) white terror since the 1953 A Pail of Oysters 1953 by Vern Sneider (better known as the author of The Teahouse of the August Moon).

Sneider’s too-little-known novel is set entirely in Taiwan, drawing on the experiences of his Taiwanese interpreter. In response to protests challenging KMT (mis)rule that began on 28 February 1947 (hence the label “2-28”) Chiang Kaishek sent troops sent to quell the “rebellion.” The slaughter and targeting of the Taiwanese elite (trained during 50 years of rule by Japan) began when troops landed in the port of Keelung in the early hours of 9 March 1947. Thus, I find it unlikely that the husband of the grandmother (Silk) was disappeared on 2/28. And, given that Chow acknowledges the standard account of the KMT white terror and US acquiescence to it, George Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, she should know the chronology.

Silk recalls her husband, a technician, going off, never to return, to a meeting or rally 2/28/1947. They did not know that Silk was pregnant. Chow’s narrative does not mention how she got out of Taiwan and to LA, where she has worked in a vineyard into 1980. (Silk recalls that she was accepted into the US as a “displaced person.” Even if that is an official category from the late-1940s, the question of how she got from Taiwan to San Francisco is still begged in the book.)

That the four narrations are not set in the recent past did not dawn on me until Silk and her daughter Lisa and grand-daughter Abbey visit Taiwan while Chiang Kaishek’s son Chiang Chingkuo was ruling (he lifted martial law after 40 years in 1987 and died 13 January 1988).  Near the end, the 1980 US presidential election is mentioned (Lisa votes for Reagan). There are no other period details, and Silk being 55 when her grand-daughter begins sixth grade (and Lisa 32) seems possible but pushing it (for no good reason!), while Abbey seems older than a plausible fifth-grader. (Abbey’s father is a nonentity, not recalled as Silk does her disappeared husband.)

Silk remains terrified, not wanting her daughter or grand-daughter to risk being educated (since the KMT targeted the educated on Taiwan during the White Terror). Abbey is vying with Ara Aroyan, the son of a prominent pediatric dentist, to be valedictorian of their grade school (is there really such a thing? With ranks updated publicly on a regular basis?). For a time, she gains admittance into the grade school’s in-crowd (which seems much more like middle school/junior high) and attends a party at Ara’s, at which his uncle drugs and molests some girls. Abbey escapes and tells the police about a classmate tied up and screaming. The Aroyans cover up the predation, and Abbey is ostracized for slandering Ara’s beloved (not in the sexual sense) uncle. (I find it difficult to believe that even a local newspaper would headline “AROYAN FAMILY DEFAMED,” btw.)

Lisa has difficulty holding onto a job (even before the Reagan recession). She is hired by a Chinese-American, Jack, whose beloved wife recently died. Jack worked as a janitor in the school Abbey attends and lived in an upscale nursing home from which Lisa was laid off. He becomes something of a father figure for Lisa, who never knew her biological father. But Jack makes the mistake of assimilating Taiwanese to “fellow Chinese” that enrages Silk. (I have seen Taiwanese bristle at the equation, particularly Taiwanese who grew up discriminated against by Chinese, whose governance was similar to that of white South Africans, but Silk’s reaction seems unrealistically extreme to me.)

Jack is the fourth POV (not narrator, the book is entirely in the third person) and further clogs the narrative(s) by sponsoring a homeless person, temporarily housing him in the nursing home with him and getting him the janitorial job that has been kept open for Jack’s return.

All four protagonists do some good deeds, including Silk taking Lisa and Abbey to visit Taipei (where she grew up and met her husband) and Kaohsiung (where she was living in 1947 when she lost her husband).

With some flashbacks for Silk, the novel moves linearly, alternating chapters reporting what Silk, Lisa, Abbey, and Jack do and think. It’s a lot easier reading than the most famous novel alternating four narrators, The Sound and the Fury. Chow’s characters are sympathetic and the insecurities of the three generations of women are credibly a legacy of the White Terror (which Taiwanese lump into the category “2-28”). The simultaneous (and unrelated) finding peace of all three generations strains belief some, however.

The many acknowledgments do not include any to an editor. Some of the dialogue seems clunky to me (e.g., “I thought I’d have to wrestle with deep sorrow when I came back, but it’s been the opposite experience” that I can’t imagine anyone actually saying), and an editor might have balked at the newspaper headline I already mentioned, diction such as  “Abbey imbibes the ambience of downtown Fairview… Downtown Fairview possess an urban, gritty feel,” or “At first glance, the tall swan-like woman with undulating hazel hair and grey eyes seems very different from her,” and proofreading might have caught a missing preposition in “I didn’t want return to Monroe.” Still, I thought the book engaging and worthwhile.

(BTW, Chow studied gerontology at Cornell, worked as a geriatric social worker, and writes a blog (http://www.jenniferjchow.com) that is mostly foodie—much more so than 228 Legacy, though Lisa takes a job at a coffee shop that leads to starting a support group for women taking care both of older and younger family members that turns into a paying gig.)

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With Keelung Hong (both reprinted as chapters in Looking Through Taiwan, published by the University of Nebraska Press), I have written about “Some American Witnesses of the KMT’s 1947 Reign of Terror on Taiwan” and  “A Case Study of Pseudo-Objectivity: The Hoover Institution Analysis of 1947 Resistance and Repression in Taiwan.”

In addition to Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed, see New Zealander Allan James Shackleton’s eyewitness account in  Formosa Calling. Though focused on later KMT murder of a Taiwanese-American professor considered a “dissident,” see the movie that borrowed Kerr’s title: “Formosa Betrayed.” And there is a new novel, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, l hinging on the White Terror with a female protagonist who moves to the US without being able to escape the damage inflicted by the KMT to many Taiwanese families.

 

©2013, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

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