An American providing help to opponents of the Kuomintang White Terror

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Milo L. Thornberry, who recently died in Bend, Oregon at the age of 80, was a remarkable man, and one who wrote a remarkable memoir, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror (2011), focused on the time (1966-71) he spent in Taiwan, two decades into the White Terror by what the US touted as “free China.” Posted to Taiwan by the United Methodist church, he quickly realized that Taiwan was neither “free” nor China, though a minority ferried from its disastrous misrule and failed war against the Chinese communists ruled Taiwan in ways similar to the Boer minority in South Africa. Not at all coincidentally, the apartheid regime in South Africa continued to recognize the so-called “Republic of China” after most countries acceded to the reality that China (and Taiwan and Tibet) were ruled by the communists from Beijing.

Thornberry was instructed to avoid “politics,” (“We don’t talk about such things. We are guests in this country, and guests don’t offend their hosts by getting involved in politics”), but he was quick to realize that acquiescing to the Chinese dictatorship (the Kuomintang [KMT] of the so-called “generalissimo” Chiang Kaishek [1887-1975], who had been converted to nominal Methodist Christianity by his wife, who was raised Methodist, Soong Mei-ling [1898-2003]) was no less “political” than opposing it. He quoted Elie Wiesel for one of his chapter epigrams: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Another guide, via Reinhold Neibhur, was Richard Briffault, who wrote in Rational Evolution: “No resistance to power is possible while the sanctioning lies, which justify the power, are accepted as valid. While the first and chief line of defense is unbroken, there can be no revolt. Before any injustice, any abuse, or oppression can be resisted, the lie upon which it is founded must be unmasked, must be clearly recognized for what it is.” (This is the epigram heading another chapter.)

Thornberry and some other Americans collated some material on the ongoing White Terror (and widespread corruption) of the KMT and distributed it to newcomers not totally gone on backing anything any regime professing anti-communism did.

A few months after arrival in Taiwan (with his wife Judith), Thornberry was introduced to the leading voice for Taiwanese independence, Dr. Peng Mingmin (born in 1923), who had been convicted of sedition for advocating democracy in “free China” in 1964 and had been imprisoned for 14 months before international pressure convinced President Chiang to place Peng under house arrest with tight surveillance. Peng’s former students, coauthors of the pamphlet advocating democracy, Hsieh Tsongmin and Wei Tingchao continued to be tortured in prison. (Thornberry would meet them later.)

Thornberry and Peng met most every week. After Peng was threatened with being disappeared/killed, the Thornberrys and some missionary friends (mostly not Methodists; it was Presbyterians who refused to stop using the majority language (Hoklo) for the Beijing language (Mandarin) mandated by the KMT government) decided Peng had to leave.

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The central part of the book details how they managed to get Peng on a plane to Hong Kong (3 January 1970), from where he proceeded to Stockholm, where he was granted asylum, and later on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had a job offer. Both the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT) and the Chinese communists suspected that the US government had arranged the escape. Peng would not endanger those who had helped him by telling how his escape had been arranged, but stated unequivocally that no government had been involved (until Sweden gave him asylum).

In 1972, when Richard Nixon went to China, Zhou Enlai, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon discussed the mystery (to all three of them) of Peng’s departure from house arrest in Taipei. Decades later, the transcript of that discussion was released, and provided considerable amusement to Thornberry (and, presumably, to Peng). Hsieh and Wei who had been kept out of the loop were imprisoned and tortured a lot more.

The Thornberrys, with the assent and cooperation of the US State department officials in Taipei, were deported in March of 1971. For decades, they did not know why the KMT deported them then. Their role in spiriting the most prominent dissident on Taiwan out remained unknown to the KMT.

Milo Thornberry had been wrestling with moral questions about violence for some time (and some space in his memoir). He never engaged in any, though involvement in a bomb-making plot is what the KMT told the US representatives was the reason to expelling the Thornberrys.

Their passports were revoked and it was decades before they learned what had happened. This makes for a second thriller plot within the story of the Thornberrys in Taiwan, one with twists that surprise not only them, but Peng Mingmin.

Only with the pressure from three US senators (from both parties) was he allowed to leave the country three decades after being expelled from the ROC.

IT was a US Department of State official who commented in 1971 that ““there is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries… with both ardent views on Taiwanese Independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths,” inadvertently supplying the title to Thornberry’s memoir. The sarcastic statement was not true, but there were some daring Americans who were sympathetic to the oppressed majority population on Taiwan. Fireproof Moth recounts the very real-life adventures of one small bandwho were outraged by the collusion of their country (the USA) with KMT torture, murder, and corruption.

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BTW, corruption was useful in Peng’s escape. Those charged with monitoring his movements continued to submit reports of movements he could not have made and to collect reimbursement for weeks after he had left, further confusing the not-so-“secret police” headed by Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Chingkuo. There is some mordant humor along with justifiable horror at the conduct of KMT torture.

In addition to detailing the evolution of Thornberry’s thoughts about what his moral obligations as a Methodist minister and as an Amercan were in a state where both his church and his government were colluding with torture (as elsewhere, some of the torturers received training from US institutions, as well as official US refusal to acknowledge torture and corruption by an anti-communist regime), Fireproof Moth is a first-rate thriller.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

I have also written about two recent  fictional accounts of the KMT White Terror, Green Island and The 2-28 Legacy, as well as  about American witnessed to the launching of the White Terror in 1947 here and US promotion of KMT dictatorship here.

Taiwan was a colony of Japan from the  1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki until 1945 and the Peace Treaty between the Allies and Japan, signed in San Francisco on 8 September 1951, included Japan renouncing sovereignty without assigning any particular recipient of what neither the KMT nor the CCP had considered part of China before WWII. The Q’ing Dynasty negotiators were quite happy to be rid of any responsibility (in the view of other nations) of the pirate- and cannibal-ridden island that had never entirely been governed by any Chinese dynasty (until the US Navy transported KMT military forces in 1945).

 

More thrills based in a Taipei night market

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Incensed (2016, Taiwanese-American Ed Lin’s second novel Ghost Month was the first) centered on Taiwanese UCLA dropout Jing-Nan (has many aspects that are mysterious to the owner of a Night Market sausage and skewered-entrails stand. Jing-Nan’s proprietor persona, the tout “Johnny,” is less shy than the orphaned Taiwanese 25-year-old Jing-Nan, and uses his fluency in English to draw American tourists to his stand.

It is an especially family-focused time of year (the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival), and Jinh-Nan is called upon by his Taichung gangster uncle, Big Eye, to watch over Big Eye’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Mei-ling. Big Eye wants her to finish high school. Jing-Nan wants to be a singer (though both her father and her older cousin don’t think she has any talent).

There is an Indonesian she has broken up with and whom her father abhors on principle (xenophobic principles) and wants to ensure is distanced from his daughter. There is the Taipei primo capo (to borrow an Italian Mafia term) from whom Big Eye has won a lot of money gambling. There are Big Eye’s fierce and fiercely loyal bodyguards, and a similar formidable pair of employees Hing-Nan has inherited along with the market business. One of them, Dwayne, is Ami (one of the aboriginal Polynesian peoples) and the book illustrates inter-ethnic animosities (aboriginal peoples against Chinese who arrived from the 17th through the 20th century, Holo-speakers (Taiwanese), Hakka, the predatory defeated Kuomintang who fled defeat on the mainland after WWII, and the swarms of tourists from the PRC) as well as explaining (with a light touch) the multitude of gods and goddesses Taiwanese attempt to get to aid, or at least not to obstruct their endeavors. Not just temples and the night market, but other parts of Taipei geography are also revealed, with a major lynchpin of the plot occurring on the relatively new (since 2007) Maokong string of gondolas above Taipei.

Although there are two murders, the novel is not at all a whodunit. There are many surprises for Jing-Nan, who is alarmed at the responsibility for a wild 16-year-old forced on him by a ruthless gangster. There is a lot of humor, not least about celebrity. Jing-Nan is a minor celebrity for having deflected a bullet with his main cooking pot (back in Ghost Month). And the novel begins with a droll account of a contest to eat especially rank stinking tofu between a Japanese and a Taiwanese who alternate winning contests wolfing down food. They put their minor celebrity to work at a rally in the night market for a protest rally involving Jing-Nan’s activist girlfriend Nancy (politicized since Ghost Month).

