On Feb. 26, the assembly hall of New York’s Taiwan Center was packed with an audience of about 300 people gathered to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 2-28 Massacre, proof that the local chapters of the Taiwanese American Association remain vital assembly points for the Taiwanese Diaspora.
In the past 70 years, the Taiwanese diaspora in the United States has been instrumental in preserving and furthering the collective memory of the February 28 Incident (known as “2-28”). During the 38 years of martial law that followed, talk of the incident and the island-wide massacre that it triggered was verboten in Taiwan. Taiwanese families who dared discuss the whereabouts of loved ones last seen being bundled into the back of a military police van after Feb. 28, 1947, did so only in quiet voices, in the privacy of their own homes — a privacy that was constantly under threat from plainclothes military policemen and their network of informants.
Fearing for their lives and the lives of their relatives, many Taiwanese activists, intellectuals and professionals fled to the United States in the early 1950s. High school students and college graduates followed to pursue degrees. On university campuses throughout the U.S., many learned about 2-28 and became politically active for the first time. In cities across the U.S., local chapters of the Taiwanese American Association (TAA) sprang up, providing venues for Taiwanese immigrants to pursue shared political and cultural agendas and find solidarity in homesickness.
The New York chapter of the TAA grew out of an older organization, the East Coast Formosan Club, which was established in the 1960s by Taiwanese graduate students living in New York. In 1986, the Taiwanese American Association of New York moved into new premises in Flushing, Queens — New York’s second Chinatown, which was then known as “Little Taipei” or “Little Taiwan” in contrast to the Cantonese-dominated community in Lower Manhattan. The TAANY has been based at the Taiwan Center in Flushing ever since. According to its website, the purpose of the group is to further the welfare of Taiwanese Americans, promote the cultural and ethnic heritage of Taiwan, and encourage cultural exchange between Taiwan and the U.S.
On Feb. 26, 2017, the assembly hall of New York’s Taiwan Center was packed with an audience of around 300 people, mostly older, dressed smartly in dark suits and dresses. They were there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of 2-28 at a memorial concert organized by the TAANY, including musical performances by the group’s choir and presentations by two guest speakers. True to its surroundings in polyglot New York, the memorial was conducted in a mixture of Taiwanese, Mandarin and English. Bouquets of fresh flowers — white lilies and pink daisies, traditional for mourning in Taiwan — lined the stage.
The first guest speaker was Jonathan Benda, an associate teaching professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston. Before taking up his post at Northeastern, Benda lived and worked in Taiwan for 16 years, teaching at Tunghai University in Taichung. In his talk, titled “Taiwan’s White Terror Through The Eyes of Two Cold War American Writers,” Benda described the fascinating afterlives of two books by Americans about Taiwan: A Pail of Oysters by Vern Sneider and Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr. During the martial law period, both books were banned in Taiwan and suppressed for political reasons in the U.S. Drawing on his own archival research into Kerr and Sneider, Benda told the compelling story of how these two under-appreciated books were repurposed by Taiwanese expat readers and eventually played a role in Taiwan’s democratization.
George Kerr began writing Formosa Betrayed upon his return to the U.S. in 1947, after witnessing the deadly fallout from 2-28 while acting as the vice-consul at the U.S. embassy in Taipei. In the book, he documented the atrocities of the KMT and criticized the indifference of the American government. Kerr completed the manuscript in the early 1950s, but the U.S. State Department blocked its publication on account of Kerr’s critical treatment of Chiang Kai-shek’s administration, which the American government was still supporting. When it was eventually published in 1965, Benda explained, Kerr’s book was attacked as pro-Communist by the faction of the US government known as the “China Lobby.”
In what Benda described as an “interesting twist,” however, the book was quickly taken up by Taiwanese expats in the U.S., who became “an important, but not necessarily intended audience” for Kerr. For many young Taiwanese, especially, Formosa Betrayed was a revelation: a window onto a still-fresh historical wound, but one that their parents could simply not afford to discuss with them. Those readers who had suffered under martial law felt that Kerr had become their voice.
As an example, Benda showed images of two advertisements commemorating 2-28, posted in the Kansas State University newspaper in 1966 and 1967. The first ad quoted from Formosa Betrayed while the second used an image that echoed the cover of Kerr’s book: a map of Taiwan pierced by a dagger. Fearing reprisals from pro-Kuomintang (KMT) student groups or undercover agents, the sponsors of the ads chose to remain anonymous, referring to themselves only as “a group of Formosans at KSU.”
Benda went on to explain that the most meaningful twist in the fate of Formosa Betrayed came in 1973, with the publication of the first Chinese translation of the book, not in Taiwan — which was still under martial law — but in the U.S. and Japan. In his preface, translator Chen Rong-cheng called for strength in the struggle for independence and sovereignty, and asked, “if we do not help ourselves, who will save us?” (人不先自救，誰會救我？) With that, said Benda, the book was given new life as a “call to action and awareness.” Seven years later, in 1991, the Chinese-language translation of Formosa Betrayed was published in Taiwan for the first time.
While Kerr was writing Formosa Betrayed, Vern Sneider was at work on his second novel, A Pail of Oysters. Published in 1953, the novel tells the tragic story of three young Taiwanese people who become involved with an American journalist during the White Terror period. After spending the summer of 1952 in Taiwan and having obtained firsthand accounts of life on the island after 2-28, one of Sneider’s aims was to counter the US government’s politically expedient image of Taiwan as “Free China.”
The novel garnered praise from literary critics in the U.S., but its politics were anathema to a government in the throes of McCarthyism. Benda explained that like Kerr, Sneider was subjected to a vicious political smear campaign by the savagely anti-Communist China Lobby. In 1960, Sneider ruefully remarked that the only impact his work had made on Asia was a bar in Okinawa named after his first novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon.
A Pail of Oysters was considered subversive enough that, according to some reports, pro-KMT students in the U.S. stole it from libraries. It slipped into obscurity until 2003, when Mandarin and Hokkien translations of the novel were published in Taiwan. Then, last year, Benda was asked to write the introduction for a new edition of the English original. Published by Camphor Press on February 28, 2016 — the 69th anniversary of 2-28 — the book’s tagline describes it as “The explosive novel of Taiwan under the White Terror.” “Formosa Betrayed,” Benda said, “makes people angry,” while Sneider’s novel “makes people angry and also makes them cry.”
Benda concluded by suggesting that Shawna Yang Ryan’s 2016 novel Green Island can be read as a response to Chen Rong-cheng’s exhortation to self-actualization in his 1973 preface to Formosa Betrayed. While in the 1950s Taiwan was championed by two white male writers with military or diplomatic experience in East Asia, in 2016 it was given voice by a Taiwanese American woman author whose work has equal relevance and appeal to readers in Taipei and New York. Benda’s mention of Green Island elicited mumbles of approving recognition among the audience at the Taiwan Center.
The second speaker was Shirley Lin, a chaplain at Huntingdon Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. Lin was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. after completing first grade. In 2009, she was ordained in the Reformed Church of America.
In her speech, titled “The Revelation and Future Direction Given To Us By 2-28,” Lin recalled how in eighth grade, her parents took her out of school in Pittsburgh to travel to Washington, D.C. to attend a demonstration for Taiwanese democracy. Lin knew that it must be important, since “Asian kids never skip school.” Lin told the audience that her experience that day — as well as being automatically labeled “Chinese” in the U.S. — helped her understand what it’s like “to fight for your identity.”
“I’m standing here in front of you all today because my parents didn’t want me to forget,” Lin said. At the end of her moving speech, Lin urged those in the audience who suffered during the White Terror to share their stories with the next generation of Taiwanese Americans. “If you can do anything today in commemoration, tell your family and friends a bedtime story about how your people have suffered but have triumphed.” For her, the victory of Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party last year represents nothing less than freedom: “it’s what you’ve been fighting for all these years,” she told the audience, “and it has happened.”
On my walk back to the subway through bustling, multicultural Flushing, it struck me that in 2016, a curious reversal took place in two governments that have been inextricably linked in the postwar period. While Taiwan elected a government for whom remembering atrocities wrought by authoritarianism is a priority, at least on paper, the U.S. elected a leader with authoritarian impulses, little interest in history and scant compassion for the weak and powerless. For those Taiwanese Americans who immigrated to the U.S. for the sake of freedom, these are surely unnerving times. In the United States in 2017, the extended civics lesson that is Taiwanese history is no longer simply interesting: it is instructive.
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