Sunday, December 21, 2008

The reluctant biographer

I was recently asked by the New Greater New York Region- Overseas Taiwanese Pen Club to speak about Su Beng and the work that I have been doing to write his biography.

I've decided that my talk will be about my experiences as Su Beng's biographer. And so this has made me think back to how I evolved into this role of being Su Beng's biographer. I am most certainly not a historian, professional academic or expert on Taiwan. And I certainly didn't set out to be a biographer. At first I resisted and then for a long time I didn't completely accept myself in this role.

For years, I've thought about someday taking a stab at writing- perhaps something fictional, in the historical fictional genre, a novel, perhaps something about Taiwan. When I heard about Su Beng there was something about his perseverance, determination, and idealism that gripped me. I had this feeling that it was a story that just had to be told. I saw seeds for a novel, and endless possibilities for the telling and retelling of this story, even adaptations of it in various forms. I had in all this mind when I approached him. Little did I know what I was in store for.

In the beginning I simply asked Su Beng if I could meet with him, if he'd give me a bit of his time to tell me his story. It started off as a series of interviews that I fit in around my teaching schedule. I'd been teaching English full-time in Taiwan for about three years when I took on this project. So I'd make trips up to Taipei from Kaohsiung on the weekends with my digital audio recorder and video camera in tow to talk to Su Beng about his life and adventures. As I started to dig into the details of this man's life, people close to me asked why I didn't just write his life story. I resisted, in fact I didn't even want to consider the idea. I just wanted to write something creative, inspiring and fictional. I didn't want to be known as a biographer. I didn't want to get sidetracked from my original plan to write a fictional novel and ideas for fictional adaptations.

But as time went on, I was clearly becoming increasingly absorbed in the details of this man's life. I blame it on my penchant for details and thoroughness. Finally, after about six months of talking to Su Beng, I realized that I was already well on my way to documenting this man's life, this man who is a living piece of history. So I surrendered and accepted the responsibility. I told Su Beng that I would like to write his biography in English and asked his permission to be his English biographer. He of course agreed.

But for a long time after wards, I felt uncomfortable calling myself a biographer since I didn't feel qualified to claim myself as an expert on any of this. I didn't completely embrace or claim this role. I am perhaps the most "unsuitable" or unlikely of people to take on such a project- an American born Taiwanese woman, who only speaks Taiwanese fluently enough for conversation, but not as fluently as a native speaker, someone was not an expert on Taiwan's or Asia's history. What does it mean to be someone's biographer? Su Beng and I don't exactly have a formal contract or agreement, but a mutual understanding and by now, a good working relationship.

It wasn't until I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, I realized what it takes to be a biographer- the commitment and responsibility.

So after starting to talk to Su Beng, I ended up in Taiwan three more years, meeting with Su Beng outside of my full-time teaching job. All the while, amassing hours upon hours of audio and video recorded interviews.

Another thing I resisted along the way were suggestions to establish some sort of a foundation for my project in order to do fund raising. The resistance was partly because I didn't want to deal with all of the logistics and in the beginning it didn't cost that much- just my travel expenses between Kaohsiung and Taipei, and the video recording equipment- i.e. lots and lots of miniDV tapes.

All of this research was piling up and I knew that I'd have to reckon with it eventually. In 2007 I decided that I would leave my teaching job in Taiwan. I had started to feel stagnant and unchallenged and I knew that I needed to take some time off to translate and organize everything I'd collected for the biography. Fortunately I'd managed to save something from my teaching job over the years, so I decided to take a year off to focus on the biography. It has been a tremendous challenge and at times an uphill battle. I think I am coming through the worst of it- which has been the translation and organization of data collected thus far.

When I loose focus and motivation, I look at what this man has accomplished in his life, his personal trials and tribulations, and enduring spirit, and somehow I'm able to press on.

Monday, July 21, 2008

How it all got started (Part II)

….continued from here

So after reading the Taipei Times article, I wondered about the author. As I sat in the living room of my parent’s Kaohsiung apartment, I turned to my Mom, who always seems to be in the know about people in Taiwan and Taiwan’s current events, and asked if she knew who he was. It turns out she did.

She told me that Su Beng had spent several years in China working with the Chinese Communists and had participated in the Long March*, that he voluntarily elected to have a vasectomy before the age of thirty in order to remain committed to the life of a revolutionary, and that he wrote the mammoth book, Taiwan's 400 Years of History.

I was intrigued.

There was something about Su Beng's life story that gripped me- there was an intrepidity, tenacity and idealism. For days and weeks, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I knew that I had to meet him. I had a feeling that this could be big; it could be epic; that there was a story here to tell and that this was the story I was meant to write about.

Now the exact details and sequence of events that followed are already kind of hazy in my memory.

One day I just asked my Mom if there was some way that she could put me in touch with Su Beng. I'm still not sure what made me think that I could do this, that I could just ring up Su Beng and expect him to agree to pour out all the details of his life.

At some point in all of this, my Mom must have mentioned that there was a relative who knew Su Beng and had kept in touch with him.

In the 80s Su Beng had come to Ottawa, and someone in the Taiwanese Canadian community had contacted my maternal grandfather asking if he knew this person (Su Beng) from Shih Lin. This was not long after Su Beng had written the Chinese language version of Taiwan's 400 Years of History. Though the encyclopedic volume was selling for around one hundred Canadian dollars (which quite a pretty penny in those days), my grandfather encouraged each his five grown children to purchase a copy of Su Beng's Chinese language version of "Taiwan's 400 Years of History" for their families.

All at once I had this unshakeable feeling that I HAD to pursue this story. Looking back on this, I had a certain naivety about what I was about to take on. On the other hand, I had also let my imagination run wild with ideas, which had only convinced me more that I had to do this.

It is amazing how fast things become a "fiction" if memory doesn’t serve you. This further reinforces in me why it is so important to document history in a timely, accurate fashion.

*It turns out that Su Beng did not participate in the Long March, as I’ve explained here:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Diaoyutai: secret passage to Taiwan

The Diaoyutai islands were not always such a hotbed of controversy, in fact, they were a sort of loophole.

After the Kuomintang authorities discovered Su Beng's involvement in a plan to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek, he fled from Taiwan to Japan. Taiwan was under strict martial law, so in order to get out of the country Su Beng stowed away, for several days, in a boat exporting bananas to Japan.

During the 40 years (from 1952-1993) that Su Beng was exiled in Japan, he managed to illegally enter Taiwan a few times via the Diaoyutai islands. How did he do it? With a bit of planning and the help of his underground "Taiwanese gangster" connections, he first traveled to Okinawa; making his way to the unclaimed Diaoyutai islands; there he got on a Taiwanese fishing boat going back to Taiwan. His earliest "trip" back to Taiwan was in 1967 and the last one, was in 1993.

Clearly, 40 years of exile in Japan didn't put a dent in his work for Taiwan's independence. In fact it was quite the contrary.

In those 40 years he was among the first to bring the authentic taste of Northern Chinese style fried noodles and dumplings to Japan. It was a huge success; in a just few years he went from running a humble food stall to purchasing a building which served as a noodle shop, personal residence and underground revolutionary training center. Activists from Taiwan were invited stay at the noodle shop where they were secretly trained by Su Beng. Su Beng had reestablished contact with underground activists in Taiwan, many of whom were probably associated with the Taiwan Independence Armed Corps. He had formed this group in 1950 after returning to Taiwan from China. The group stockpiled weapons and kept surveillance over Chiang Kai-shek; their ultimate goal was to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek. The noodle shop's earnings were funneled back into Taiwan to support the underground Taiwan independence movement.

Of course one of his greatest accomplishments during those 40 years of exile was the research and writing of Taiwan's 400 Years of History. Much of the research for the Japanese language version (which came first) was readily available in Japanese public libraries. But in order to get accurate facts, statistics and data for the Chinese language version, bribes were paid and documents were smuggled out of Taiwan to Japan. Even before Su Beng was able to publish the book, Kuomintang authorities tried to stop Su Beng by trying to buy the publishing rights from publishers of the book. Today Taiwan's 400 Years of History is still considered to be the one of most complete and accurate records of Taiwan's history and facts of its time.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Diaoyutai of Taiwan or Senkaku of Japan?

Recently, the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai islands (as they are known in Mandarin Chinese), aka Senkaku (as they are known in Japanese) have been in the headlines and at the center of controversy in Taiwan.

A few months ago I spoke to Su Beng about his opinions and involvement with the Diaoyutai issue. Back in 1971, Su Beng, along with the Association for Taiwan Independence, supported the idea that Diaoyutai should be considered a territory of Taiwan. They also protested the Okinawa Return Agreement between America and Japan, which would incorporate the islands as Japanese territory. Even before World War II, Taiwanese fishermen fished near the Diaoyutai islands and during the Japanese occupation period of Taiwan, the Diaoyutai islands were under the jurisdiction of Taipei Prefecture. Su Beng has said that the disputed Diaoyutai islands is an international issue that must be discussed and negotiated between all the countries that want to lay claim on the islands, which include Taiwan, Japan, China and Korea.

I came across this website, which has an excellent explanation of the history of the Daioyutai movement in Taiwan, what basis Taiwan has for claim on the islands and how China's claims fit into the picture:

So what caused the recent uproar over the Diaoyutai islands in Taiwan?

On June 11, a Taiwanese fishing boat collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel near the Diaoyutai islands. Since then, there has been a lot of finger pointing. The Kuomintang government has accused the Japanese vessel of intentionally sinking the Taiwanese fishing boat. On the flip side, the Japanese charge that the Taiwanese fishing boat illegally entered its waters. An initial report about this incident appeared here in the Taipei Times:

The Kuomintang government blew the situtation out of proportion; Premier Liu Chao-shiuan even said that he wouldn't rule out going to war over this:

For more on the recent Diaoyutai dispute read:

Friday, June 13, 2008

At Su Beng's on May 21, 2008

When I arrived at Su Beng's residence, his assistant, Bin Hong, told me that my uncle, Dr. Lai, would be stopping by a bit later to make a house call. I wasn't completely surprised, however, I do know that my uncle usually has a pretty busy schedule, so he must have made time to actually make this house call. And since his house call happened to coincide with my visit with Su Beng, it was really great timing.

Usually Su Beng and I talk in his living room, but on this day he was too weak to walk or stand for long, so I walked upstairs to the second floor of his apartment, which is where his study and bedroom are. When I did see him, he seemed a bit weak, but lucid. We met in his study in which there was his writing desk, book shelves, and a guest bed, which hasn't been used by a guest in quite some time. Every time I've seen this room the bare mattress on the bed has been strewn with piles of documents and books. This is the room where Su Beng does his writing.

He told me, as he has several times before, that he appreciated all of the personal time and effort that I've spent working on his biography. He showed me some documents that I'd requested of him. Then his assistant, Bin Hong and I talked about how she'd transfer these documents to me online, once I was back in New York. Our meeting was short, and nothing like our usual day long interviews which start at 10 am and end around 3 pm.

My uncle arrived with his classmate, who's also known Su Beng for years; his father knew Su Beng's father. Su Beng slowly made his way down the stairs to the living room with some assistance. Dr. Lai listened to Su Beng's vitals and tested his reflexes. They talked about his symptoms and how he's been feeling- sweats and chills, some weakness in his legs and pain and soreness in his neck and shoulders. Dr. Lai said that Su Beng appeared to be in good health, but recommended that he get a full physical exam at the Taiwan University medical center.

Su Beng returned to Taipei from a visit to look in on his noodle shop in Tokyo in late February. Since then, he has been going nonstop. In the lead up to Taiwan's presidential elections on March 22, he traveled around the island reaching out to undecided voters, especially those in remote areas outside of city centers, just to get a sense of where they were coming from. I wrote about his views on Taiwan's presidential election here. Bing Hong and Dr. Lai think that Su Beng has probably been overextending himself. Dr. Lai's classmate offered to recommend a good geriatrics doctor at the Taiwan University medical center for Su Beng.

Since I've returned to New York, Bin Hong has told me that Su Beng has been to the Taiwan University medical center, and that his condition seems to have improved.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Knowing Su Beng's condition, I thought I should do something thoughtful, so I went to a nearby fruit stand in the afternoon, a few hours before our late afternoon meeting. I started off picking out some Japanese pears, a beautiful pineapple, and then I remembered that Su Beng likes to eat little green mangoes, so I picked up a bunch of those and had everything all boxed up.

I had talked to my Mom about Su Beng's health condition earlier and she was extremely concerned- especially considering Su Beng's age- so she said she'd call up her cousin for some medical advice. It turns out that her cousin, my uncle, Dr. Lai, is not only a medical doctor, but also happens to be a long time supporter of Su Beng.

Over a family dinner a few weeks ago, my uncle told me that when he was living in Kansas in the 1980s, he met Su Beng. Around the time that the Chinese language version of Taiwan's 400 Years of History was published (in 1980), Su Beng began making annual trips in the summer to Europe, North America and South America . He made contacts within the overseas Taiwanese communities where he spoke about Taiwan's history and sold copies of Taiwan's 400 Years of History. My uncle recounted how impressed he was by Su Beng's thorough, methodical speaking style. According to my uncle, Su Beng was even more thorough than most university professors- the way he repeated and summarized the main points made his message easily understood and retained by his "students."

The Kuomintang had actually tried to pay off Su Beng for the publishing rights of Taiwan's 400 Years of History. Of course when the book was published, it was banned in Taiwan, but the book still managed to get circulated. It awakened the consciousness of a entire generation of Taiwanese who never knew about Taiwan's unique history and development. And Su Beng's underground network expanded internationally.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When I arrived at the Daan Park music stage on Tuesday for the rally to safeguard Taiwan's sovereignty, Su Beng's assistant, Bin Hong told me that he wasn't there. She told me that that morning he had felt too weak to even stand. I knew that it must have been something major- to keep Su Beng away. I also know that these past few weeks he has not been feeling well. He had a cold and has had a fever, chills, aches and pains. Bin Hong told me that he has even been on an IV for a few days.

I had planned to meet with Su Beng the following day (the 21st), but I wasn't sure if Su Beng would be up to it. Bin Hong insisted that we still meet, since it would be our last visit before I leave to return to New York.

More on that in a few days, as I am now frantically packing up the remaining remnants of six years of my life. This is phase two I suppose, of my move back to New York (which was initiated last summer).

In the meantime, you can more about the rally, in this Taipei Times article.

Though Su Beng was not at the rally, his presence was felt as these photos show:

The cover Su Beng's recent booklet "Taiwan Should Be Independent" - on one of the Taiwan Independence Action motorcade propaganda trucks

Taiwan Independence Action motorcade taxis were out in force

Bin Hong and her powerful voice- speaking over a megaphone to passersby

The rally ended at the National Taiwan Democracy Hall. I had to take a picture of this, since it will probably be "restored" to its former name, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Did you know?

There's going to be a rally on May 20th (the day of Taiwan's presidential inauguration) at 2:00pm in Taipei's Daan park in support of safeguarding Taiwan's sovereignty.

The rally is mainly organized by the Taiwan Association of University Professors along with several other pro-Taiwan independence groups. The rally will start at the Daan Park music stage at 2:00pm. For the first hour there will be some speakers, among them Su Beng. Then at 3:00pm people will walk to the Democracy Hall/CKS Memorial Hall. Of course, I will be there "armed" with my camcorder to capture things.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Su Beng on FM 97.3 Today 5-6pm

Su Beng was interviewed in Hoklo/Taiwanese on radio station FM 97.3 today from 5-6pm.

I've recorded the interview in two parts since there was a commercial break at the halfway point. The first recording begins with six minutes of the tail end of a previous program. Fast forward ahead six minutes to the first half of the interview with Su Beng, which you can listen to here: and listen to the second recording i.e. second half of the interview here:

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Translation issues

Translation is a huge issue that I have to deal with. My Hoklo/Taiwanese skills are sufficient for most conversational purposes, but during the interview process, my language skills are definitely put to the test. No matter how well I prepare for our interviews, unexpected things inevitably pop up- which is most definitely something that I welcome! At these times, I sometimes find myself in need of clarification or translation of what Su Beng has said; sometimes it is hard to react quickly enough in formulating follow up questions, and at times when I need to probe more for details, I find myself at a loss for words in trying to rephrase my questions.

Throughout this project I have almost always had someone who is a native Hoklo/Taiwanese speaker accompany me to my interviews with Su Beng. Lately, that has been my Mom. She has committed herself to being my personal translator during my interviews with Su Beng. I couldn't think of anyone better to help me with this since Su Beng speaks in his special mix of mainly Hoklo/Taiwanese, with a smattering of Mandarin Chinese and Japanese phrases. My mother has a very proficient understanding of Japanese, and of course, she is fluent in Hoklo/Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese. Also, the type of Hoklo/Taiwanese that Su Beng speaks is definitely better understood by someone of my mother's generation.

All of my interviews with Su Beng have been audio recorded. So the first step before even putting together the story of this man's life, is translating all the interviews. Anytime I get stuck with a translation question while going through this arduous process, I consult my special team of experts* for clarification or suggestions.

*My team of experts includes my parents who have been on the "front lines" with me throughout this project, and my aunt- who has been doing freelance Chinese-English translation for years.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Standby for Su Beng on Skype

Just got back yesterday from Taipei. I had another fruitful meeting with Su Beng last week. Before I even had a chance to ask him if we could schedule regular Skype meetings when I'm back in New York, he told me that anytime I need to talk to him, if I "saw him online" I could just feel free to Skype him. This basically means Skyping his assistant, Bin Hong, and so if he were available at the time, he said he'd come and talk to me online!

I've been trying my best to get all the details necessary to fill in the telling of this man's incredible life. I've asked him several times over, for clarification about certain key events in his life, and I am always impressed by his memory and consistency. In my quest for accuracy, I have found some incompleteness regarding the sequence of certain events in Su Beng's life. So what I need to do is understand how to connect everything together, and to add in the missing details. Su Beng definitely keeps me on my toes and corrects me if I've misunderstood the particulars of a certain situation. And sometimes, when I go back over our previous interviews, I realize that I had actually misunderstood or mistranslated what he said.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Making progress... and history

On Tuesday, Su Beng and I talked via Skype for the first time! With the help of his assistant Bin Hong (敏紅), he (in Sinjuang) spoke to me (in Kaohsiung). This is a crucial development- to be able to interview him via Skype. It actually worked surprisingly well since I think that Su Beng can actually hear me more clearly through the headset he wears to converse with me via Skype. During our live, in person interviews at his home in Sinjuang, I sometimes need to be reminded to "turn up the volume" since I'm a little too soft spoken.

With every interview I'm more and more excited about the details I'm able to "unearth" about Su Beng's life story. I am really beginning to see how I've earned Su Beng's trust.

Su Beng has been so generous with his time from the outset. When I first approached him about four years ago, I simply asked if I could talk to him about his life experiences as inspiration for a possible novel. He agreed, simply saying, "Yes, this is to further things for Taiwan."

And now it has all grown into a project to document Su Beng's life. I have so many people to thank along the way- for helping to make things happen with this project.

I'm planning to schedule regular Skype interviews with Su Beng as I continue working on his biography while I'm in Kaohsiung and later, after I return to New York in late May.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How it all got started (Part I)

Since deciding to take a year off or so to focus exclusively on working on Su Beng's biography, I often find myself explaining who Su Beng is and how I ended up working on this project. The answer is not really a simple one. So first, let me start with how I first heard of Su Beng. It happened nearly five years ago when I read this article written by Su Beng; it had been translated into English and appeared in the Taipei Times newspaper.


What is the legal basis for human rights?

The UN Declaration of Human Rights is the backbone of many constitutions but still enjoys scant respect under the world's authoritarian regimes

By Su Beng

Friday, Dec 12, 2003, Page 9

The idea of human rights did not exist in ancient societies based on slavery and feudal societies in the Middle Ages, when people were not treated as human beings.

This idea only started to take shape when the feudal system began to collapse, the existence of "humanity" was discovered during the Renaissance, and capitalism began to develop.

Only after the British philosopher of liberalism John Locke and the French philosopher of naturalism Jean-Jacques Rousseau theorized the rights of freedom and equality in the 17th century were human beings deemed entitled to "human rights" as soon as they are born.

After the human rights declaration in the US Declaration of Independence was published in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was made public in 1789 during the French Revolution, the idea of human rights started to develop extensively across Europe.

Since then, citizens' rights to property, and freedom of speech and publication have been institutionalized and popularized. They were also recorded in the constitutions of democratic nations.

'Real freedom,democracy and equality are still unseen in colonial societies and authoritarian countries because what they advocate is fake.'

By the end of World War II, member states of the UN believed that basic human rights were an important factor in maintaining world peace and international order. Therefore, on Dec. 10, 1948, the UN's General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and designated the day as International Human Rights Day.

The concept and systems of freedom and human rights finally secured a stable basis in the constitutions of various countries.

The preamble of the declaration states:

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

"Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.

"Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom..."

In addition to general concepts about freedom of speech, assembly and residence, the declaration's 30 articles also include some important human rights clauses:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."

"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude."

"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. "

"All are equal before the law."

But real freedom, democracy and equality are still unseen in colonial societies and authoritarian countries because what they advocate is fake -- freedom, democracy and equality in name only.

Su Beng (史明) is a Taiwan independence activist and founder of the Su Beng Educational Foundation.

Translated by Jackie Lin

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

April 3rd Deadline

It's done! I just finished writing a preliminary draft of the biography which encompasses research from interviews that I've done with Su Beng over the span of three years. What I have now is still far from what I consider publishable since there's still a lot of work and research to be done, but it is quite rewarding to finally have some sort of a product.

I've been holed up for the last three weeks, working to get the draft into a readable format. And it's been quite a marathon to say the least. I've never liked deadlines, but deadlines are a good thing, so I've been told.

A few weeks ago, I was forced to take a long, hard look at how I was going to utilize my time here in the most efficient way in order to get what I need done. So I made a plan to arrange weekly interviews with Su Beng during the month of April- the first of which was April 3rd. At our last meeting in March I gave him a third of what I've written and promised to give him the remainder by April 3rd. I wanted to give him a copy of the draft so that he can give me feedback on it. Having the draft also helps me to figure out what details I need and what periods of his life we still need to discuss in order to round out the biography.

The "ultimate" deadline, i.e. the date I will be leaving Taiwan to return to New York is the end of May. In the meantime I will do what I can to continue my research and to collect other documents needed.

I've compiled loads of questions for Su Beng at our next meeting. And I'm going to talk to him about how we can continue communicating and collaborating on the biography when I'm back in New York. Su Beng's assistant had mentioned using Skype. Yes, Su Beng actually has a Skype ID!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Su Beng and Taiwan's 2008 pre-election atmosphere

Su Beng has been extremely busy since he returned to Taipei from Tokyo on February 25th. He was there to look in on his noodle shop, the “New Gourmet” (新珍味) restaurant which is located in Ikebukuro, Japan. A few days ago I met with him to continue work on the biography and to talk about the atmosphere in Taiwan, prior to the upcoming presidential elections.

With Taiwan’s presidential elections (on March 22) drawing near, numerous rallies have been organized for the presidential candidates, and Su Beng has been doing his part by attending rallies, talking to voters, and encouraging the undecided to vote.

The “Walk Against the Wind” was one such movement which supported Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh (謝長廷). It was initiated by 12 young people, including former National Youth Commission chairwoman Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君) on February 5th. The walk started in Oluanpi (鵝鸞鼻), the southernmost tip of the country, and finished on February 28th in Taipei.

If you'd like to know more about the “Walk Against the Wind”, click here.

Shortly after his return, on February 26th, Su Beng joined a segment of the “Walk Against the Wind” which was organized by the Taiwanese Association of University Professors (TAUP). The TAUP had set off from Tai Dong (which is on the east coast of Taiwan) and walked eastward.

Su Beng walked with the Taiwanese Association of University Professors in the "Walk Against the Wind".

And mobilized his Taiwan Independence Action motorcade to join them

One of the Taiwan Independence Action motorcade "propaganda trucks" with a poster of Su Beng's latest booklet Taiwan Should Be Independent.

A shot of "Walk Against the Wind" participants

He handed out copies of his booklet, Taiwan Should be Independent.

Here Su Beng sits on one of his “propaganda trucks” as he shouts to participants of the “Walk Against the Wind”: “There’s so many of you but you are not loud enough! Long live Taiwan Independence!”

I talked to Su Beng about the pre-election atmosphere, his views on the two presidential candidates and people’s attitudes towards the Taiwan independence issue.

The frustrating thing is that there have been many accounts floating around about the Chinese Nationalist Party’s aka Kuomintang’s (KMT) vote buying schemes and bribes.

According to Su Beng, the KMT has increased their vote buying tenfold and changed their vote buying strategies. Previously they’d pay a person NT$300-500 to vote for their candidate, but when this didn’t bring them the results they expected in the past two elections, they decided to change their strategy. Now they are using even more devious tactics by paying each person around NT$3000-5000, but this time around, people are only paid one-third upfront and are promised the remaining two-thirds of the payment only after the KMT presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been successfully elected.

This account has been floating around from several sources, not just from Su Beng. People have called in to political talk shows reporting such incidents, but unfortunately, as is so often the case in these situations, no one has been able to substantiate it as of yet.

On the Taiwanese people’s attitudes towards independence for Taiwan, Su Beng believes:

The independence of Taiwan is not a matter just to be decided solely by its people; there are some other outside forces that will impact it. 400 years ago many of our ancestors came from China; they had fled the oppressive Ching dynasty to seek a better life, and freedom, but the KMT didn’t teach us this history.

There has been a worldwide trend, wherein most colonized territories became independent after World War II, except for Taiwan. Many small countries and islands that are less developed and have lower standards of living than Taiwan have become independent. So, history is on our side, but Taiwan’s current political situation is not favorable.

Taiwanese people do not take action or heed other’s advice until things become really bad or serious. It’s as if things are fermenting, then after having been suppressed for so long, when things have reached a boiling point, then the Taiwanese will be galvanized into taking action.

The Taiwanese people want independence, it is a much more popularly accepted idea now, but still, many Taiwanese people can be bought. They don’t have any principles; they prefer the guarantee of having money.

Regarding the presidential candidates, the party platforms and what their election would mean for Taiwan, Su Beng had this to say:

If Ma Ying-jeou becomes president, then Taiwan will slowly be infiltrated by China. The KMT’s view is that Taiwan is a part of China; their goal is eventual unification of Taiwan and China. They are very firm and strong in these beliefs; these are among this party’s principles.

The DPP’s stance on Taiwan independence is not so firmly rooted. It began as an emotional reaction to the authoritarian rule of the KMT. The DPP lacks conviction, strategy and a rational approach in the fight for Taiwan independence.

If Frank Hsieh is elected, it will be an extension of President Chen’s policies, the DPP doesn’t have many firm policies, they have been just trying to fight off the KMT. The greens will feel at ease if Hsieh is elected, and take things calmly day by day. But if Ma is elected, the greens will feel more uncertain about the future, agitated and concerned. This may lead to aggression. Perhaps some oppositional, resisting forces will be organized, but the KMT dominated government will suppress people, and democracy and the path to independence will be impeded.

How does Su Beng think the clashes in Tibet will affect the Taiwanese?

What’s happening in Tibet may stimulate some thought amongst the Taiwanese, but it won’t have as much impact as it does on the people in the surrounding areas of Tibet. Tibet has a lower literacy rate and standard of living; the Tibetans are willing to lay down their lives to fight for their independence, but the Taiwanese are unable and unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the independence of Taiwan.

And finally, Su Beng commented on the Taipei Taxi Driver Association’s support of Ma Ying-jeou:

Well, democracy is a double-edged sword; it can be both good and bad. The Taipei Taxi Driver Association’s taxi drivers elect a president to represent them, but this also gives him a lot of power.

The rumor is that the KMT bribed the president of the Taipei Taxi Driver Association by giving him between NT$5 million and NT$ 20 million to distribute amongst taxi drivers in order to buy their votes. There were about 1000-1500 taxi drivers at the March 10th rally which was organized to support Ma Ying-jeou, but it’s unclear how many of these taxi drivers will actually vote for him.

On March 12th over 2000 taxi drivers participated in a rally to support DPP presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh. They wanted to borrow my “propaganda trucks” and megaphones, but unfortunately my megaphones were broken, so we couldn’t go, but many of the main organizers are amongst my supporters.

There are about 5000 taxi drivers affiliated with the Taipei Taxi Driver Association. Only about 1500 of 5000 taxi drivers were at the rally for Ma Ying-jeou.

*Special Thanks to Su Beng's assistant, Bin Hong (敏紅) who provided me with the photos and video footage included in this post

Friday, March 14, 2008

Greens turning blue

Su Beng's support base in his fight for Taiwan independence has been amongst the working classes, especially taxi drivers. Since his return to Taiwan from Japan in 1993, he has worked tirelessly to educate them about Taiwan's history, to increase political awareness and to instill in them a strong sense of Taiwanese identity. He has a force of them called the "Taiwan Independence Action Motorcade"(獨立台灣會). The motorcade has made rounds in Taipei every Saturday and Sunday afternoon for more than ten years, delivering messages over a megaphone- that the Taiwanese need to stand up for Taiwan, to build their own nation, and shake off the shackles of colonialism. In recent years Su Beng has also mobilized his taxi driver base to protest several high level Kuomintang (KMT) officials' meetings with Communist Chinese officials.

Those leaning towards self-determination or independence for Taiwan (as Su Beng and his supporters), and traditionally supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party have been dubbed the “greens” or more collectively, the “pan-greens.”

The “blues” or “pan-blues” are those favoring the opening up of Taiwan to China- in the form of recognizing Chinese educational credentials, greater communication, transportation links and investment opportunities. This is the platform of the Nationalist Chinese Party aka Kuomintang.

Now that we are in the last stretch before Taiwan's presidential election on March 22, it's down to a contest between the green and blue. The run up to the presidential election is always an intense period of time in which the media loves to throw in speculation over which side (green or blue) is gaining momentum and support amongst the public.

So the Taipei Taxi Drivers' Association's announcement that they will officially support the blue presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou on Saturday, March 8th was one such story that was recently circulated in the media. In addition to its announcement, the Taipei Taxi Driver's Association organized a rally supporting Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) on Monday, March 10th. About a thousand or so taxi drivers turned out for the rally. When asked by television reporters who they’d vote for, some taxi drivers said that they didn’t know whether or not they’d actually vote for Ma.

Why is this such a big deal?

Because in the beginning, back in the day, not long after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed, its support base in large part came from the working classes. The demographic of the average DPP supporter has certainly changed over the years, but this perception remains. In particular, there is a perception that taxi drivers in Taiwan tend to be predominantly green supporters. In the past, groups of taxi drivers have mobilized in support of the green camp. Practically everywhere you go in Taiwan there are yellow taxi cabs to be hailed, so they would seem to be a formidable force of green supporters. To hear of this flip in political alliance would seem to be a huge blow to the green camp.

A few days after the March 10th rally, there were television reports revealing that the KMT had paid taxi drivers NT$1000 per head to attend the rally supporting Ma Ying-jeou.

On March 12, a rally to support Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), the DPP presidential candidate was organized by taxi drivers in Banciao- near the DPP campaign headquarters there. There were about 2000 taxi drivers in attendance.

What is the story behind the Taipei Taxi Driver Association's switch in support?

I'm certain that Su Beng has plenty to say on this topic, and that, amongst other things will be a topic of discussion at our upcoming meeting in a few days.

Monday, February 18, 2008

One milestone at a time

As I work through this process, I try to acknowledge the little milestones I've reached.

In December I finally finished translating all three years worth of interviews that I've conducted with Su Beng. I've audio and video recorded all of our interviews which are done in Hoklo Taiwanese. Now I finally have written, English transcripts of all the interviews. Many people have asked why I don't just have a translator do the job for me. Aside from not having the funds to hire one to do this, I prefer to take on this challenge myself. Who better than me to understand the purpose behind the questions I have asked Su Beng and the context of his answers? I wouldn't want the spirit and flavor of what's being said in the interviews to get lost in translation. It is a tedious task at times, but it is a part of the process that is absolutely necessary for me to have a complete understanding of this man's life.

These past few months I've been going through this pile of information- recompiling, organizing, documenting and merging all of it. At times it is mind-numbing and repetitive as I try to get the facts straight by listening and "relistening" to various interviews in which we have discussed one particular situation over and over again. This sometimes happens since it takes a few interviews to dig deeper for certain details and specifics. I realize that this is far from the writing and editing process, which will be far more interesting and stimulating for me.

At times I am surprised at what I learn from "relistening" to our interviews. I feel as though I am unearthing little details which are revealing, and that collectively they will tell an authentic story of this man's life. I am amazed by this one man's persistence, and fight against adversity throughout his life. Here are a few of the highlights:

With dogged determination he went to China during World War II to oppose Japan's rising aggression in Asia. Working as an undercover agent for the Chinese Communists, Su Beng grew disillusioned and made a dramatic escape from China back to Taiwan, just as the Chinese Nationalist party (Kuomintang), who had lost to the Chinese Communists, also fled to Taiwan. During the early years of martial law imposed by the authoritarian Kuomintang regime, he started the Taiwan Independence Armed Corps- a group organized to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek. They stockpiled old guns left behind by the Japanese in Taiwan at the end of their 50 year occupation. When the stockpiles of guns were discovered Su Beng went on the lam and eventually escaped once again by stowing away for days in a banana boat bound for Japan.

And if these adventures are not impressive enough, just try to fathom what it took to write Taiwan's 400 Years of History- his most palpable contribution- there are remarkable stories here. Written during Su Beng's years of exile in Japan, and while Taiwan was still under martial law, the first version, which was written in Japanese was published in 1962. An expanded, more complete Chinese version was published in the US in 1980. Supporting documents for the Chinese version were appropriated and bribed from the Kuomintang and smuggled from Taiwan through Su Beng's underground network to Japan. When Kuomintang authorities learned that Su Beng was writing this book, he had to write in secrecy.

I'm looking forward to getting back to Taiwan later this month to fill in the pieces that make up the rest of Su Beng's life story.