A few years ago, I began writing a novel triggered by the narrative of my great-uncle Lo Fu-Chen, who I met for the first time when I was in my twenties. For many decades, he and his wife were blacklisted by Taiwan’s KMT, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist party, and forced into exile. He wandered the world, working for the UN as an advisor and teaching at universities, always thinking about the home he left behind. Much later, when we were finally able to sit down for a long overdue family dinner, he told me anecdotes from his past, like the time he gathered with Kim Dae-Jung and “Ninoy” Aquino. Kim had been banished from Korea, Aquino from the Philippines, and my great-uncle from Taiwan. The three exiled men all happened to be scattered across Massachusetts, taking refuge in different universities. The story goes that one night, over heavy glasses of amber-colored drinks, they decided: whoever returned from exile to their homeland first would play host to the other two.

My fictional drama in English, still in progress, has since then taken off in a direction of its own. But last year, to the delight of many Taiwanese readers, my great-uncle’s life stories were gathered into a best-selling memoir in Chinese, and an English translation is forthcoming (see From Taiwan to the World and Back excerpt). My great-uncle, like many Taiwanese activists, was blacklisted because he was outspoken about the KMT’s corruption and the crimes the party committed against the Taiwanese people. He was too young in 1947 to be a direct victim of the 228 incident that killed thousands of Taiwanese, but he would belong to that generation that came of age in the vicious climate of the White Terror. He devoted his life to the cause of Taiwanese independence and that made him an eyesore to the KMT. Although KMT members first fled to Taiwan because they were defeated by their communist rival in the fight for control of the People’s Republic of China, they would eventually side with their former enemy’s view that Taiwan was a renegade province of China. They did not consider Taiwan their real home, and they still harbored nationalistic feelings about being Chinese.

Taiwan’s greatest tragedy is that until recently, it has never been ruled by people who considered it their home. One colonizer after another—the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Spanish, the French, Imperial China—each had a hand in this little island, strategically located at the intersection of the continental and maritime frontiers. Then came the Japanese who, though self-serving (as all colonizers were), at least unified and modernized the island. With the defeat of Japan in WWII came the KMT, who posed as liberators, not colonizers, blood brothers who planned to incorporate Taiwan into the new Democratic China. They would place the island under the longest period of Martial Law in history (at least at the time).

I did not know of my great-uncle’s existence and I did not know this history. I was born in Taiwan and lived there until I was thirteen. Every year after, I visited at least twice. How was it possible for me to be so ignorant? But it was possible, very possible under the circumstances in which we lived. The KMT brutalized and censored the Taiwanese people in the 1940s and 50s. Almost all native intellectuals and dissidents were either murdered or jailed. The following generation of dissidents such as my great-uncle would be forced into exiled if they wanted to avoid a similar fate. People who lived through that were too scarred, too scared, to speak of it.

In school, they taught us an entirely different history. My parents’ generation were fined if they slipped and spoke in Taiwanese instead of Mandarin during class. Chiang Kai-Shek was heralded a hero and a founding father in textbooks. People bowed their heads and worked hard to make their lives better in more “practical” ways. It was thus that Taiwan became the economic miracle of Asia and, by the time I was born, the island enjoyed a booming economy and a high standard of living. In 1983, while I was just a toddler, my great-uncle testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee of Foreign Relations. A few days later, Senate Resolution 74, stating that the future of Taiwan should be determined by the people of Taiwan without coercion by others, was passed in the Senate. But it was not later enacted.

In 1988, Chiang Ching-Kuo, Chiang Kai-Shek’s son, died. Between the father and son, they had “elected” themselves to seven presidential terms that lasted more than forty years. Then, something miraculous happened. A native son—born and raised in Taiwan, had managed to rise through the ranks of KMT, gain the party’s support, and be named president. Lee Teng-hui would gradually steer the direction of Taiwan’s governance so that opposition parties were allowed to thrive, and when he stepped down in 2000, Chen Shui-Bian, a candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president by the people in a real, open election. The peaceful transfer of power from one opposition party to another was a sign of democracy in practice rather than in name, and Taiwan became the democratic success story in the world. Life for people such as my great-uncle came full circle. He came home and was awarded the post of Ambassador to Japan.

