台湾两则 – Taiwan, in two parts – English

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“Where do you come from with such good Chinese?”, the record store owner asked. He was a middle aged man with large eyes and a mild temperament. He asked the question half curiously, half politely.

I’m looking for a song by Jiang Hui, I really want to hear her song, “Hoping for a Spring breeze”.This romantic Taiwanese song can give me a different angle to understand Tawian from.

On the summer’s afternoon the Keelung port was destroyed, depressed, I wandered aimlessly. I walked past Lover’s Avenue by the seaside, its name made the street seem even more gloomy, more oily, with most of the shops closed and the signboards not cleaned in years. In a primary school playground in the mid-levels, a bust of Chang Kai Shek stood lonely and desolate. Beside the harbour, a large, white coloured statue of a female God, looked like Guan Yin and also like Ma Zu.

The other side of the harbour was more busy. I went seeking those old buildings, I hesitated in front of one “haunted house” and chatted with the owner of a fish shop. He said his own father had died in the gutter in front of his door, that was on the 27th of February 1947. He himself had been in mainland China for 10 years dunning a business, money was harder and harder to earn and he came back to fish. People on the mainland are really quick learners, they can out complete the “Taiwanese work ethic”. He said, China’s strength is really unstoppable, perhaps even America could not compare to it.

After the Japanese defeat, Taiwan which had been separated from the mainland for 50 years returned to China. The Taiwanese people were elated, and rushed to the Keelung harbour. But they found the Chinese army they were welcoming unbearable. They were too dirty, and not military enough, more like coolies, they were pushing forward out of the boats, not even carrying any guns. Facing them was the Japanese army, neatly arranged, for a final salute. They hesitated, as if afraid to face them. They were in shock looking at Keelung’s modern facilities, dumbly stared at the elevator of the Department Store going up and down. But these soldiers were children from the country, recruited by force into the army, ignorant of the outside world. Meanwhile, under Japanese rule, Taiwan enjoyed many benefits of economic development and social progress. For the people of Taiwan at the time, this was a moment of shock and loss.

Now the mainlanders are coming back. When I went to Keelung, Taiwan had just allowed free tourism from the mainland, and news about mainland tourists flooded all of Taiwan media. Tourists at the night-market, going to hospital, buying real estate, spending 24 million on a diamond, or ten people sharing a bowl of beef noodles: these details, no matter how insignificant, are enough to make the Taiwanese interested.

You can feel the excitement and anxiety among them. The mainland is no longer poor, it has become enviably rich, opening endless opportunities. From pineapple cakes to bed and breakfasts, from high speed trains to real estate, everything seems ready to welcome free roaming mainland tourists. But at the same time, the eyes of the Taiwanese reveal some deep disdain, the mainlanders are wealthy barbarians, vulgar upstarts. They watch the tourists’ every move with curiosity, as if it was the only way to slow down their anxiety faced with a stronger China.

Let’s return to the record store

“Have a guess, where am I from?” I replied to the boss.

“Are you from Singapore”, he replied, half-convinced.

This is a surprising answer. I thought he would easily guess that I came from Beijing. Is this just a misunderstanding, or is he implying something else? This is an indirect compliment, isn’t it? He’s emphasising that I’m polite and decent, unlike the noisy hordes of mainland tourists? We’re in some absurd moment where the former margins of the Chinese Empire – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore – have formed a sort of alliance. They may be more and more dependent on China’s rise, and anxious about it, but by identifying collectively as more ‘civilised’, they gain some sort of superiority and distinct identity. And today, Chinese people are indeed giving them this sense of superiority: China has become rich and powerful, but its internal dilemma – the complete bankruptcy on culture and education – is reflected among the tourists leaving the country.

But the boundary between ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ has never been very clear, and it often changes rapidly. The people of Taiwan look at the mainland tourists as a novelty, but have they forgotten how thirty years ago, they were noisily roaming around Paris and London themselves; or how twenty years earlier still, little credit was given to ‘Japanese tourists’, although people universally recognised as an educated place? The act of looking upon others with amused curiosity often leads to a narrow view of the world, it may mean the loss of a capacity to understand others, and from then, the capacity to understand oneself.

After leaving the record store, we went to the HOMA cafe. It suddenly appeared in the middle of clothing stalls. There’s a painting on the wall of the cafe with a man in a bow tie and a woman in an evening dress. It’s attempting to recreate European life in the 19th century. Inside the cafe, you can feel that there is taste, and surely at some stage (maybe twenty years ago), all the city’s fashionable young people, looking to assert their individuality, would spend time there, looking for a way to escape the daily boredom. They wanted to live elsewhere, live in the middle of the world. Paris or Rome were the ‘centres of civilisation’ they aspired to; these young people from Taiwan felt that they lived on ‘the edge of the world’.

In this coffee shop, I started reading the poems of Taiwan’s young people, Bei Dao, Shi Zhi. They wrote in the sixties and seventies, during China’s darkest, lowest and most brutal moments. The surprising thing is, they were deeply moved by these older, more experienced mainland poets. Bei Dao and Shi Zhi long after freedom, hope, independence, love, is this not what they also aspired to?


