Tag Archives: Taiwanese American

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

 

 

 

“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan

 

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Less than one percent of Shawna Yang Ryan’s new novel Green Island is set on the volcanic island off the east coast of Taiwan where political prisoners were incarcerated. Its name is a specimen of Kuomintang (KMT) doublespeak.* Until 1949 it was known as “fire-seared island” (Kasho-to in Japanese). Though a major character, Dr. Tsai, the father of the narrator, was held at “Oasis Village” (more KMT doublespeak) for ten years, it seems that he was already broken by torture and the murder of his neighbors before his long prison sentence on the desolate island of the title.

Before the never-named female narrator’s birth, her father went to medical school in Tokyo and was deployed with the Japanese colonial army in Burma, where he nearly died of dysentery. Had that happened, there would be no story, the narrator would not have been conceived or delivered by her father.

It is difficult for me to suspend disbelief about several crucial plot points, beginning with Dr. Tsai leaving his newborn child (and wife and older son and daughter) to attend a meeting airing grievances about KMT misrule. It was speaking there that got his name on the list of people to be rounded up when KMT reinforcements were deployed by Chiang Kai-Shek who had not yet retreated from mainland China to Taiwan.

It is also difficult for me to credit the University of California, Berkeley retaining one of its own graduates, the narrator’s husband Wei. It would have been more plausible for him to have earned his Ph.D. in physics somewhere else, then to be hired by Berkeley. More crucially, it is hard for me to believe that he would (1) risk returning to Taiwan with the ashes of a comrade in the anti-KMT movement’s armed wing in 1982, before the end of martial law on Taiwan (2) with his very pregnant wife, and (3) though blacklisted, would receive a visa.

In contrast with these implausibilities, the torture and killings (estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000) of the White Terror, which began when the KMT army reinforcements landed when the narrator was seven days old, the KMT spying on US campuses, and the murder and intimidation of Americans who had been born on Taiwan is all too plausible, if unknown to most Americans not born on Taiwan. The book brings the pressure to collude with KMT spies deployed in the US vividly to life. In effect, family members in Taiwan were hostages who could and were used to discourage documentation of the ongoing reign of terror and suppression of dissent against the apartheid-like Chinese Nationalist regime. The psychically and physically fragile Dr. Tsai is an example of this. Also the collusion in KMT/ROC cover-up of the torture of US citizens in 1982 (during the Reagan administration) is all too plausible.

A lot of history is stuffed into the novel with the character of the maternal grandfather consisting entirely of reporting on events long before the birth of the narrator. Even with that device, there are switches to omniscient narration of events the generally dominant first-person narrator could not have witnessed. The one historical point I think is misleading is that in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 the US recognized that the PRC (and, for that matter, the KMT) considered Taiwan a province of China without accepting that view. What she quotes on p. 183 was the PRC position, NOT something agreed upon by US and PRC officials. (The second quotation’s “creative ambiguity” of “all Chinese” does not include the Taiwanese majority living on Taiwan. The whole document is online at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v17/d203) Though Henry Kissinger was quite willing to sell out Taiwan and the ROC, the communiqué was not ratified by the US Congress the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the US to defend Taiwan from any PRC invasion. (I also think she confuses the PRC denial of SARS in 2003 with that of the ROC public health bureaucracy; the PRC coverup is undeniable; see the lengthy analysis at http://www.asianresearch.org/articles/1502.html. PRC blocking of ROC membership or een observer status in the World Health Organization (WHO) was more important than any denial of cases on Taiwan.)

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The combination of White Terror on Taiwan and immigrant life in the US for Taiwanese was also the subject of Julie Wu’s 2013 novel The Third Son, (which begins in Japanese Taiwan of 1943) and of Jennifer Chow’s three-generation 2013 novel The 228 Legacy; the White Terror on Taiwan was the focus of A Pail of Oysters by Vern Sneider (better known for The Teahouse of the August Moon) published in 1953. “Formosa Betrayed,” the title of George Kerr’s belated (1965) report of what he witnessed (as US vice-consul) on after 2-28-1947 was used for a 2009 thriller about an FBI agent’s investigation of a KMT-sponsored murder of a Taiwanese professor at a Midwestern US university (that combined the murder in Daly City, CA of journalist Henry Liu and the death while in KMT secret police custody of Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wencheng, whose corpse was dumped on the campus of National Taiwan University).

 

  • In a New York Times interview (online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/world/asia/taiwan-shawna-yang-ryan-green-island.html?_r=0), Ms. Ryan, who teaches writing at the Unversity of Hawai’I’s main campus in Honolulu, said that she thinks of “Taiwan as a ’’green island’ as well — verdant and beautiful — but during martial law, it had become a kind of prison itself.” Taiwan was long called “Formosa” in English, based on the Portuguese “ilha Formoa,” “beautiful island.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray