I was out for a late night snack at Yongchuan Beef Noodle 永川牛肉面, a famous shop located on the ground floor of an abandoned movie theater in Zhōnglì 中壢, when I noticed this faded photograph posted on a board out front. It is customary for politicians and celebrities to visit popular shops and have their photo taken (or sometimes sign walls or menu boards), so I have begun inspecting these boards for familiar faces. Wouldn’t you know it, but that’s Eric Chu 朱立倫, absentee mayor of New Taipei 新北 and presumptive KMT presidential candidate, pictured with the boss of the shop. Something about the decrepit state of the photograph brought me great amusement as I sat down for a hot and spicy bowl of dumpling soup.
One of the more imaginative interpretations of the unresolved political status of Taiwan is that it remains an American territory. The argument for this position is rather arcane, requiring one to ignore the last half century of history and focus almost entirely on the ambiguous minutiae of post-war agreements like the Treaty of San Francisco. Proponents of this idea suggest that American hegemony (whether in the form of statehood or some other arrangement) would inhibit China from annexing Taiwan as well as provide international recognition and representation for the Taiwanese people. Detractors are skeptical, to say the least, and the general consensus seems to be that it’s a fringe movement unlikely to gain mainstream traction in Taiwan or the United States.
A year ago the Taiwanese people stood up to their elected government and halted the passage of a controversial free trade agreement by occupying the Legislative Yuan. This act of mass civil disobedience was soon christened the Sunflower Student Movement. I was living in Taipei 台北 when it all went down and visited the protest on several nights to watch history unfold. I am not a professional photographer, political observer, nor journalist, so please excuse the poor technical quality of the images and lack of elaboration in this gallery. It is my hope that these pictures capture something of the spirit of those wild, uncertain nights when anything seemed possible.
It is election season in Taiwan—and it’s way crazier than I ever could have imagined, especially here in the middle part of the main island. Trucks and scooters are constantly doing the rounds, blasting out pre-recorded messages over tinny loudspeakers. Small armies of vested volunteers roam the streets, handing out pamphlets and drumming up support. Campaign offices have sprung up all over the place, proudly emblazoned with the flags and emblems of their candidates. And then there are the flags, billboards, banners, placards, adverts, and signs, displayed in such overwhelming numbers that I am continually dumbstruck wonder that so much human energy is being expended for such a prize.
Last night I went to Dapu Village in Zhúnán 竹南, the northernmost township in Miáolì 苗栗, for a concert and movie screening commemorating the treacherous demolition of four homes last year. The event took place on the former site of Chang Pharmacy, whose owner, Chang Sen-wen 張森文, was later found dead in a drainage ditch in an apparent suicide. This occurred not long after the government razed his home and business to the ground with all his possessions still inside. In a cruel twist of fate the Chang family was served a bill for demolition equalling the financial compensation offered by the government—leaving them with absolutely nothing. Eminent domain may serve the public interest in special circumstances—but this was outright robbery by the state.
The Dapu incident1, in brief: Miáolì 苗栗 magistrate Liu Zhenghong 劉政鴻 (pictured above, at left) ordered the expropriation of 156 hectares of land in Dapu Village in 2009, ostensibly to build a new campus of the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park 新竹科學工業園區. Only 28 hectares were to be used for the park itself—the rest of that land was intended for residential use. In other words, the government seized land from 9452 households primarily to construct hugely profitable residences next to their shiny new industrial development, an obvious case of profiteering referred to as zone expropriation. Put simply: people’s lives were torn apart to line the pockets of a bunch of greedy politicians and their construction industry cronies, all under the banner of “progress”.
The injustice visited upon the four holdouts spurned protests, violent confrontations with the police, and a massive outpouring of public sympathy all across Taiwan. While the protests were not enough to stop the government in Dapu (nor save Mr. Chang) they helped to plant the seeds of the Sunflower student movement that blossomed in March 2014 with the nearly monthlong occupation of the Legislative Yuan. In this respect the slogan “Today Dapu, tomorrow the government”「今天拆大埔，明天拆政府」 was remarkably prescient.
The mural in the photograph (above) was painted by Taiwanese artist Liu Tsung-jung 劉宗榮 on the bare wall where the Chang pharmacy used to stand. The figure on the left is Liu Zhenghong 劉政鴻, widely reviled as one of the most corrupt Taiwanese government officials and the arch-villain in the Dapu drama, with a shoe on his head—a reference to when future Sunflower student movement spokesperson Chen Wei-ting 陳為廷 struck Liu with a tossed shoe as he attempted to attend a memorial service for Mr. Chang. On the right you can see the extraordinarily unpopular President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 in his PRC finery, decked out with a fancy beaded headdress3 typically worn by gods and emperors in Chinese culture. The blood-red star overhead is the emblem of the ruling Kuomintang political party of which both are a part.
I am neither academic nor journalist so I can’t say too much more (better leave that to the real experts)… but I will say this: I am glad that the Taiwanese people haven risen up against injustice in Dapu and in other places around the nation… and I feel very privileged to have witnessed some of these actions during my time here.
- To catch up on the backstory I highly recommend a series of posts on Ketty Chen’s blog: here, here, here (immediately after the July 18th demolition), and here (the tragic, heart-wrenching outcome). ↩
- I sourced this number from a completely tone-deaf article in the China Post. ↩
- Possibly known a mianliu 冕旒. I say “possibly” because I’m no expert in this sort of thing. ↩