Taiwan Journal, Part VI

Chong-Pin Lin


Tell you something funny about the garbage trucks in Taipei — something nice: Instead of going beep-beep-beep when they back up or stop, they sing out this very pleasant song. The song can get a little tiresome — maybe it changes by the week or something? — but it’s much better than the beep-beep-beep. Civilized.

Oh, and here are links to the previous parts of this journal, if you need them: I, II, III, IV, and V.

A woman asks the million-dollar question, or whatever we should call it: “Do you think America will help us if China commits aggression against us?” I find it hard to answer in the affirmative.

You may remember that, very early in his presidency, George W. Bush said, yes, America would come to Taiwan’s defense. This was a departure from America’s long-stated policy of “strategic ambiguity” (“Will we or won’t we?”).

Shortly after, I asked a national-security official, “Did the president simply make a slip, or did he mean to change U.S. policy?” The official fixed me with an amused look and said, “Only his hairdresser knows for sure.” (Old advertising slogan, as you may remember.)

Another woman — another Taiwanese woman — says, “After your experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think you’ll do anything, much . . .”

I pay a visit to the Jing-Mei Detention Center — the old prison, where opponents of Taiwan’s authoritarian regime were kept. Kept and brutalized. Sometimes executed. I’m told that at least 2,000 were executed. This was about 8 percent of all the political prisoners.

The prison is now a museum, remembering the dark past: the period of “the White Terror,” as it’s known.

You’ve been to one of these prisons — I’ve been to many — you’ve been to them all. Man’s inhumanity to man is amazingly unvarying. Dictatorial regimes do the same things to their opponents in country after country, all over the world.

Here at Jing-Mei, we see the shackles, we see the interrogation rooms, we see the cells — the whole nine yards. Everything has been preserved. There are old recording devices, for listening in on prisoners’ conversations. There are bed mats, paper-thin. There are objects sinister and banal — and even the banal ones, such as clocks, become sinister, somehow.

In lucky circumstances, relatives of prisoners could visit their loved ones. Sometimes they passed fruit with notes stuffed inside. Mothers told sons, wives told husbands, to stay calm, hang on — survive.

The details of this prison, like the details of such prisons everywhere, are hard to bear.

Jing-Mei once contained a future mayor of an important Taiwanese city, and a future vice president. I think of something George W. Bush said in his second inaugural address: “Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.”

I don’t think a country (or an individual) should dwell on past injustice. But sweeping under the rug is no good either. As far as I can tell, Taiwan has done a very good thing in creating this museum. I think of some words from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (once known as “the Negro National Anthem”):

“. . . Out from the gloomy past, / ’Til now we stand at last / Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

You want to hear something funny, especially after a report about a political prison? I find the Chinese thank-you — “Xie xie” — quite hard to say, accurately. Been practicing; not sure about progress.

Someone calls to me, “Bye-bye!” I call back, “Bye-bye, xie xie.” I then ask my young Taiwanese companion, “How was that? How was my pronunciation?” She says, “The ‘bye-bye’ was good.”