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I think the book is just a bit too long. There are too many punk-rock (and post-punk) references for me (especially the Joy Division obsession), but I enjoyed the voice of the young somewhat Americanized Taiwanese narrator and the atmosphere of scrambling to succeed in Taipei.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Gripping thriller/romance based in Taipei Night Market

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Ghost Month (2014), the first of the (to-date two; the second is Incensed) Taipei Night Market mysteries by Ed Lin, is a somewhat chaotic mix of opinions about various facets of Tawan’s culture and history with a thriller plot. The latter involves government(s) collusion with Chinese gangs, covert technology transfer to the PRC and the murder of Julia Huang. Julia grew up with the narrator, Jing-nan. Both of their parents had stands in a Taipei night market. She was a better student than he, but he was good enough to get into UCLA (while she went to NYU).

They had agreed not to have any contact until they graduated, at which point they would wed. Because Jing-nan’s father was dying, he returned to Tapei and his mother was killed in a traffic accident on the way to pick him up from the airport. After which his father died and he inherited gambling debts from his grandfather, so had to run the night market stand. Fortunately, he also inherited a staff of two very competent cooks, the burly Ami (one of the fourteen recognized aboriginal groups on Taiwan), Dwayne, and the son of a mainlander, Frankie. Jing-nan is a benshengren (Han who went from Fujien to Taiwan before it was ceded to Japan in 1895), so the stand provides a sample of interethnic antagonism with a descendant each of the original Austronesian inhabitants, of the early “settlers” (who, like American ones pushed aside the aboriginal inhabitants), and of the Chinese who fled the loss of the civil war to the communists and took over what the Japanese had developed (jobs, housing, infrastructure).

Jing-nan has renamed the shop selling skewers of sausage and internal organs of pigs “Unknown Pleasures” in honor of his favorite album by his favorite post-punk band, Joy Division. Its lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1979, something like a decade before Jing-nan was born.

Jing-nan is shocked to learn that Julia (1) has been murdered and (2) was working as a scantily clad seller of betel nuts at a roadside stand on an exit to Hsinchu City (35 miles south of Taipei’s international airport in Taoyuan). He did not know that she had returned to Taiwan and finds it difficult to believe that she could have been employed as a near-prostitute (or a more than near one).

After visiting Julia’s parents (and being warned off trying to find out what had happened to her by seeming gangsters), Jing-nan contacts two of their schoolmates who had also gone to NYU, Peggy (from a very affluent mainlander family of entrepreneurs) and a doughy boy everyone called “Cookie Monster.”

At a music emporium called Bauhaus, he meets a young woman three years his junior who idolized him when they were in high school, Nancy. (Peggy also had a major crush on him, though he was very visibly focused on Julia.) Thus, most of the major characters other than the Unknown Pleasure employees went to school together

Jing-nan has also inherited the illegally constructed shack in which his grandfather and father died. It is near the major tourist attraction temple in Taipei, Longshan, one that also has heavy traffic, especially during Ghost Month (the seventh lunar month) from Taiwanese, with altars to multiple gods, the goddess Mazho, and the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Julia and Jing-nan scoffed at the profusion of Taiwanese deities and their worshippers, but he ends up going there on instructions beyond the grave from her (she visits him in dreams).

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(offerings at a Taipei temple (Hsian Tian Kong)

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(worsipper in Longshan Temple)

In addition to two major romances and the longings of the two other Taiwanese who went to NYU, where they had little contact with Julia, and a dogged murder investigation opposed by police and the dominant (Black Sea) gang, Jing-nan opines at length about punk and post-punk Anglophone bands (I only recall one mention of a Taiwanese singer and no mention of any Taiwanese or Japanese bands), Taiwanese religious syncretism (placating gods and deities to be on the safe side even if one is not convinced they exist), love/sex, and official corruption (both police and building inspectors and permit-issuers), and the complicated history of expropriations).

I find Jing-nan convincing, albeit very in the noir tradition of a non-professional investigator who is clueless about how gangs and government collude, and there is plenty of plot with developments I did not foresee. There is lots of specificity about Taiwan geography and traffic, weather and pollution (the latter has improved considerably since the completion of the subway system). Other than not caring about his “musical” favorites, I thought there were too many dreams in the book. And I thought the characterizations were strong, varied, and interesting.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Two men and a volcano approaching extinction

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Like his British analog, Graham Greene, Endô Shusaku (1923-96) had a fascination with spoiled Roman Catholic priests. The (as it were) second lead of his 1959 novel Volcano (Kazan), thedefrocked French missionary priest, Durand, has a sort of dutiful son in the priest who succeeded him, Father Sato. The main character, Suda Jinpei, a lifetime employee of the national weather service (twenty years in Manchuria, fifteen in southern Kyushu) was more interested in the nearby volcano, Akadaké (red peak), of which he had meticulously recorded observations since arriving in Kagoshima Prefecture, than in his family. He has a still-dutiful wife, though

“in Jinpei’s scheme of things, Taka was never anything more than a helpmeet. He viewed the married state as being no more than a social convention, a practical arrangement in which the very essence of a wife lay in the menial service of washing his clothes, packing his lunch looking after his children.”

In a coma after a second collapse, he realizes he has never loved anyone and never been loved by anyone. Certainly not by his elder son, Ichiro, whose remark overheard after the first collapse (which his father keeps replaying in his head) is shockingly callous: “The Old Man has probably spent all his retirement bonus [on hospitalization]… If he had only dropped dead right on the spot, the retirement bonus, the whole thing, would have come to us intact. I don’t like old people, the way they are. They eat their rice off others, for free, and keep on living, a pain toe verybody, and never learn what a burden they are.”

I really can’t imagine why a son thinks his father’s retirement bonus should be his! Ichiro did not work 35 years for the weather service, and has lived off his father’s salary even after marrying his frequently sneering wife Sakiko, who helps not at all with caring for her father-in-law (and is IMO as undeserving of any inheritance as her husband is).

The greedy younger generation members are revolting. Suda and Durand are despairing. Suda is committed to the view he picked up from the now-dead volcanologist who concluded that Akadaké did not pose any threat of further/future damage and had anthropomorphized that “a volcano resemble shuan life. In youth it gies reign to the passions, and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turnas as quiet as a grave.” Well, Akadaké continues to smoke, and geological time moves at a much slower pace than the 80 years since the most recent catastrophic eruption of Akadaké.

Suda is encouraged by a politician/businessman who wants to build a resort part way up Akadaké to provide “scientific” assurances that it is safe from volcanic danger. Durand, in contrast, longs for the volcano to erupt and bury the retreat that Father Sato is building on another part of the Akadaké slope.

On his last two visits to Akadaké, Suda has to recognize evidence that the volcano may be dormant, but is not dead, though he is unlikely to live to see his claims falsified. (Suda and Durand have their only conversation on Suda’s final visit to the island volcano, though they are in adjacent rooms in the hospital.)

Durand does not believe Japanese can feel guilt or believe in a single (and male) God. Though defrocked and an embarrassment to local Christians, he believes in and fears death. As translator Richard Chuchert put it: “The Japanese heart and mind seek a merciful mother-image of God, rather than the stern, demanding, threatening father-image which (in Endo’s opinion) has been unduly emphrasized by missionaries, and which accounts in great part for the failure of Christianity to strike deep roots in the ‘swampland’ of Japanese culture and religion.” (Endô valued the compassion of Christ, the most Buddhist aspect of the religion called “Christian,” which has rarely had much to do with the example or reported sayings of the Christ of the Gospels.)

Like Sakurahima, Akadaké is across a bay from the city of Kagoshima. Unlike it, Sakurahima is a composite volcano, not a single peak like Fiujiyama. And, unlike Akadaké,no one thinks Sakurahima is dormant. Nor is it red. (For Durand, “Evil itself is a volcano that will never be extinct,” and he doesn’t believe Akadaké is extinct, either.)

Sakurajima.jpeg(Sakurahima from Yagosima, Creative Commons (2009 photo by Tanaka Juuyoh)

Endô was only 35 when he wrote this book about old age (I’m not sure how old Durand is, but Sude Jinpei is 59 at the beginning (which means 58 by western reckoning). Endô had already undergone two years of hospitalization for pleurisy and would have a second bout and three more years of hospitalization in 1960. (He had one son; Sude’s younger one, who is in middle school, hardly figures as a character in Volcano.

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I prefer Endô’s last two novels (Scandal and Deep River) to Volcano. For my tastes there is too much vulcanological analysis of a fictional volcano plus the international “silence of God” funk of the 1950s (epitomized by Ingmar Bergman). And translator Schuchert keeps having Father Sato speaking of “the Christians,” as if he is not one (this would make sense for the ex-priest Durand). Surely, he would have referred to them in English as his “parishioners” or his “flock” (he shepherds them to the opening of a chapel on the site of the retreat he is having built on the mountainside).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray