Showing posts with label japanese_colonial_era. Show all posts
Showing posts with label japanese_colonial_era. Show all posts

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Chiang Kai-shek did not save Taiwan from the CCP: Part 1 - the origins of CCP interest in Taiwan

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I took this photo years ago and it seemed appropriate to finally use it here.


I had thought I'd written about this before, but couldn't find an appropriate post. So, because it seems like I address this opinion frequently and I'm sick of repeating myself, it's time to write it all out here so I can link it next time someone comes out with a wacky historical interpretation of what actually happened after the Chinese Civil War. 

Also, Dictatorship Day is tomorrow (that's 10/10 for those of you who are still sleeping), so this feels like a good time to write such a post. 

So, what am I on about? Every few weeks, either wild-caught or while I'm talking about one of my favorite subjects (what an absolute sack of wankers the KMT is), someone seems to pop into one of my feeds with a comment along the lines of "yes but without Chiang Kai-shek/the KMT/the ROC army Taiwan would be a part of Communist China now".

These include comments by good people -- it's not personal. I've been wrong about history too. It's okay. But we need to deal with it.

This needs to be tackled in a few parts, in fact. First, I think it's important to clarify what exactly the KMT and CCP each thought of Taiwan in the years leading up to the Taiwan conflict. Only then do I think we'll have a good basis for discussing the degree to which Chiang and the KMT are not responsible for keeping Taiwan CCP free.

So first, let me make the case that Chiang Kai-shek is to blame for the CCP's interest in Taiwan in the first place. 

You read that right. It's all his (and the KMT's) fault that this is a problem to begin with.

I don't have many links for you because my biggest source is one of my favorite books, 
Accidental State by Hsiao-ting Lin, but I will link where I can. 

In 1924, Sun Yat-sen did include Taiwan in his Three Principles of the People, and it's likely Chiang got the idea to include Taiwan in the territories claimed by the Nationalists at the summit in Cairo in 1943 from this, according to Lin. Here's the thing though: Sun also included all sorts of places that no reasonable person believes "China" should control, including parts of Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan etc. It also is not clear from Sun's other writing that when visiting Taiwan (he visited twice, I believe) he considered it to be anything other than Japanese territory.

What does matter is this: it was not clear until right before the meeting at Cairo that Taiwan would be included in Nationalist territorial claims the way, say, Manchuria certainly would be, as Taiwan had been ceded legally under the Treaty of Shimonoseki whereas the Nationalists had never accepted Japan's conquest of Manchuria. Before that, the ROC, its officials and Chiang himself had more or less treated Taiwan as a part of Japan, including opening a consular office in Taipei "under the jurisdiction of its legation in Tokyo". Chiang even spoke to Japanese politicians about how ending colonial rule in Taiwan and Korea could help bolster relations between China and Japan! To say the least, before 1941, Nationalist views of Taiwan and clear ideas about what Taiwan should be were, to use Lin's words, "murky", "cautious", uncertain" and "undetermined". 

The change in rhetoric to seriously consider claiming Taiwan happened after Pearl Harbor, when the ROC more or less saw an opportunity and decided to grab it. It was around that time that a definition of what constituted "lost" territories to be recovered was created by Chiang, and the top concerns regarding what should be included and what shouldn't were more geo-strategic than ideological.

In fact, according to Lin, the decision to include Taiwan as a claimed territory wasn't even finalized until after Chiang had received the invitation to Cairo! Until then it had been a matter of debate and exactly which "lost" territories ought to be "recovered" was very much a matter of debate.

George Kerr also notes in Formosa Betrayed that Allied attempts to gain intelligence on Taiwan from their Chinese allies showed how little interest the Nationalists actually had in Taiwan, as most of it was lazily thrown together at best, or outright fabricated at worst (to be fair, Lin finds Kerr's accounts to be generally exaggerated). 

The inclusion of Taiwan didn't start gaining truly serious ROC domestic or international traction until the Allies signed onto it at Cairo, and even then, to quote Kerr, the only reason the West was willing to prop up Chiang's claims was to help him save face as the self-proclaimed greatest leader and bringer of "democracy" to Asia (again, to be fair, no-one else in Asia at that time could reasonably claim the title of supreme democratic reformer, either). They knew perfectly well that his regime would require massive support from the West.

(It's worth taking a brief side-note here to point out that the result of Cairo was a declaration, not a treaty. The actual series of treaties that followed the Japanese surrender do not clarify to whom Taiwan was ceded nor what its status is.)

At the same time, the Communists seemed to hold a very different view of Taiwan. Mao's rhetoric on the topic somewhat implied that Taiwan had the right to some, if not total, sovereignty, and the CCP listed "Taiwanese" among the "minority nationalities" that had "equal rights" in "Soviet China", but were considered to be a distinct group or race from Chinese with their own homeland. 

I'm going to quote from the link above at length, because unlike Accidental State and Formosa Betrayed, two books you absolutely should spend your money on, this is a journal article and not everyone will have access. I've emphasized important points:

This position of the Sixth Congress was reiterated in the same year by the Fifth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Youth League, which in its regulations noted that the "minority na- tionalities" in China included "Mongols, Koreans, Taiwanese, Annamese, etc.," and urged that local organs form national minority committes.5 Two years later in Kiangsi, the "Draft Constitution of the China Soviet Republic," adopted by the First All-China Soviet Congress (November 7, 1931), extended constitutional rights to these same minority nationalities.6 According to Item 4 of this document, all races, that is the "Han, Manchu, Mongol, Mohammedan, Tibetan, Miao, Li and also the Taiwanese, Koreans, and Annamese who reside in China, are equal under the laws of Soviet China [emphasis added]." Taiwanese were seen not as Han but as a different "nationality" and even "race," who like the Koreans and the Annamese, but unlike the other minorities, came from a homeland separate from China.8 This view is strengthened by the fact that the CCP never referred to the Taiwanese as "brethren" (dixiong), or "the offspring of the Yellow Emperor," or "compatriots" (tongbao), who would de facto belong to the Han after they return to China. Indeed, a 1928 Central Committee Notice, while calling for the recovery from Japan of sovereignty over Shantung and Manchuria, failed to mention a similar goal for Taiwan in its seventeen "general goals of the present mass movement."9 Since the ideological perspectives of the early Chinese Communist elite were heavily influenced by an anti-Japanese (as well as an anti-Western) nationalism born out of the May Fourth Movement, this exclusion of Taiwan from recoverable sovereign territory of China is revealing.

 



(Yes, that is one long paragraph.)

It gets better, though: 


Mao Tse-tung's earliest comments on the Taiwanese came in his January 1934 "Report of the China Soviet Republic Central Executive Committee and the People's Committee to the Second All-China Soviet Congress." Commenting on various provisions in the 1931 Constitution, he said: Item 15 of the Draft Constitution of Soviet China has the following statement: 

To every nationality in China who is persecuted because of revolutionary acts and to the revolutionary warriors of the whole world, the Chinese Soviet Government grants the right of their being protected in Soviet areas, and assists them in renewing their struggle until a total victory of the revolutionary movement for their nationality and nation has been achieved. In the Soviet areas, many revolutionary comrades from Korea, Taiwan, and Annam are residing. In the First All-China Soviet Congress, representatives of Korea had attended. In the present Congress, there are a few representatives from Korea, Taiwan, and Annam. This proves that this Declaration of the Soviet is a correct one.’


Mao not only reaffirmed the Chinese Communist position that Taiwanese residing outside Taiwan and in China were a "minority nationality," but also implied CCP recognition and support of an independent Taiwan national liberation movement, which would be united in a joint effort with the Chinese movement, but with a different purpose, i.e., the establishment of an independent state similar to other Japanese colonies, such as Korea. 

A year later, Mao and P'eng Teh-huai manifestly dissociated Taiwan's political movement from China by incorporating it into the anti-imperialist revolution led by the Japanese Communist Party. According to the "Resolution on the Current Political Situation and the Party's Responsibility," passed at a meeting of the CCP Central Political Bureau on 25 December, 1935, and signed by P'eng and Mao: 

Under the powerful leadership of the Japanese Communist Party, the Japanese workers and peasants and the oppressed nationalities (Korea, Taiwan) are preparing great efforts in struggling to defeat Japanese Imperialism and to establish a Soviet Japan. This is to unite the Chinese revolution and Japanese revolution on the basis of the common targets of "defeating Japanese imperialism." The Japanese revolutionary people are a powerful helper of the Chinese revolutionary people." 


Here Taiwanese were not considered an integral part of the "Chinese revolutionary people," but were treated as a people whose natural political role was to fight alongside the "Japanese workers and peasants" in establishing a Soviet Japan. Whether Mao and P'eng expected the Taiwanese (and Koreans) formally to join a newly-created Soviet Japan is unclear from this resolution. But nowhere in this or other documents examined by the authors did CCP leaders suggest that the Taiwanese should fight to return to their "motherland" and join Soviet China - a point they would not make until after 1943.


That's my underline, so let me reiterate:

...a point they would not make until after 1943.

What changed between when these statements were made and 1943?

Oh yeah! All that stuff the Nationalists did, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, to change China's perspective on Taiwan toward claiming it as an integral territory and 'lost' province. 

It is not unreasonable to assert that the CCP changed its stance on Taiwan because the Nationalists had done so first

Guess what - it gets even better. Please enjoy:

As to explicit CCP support for an independent state on Taiwan, the most notable documentary evidence is Mao's personal statement made to Edgar Snow on July 16, 1936. Responding to Snow's question, "Is it the immediate task of the Chinese people to regain all the territories lost to Japanese imperialism, or only to drive Japan from North China, and all Chinese territory above the Great Wall?," Mao answered: 

It is the immediate task of China to regain all our lost territories, not merely to defend our sovereignty below the Great Wall. This means that Manchuria must be regained. We do not, however, include Korea, formerly a Chinese colony, but when we have re-established the independence of the lost territories of China, and if the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Formosa. As for Inner Mongolia, which is populated by both Chinese and Mongolians, we will struggle to drive Japan from there and help Inner Mongolia to establish an autonomous State. 

The support for independence of Korea and Taiwan, both of which were formerly linked to China, is clearly stated.


There is some solid analysis in this otherwise older source about why the CCP policy was able to shift, and an interesting discussion of what constitutes "Chineseness" in the eyes of the CCP -- at least, the best possible analysis of it in 1979.

The authors also go on to provide more source material for Lin's analysis of the shifting Nationalist position on Taiwan pre-1943, pointing out that Taiwan was of minor importance before Cairo, belying the massive importance placed on it by the Nationalists after the conference. They go on to posit that Chiang's original goal was quite possibly very similar to the CCP's: to "liberate" Korea and Taiwan so as to create buffer states between China and Japan! 

Because I believe in free access to academic work, here's another quote:

What is important here is that Chiang, like Sun, was more concerned with "restoring" (hufifu) the independence and freedom of Taiwan and Korea so as to create buffer states against Japan, while China would assume traditional protection, but not necessarily sovereignty, over Taiwan and Korea. Moreover, throughout Chiang's pre-1942 collected works and speeches nowhere does he make a claim to “recover" (shoufu, guangfu or shouhut) Taiwan. The island was mentioned occasionally, along with Korea, but only in the sense that both nations were enslaved by the Japanese. No mention of the Taiwanese appeared in such strong nationalist tracts as "Prepare For Victory," nor in his message on "Resistance in the Enemy's Rear."


Although the ability of the CCP to shift so easily to a "Taiwan is an inseparable part of China" stance is of interest, the reason why they chose to do so at all is of more interest to me. Again, it all points back to Cairo, and we have Chiang Kai-shek and his minions to thank for that.

Hsiao and Sullivan (the heroes of this heavily-quoted article) reached the same (hedged) conclusion in 1979:

This tentatively suggests that the Chinese Communist position on the Taiwan question became most politically expedient after the 1943 Cairo Declaration when, still out of power, and in a subordinate position vis-a-vis the KMT, the CCP dropped its support for Taiwan's independent status and embraced Chiang Kai-shek's then very recent policy of full political reintegration of Taiwan into the Chinese polity.


!!!

I emphasized that in three different ways to draw your attention to it. It's analysis, not fact, but I happen to think it's right on the money. 

In other words, Chiang didn't "save" Taiwan from the Communists. He led them right into claiming Taiwan as a territory. If Chiang and the Nationalists had never fed that fire, it's entirely possible (though far from assured, to be fair yet again) that the CCP would have never become as interested in Taiwan as an integral part of China as they did. They might have had designs on it, after all they got involved in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, but note that Korea and Vietnam don't suffer from the lack of diplomatic recognition or the same territorial claims by China (or at least, in Vietnam's case, not to the same extent) that Taiwan does.

And yet, there are still people who believe that Chiang deserves some sort of credit for keeping the Communists away from Taiwan. I would ask -- why? He's responsible for their claims on Taiwan in the first place!

At this point we veer into speculative history: if the Nationalists had never decided to claim Taiwan, would they have occupied Taiwan at the behest of the Allies in 1945, for convenience's sake? I don't know, as occupying Taiwan as a proxy of the Allies is not the same as occupying it as a claimed territory, but it seems at least somewhat less likely. In any case, it is less likely to have become the location of their retreat upon losing the civil war a few years later. This means that perhaps (?) the Nationalists might have been wiped out completely -- not a bad outcome, in my estimation, though the CCP disappearing would be even better.

If the KMT had not retreated to Taiwan, would the CCP have ever set its sights on the island? Possibly. There would have been so-called "justification" for it in Sun's writing, and they certainly were (and are) expansionist.

But their own writings indicate that it might not have rolled out that way, and Taiwan would have gained its independence in the same era as many other former colonies across Asia: Korea, most of Southeast Asia, India and more. 

Some of those former colonies have struggled (the Philippines, Myanmar, India, Indonesia), in part due to local issues and in part thanks to everything that was stolen from them or forced upon them by their colonizers. Others (Korea, Singapore) eventually succeeded -- if we take democracy and freedom as important markers of success, Korea even more than Singapore. As a relatively prosperous colony under the Japanese with much of its infrastructure already built (and built well), how might Taiwan have fared? We'll never know, but it's not a given that it would have been worse than under KMT rule. 

Importantly, if this is how it had played out, there might not have been any question now of whether Taiwan was a 'part of China', any more than that question is being asked of those other countries. All the missiles, all the threats, all the fighter jets -- none of it would be dangled over our heads by an angry CCP. 