When I finally sat down with my great-uncle at a family dinner in Taipei, I asked him for recommendations for books on Taiwanese history. He gave me several, including a battered copy of Formosa Betrayed, a book chronicling Taiwan’s turmoil from 1941 to 1950 by George H. Kerr, an American attaché stationed in Taiwan. (Taiwan was historically called Formosa, from the Portuguese Ilha Formosa, “beautiful island”.) The English first edition is hard to come by. After its first printing, the KMT bought the copyright and halted distribution. Before my great-uncle gave me his only copy which had traveled with him all these years, I had tried to obtain the only one listed in the system at Columbia University, where I was studying at the time, but it was permanently checked-out.

Kerr’s memoir details the 228 incident in 1947, in which then-governor Chen Yi pretended to withdraw troops from Taipei and agreed to reform KMT’s blatant corruptions. This apparent concession was, in fact, a stalling strategy that allowed additional troops to sweep in from mainland China and brutalize the local population. Most historians now agree that at least 20,000 Taiwanese were slaughtered. Chiang Kai-Shek’s bodyguards testified that the generalissimo had sent a chillingly concise telegram to Chen Yi that said, “Kill them all; keep it secret.”

For decades, censorship managed to keep written accounts by Taiwanese victims from popping up. However, in 1972, a memoir by influential activist Peng Ming-Min, A Taste of Freedom, appeared. The book was written shortly after Peng’s escape to Sweden, following fourteen months in prison and four years under surveillance. Peng wrote that memoir with the aid of no other than George H. Kerr. When Peng was imprisoned in 1966, my great-uncle drew international attention to his arrest by raising $4200 for a half page public ad in the New York Times entitled “Formosa for Formosans.” He, my great-uncle, was a student at University of Pennsylvania, living on a scholarship of $300 a month.

Peng’s memoir is an important study of Taiwanese identity. He lived through the Japanese occupation, the horrors of the WWII, and the oppression of the KMT regime. The book gives fascinating details of an academic and political forerunner’s coming of age. However, as it arrives at its climax—the escape itself—the narrative is forced to turn vague and general to protect the identities of the men and women, my great-uncle and great-aunt included, who had made this implausible escape possible. After all, his memoir was written in 1972, when Taiwan was 23 years into Martial Law (it would remain so until 1987). Fortunately for today’s readers craving the suspense and intrigue, details about the escape can be found in the 2011 memoir of Milo L. Thornberry, an American missionary instrumental in helping Peng.

In recent years, the entire English texts of Formosa Betrayed and A Taste of Freedom have been made available online. The Chinese translations of Kerr’s and Peng’s memoirs, both previously banned books, as well as my great-uncle’s recent memoir in Chinese, are now best-sellers in Taiwan. But their English versions have yet to reach a broader audience.

In world politics, the question of Taiwan is perhaps the ultimate elephant in the room. My great-uncle’s home-coming was an incredible turn of events, but not necessarily a happy ending. Taiwan will always live under the menace of nearby China. Although it is a de facto independent nation—we have our own passport, own government, own president, and have never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China—the PRC continues to insist that Taiwan is a renegade province. While heralding Taiwan as a democratic success story, most nations are careful not to overstep China’s constraints when it comes to Taiwan, calling our ambassadors “Cultural Representatives,” our athletes at the Olympics representatives of “Chinese Taipei” (to get a sense of how ridiculous this sounds, try calling U.S.A. “English Washington”).

The drama and nuances of this history make Lo Fu-Chen’s memoir an indispensable read for the English-speaking world. But what makes it so engrossing is the unique perspective of the man through which we can witness these events. He is an idealist who has the wisdom and patience to allow for the practical to catch up to the ideal, a perpetual optimist who inspires rather than embitters, a worldly man without pretension, literary, humorous, and most of all, a fantastic story-teller.

Further Reading:



Image credit:   See-ming Lee via flickr

About The Author

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Academic Correspondent in Art and Literature

Eva Lou is a Taiwanese-born, American-educated writer who has called Hawaii, New York, Seoul, and Paris her home. She has a BA from Brown University where she was awarded the UTRA Teaching/Research Fellowship and the Capstone Prize in Creative writing, as well as a MFA from Columbia University. Her short stories and poems have been anthologized in America and France. She was invited to represent North America at the UNESCO panel “5 Young Writers of 5 Continents.” Her first book, Rapture/d’extases, was published by Editions Lanore in France in a bilingual edition. Her novel-in-progress is a finalist of the James Jones First Novel Award.