“The world is changing, and we’re trying to change with it.”
After the Russian invasion of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria (Manchukuo) in 1945, fourteen-year-old Akihisa Takayama escapes with his family to their ancestral Taiwan. Here they find themselves under the brutal Chinese dictatorship of the Kuomintang. In the 1960s, now a physician calling himself Charles Yang, he escapes with his young family to the United States, from where they finally go on to Canada to become among the first Taiwanese Canadians in Vancouver. Charles Yang’s experiences illuminate the “White Terror” of Taiwan, and the geopolitical dispute between Communist China and Taiwan over the meaning of “One China.”
TAINAN, TAIWAN - September 1949
It was the first day of classes and the classroom was atwitter with speculations about Teacher Wang. Some students said he was merely sick. Some said he had been “disappeared” by the government. Some even said he had been killed, like his brother—yet another intellectual to be executed by the KMT.
Teacher Wang (1) was one of a small handful of Taiwanese instructors employed at the school. A scholar in the Hokkien dialect, Teacher Wang taught Chinese history to the upper level boys. Wang’s engaging stories had ignited an interest in history in quite a few students. He was Cheng-Chao’s favourite teacher, and to the seventeen-year-old’s mind, one of the few role models on the staff.
The rest of the teachers were Mainlanders who had arrived with the Kuomintang. Charged with converting the Taiwanese “Japanese slaves” into loyal Chinese subjects fluent in Mandarin, these teachers spoke with a variety of accents. Those from Beijing laid claim to the most superior brand of Mandarin, the standard Chinese of the ruling elite from the Qing dynasty, and looked down on the teachers from the other cities and provinces. Cheng-Chao found the accents confusing. He would learn what he thought was the proper pronunciation of a word from one teacher only to be corrected by the next. His classmates were also in the same position. Having been educated entirely in the Japanese school system prior to 1945, they were more fluent in Japanese than Taiwanese. Fortunately for Cheng-Chao, this made it easier for him to downplay his deficiency in Taiwanese at school.
In the transition from Japanese to Chinese rule, Mandarin had become the official language and Japanese usage in newspapers was abolished in 1946.(2) Mandarin cram schools proliferated overnight as men and women sped to learn the language in order to earn a living and negotiate the Chinese bureaucracy. Native Taiwanese who were not fluent in Mandarin could not even think of working for the government. However, with or without the proper language skills, thousands of Taiwanese civil servants had been displaced by Mainlanders. If that were not enough, the 100,000 Taiwanese who had returned from abroad after the war competed with locals and Mainlanders for jobs.(3) Mainlander officials took this opportunity to avail themselves of plum jobs. Chen Yi, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Administrator General of Taiwan, ran the island so much to his own nepotistic benefit that his government had been nicknamed Chen Yi Enterprises Unlimited by the locals.(4) The 30,000 Mainlanders who arrived with Chen Yi looted the countryside so thoroughly that Taiwan faced a rice shortage for the first time in its history.(5)
Naturally, this did not sit well with the descendants of peoples with a history of resistance. Even under Qing rule, Taiwan was a troublesome spot for the Manchu emperors—an outlying island where there was “trouble every three years, chaos every five.”(6) At the time of the Japanese takeover, the locals declared a short-lived Republic of Taiwan and fought a guerilla war for three years against superior Japanese weaponry. After the “pacification” of the island, the Taiwanese continued to fight using political means, though occasional uprisings such as the 1915 Tainan incident continued.(7) Taiwanese home rule movements sprang up despite Japanese assimilationist policies and education. The desire of the Taiwanese to have a voice in their own government during the fifty years of colonization had yielded small gains.(8) With the arrival of the Chinese, it seemed as though the Taiwanese had been returned to colonial rule.
Though Cheng-Chao had little knowledge of Taiwan before his return, the strength of the villagers in their Taiwanese identity was evident to him from the start. His parents, like the other villagers, referred to Tainan City with pride as Fushia, the prefecture city. The oldest city in Taiwan, Tainan had served as the administrative centre for so many regimes that it was nicknamed the “phoenix city.” Its stints under the Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese left a rich legacy of temples, government buildings, and monuments. The fine arts of Chinese culture such as music, painting, and calligraphy had thrived. Folk traditions, exemplified by Taoist and Buddhist rites, were still practiced by the common folk.
But in 1947, Tainan’s history took a bloody turn, with an incident that has come to exemplify the brutality of Kuomintang rule.
© 2017, Julia Lin
Julia Lin was born in Taiwan and lived there and in Vietnam before her family immigrated to Canada when she was nine. Since then, Julia has lived in Vancouver and its environs, in Toronto, and in northern British Columbia. She holds a graduate degree in Immunology (M.Sc., University of Toronto) and a post-graduate degree in computing education (University of British Columbia) and has taught high school math, science, and computing science in British Columbia for a number of years. She lives in Vancouver.
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