Tag Archives: Taiwanese American

The 228 Massacre: A Brief History and Book List

It’s been 70 years since February 28th, 1947, a day that marked the beginning of a very dark and bloody era of Taiwanese history. For those who don’t know, Taiwan has a very complicated history involving multiple waves of colonization. Taiwan was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. (The indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian and have linguistic and genetic relations with the indigenous people Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Oceania.) In the 17th century, the Spanish and Dutch established bases on Taiwan for a time, followed by Ming Dynasty loyalists under Koxinga after the fall of the Ming Empire. The earliest waves of colonists came from southeastern China, mostly the Hokkien-speaking Hoklo people from the Fujian province and some Hakka people, who eventually became the majority due to many indigenous people’s intermarriage and/or assimilation into Han communities and society. The Qing Dynasty claimed Taiwan despite never fully controlling the island and after the second Sino-Japanese War, ceded Taiwan to Japan. From 1895 until 1945, Japan governed Taiwan and touted it as their model colony.

Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was ceded to “back” to China. At the time, China was still under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a. the KMT, from “Kuomintang”) and was referred to as the Republic of China (present-day China is known as the People’s Republic of China, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP). The KMT installed a government in Taiwan that soon drew resentment from Taiwanese people due to its rampant corruption. On February 27th, 1947, a scuffle between a woman selling contraband cigarettes and a KMT soldier resulted in the soldier hitting the woman on the head with his pistol. In the ensuing chaos, another official fired a shot into the crowd, killing a bystander.

This event sparked protests and riots starting on February 28th that resulted in violent crackdowns from the KMT. Starting in 1949, the KMT instituted martial law on the island that lasted 38 years (until 1987), which is the second longest period of martial law after Syria’s (1963-2011). During the period from 1947 to 1987, otherwise known as the White Terror, anyone suspected of being against the KMT in words, ideologies, or actions was persecuted, tortured, murdered, or spirited away, never to be seen again. The persecution even crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States, including the murder of Henry Liu. The total estimate for people who died ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 and remains a topic of debate.

Until the lifting of martial law, nobody spoke of what happened. The truth was dangerous, and it was heavy. In recent decades, a formal apology was issued by former President Lee Teng-hui, and a museum and memorial park were created and dedicated to memorialize 228 and the White Terror. However, some of the people involved in perpetrating the killing and persecution (e.g. government officials and soldiers) are still alive and have never been held accountable for their crimes. Until today, documents related to 228 were classified, thus impeding transitional justice. Without justice, there cannot be peace for the dead and the wronged. That is why it’s important to keep telling this story over and over and remembering the injustices that were committed.

That’s why I’ve created this book list for people who want to learn more about Taiwanese history, politics, and 228/The White Terror. The list includes four nonfiction titles and four fiction titles. The hyperlinks in the above paragraphs are for various Internet articles and sites.

Nonfiction

wealth-ribbonWealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound by brenda Lin

This autobiographical essay collection explores the author’s transnational identity as a Taiwanese American whose life has been split between countries. It tells the stories of three generations of her family, from her grandparents’ generation to her own.

my-fight-for-a-new-taiwanMy Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power by Annette Hsiu-Lien Lu

This is the autobiography of Taiwan’s former Vice President from 2001 to 2008. She came from humble origins but eventually became an activist and leader of feminist and pro-democracy movements in Taiwan during the late 20th century.

maritime-taiwanMaritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West by Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

This book maps out the complex history of Taiwan and the various powers that claimed and influenced it throughout the past few centuries.

taiwans-struggleTaiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese edited by Shyu-tu Lee and Jack F. Williams

In this essay anthology, “leading Taiwanese figures consider the country’s history, politics, society, economy, identity, and future prospects. The volume provides a forum for a diversity of local voices, who are rarely heard in the power struggle between China and the United States over Taiwan’s future. Reflecting the deep ethnic and political differences that are essential to understanding Taiwan today, this work provides a nuanced introduction to its role in international politics.”

Fiction

miahMiah by Julia Lin

This collection of interrelated short stories traces the lives of generations of a Taiwanese Canadian family, from the time of Japanese occupation of Taiwan, to the White Terror under the Kuomintang government, to modern Taiwan and Canada.

the-228-legacyThe 228 Legacy by Jennifer J. Chow*

In this historical fiction novel set in the 1980s, three generations of an all-female, working-class Taiwanese American family struggle with their own secrets: grandmother Silk has breast cancer, daughter and single mother Lisa has lost her job, and granddaughter Abbey deals with bullying at school. When Grandma Silk’s connection to a shocking historical event in Taiwan comes to light, the family is forced to reconnect and support one another through their struggles.

the-third-sonThe Third Son by Julie Wu

Growing up in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo is the ill-favored third son of a Taiwanese politician. By chance, an air strike brings him into contact with Yoshiko, whose kindness and loving family bring hope and light to Saburo’s world. Years later, Yoshiko reappears in his live but at the side of his arrogant and boorish older brother. In order to make something of himself and win Yoshiko’s respect, Saburo pushes the boundaries of what is possible and winds up on the frontier of America’s space program.

green-islandGreen Island by Shawna Yang Ryan (review at hyperlink)

Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

*Jennifer J. Chow is a Chinese American author married to a Taiwanese American. I’ve read the book and as far as I can remember, the facts checked out with the exception of a minor anachronism (regarding the year bubble tea was invented, ha).

Review for Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published in and adapted from my Favorite Books of 2016 post.

My Summary: Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warnings: mentions of death, murder, torture

One of the last books I read in 2016 but also one of the best, this book was an intensely personal read for me because it focuses on a dark, tumultuous, and bloody era of Taiwanese history, called the White Terror, that my own family lived through. Taiwan was under martial law for 38 years, from 1949 to 1987, surpassed in length by only Syria (1963-2011). My parents (and maternal grandparents) grew up during that time; they immigrated to the U.S. before martial law was even lifted.

The main character was born in 1947, the year my paternal grandparents got married. My maternal grandmother was born in 1944, and my oldest paternal uncle was born in 1948, so the main character is somewhere between my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. My paternal grandfather was trained to use firearms from his time serving in the Japanese military (Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945), and he’d thought about joining the protests against the provisional government set up by the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a the KMT and the loser of the Chinese civil war). If not for his marriage, he would have gone, and probably been spirited away, never to be seen again, in all likeliness shot to death by a firing squad like so many men were.

The main character’s parents are part of the intellectual elite of Taiwan; her father is a doctor, her mother was educated in French literature and art. This makes them prime targets for persecution. After the 228 Massacre, her father attends an assembly called by the provisional government and asks for democratic rule in Taiwan. Days later, he is dragged away by KMT officers to be tortured and interrogated on Green Island, where he is imprisoned for eleven years before returning, a changed man.

At the core, Green Island is a story of the psychological and intergenerational trauma of such continual, relentless political persecution. The narrative explores the effect of Dr. Tsai’s absence and his return on the main character and her family throughout her lifetime. Even after his return, the government is not done with him or their family. After she moves to America and settles there, the surveillance follows, eventually placing her in a harrowing situation that echoes that of her father years ago. There is almost no facet of the her life that isn’t touched by her family’s past and Taiwan’s politics.

Far from being removed or objective, the story entreats readers to empathize with the difficult moral dilemmas that arise when you are forced to choose between saving loved ones and standing up for your beliefs. That the main character is never named does not make her less complex or emotionally compelling. The first-person narration immerses you in her world with all its sights, sounds, textures, cultural and sociopolitical forces, and, of course, her inner emotional landscape, in all its subtleties and extremes.

Overall, this book is a great fictionalized account of 20th Century Taiwanese history. Aside from a few minor changes made for the sake of a more cohesive narrative, it’s a very accurate depiction of Taiwanese history, according to the author herself and compared against my own knowledge of the subject.

On top of being mostly accurate, event- and timeline-wise, the story rings true to me in the details: from the terms of address among family (the Romanization was weird to me because I learned the Pe̍h-ōe-jī/Church Romanization system, but I was able to figure it out), to the pejorative phrases like “mainland pigs” (used to describe the KMT and the Chinese people who immigrated to Taiwan post-1949), to the metal bento boxes that kids took to school, to the descriptions of shaved ice stands. Although I myself did not live in Taiwan during that time period, I’ve heard enough stories from my dad to have a decent mental picture of what it was like.

Toward the end of the book, the 228 Memorial Museum is mentioned and described. I actually went there with my family back in 2015, and it was a sobering experience, to put it lightly. My older sister was crying while reading the stories of the dead and missing. I mostly just felt numb inside, weighed down by unspeakable pain and horror. It’s hard not to think about how my own family members could have been on those walls, in those pictures, how a small twist of fate spared my family the experiences of Green Island‘s main character.

Recommendation: I’ve read a number of fictional depictions of the White Terror, and Green Island is by far the most vivid and powerful of them. If you’re going to read any historical fiction book about Taiwan, Green Island is the book to read.

Review for The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

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Background: Like Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), The Year of the Dog was a book my parents bought for me at the NATWA conference, and for the same reasons holds special significance for me.

My Summary: The book tackles the theme of fitting in and focuses on a semi-autobiographical character called Pacy, who is a Taiwanese American girl living in an area where she is one of few Asians. Like many books of its kind, it addresses the growing pains of being a person of color in a very white environment, but it also weaves in a lot of positive aspects of Pacy’s Asian American identity, showcased through scenes and stories-within-stories involving her family members.

Review: The Year of the Dog is the book I wish I’d had as a younger reader, in elementary school. I first read it when I was in 8th grade, which was beyond the target audience range, but I still found it highly enjoyable and relatable.

As I read about Pacy celebrating various Taiwanese/Chinese holidays, I couldn’t help but smile and recall my own similar experiences. And when I came upon the various microaggressions that Pacy deals with, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own history with racism, both blatant and subtle. Like Pacy, I grew up in an area with very few Asian people, so I was always hyper aware of my difference, my “other”-ness. Thus, Grace Lin’s inclusion of these details and the recognition of the power they have to influence your emotional state and long-term self-image was hugely validating for me.

Aside from exploring cultural and racial identity, the book also focuses on Pacy’s individual journey to “find herself” as she discovers her talent for drawing. Accompanying the text are illustrations by Grace Lin herself that help breathe life into the characters and setting of the book. You can really feel Pacy’s personality in the illustrations, which are a window to her world and a useful visual aid for people who are unfamiliar with the culture.

Recommendation: If you know someone in elementary school, give them this book. And if you’re older and don’t mind reading a book for younger reader’s, definitely give it a read.

Review for Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen

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Background: I feel obligated to review this book first since it holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because it’s the first book about a Taiwanese American character that I’d ever read, and as a Taiwanese American who was raised to be conscious and proud of my heritage, having that representation meant so much to me. My parents bought a copy for me at the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association convention in 2006 and had it signed and personalized by Justina Chen, and it’s one of my first collectible books.

My summary: Half-white, half-Taiwanese Patty Ho has never felt completely at home in her own skin. She has her hands full dealing with her ultra-strict Taiwanese mother at home and fending off racists at school. When her mother decides to ship her off to math camp at Stanford, she’s convinced that her experience will be boring and miserable. However, the camp turns out to be a lesson in self-acceptance and embracing her biracial identity.

Review: I am terrible at quantifying my feelings for books most of the time, so I’ll stick to qualitative commentary instead.

First of all, this book was a great read in terms of character voice. The story is narrated in first-person from Patty’s perspective, and her personality jumps straight off the page. She doesn’t hold back on the honesty and the sass, and she uses unconventional styles for storytelling and emphasis. She puts a uniquely Asian American spin on every situation, and the results are equal parts painfully relatable and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The central theme of the novel is self-acceptance as it relates to racial identity, and while this may feel like an overused trope of Asian American fiction, this particular narrative is important because it addresses the perspective of biracial Asian Americans, who are often left out of the picture when discussing and representing Asian American identity. Thus, while the story may be familiar to those who have read a lot of Asian American fiction, it’s also fresh and groundbreaking in other ways.

It’s hard not to talk about Asian American representation without delving into the issue of stereotypes, so I’ll talk briefly about that. I think there are two different ways of understanding the stereotypical elements presented in the book: on the one hand, the book attempts to overturn a lot of the stereotypes and combat the racist microaggressions that Patty deals with; on the other hand, there are times when the “stereotype” in question is really just an authentic representation of Patty’s personal reality. Yes, the tiger mom is definitely a stereotype, but for Patty and many other real Asian Americans, it’s their lived reality. Moreover, it’s reductive to simply call out any element that falls into the realm of stereotypes without addressing the exact execution. In the case of Patty’s mother, while she is ultra-strict, she is also allowed depth of character and complexity. I can’t go into detail about the examples since it would contain a spoiler, but a later revelation about Patty’s mother serves to round out her character and give her background and texture.

That all said, I still have some reservations about the book’s approach to race when considering it from a critical race studies and ethnic studies perspective. One of my major critiques of the book is that it treats race and racism in a very individualized way that obscures the social context in which race and racism are embedded. Patty’s issues surrounding race seem to center on individual attitudes and actions without any thought for the historical and structural forces that shape those attitudes. The boy who bullies her is portrayed as an individual acting on his individual bigotry; the potential origins of his racist notions of Asians and Asian Americans go unremarked upon.

The other critique I have is that while the book attempts to champion mixed race Asian Americans, it veers into the realm of fetishization in certain passages. There are instances where the fetishization of Asian American women is called out, but at the same time Patty seems to find empowerment in the idea that all “hapa” (originating from the Hawaiian term “hapa haole” or half-foreigner; the use of “hapa” to refer to all half-Asian people is considered appropriative by many Native Hawaiian community members and activists, so I would avoid applying it outside of the original intended context of mixed Native Hawaiian and white/foreigner; I use it here because that was the term used in the original text) people are attractive. It’s important to note the positionality that is involved in this situation. Coming from mixed race people themselves, who are often held to white supremacist or otherwise ethnocentric beauty standards, saying that mixed race people are attractive can be a form of empowerment. However, coming from people who are not mixed race, the statement can be a form of homogenization and fetishization. In particular, the notion that mixed race people are attractive usually manifests itself in the form of a hierarchy wherein those who are mixed with white, light-skinned, and look closest to white beauty standards are seen as the most attractive. Mixed race people whose racial background is solely comprised of POC backgrounds without any white are often sidelined or erased completely. This phenomenon is referred to as “colorism” or “shadeism.”

Overall Impression and Recommendation: I say read it. It’s a fast read and an engaging narrative that will probably elicit strong emotions if you can relate to the Asian American experience, particularly the Taiwanese American experience, as it addresses certain issues that are specific to Taiwanese Americans.

P.S. If you really want an extremely detailed analysis of the book, you can definitely ask me for the 8-page academic paper I wrote on the book for my Mixed Race Identities class.