All because they slobbered after the Nationalists and that led their sights right to Taiwan.

Blame the CCP, yes, but also...blame the KMT. They literally created this mess. They literally wrote the paper on how to screw Taiwan.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Taipei Antique and Vintage Hunting

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Honestly, I think we're all sick of Constant Coronavirus Coverage. Let's talk about something else.

Over the past few years, I have enjoyed giving my home a sort of modern-retro look by decorating with vintage finds of dubious value - I don't really care what a thing is 'worth' as long as I like it, and the price is acceptable. In fact, everyday vintage items of lower value are preferable, as I can use them without worry.

The shops where I hunt these items down are also great places to check out, as we look for ways to get out of the house, possibly while we still can. I'm not talking about the high-end antique shops or the "vintage stores" that sell the clothing I grew up wearing for a Generation Z crowd. I mean the places that sell a combination of old Taiwan and Japan flair (which is what I'm after) and the sort of Western kitsch I'd generously call "Goodwill finds" back home.

I wouldn't want to go to a bar full of people or high-traffic department store right now - not that I do so typically - but these shops tend to be lower-traffic, and they are also businesses trying to stay afloat in an economy that's suddenly turned against everyone.

Since deciding to create that 'vintage Taiwan' feel on a wall display at home, I've had even more reason to trawl my favorite vintage stores, so now feels like the right time to write about them.

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There are surely more than these in Greater Taipei, so feel free to add any that you know in the comments.


April's Goodies (唐青古物商行)
100台北市中正區羅斯福路一段83巷17號
#17 Lane 83 Roosevelt Rd. Sec 1, Zhongzheng District, Taipei
MRT Guting or CKS Memorial Hall
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The entrance to April's Goodies 

With old windowframes and some larger furniture outside, and everything from old Taiwanese dinnerware to teapots to a few vintage clothing items inside, this place is small but packed with quality vintage goods.

Not only did the window with the textured glass on my wall come from there, my glass persimmon did, too.

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(No, I don't know the actual names of vintage glass patterns, I'm not that much of a nerd about it, but this one, the vaguely floral pattern and a reeded or fluted textured glass are the most common textured glass found in vintage Taiwanese windows).


Treasure Hunters (藏舊尋寶屋)
100台北市中正區羅斯福路二段38號
#38 Roosevelt Rd. Section 2, Zhongzheng District, Taipei
MRT Guting

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This well-known store specializing in Japanese antiques looks small when you enter. Then you find it stretches further and further back (with an alley separating buildings at one point), and has an upstairs! A lot of the antiques here are actually from Japan, not Taiwan's Japanese era, but there's a lot here if you want to capture a bit of the Japanese influence of a vintage Taiwanese look. Also, their ceramics and lacquerware are highly sought-after by collectors.


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All three antiques on this bookcase came from Treasure Hunters


Prices may seem high but for a lot of what they have, you'll find it's actually fairly reasonable. For example, I've picked up 1970s vintage Zohiko and Wajima lacquerware here for a song (Zohiko is a brand, and Wajima is a Japanese island known for lacquer), as well as a beloved lacquer tray with a beautifully rendered dragon from Okinawa. The 閑庭百花發 wooden calligraphy board on my wall came from here, too, and wasn't particularly expensive.

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Recently, Treasure Hunters has been holding half-price antique markets in small space on Lishui Street, I suppose to clear out old stock. Follow their Line account to get updates on when they occur.


Qinjing Old Warehouse (秦境老倉庫)
103台北市大同區民樂街153號
#153 Minle Street, Datong District, Taipei
MRT Zhongshan or Shuanglian (but there are buses that stop closer by)


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This tiny shop, crammed with vintage goodness, is where my vintage window grate came from. They occasionally have windows and window grates here, but the real finds at Qinjing are vintage dishware. Small items sometimes go for cheap - I picked up an small ceramic 招財 cat for NT30 here, and some crystal prisms for NT50 each, that I plan to hang in my window to create rainbows my cats can chase around on sunny days.

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Qinjing also tends to be a good place to look for vintage appliances, toys, old brand gimmick items, worn-out funky keychains, wooden signs and the occasional farm implement. I can't even describe how eclectic it is, so I'll let Elmo in a Blender speak for itself.



 

Swallow Used Furniture (Swallow燕子老傢俱)
 112台北市北投區東華街一段438巷4號
#4, Lane 438, Donghua Street Section 1, Beitou District, Taipei
MRT Mingde (Shipai is also walkable)




In a quiet corner of Beitou, just inside a non-descript lane marked by a burst of tropical greenery off the road that runs under the MRT, you'll find Swallow. This place seems to be run by a pair of hipster guys, and you'd be forgiven for mistaking the front courtyard for a junkyard, or the private home of a hoarding grandpa. When I wandered in, it was only apparent that it was an actual shop by the open door and music, and prices on most (though not all) items.
 
It's packed, and it seems tiny, but this place actually has three floors. The first floor is mostly small items. The second floor has more Japanese-era antiques, and the third floor is furniture. Old windows and screens can be found in the balcony off the 2nd floor (as well as in the courtyard).



One of the friendly hipster guys seems to work on creating upcycled furniture, much like W2 (though the look is different).

I picked up a Japanese-style sliding window screen here, but haven't figured out what to do with it yet.

This place is fun to check out in person, but if you don't feel like going all the way to Mingde, they have an impressively organized Facebook page where you can click on albums of their various items, complete with prices, and shop at home. (I don't know if they deliver but they put a lot of work into their Facebook page so they should be accessible by Messenger). If you want to score some old windows or window frames for yourself, their Facebook albums are a fantastic place to start.

Moungar (莽葛拾遺二手書店)
108台北市萬華區廣州街152巷4號

#4 Guangzhou Street Lane 152, Wanhua District, Taipei
(right behind Cafe 85)

MRT Longshan Temple

Moungar is housed in an old brick shophouse half-hidden by a large bougainvillea. Decorative Majolica tiles grace the front and make it an inviting space to enter.

This is more of an antique book shop - their selection of actual antique items is smaller than the other places I've listed. I have a book from them on my shelf - a collection of Pushkin stories.

Even if you don't buy anything, the old building is very much worth a look inside. I don't know if they still serve coffee. 



Aphrodite
114台北市內湖區民權東路六段16之1號
#1-16, Minquan East Road Section 6, Neihu District, Taipei
Not near the MRT - take any of the cross-Minquan buses to get here (278, 556 and 902 also stop nearby)

To be honest, I haven't been here in years, because it's no longer convenient to any of my worksites (I used to have a class in an office not far from here).

Unlike the other antique stores on this list, Aphrodite focuses on European antiques. The other shops sometimes have items from Western countries, but this place looks like your German immigrant grandma's attic. I've purchased old wooden coasters, some glassware and some copper items here, though much of their stock is furniture.


56 Deco
台北市士林區延平北路九段348號(社子島)

#348, Yanping North Road Section 9 (Shezi)
Take buses 2, 215, R10 or 536 to get there (most of them connect to the red or yellow MRT lines)

56 Deco is hard to get to, and they prohibit photographs, but they have an array of cool stuff, including a large collection of vintage chairs and other oddities. But they are very, very local -- not many foreigners make it this far up Shezi unless they're biking -- and friendly, and the selection is pleasingly eccentric.

They're a bit overpriced but not stratospherically so. I came close to buying a piece of an iron window grate but ultimately decided against it.

This place is far from everything else in Taipei, and I would never have found it if I hadn't been looking for the nearby cafe on Google Maps. But it is near the park at the very tip of 社子島 (the Shezi peninsula, which is called an island in Mandarin) and quite close to a friendly cafe with great views. Buses up there take awhile and don't come frequently, but if you time your bus departure it's not too much trouble - or just bike it. The bike path is very popular. There's also a popular local restaurant nearby, so you could combine a stop there with an exploration of that quiet part of Taipei.

They keep very short hours (daytime Tuesday-Friday only) but the cafe nearby opens at 3pm and closes late, so you can time your departure with the bus schedule.


Fuhe Bridge Flea Market (福和橋市場)
Under Fuhe Bridge on the Yonghe (New Taipei) side
Open until noon, most popular on Saturdays
Not near the MRT but many buses stop nearby, including the 275, R25, 660, 254, 672 and 208)


Oh, Fuhe Bridge Flea Market, with your stolen shoes and dodgy goods. With your weird, wonderful weirdness and wonderfulness.

I haven't been here in years either, mostly because I have a private class on Saturday mornings, but I'm told it's still going strong and is a great place for old vintage finds, as you can see from my pictures from 2013. (If you're wondering, I eventually got that Datong fan - did you know they still make them and you can get one new?)

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A few vendors at this market actually hold Yixing clay teapot auctions, so if you trust your auctioning skills and can get in on the fun in Chinese (or Taiwanese), you might get a good deal.

The link in my original post lists a few other flea markets in the Taipei area.


Yongkang Street Jin'an Market  (錦安市場)
106台北市大安區永康街60號
#60 Yongkang Street, Da'an District, Taipei

Honestly, I have less to say about this market. It's full of cool old stuff but it's also been 'discovered', meaning that prices are higher (it's also in a fancy part of town, surrounded by antique stores that sell high-end items).

But, it's worth a stroll-through, and I'll occasionally poke around the various shops, though I don't know if I've ever actually bought anything there.


Facebook Groups

Honestly, some of the most interesting things I've come across can be found in dedicated Facebook groups to vintage shopping. I'm a fan of Grocrery Store (no idea if the typo is intentional, and don't care), 寶島新樂園二手舊貨、古董、民藝 and 二手。古董。老件。收藏。裝飾 but there are honestly tons of choices - join a few and Facebook will suggest more for you.


I will say that I have not actually tried to buy anything from these groups,  but they're great fun for browsing.

Happy hunting!


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Thursday, November 14, 2019

You don't read every history book for history: a review of Su Beng's "Taiwan's 400-Year History"

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I bought the anniversary edition of Taiwan's 400-Year History at Su Beng's 100th birthday celebration on Ketagalan Boulevard a few years ago, but having already read up on Taiwanese history, I hadn't actually read it. I knew Su Beng's life story - the whole Taiwan-Japan-China-Taiwan-Japan-Taiwan saga of it. I knew that he was not only beloved almost universally among active supporters of Taiwanese independence, but that he'd been much 'redder' in his youth (that is, Marxist/leftist, not pro-CCP).

So, of course I knew the story of the writing of this book: penning it after work in his Tokyo noodle shop, with the sense that Taiwanese should know their history. They should have access to a historical narrative that the KMT was trying to eradicate in Taiwan itself.  I was aware copies were banned in Taiwan itself, and it had to be smuggled in (I had not known, however, that Nylon Deng had been the one to do the smuggling, according to one of the prefaces of the book).

When he died earlier this year, I regretted not reading it earlier, and picked it up as a tribute to one of the greats. The English edition is heavily abridged from the Chinese - one slim volume instead of several fat ones - so it didn't take long.

Having finished it, I'm not sure what to say exactly. I guess I'd say this: this may be a history book, but these days, you don't read it to learn history. You read it to understand Su Beng's perspective on Taiwan's history.

That wasn't always true: when the text first became available to Taiwanese, it was so different from the China-centric narratives peddled by the KMT that it must have felt like after years of gaslighting, Taiwan was finally charged with electricity.


For those who felt no connection to China and had been bored in school learning about "other provinces", learning about their national history as one of colonialism - including calling the current regime "colonizers" - I cannot imagine how empowering and enlightening it must have been. Even though 'Taiwanese history' is more broadly accessible now and covered from a range of perspectives, we still read it now to understand more deeply what that initial rush of Aha! This is who we are! would have been like. 

A few things stand out in this book: the first is that Su Beng structures his narrative not strictly linearly (though the sections are ordered in a broadly linear way), but rather telling history as a way to make points about class warfare: the KMT and other colonial oppressors such as Japan, the Qing, the Zhengs and the Dutch and the wealthy Taiwanese who backed them, and the oppressed. That is, the proletariat, or working Taiwanese, with a focus on Hoklo Taiwanese. Although indigenous people are mentioned and, to put it charitably, Hakka people are not 'excluded' so much as not differentiated from Hoklo. Hey, I told you he'd been more Marxist in his youth. 

That's why you read it, to be honest. Using words like "vile" and "evil" to describe the oppressors (and I agree, they were oppressors and in many cases still are), and "hardworking" and "from their blood and sweat" to describe the indigenous and working-class Taiwanese farmers, you aren't reading straight history so much as an extended editorial on Su Beng's particular perspective on it.

Is that such a bad thing, though? While it's perhaps not ideal for the first 'history of Taiwan' that Taiwanese might read to 'know their own history' to be so ideological, is anything non-ideological? Would a straight history, without emotionality and strongly connotative adjectives, have been as engaging as Su Beng's editorial style? Would a text that aimed to be more objective have simply hidden its ideological bias better? At least Su Beng didn't pretend to believe anything other than what he truly believed in order to seem 'neutral'. That sort of honest critical perspective is actually kind of refreshing. 


The second, to me, is a bigger problem: the English edition is so abridged as to make you wonder what was left out. This is exacerbated by the fact that several parts are highly repetitive. Thanks to the semi-non-linear structure, sometimes that repetition occurs across chapters. I understand that this is a stylistic feature of Mandarin and was surely present in the Mandarin edition (I think the Japanese edition, however, was the original), but for an abridged English edition, it might have been smart to cut it in favor of more content.

Here's an example. Towards the beginning, the chapter on Dutch colonialism in Taiwan includes several paragraphs that state, in different ways, that the wealth the Dutch extracted from Taiwan was created by the hard work of Taiwanese laborers. That theme is repeated - with the same wording - in the chapter on Qing colonialism, when discussing how it was hard-working Taiwanese farmers who opened the land to agriculture. Then, later in the book, there's a throwaway line about how Lin Shaomao "gave his life for his nation", with absolutely no backstory. Now, I know who Lin Shaomao was, but someone who didn't wouldn't learn his story from this book.

In several places, this or that specific person, or group, is accused of being evil, thieving, bourgeois...whatever. Some names were familiar to me; others I had to look up. They probably were, and I love that Su Beng pointed fingers and named names, but no background is provided. No buttressing of the argument. No support. They're evil, these other people are good, and that's it. I don't know if those details are present in the longer original, but the academic in me wants to scream at its absence in English.

Of course, early Taiwanese readers would probably already know who those people were, and reading the names of people who had probably been portrayed as wealthy community leaders and scions of industry being called thieving  compradore collaborators and oppressors must have felt like the surge of a new zeitgeist.

This makes me wonder - why was it cut down so much? Was the original so repetitive that you basically get the point from the abridged English edition, or do they think foreigners don't care and don't need the details? I'm not sure. It doesn't help that the English has several typos and at least one wrong fact (saying Magellan died in Manila, when in fact he died in Cebu) that I hope are corrected in a future edition.


This leads to the deepest problem of all: sometimes Su Beng's ideology gets in the way of good history. I'm sorry, you old hero, but it's true (and I think Su Beng as an older man who was more pink than red might actually have agreed).

Towards the beginning, though the theme also echoes later in the book, Su Beng characterizes the class struggle as indigenous Taiwanese and Hoklo (and Hakka) farmers and laborers as 'the oppressed', who struggled against consecutive foreign governments and wealthy local 'oppressors'. Without using these words explicitly, he implied strongly that these oppressed groups made common cause in fighting against their aristocratic and bourgeois oppressors.

And I'm sorry, Su Beng, I don't care how 'Marxist' or 'revolutionary' such a reading of history sounds. It's just not true. Hoklo farmers and laborers treated indigenous Taiwanese just as badly as the wealthy ruling classes and landlords. They were just as oppressive and, frankly, racist. What those wealthy oppressors said about indigenous people, laboring Hoklo bought and upheld. They weren't very kind to the Hakka either.

It does no favors to anyone to pretend that wasn't the case.

Later in the book, he goes so far as to say that wealthy Taiwanese 'compradore' families could not be considered 'Taiwanese', as they were in the pockets of the wealthy KMT diaspora. While the latter is true, the accusation of not being Taiwanese reeks of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy. If you decide that Taiwanese bad guys aren't Taiwanese, implying that all Taiwanese are noble-hearted and support a certain vision of Taiwanese identity, you take away the chance for Taiwan to reckon with the fact that as a nation and society, it has assholes just like everywhere else. And if you don't reckon with it, you can't do anything about it.

That's not to say that the book is a total failure. I appreciated that unlike Ong Iok-tek in Taiwan: A History of Agonies, Su Beng never uses derogatory language to describe indigenous people. Understanding the mid-life thinking of one of the greatest Taiwan independence activists is a worthwhile activity, and it does help one understand how Taiwanese identity has such a strong leftist/Marxist component (when you'd think those who support a free and independent Taiwan would be wary of anything that had even a whiff of Communism about it). The prefaces and postscripts are interesting as well.

In other words, do read it. But don't think you're reading it to "learn history" - anyone who has a general concept of Taiwanese history already isn't going to learn anything new from it, and in any case it's not so much a history as a very long op-ed. As a narrative of the past 400 years, it leaves a lot to be desired, and yet it was a powerful touchstone at the time - a piece of literature more than an academic work. As a cultural artifact, it's fascinating.

Read it so you can get a sense, even if it's hard to recapture in 2019, that sense of the first lamps of Taiwanese consciousness being lit. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Republic of Tayovan

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From Jerome Keating's book, The Mapping of Taiwan. p. 76-77.
I have seen (reprints of) maps that spell it as "Tayovan" but I don't have access to them right now. 

Let's say you have a beautiful island. It's so beautiful that some random Europeans sailing by one day named it "The Beautiful Island".

Let's say that since that time, your island has never quite been free of colonialism.

First, the Dutch came. They called your island Formosa, just as the Portuguese named it. They imported immigrants from China to work for them, who called it "Tai'ouan", a Hokkien rejiggering of the indigenous - Siraya - name for bit of land near present-day Tainan, which was established as the capital. This can also be written as 臺員, and I've seen it written as 代員. This is the foundation for the modern name "Taiwan". That name was "Tayovan", and it can be seen on maps from that era.

Taiwan has been known by a number of names. There's Tungning (東寧), Tungtu (東都), Taiwan, The Republic of Taiwan (also sometimes called the Republic of Formosa), Ryukyu, Takasago (高砂), Taiwan Prefecture, Taiwan Province, The Republic of China - not in that order. In all cases, Taiwan was treated as a colony: Koxinga, the Qing, the Japanese, the ROC. Every last one is a colonizing power, in that they came from a foreign land and claimed ownership of Taiwan, without the consent of the locals. It's not common to call the Qing or the ROC colonizers, at least not in English - some sort of deference to ethnic chauvinism there maybe - but they most certainly are.

Now, there is an ongoing social discussion of what to call Taiwan. Die-hard blues with roots in China cling to "the Republic of China", but nobody who is even nominally forward-thinking takes this idea seriously. One of the main points of this discussion is that Taiwan is not a part of China, and deserves its own name.

Taiwan? I know someone who refuses to use the word, and insists on being referred to as "Formosan", because "Taiwan" is a "Chinese" name and he is not Chinese. (Of course, the name is an indigenous borrowing, it's not originally Chinese...but, that's cool.) In any case, he's not wrong that China would love for everyone to call this island "Taiwan", as in "Taiwan, Province of China".

He is not young, but a lot of young politically-minded Taiwanese have also landed on "Formosa" as the ideal name for Taiwan. It seems like a nice choice - it was a name given by Portuguese explorers, and Portugal never colonized Taiwan. It's a compliment, a reminder that while Taiwanese cities are not particularly attractive, the island as a whole is very beautiful indeed.

But I'd like to make the case for "Tayovan" (or "Taivan", but "Tayovan" makes it clearer that this is a departure from "Taiwan"). The Republic of Tayovan. Has a nice ring to it, no?

First, although it was originally a name for only a small bit of land around Tainan, it was the basis for which "Taiwan" came to be.

Second, this idea is not unheard-of in Mandarin and Taiwanese language discourse. I searched and can't find any links, but I know I've heard it discussed. I don't hear anyone talking about it in English, though.

Next, it has indigenous roots. No colonization involved. No other name has that pedigree - the Portuguese never colonized Taiwan, but they did brutally colonize other parts of the world. They were not Taiwanese - it's still a name bestowed on this island by Europeans (just as 'Taiwan' was bestowed on this island by Chinese).

There are a number of indigenous tribes in Taiwan (don't let the 'officially recognized' number fool you), all with their unique history, language and culture. All might wish to be the group honored in the hypothetical choosing of a new name for the country in recognition of its first inhabitants. However, because this is the specific name that came to be used for the whole island, it makes the most sense. It also comes from a language that is no longer spoken natively, so it's harder to accuse the government of giving preferential treatment to a currently-used language.

Finally, wouldn't be a big change - just switch your pronunciation, a little adjustment to spelling, maybe change the characters - and honors a deeper history that is uniquely Taiwanese. The waves of colonizers - the Dutch, the Zhengs, the Qing, the Japanese, the ROC - cannot lay claim to this. It doesn't speak to their history, it speaks to the history of this island. It recalls an Austronesian history that is so often overlooked.

And, y'know, it just sounds super cool.

Somehow I doubt I'm going to convince the entire nation to get on board. But, if I'm ever allowed to cast a vote on this, count me in for Republic of Tayovan.

Come on guys - Tayovan!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The same "Mystic Orient/Confucian Values" nonsense that hurts Taiwan also hurts women

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You think they're going this way, but they're going that way.


Something struck me as I read this clickbait-reconfobulated piece on women's expectations of salary, both of themselves (as mothers) and their husbands.

What jumped out at me - assuming the piece got the numbers right - was this:

Taiwan’s female workers will not consider entering marriage if their prospective husbands earn less than NT$51,872 (US$1,730)


and

Asked about the reasonable monthly salary for “mothers,” if to be paid, female respondents expected an amount of NT$53,031 (US$1,769) on average, NT$3,042 (US$101.5) higher than the 2017 figure of monthly income released by the government's Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, standing at NT$49,989 (US$1,668), reported CNA.


Note the discrepancy: women have higher expectations of their own salaries than they do of a prospective husband's salary.


This is awesome: women setting goals for themselves that exceed what they expect men to provide for them. Not only that, women expect to earn a bit more, as mothers, than they expect the father (traditional role: provider) to earn. That's huge! This wasn't academic research (it was a survey by a jobs website) but it indicates a fertile area for research and discussion.

There is a quote by someone from the website that did the survey talking about how women think mothers deserve higher pay, but it's impossible to really parse it, as it's never clarified if any questions are asked about women's salary expectations for themselves independent of marital/childbearing considerations. In any case, it makes little sense that women would expect a salary boost from employers when having children doesn't make them better workers (though it doesn't make them worse, either.)


Yet not only did the article get it wrong - it's not reported whether the survey included a comparison question on what women expect to earn if they are not mothers - but the headline did too:


Taiwan's female workers expect prospective husbands to earn NT$51,872 at minimum: poll


Why focus on that (except other than to create clickbait) when the aforementioned comparison is far more interesting? Why focus on the same old tropes of what women expect of their husbands when the more fruitful discussion is centered on what women expect of themselves?

These problematic and harmful stereotypes about what 'Asian values' are and what they mean, even when stated in the spirit of trying to be 'respectful' of the spectrum of Asian cultures, not only hurt Taiwan but also hurt women.
 

I've written before about how Taiwan's struggle for recognition in a world that seems determined to ignore it mirrors what women deal with as they struggle for equality and recognition in a world that seems determined to focus on male achievement. I've also talked 
about how so many Western liberals get it so completely wrong when talking about "Asian values" or their version of what it means to be a moral or cultural relativist who "respects cultural differences" and how that impacts Taiwan. This is a country that is best understood not through the lens of what Westerners believe Asians think, but through the lens of universal values: freedom, democracy, equality, human rights and self-determination. 


It's the same regarding women in Taiwan. It's easy to conclude from chaff like this that in Asia, women's expectations and ideas are focused on traditional roles or relational notions of family, role and gender when the discussion is framed specifically to make you think that. In fact, a great deal of wordage is spilled trying to make exactly this point: it's traditional. It's their culture.

This is mirrored in the way discussions on issues like Taiwan's sovereignty are framed in such a way that they often make Westerners, whom you'd think would be supportive of Taiwan's pro-liberal democracy message, see things from a pro-China perspective. China aggressively pushes and benefits from this whole 'we're Asians, we think differently, it's our culture'  worldview. Just ignore those pesky Taiwanese creating all those tensions with their determination to keep their freedom. This is Asia, don't call it dictatorship - call it 'Asian-style governance'.

Let me give you a glimpse of what is lost when we flatten the discussion this way. 


Under Japanese rule, there was a brief period when Japan tolerated some freedom of expression in Taiwan. This was also a period when a small number of elite Taiwanese women studied in Japan or China, and were exposed to feminist discourse there. Granted, many of the ideas originated in the West, but crucially, they were being discussed by Asian women in Asian contexts. They disseminated to Taiwan not from the West directly but via intellectual centers in China and Japan - Asian women talking to other Asian women. While not autochthonous, it was not impossible to conceive of Western ideas of gender equality and individualism in Asian cultural frameworks, though most of this discourse was confined to elite/wealthy social classes. Anyone familiar with the May Fourth movement already knows this.

This was eventually quashed - first by the Japanese and then by the KMT - and didn't return until the 1970s, when Taiwanese pro-democracy and pro-independence activism also experienced a rebirth (emphasis mine) and reanimating burst of activist vigor (if you think Taiwanese identity and independence rhetoric originated in the 1970s, you are wrong on that count, too.) It really took flight - just as Taiwanese activism did - in the 1990s with the democratization of Taiwan, not as a gift from geneous KMT benefactors (don't make me laugh), but at the insistence of the Taiwanese people.

So, please, let's spare each other the embarrassment of a gamut of well-meaning Westerners who flatten Asia and think by doing so, they have understood it. Let's end the implication of such discourse: that Taiwanese (or any Asian culture) are incapable of grasping concepts of equality, individuality and freedom. Of course they are. They're not stupid.

And let's stop pretending that everything in Asia - from Taiwanese identity to women's equality - can be explained, sorted and filed away under outdated assumptions of what "Asians" think. Both in terms of women's roles and beliefs, and in terms of Taiwan.

Nothing is ever that simple.


(Historical source: Chang, D.  - Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Uncomfortable

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Window of the Wen-meng Municipal Brothel

Over the years, I like to think that my knowledge of Taiwanese current affairs and history have both deepened, and as a result some of my opinions have changed. At times, these are changes in my entire worldview. At other times, they are small updates to well-worn beliefs that turned out to have less basis in reality than I had thought.

One such change in belief has been over the "comfort women" issue, although perhaps my feelings have simply become more nuanced.

At first glance, the issue seems fairly cut-and-dried: Japanese-era "comfort women" (a euphemism for women forced into prostitution for Japanese military officers during World War II - in fact they were sex slaves) have received neither an apology for their treatment nor any form of real justice. Obviously, they deserve this, although there are only two known Taiwanese comfort women still alive.

Also at first glance, it would seem to be a good thing that there is a women's rights group in Taiwan pushing for compensation and recognition from the Japanese government for its exploitation of comfort women in Taiwan (link above), and that a museum detailing their history was opened in 2016.

It might even pass the sniff test to the casual observer that the KMT, and former president and creepy mannequin rescued from a department store fire Ma Ying-jiu in particular, sure have a lot to say about the importance of justice for Taiwanese comfort women. After all, they are one of two major parties, and the DPP doesn't seem terribly bothered about the lingering historical injustices of the Japanese era. Besides, the KMT - thinking they are the One True China - still sees Japan as a historical enemy in a way the more Taiwan-centric DPP does not. 

But then the questions start piling up.

Why is the KMT so bothered about Japanese-era comfort women, but doesn't seem to have much to say about ROC-era comfort women, despite a movie having been made about this very issue?

In fact, is there more to the story of the Wen Meng Municipal Brothel than my slim volumes on Taipei's historical buildings let on? (Cue my "sarcastic surprise wow" - of course there is. The twin books were published by the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs.) How many of these 'licensed sex workers' were slaves - not by the hand of the Japanese government, but instead the ROC?

In fact, back when the whole kerfuffle over former sex workers being told to vacate the premises despite its having been named a cultural heritage site took place in 2012, the KMT was in power both in Taipei and nationally. Although the courts are of course supposed to be independent of the elected government because that's how an independent judiciary is meant to work, I doubt there's nothing the city government could have done to ensure the preservation of the building (which is still standing as far as I know as the dispute rages on). Why didn't the KMT-run city government care enough to do something, if they care so much about comfort women?

And why is it that despite this museum having been open for a year, I've never seen it advertised locally, although there are three reviews on TripAdvisor? Why does this museum to comfort women exist, while its founders ignore the pleas of activists trying to save the Wen Meng Municipal Brothel?

Could it be - and I know I'm about to shock you - that the people banging pots and pans over justice for Taiwanese comfort women...don't actually care about comfort women at all?

I'm not the first person to make this case, though I can't find a comparable redux of the issue in English. It seems likely that the conclusion alluded to on The View from Taiwan is correct: the 'comfort women' issue was likely devised as a political cudgel to attack the more Japan-friendly DPP (the KMT, thinking they are the bearers of the One True China, seems to take their assumed obligation to hate Japan seriously) and to try and push Taiwanese voters into hating Japan as much as they seem to hate the Chinese government. Of course, to them it is right and correct that we should spend all of our energy hating a democratic ally, freeing up more headspace to stop worrying and love our Chinese overlords, the Chinese Nation Which Is Rightfully The ROC Including Taiwan its and 5,000 6,000 years of Chinese culture.

Okay, so, case closed, the comfort women thing is fake news, it's all a ruse, time to wash our hands and go home, right?

Well...

First, I was curious about the background of the group that pushed for the creation of the comfort women museum, the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (formerly the Taiwan Women's Rescue Association or 台灣婦女救援協會). It grew out of the Awakening Foundation, whose most prominent founders were Lee Yuan-chen and former DPP vice president Lu Xiu-lian (Annette Lu) - known for being a vocal feminist but also for saying all sorts of problematic things.

I could go into this more deeply, but it's well after midnight and frankly there's no need. I was mostly curious if the opening of the comfort women museum was yet another political cudgel, meant to sow division between Taiwan and Japan to serve the KMT's interests. Yet as far as I can tell, the TWRF grew out of an association that did not have ties to a specific party - Lee was born in China, yes, but I can't find anything on her political affiliation. Lu is, of course, one of the greenest of the old-school greens.

Although I should point out this passage in Doris Chang's Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, just as something to chew on:

Most of the Rescue Foundation's members were middle-class professionals from the ethnic Chinese majority. Like the Chinese gentry scholars of the traditional past, members of the Rescue Foundation perceived themselves as the moral-intellectual elite that should offer assistance to the less fortunate members of the society (p. 121). 

I don't know what to make of that vis-a-vis the comfort women issue, though my instincts tell me that the members of this society either come from 1949 diaspora backgrounds and therefore don't want to center the treatment of women by the government they came with (the ROC), or they are from upper-class stock with a longer Taiwanese history who just don't want to rock that boat, because it would seem too "political" to take up this kind of issue while it's still strongly in living memory. Japanese-era comfort women are a safer topic. 

Secondly, I can't just let it go at "this is a purposefully-designed KMT political wedge and you'd best ignore it" - as a woman who cares about justice issues for women...I just can't.

I can't help but think that as much as this issue is being flapped around like an limp puppet by the KMT - who don't actually care enough about the issue to add a little padding to their argument or do anything meaningful - that as a result of it being shambled around by one side, it is being purposely ignored by the other.

A case could reasonably made that Taiwan needs all the allies it can get - even perhaps historically problematic ones like Japan - and as such, that pursuing the comfort women issue is far from the highest priority. It is also notable that even when Japan has "apologized" for its treatment of comfort women, that the agreements are more for the political gain of certain groups or parties and are not really for the comfort women themselves: those who survive often remain dissatisfied. It could be argued that an issue being used for political gain by one side ought not to be touched by the other.

I agree with all of that, and yet...

It feels once again as though women are getting screwed.

One side is using a women's issue for their own gain and doesn't seem to care much at all about the actual women involved, and the other side wants nothing to do with any of it, and will prioritize other matters over justice for less than a handful of extremely elderly women.

It stings because "other matters" always get prioritized over women. We always get told our issues are not the most important ones, if they are acknowledged to be issues at all. Both the Japanese-era and ROC-era comfort women get cheated.

The KMT - the closest thing Taiwan has to a 'conservative' party although the label doesn't fit perfectly - can't be expected to do much better. After all, they are who they are. The DPP - the closest thing we have to a liberal party and yet it's not really despite having "progressive" in their name - is failing us just like every other liberal group seems to. We're important, sure, but never quite important enough. There's always something more pressing. Someone else always needs justice first.

So yes, Ma Ying-jiu is once again being a douche by using an issue neither he nor his party actually cares about to advance some other political agenda. But by then pretending as though the issue is therefore unimportant, the other side is failing women as well. A tool used by one side, ignored by the other. 

As it always has been and as it feels like it always will be. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I have a crush on Indiana Jones's mom



My first sighting of Taiwan was years before I actually moved here.

I was 19 years old, on my way to a study abroad program in India, and our plane from Los Angeles had a brief scheduled stop at Taoyuan Airport. As we cruised in, I saw rugged green mountain peaks jutting out from swirling white clouds and mist.

It was lovely, like coming across slabs of rough green and white quartz while hiking, but more vivid. Yet it was my first glimpse of Asia and second time to travel to another continent; it intrigued me.

Even Taoyuan Airport was of more interest then than it is now: a glass wall installation of Chinese calligraphy, a few shops, a new smell - my first whiff of the many scents of Asia which, while all different, are all entirely unlike those of North America. Perhaps now I find all this somewhat unimpressive - after all, who is impressed by Taoyuan International Airport? - but at the time I was taken.

One of my fellow India-bound students commented: oh, hey, we're in the Republic of China, cool! 

Cool!

I knew that the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China were different entities, but I did not fully grasp all I did not know. I did, I admit, think of Taiwan as the place where Chinese culture had been "saved and preserved". Worry not, I grew out of that absurd notion. I thought to myself that, although this time we would not leave the airport, I would very much like to explore the Republic of China someday. The thought was, to quote my nascent inamorata, inchoate. But it was there.

I didn't go immediately - we stopped in Kuala Lumpur and explored the city for the day, went on to Chennai, then Mahabalipuram, then Madurai, India, where my entire worldview was turned on its head. I returned to the US and finished my degree, fighting what I thought might have been a touch of depression but was actually a compound case of senioritis and the travel bug. I went to China - the People's Republic of China, the other one - traveled around Southeast Asia, returned to India, then the US, then worked a stultifying office job for a few years.

And then, it was time. The opportunity was there in that I finally had the freedom and savings to explore this Republic of China, and I was fast realizing that what I thought was a temporary, curable travel bug was actually a chronic illness whose only cure was to leave and basically not come back.

Only then did I realize I wasn't going to the Republic of China at all; I was moving to Taiwan, or perhaps Formosa. But this was no China. 

I am now an English teacher by profession, but I like to think (pretend?) that I am also much more than that.  

* * *

Why am I telling you this? 

Because almost exactly 100 years ago, the object of my affection boarded a boat in Manila bound for Nagasaki, passed Taiwan and noted how beautiful the cliffs plunging into the sea appeared:

Formosa, that little-known island in the typhoon-infested South China Sea, so well called by its early Portuguese discoverers - as its name implies - "the beautiful". Indeed, it was the beauty of Formosa that first attracted me....I shall never forget the first glimpse that I caught of the island as I passed it...there it lay, in the light of the tropical sunrise, glowing and shimmering like a great emerald, with an apparent vividness of green that I had never seen before, even in the tropics. During the greater part of the day it remained in sight, apparently floating slowly past - an emerald on a turquoise bed....

My desire to learn at first-hand something of the aborigines of Formosa remained, therefore, more or less an inchoate inclination on my part, and I turned my attention to other things. Then, curiously enough, as coincidences always seem curious when they affect themselves, a few months later...came an offer from a Japanese official to go to Formosa as a teacher of English in the Japanese Government School in Taihoku [ed: present-day Taipei], the capital of the island. 

Girl, I already want you.

You floated by, I floated over, but we both had the same thought - there is a reason why they call this the Beautiful Island, and I would like to explore it. We both set that thought aside for years, and then, for both of us, the right circumstances presented themselves. 

You even came as an English teacher, but you were so much more than that. 

Let this be a lesson to those who would disparage all English teachers as losers, wash-ups, backpackers and weirdos: the single most awesome foreign woman to ever alight in Taiwan and write the classic but oft-forgotten Among the Head-Hunters of Formosa, merely because she was inclined to do so and found the place beautiful as she passed by once, was also an English teacher.

You were not wealthy (in fact, it appears you often published for general interest of of necessity, which may have affected your reputation enough to keep you from publishing in more scholarly circles). You were absolutely a wanderer, absolutely fearless, and absolutely unapologetic. 

Brendan pointed out that you were the mother of William Montgomery McGovern, the possible inspiration for Indiana Jones. Although he did what a lot of adventurous male scholars were able to do at that time, whereas you bucked all sorts of expectations of women, let alone female scholars, and wrote a classic book on Taiwan, he has a Wikipedia bio, but you do not (guuuurl, I am gonna fix that for you, because you are my person.) 

I am not concerned with your son, nor am I concerned with Indiana Jones. It's easy to have a crush on Indiana Jones. I have a crush on his mother who, by dint of what she did despite the sexist time and society in which she was born, was so much more of a bad-ass. 

I can only lament that we were born a century apart. And that I like men, but that hardly matters: I'll make an exception for you, my star-cross'd love. If you weren't dead, that is. 

I am not going to recount the entire book for those of you reading this. It is available online, on Amazon, and can occasionally be found in Taipei (try The Taiwan Store). You will learn quite a bit about the indigenous people of Formosa: for a time, it is likely that nobody in the world knew more about them than Janet B. Montgomery McGovern. I especially enjoyed the marriage customs wherein a lovelorn "swain" (and yes, I adore the old-timey English usages) would play a small mouth harp or create a twenty-bundle monument of firewood for a woman's cooking pot in order to win her hand - and that she still had absolute right of acceptance or refusal.

Brendan and I decided to get married by basically saying to each other:
"We should get married, yeah?"
"Sure, that sounds cool."


So, this was nice. 

But why am I so enamored with Janet McGovern?

She came to Taiwan as a single woman in a time when that was fairly rare - and when it was done, it was usually by missionaries. I love that she had no interest in being a missionary. She never seems to have become fluent in any one Formosan language, but picked up some of many different, rare tongues: more than wealthier expats with more resources today often manage to do for just one language, which is far more well-known, with more learning resources created for it, yet isn't even the native tongue of this country. 

She trusted head-hunters that full-grown men, both foreign and local, were terrified of, and was in turn offered trust, kindness and hospitality. She had such a no-nonsense, take-neither-shit-nor-prisoners writing style (I like to think I also have that style, updated for a new century?) that you could see, emanating off the page like waves of hot steam, that she was also a take-neither-shit-nor-prisoners woman. She totally DGAF before it was cool for women to NGAF. 

Homegirl even said this to a Japanese official, in 1917: 

I explained that obviously I was not a Japanese, also that I was not at all certain that I was a lady, and that if the distinction between coolie-woman and lady lay in the fact that one walked and the other did not, I much preferred being classed in the former category. 

...Suddenly the light of a great idea seemed to dawn upon him. "Ah," he exclaimed exultantly..."but they will say you are immoral, and Christian ladies do not like to be thought immoral."

This struck me as being amusing - for several reasons.
"Yes," I said, "and who is likely to think me immoral?"
"Oh, everybody," he answered impressively. "And they will publish it in the papers - all the Japanese papers in the city, and in the island," he emphasized, "that you are immoral."

...."I am afraid I must continue to go on my wicked way without the protection of your companionship," I said; "and if 'they' - whoever 'they'  may be - annoy you with questions as to the object of my excursions into the mountains....tell them 'Yes' to anything they ask about me," I said, "if that will set their minds at rest."

GIRL. 

All I can say is this: Among the Head-Hunters of Formosa is an interesting book for its time-capsule like quality of describing Taiwan as it was in 1917, and is interesting for what one learns about the indigenous of Formosa, from a qualified anthropologist, although I would imagine much of the information is out-of-date.

But, I am a woman who once saw the beauty of Taiwan in passing and was inspired by that alone to make it my home, who DGAF or at least tries not to. I have some private but very few public role models of highly competent, fierce women  of knowledge and training - remember, I am trained at the graduate level in Education, though I do not claim the same level of ferocity that Ms. McGovern clearly possessed - who have called Taiwan home among a sea of Western men, some exceptional but most mediocre. I loved this book, then, for reasons entirely separate from its ethnographic riches.

I also love it because I'm not alone. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern walked this path a century ago, and although she ended up at a different destination, so many of her landmarks are familiar to me even now. I have a deep sense of sympathy, although the experience does not mirror mine, of being the woman who should have run the whole show and had movies made starring characters inspired by her, only for that prize to go to her son.

My inamorata is not perfect. She consistently refers to non-aboriginal cultures as "more civilized", although she points out later in the book that the indigenous people she visited themselves viewed other cultures who don't keep promises as 'savages' and themselves as the farthest thing from. I won't excuse this by pointing out that it was a common line of thinking a hundred years ago. I will simply apologize as I like to think she would apologize now, were she still alive. Formosa may still be "little-known", almost as much now as then, but things have changed.

McGovern herself seems to grasp this toward the end, where she questions whether the "civilized" world would be better off, or how different it would be, if they followed the moral and social mores of the people she routinely refers to as "savages", and opines that, at least, it might not be worse: you might lose your head, but your community would provide for you, and everyone would say what they meant and keep their word. She also considers the idea of a matrilocal, matri-potestal "gynocracy" and what an evolution within such a system might have meant for Europe - in this part, you can see a glimmer of first-wave feminism shining through, and I love it.

Perhaps she goes too far in the other direction, making indigenous communities out to be more perfect - more "simple" in their "primitive" ways - than I think any society can actually be, but at least she considers it, which is more than I suspect many of her white male contemporaries were ever able to wrap their minds around.

And I have to admit, as I have said above, I have a bit of a crush on her, and this is my paean - no, my love letter.