As I travelled on the road to Pingtung, I browsed through ‘people from the village’, the biography of writer Zhong Lihe. It’s a thin book, the sketch of a melancholy face on the cover, published in 1969 in the Republic of China, the printing and binding both carry the simple lyricism of that era.

I bought the book from an old bookstore in an alley of Taipei. The bookstore is full of yellowing, musty paper. The boss was a charming middle aged woman, with a sultry smile, as if she’d emerged on Taishun street from the little Italian towns of Fellini’s childhood.

Zhong Lihe was born in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation, and he determined that he wanted to become a famous Chinese writer. He was the son of a wealthy family, but he fell in love with a woman who had the same surname, and tradition forbid them to marry. He fled Taiwan with her, and arrived in cold and windy Manchuria, then finally settled in Beijing. He worked as a taxi driver, ran a coal store, learnt how to be a father, but the most important was, how to master these characters, how to arrange them together, and express the feelings of a ‘white potato man’. He was depressed, felt abandoned, but never knew how to express this. Once, China was his ‘hometown’, it expressed freedom and belonging. Here, nobody would look on his wedding with strange eyes, he wouldn’t have to suffer humiliation from the Japanese. But that’s not how it was.

“White potato stands on one side of the earth! He witnesses history like nomads wandering across the broad grasslands. Motherland? With one blow of the Siberian wind, everything was gone, nothing remained.” This is what he wrote in “The Sorrows of the white potato”. This was after victory in the war, when ecstasy was pervading China. But he realised that a Taiwanese man living in Beiping was foreign to that joy. Fifty years ago, potato-shaped Taiwan was ceded to Japan. The Japanese agression inspired many Taiwanese people to believe that the motherland was an object of perfect beauty, a sort of Utopia. But now, the embrace of the motherland left him disillusioned. In the eyes of the Beijingers, Taiwan was like Korea, it had a distinctive Japanese flavour. They might not directly provoke hatred, but were received with contempt, and excluded. “And yet, what can we say? The motherland – it includes everything good, and includes everything evil.” That is how he felt.

He returned to his hometown. At the foot of the mountain, he suffered poverty, illness, and the torture of failure, but he continued writing, and died in front of his desk. In a sense, he was still an outsider. In the mountains and rural areas, nobody shared his literary ideal, nobody listened to his anguish. In post-war Taiwan, with many mainland intellectuals moving to the island, a Taiwanese writer like him was still an outsider. How could their Chinese be compared to that of such a true ‘native son’? He could only rely on his perseverance, blood and tears became ink, and his life itself became his fuel.

I never read his masterpiece, ‘lil hill farm’, and if it hadn’t been for this little book I found by chance, I would never have known of his existence. What I am most familiar with in terms of Taiwanese literature is the continuation of the 1954 tradition, seclusion on the island and nostalgia for the homeland. As for Zhong Li He, and others even more talented than him, Lai He, Wu Zhouliu, it’s as if they fell into a gap between generations. Their struggles were so personal and isolated that they were swallowed in the more ambitious (and perhaps emptier) grand historical narrative. This kind of struggle is not only political – They’re stuck in between the Japanese and the Guomingdang, even more so through their thinking, their aesthetic, and their daily life. How and with what difficulty can they evolve in amidst the languages of Japan, China and Taiwan? They’ve been so eager to speak in proper ‘Beijing dialect’, but then ‘Beijing dialect’ turned around and became a new form of foreign oppression.

In a small village called Pingtun, I listened to a concert of aboriginal music. This has been a new trend in Taiwan for the last ten years, each group claims its own uniqueness. After the end of the authoritarian regime, all pent up emotions have erupted to the surface. “Chinese identity” is seen as a symbol of the Guomingdang, and should be abandoned. The new “Taiwanese identity” is quickly forming, and for a new generation, the “homeland” is no longer the Chinese mainland, but their own land and traditions, it is the ethnic Wans and Taya, it is the land and traditions that the Minnan and Hakka people have created together for over a century ‘over Tangshan’.

The later fate of Zhong Li He went through a dramatic change. Fifty years after his death, he became a sort of symbol for Taiwan’s independence. The new generations omitted his nostalgia for China as a homeland, and made him into a keen lover of the local.

I went to his hometown, Mei Nong, and apart from the various plaques and notes, I was hoping to see the literary museum. But on that day, the museum was closed. In a restaurant, I heard the news than Zhong Tiemin had just died. Seventy year old Tiemin, although he was born in the cold and snow of the distant North East, was Zhong Li He’s first ‘harvest’ after defecting his hometown. Before he died, Zhong Tiemin, like his father, was a secondary school teacher, wrote as an amateur, and faced health issues. But their directions differed. The father had struggled to teach Taiwanese students the Beijing dialect, while the son was committed to restoring Hakka culture.

Source: Bulloger, 20 October 2011 –

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About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact