There are literally hundreds of street fairs in New York City. But of them all, only one stands out for me.
Every third Sunday of May for over a decade held in Union Square, there is a great event whose goal is to create exposure and to increase mainstream awareness for a territory in Asia that has long been maligned with confusion and suppressed of its independence for many decades by the People’s Republic of China.
This event is called Passport to Taiwan, and it is a joyous outdoor festival replete with the brightest bands and entertainers from Taiwan performing onstage, with long lines of hungry pedestrians anxiously waiting on busy stalls of culinary chefs cooking the most delicious street food indigenous to the various regions of the country.
The olfactory smells and native sounds in the background truly amalgamate into a euphonious concoction of the senses. While the temperate late May breeze feels refreshing on the skin, and provides a cooling respite to the midday sun.
On a more sobering note, this annual celebrated occasion serves as a reminder to us all of the sad plight of Taiwan throughout its convoluted political history throughout the 20th Century to the present.
However for most New Yorkers like me, this festival represents the tremendous resilience of its people, and an unwavering and incessant demonstrative pride that Taiwanese Americans continue to harbor for their motherland which are manifest through an ongoing proactive fight and continuous strides toward recognition of independence.
Recent News in Taiwan
There has been jubilant news in Taiwan recently, as on May 24 the High Court has struck down the rule that marriage be strictly defined only between men and women. Hence, the LBGTQ Taiwan community have won an inspiring victory, as Taiwan has become the first nation in Asia to legalize gay marriage.
This should come as no surprise, as Taiwan has been the forerunner in Asia for the past 20+ years on a number of progressive fronts. The following is only to name a few.
Taiwan holds a progressive political agenda and is a small nation with a BIG impact on the world:
1) Taiwan is the 10th largest trading partner of the United States
2) Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to legalize gay marriage in 2017.
3) Currently 38% of Taiwan’s legislators are women
4) Taiwan has among the best National Healthcare systems in the world for providing access
5) Taiwan has one of the highest recycling rates in the world with 55% (United States is 35%)
6) Taiwan’s First direct presidential election was held in 1996
7) Taiwan’s first woman president Tsai Ing-Wen was elected in 2016
8) Taiwan boasts the largest LGBT Parade in Asia
Yet for all of Taiwan’s enormous contributions to the world and the great pride of their people, their insensible relegation by the People’s Republic of China since the end of World War II and the lack of recognition of their independent sovereignty from China and from most of the rest of the world has caused a tremendous indignity to their people.
According to Wikipedia, 22 countries or entities currently have full diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Today, Taiwan is still not recognized by the United Nations Council as an independent sovereignty, although Taiwan has had its own independent government, their own currency, their own military, and has had direct presidential elections since 1996.
A Brief History of Taiwan since the Late 19th Century
Since the end of the 19th century, the history of Taiwan has been a convoluted one mired in political controversy.
The Japanese governed Taiwan from 1895-1945 when Taiwan was ceded to Japan from China in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This treaty was the end result of China being defeated by Japan during the First Sino-Japanese War from 1894-1895.
Taiwan would remain a colony of Japan until 1945. As a result, most of the older generation native Taiwanese who were born during this period continue to speak Japanese in their households as a first language.
Here is a Brief History of Taiwan from 1945 to 1987:
The Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist Chinese Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek, was defeated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in an internal powerful struggle within China called the Chinese Civil War, and subsequently were forced to leave China.
This allowed the Communist Party of China to declare the establishment of a new Chinese state: the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Republic of China (ROC) which is the governing structure created by the KMT remained.
While the civil war was going on in China, the Allied forces led by the United States, defeated the Japanese in World War II, who subsequently upon surrender had to give up their claim of Taiwan to the Allied Forces. Between the Japanese surrender of Taiwan in 1945 and April 1946, the Republic of China forces repatriated 90% of the Japanese living in Taiwan to Japan.
As a result of these concomitant historical events, the Allied forces who supported Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Chinese Party or “Free China” gave permission for the KMT to temporarily occupy Taiwan.
Thus the CCP became the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and ruler Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese Party now transplanted to Taiwan (and retaining its ROC governing structure) both co-existed as two independent governing autocracies.
Although sanctioned by the Allied Forces after World War II as a “temporary retreat”, Taiwan eventually became the permanent home of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese Party (KMT) as a result of his autocratic rule.
The 228 Incident remains a defining event in the political divide that exists in Taiwan today. On February 28, 1947, there were large-scale protests by the native Taiwanese against the corruption and repression of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government, which was precipitated by the arrest of a cigarette vendor in Taipei.
Following the protests, Chiang’s government secretly sent troops from mainland China who rounded up and executed an entire generation of leading figures, including students, lawyers, and doctors. Up to 28,000 people lost their lives in the turmoil.
By the end of 1949 when Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had defeated the KMT, Chiang Kai-Shek and the remainder of the KMT fled to the island of Taiwan.
Upon transplanting his Nationalist Chinese Party and its governing structure the ROC to Taiwan in 1949, ruler Chiang Ki-Shek would impose a strict Martial Law that would last until 1987.
Under martial law the KMT ruled Taiwan with the stated goal of being vigilant against Communist infiltration and preparing to retake mainland China. Therefore, any political dissent was not tolerated.
After the Martial Law was placed into effect, many Taiwanese became victims of the political repression known as the White Terror. From 1947 to 1987, tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned and at least 1,000 were executed, most in the early 1950s, after being accused of spying for Communist China.
During the period from the 1960’s through the late 1980’s, Taiwan families often became divided as family members - usually the best students from Taiwan universities who were offered full scholarships and internships abroad – immigrated to the United States. These native Taiwanese seized the opportunity to leave Taiwan to better their lives.
As a result, the number of native Taiwanese students in the United States began to reach a critical mass by the late 1960’s, and this lead to small eruptions of dissent. Many such students who immigrated to the United States receiving such special visas and scholarships to universities formed special Pro-Taiwan student groups that were later spied upon by KMT informants planted at these universities.
One such group formed at Kansas State University at Manhattan, Kansas, the site of a successful struggle which formed a group from which many of the participants later would go on to become the founding force of the United Formosans for Independence.
Here is an excerpt written from an article by Linda Arrigo, a well-known and respected activist and academic on the migration of Taiwanese to America from the 1960’s-2000, explaining how one male student named N.H. who left Taiwan in the 1960’s to pursue graduate studies at Kansas State University in the U.S. became separated forever from his wife and family:
“N.H.”, born in 1933 in Nandze District of Kaohsiung City, became an abandoned child wandering the countryside for three years after his father, who fled China in 1912 (defeated Manchu supporters) and was registered as “Chinese”, was interred by the Japanese authorities during World War II. N.H. witnessed executions in Kaohsiung during 2-2-8. Despite the gaps in his education and inability to speak Mandarin Chinese, he was able to graduate from National Taiwan University in political science in 1959. His knack for taking tests brought him good positions in the post office and the customs service, but his experience as a native Taiwanese in the mainlander-dominated bureaucracy left him with deep resentment of the KMT’s discrimination and political control. He went to the United States in fall 1965, choosing Kansas State because it provided full scholarship and support.
N.H. arrived just in time to take up the task of demanding university recognition for the Formosan Student Association; the administration would provide subsidies for only one foreign student group from each country. After a formal hearing by the administration, the Chinese Student Association was displaced in favor of the Formosans, a cause for great celebration. In the winter of 1966, N.H. participated in the founding meeting of the United Formosans for Independence, in Philadelphia. The Taiwan authorities retaliated by revoking N.H.’s passport, and two years after arriving he was stateless and blacklisted, and unable to bring his wife from Taiwan, resulting in divorce some years later”.
Nearly 32,000 students had gone to study in North America by the end of 1974, yet less than 10% returned to Taiwan after completion of study. About 90% of National Taiwan University graduates in engineering fields went to the U.S., the vast majority with financial aid in the form of scholarships and research assistantships.
This is no surprise, as the cost of U.S. tuition was highly prohibitive. For a hard-working student from some country village, even an airplane ticket (US$400) was an enormous challenge barely met through pooling family and community resources.
Unfortunately, the majority of these tens of thousands students were later blacklisted by the KMT and thus never allowed to return back to Taiwan due to their political ideology.
Meanwhile, their wives, children, and relatives often were forced to remain in Taiwan. Sadly, far too many times these families were never able to reunite.
Taiwan: The Turbulent Period from 1970’s through the late 1980’s
Until the early 1970s, the Republic of China (ROC) was recognized as the sole legitimate government of China by the United Nations and most Western nations, refusing to recognize the People's Republic of China (PRC) on account of the Cold War.
However by the early 1970’s, Taiwan faced setbacks in the international sphere. In 1971, the ROC government walked out of the United Nations shortly before it recognized the PRC government in Beijing as the legitimate holder of China's seat in the United Nations.
The ROC had been offered dual representation, but Chiang Kai-shek demanded to retain a seat on the UN Security Council, which was not acceptable to the PRC. Chiang expressed his decision in his famous "the sky is not big enough for two suns" speech.
In October 1971, Resolution 2758 was passed by the UN General Assembly and "the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek" (and thus the ROC) were expelled from the UN and replaced as "China" by the PRC. In 1979, the United States switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
It was the late 1970s and early 1980s that represented a very turbulent time for the Taiwan-born as many of the people who had originally been oppressed and left behind by economic changes became members of Taiwan's new middle class.
Taiwan’s Move toward Democracy
With the death of Chiang Kai-shek in April 1975 at the age of 87, the new leadership of Taiwan succeeded the presidency to Yen Chia-Kan, who elected his son Chiang Ching-Kuo as the successor to the leadership of the KMT.
Formerly the head of the feared secret police, Chiang Ching-Kuo recognized gaining foreign support to securing the ROC's future security required reform. His administration saw a gradual loosening of political controls, and a transition towards democracy. As a result, opponents of the Nationalists were no longer forbidden to hold meetings or publish papers.
However, with the demise of the KMT single-party system and the democratization movement during the 1980's, the martial law was eventually lifted in 1987 and provisions were eventually rescinded in 1991.
Taiwan became quite a dangerous place during the years when martial law was first lifted. The lifting of Martial Law meant opposition political parties could be formed legally for the first time, giving Taiwan's fragmented but increasingly vocal opposition a new chance to organize.
Prior to this lifting of martial law, a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was illegally established in September 1986 and won 21.6 percent of the vote in the December legislative elections of that same year. However even after the law was lifted, tight restrictions on freedom of assembly, speech and the press remained in place, having been written into a National Security Law which had been passed a few days before the lifting of Martial Law.
As a result, violence ran amok between newly formed and established opposition political parties during the early years after the lifting of martial law.
The following excerpts below were taken from the Taiwan Communique No. 31:
“One example happened on June 12, 1987, when the DPP sponsored a rally in front of the Legislative Yuan to protest the National Security Law. The gathering drew more than 3,000 DPP-supporters. The police had set up a cordon around the building, but inside the cordon a small group — by most accounts some 100 persons — of counter-demonstrators of the right-wing extremist Anti-Communist Patriotic Front (APF) and People’s Patriotic Society (PPS) moved around freely”.
“At several times during the 14-hour standoff the right-wing provocateurs broke through the police lines, attacked the DPP-followers with wooden poles, and retreated again to safety behind the police lines. Immediately after the incident, the DPP became a target of a media smear campaign. The two major newspapers China Times and United Daily News — both owned by members of the Kuomintang Central Committee — and the government-controlled radio- and TV-stations carried strongly-biased reports and tried to portray the DPP supporters as violent demonstrators.”
“However, the more objective and neutral Independence Evening News and The Journalist, reported that the members of APF, who stationed themselves at the gate of the Legislative Yuan, initiated the violence by breaking through the police cordon and attacking DPP-supporters. The Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review also reported that “The violence began around noon that day when members of the rightist contingent broke through a police line separating the two groups, wielding broken-off flagpoles as clubs.” Such violent outburst became quite commonplace during the early years after martial law abolition”.
Although a transition toward a constitutional democracy was first put into place by the ROC in 1987, it would take 9 more turbulent years until 1996 before a full constitutional democracy eventually would be restored by the ROC with its first direct presidential election.
Looking to Taiwan’s Future
What I have discoursed here is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Hopefully one can now understand how Taiwan’s convoluted political history has affected both native Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans, causing so many to experience such deep feelings of indignity and isolation from the world, and a continued feeling of marginalization from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
To this day, both the native Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans although saddened by the past, have become emboldened through successive generations and have developed a feeling of great empowerment and sustainability for their cause.
The Sunflower Student Movement of April 2014 in the Legislative Yuan in Taipei is a testament to the fight of young Taiwanese for the cause. To this day, both Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans continue to fight for the recognition of Taiwan.
Passport to Taiwan in New York City’s Union Square salutes the Taiwanese American community’s inner strength and intestinal fortitude to these continual challenges. It provides us all a reminder of the strength of the human spirit.
Thank you for reading, and any of your comments regarding this article would be greatly appreciated. For further reading on this topic, go to http://www.taiwandc.org/hst-1624.htm.