“The Land of Suffering, The Island of Human Rights” 受難之地，人權之島
September 2nd, 1945. Months before Japan’s official surrender was signed and put into effect the Japanese military was already incapable of sustaining any semblance of war. Emperor Hirohito would follow-up this surrender not as a God, but as a man. The island would begin its process of rebuilding and the country would go through a period of self-discovery and redefinition of identity.
October 25th, 1945. Nearly two months after the Japanese surrender, the island of Taiwan was placed under the rule of the Republic of China (ROC). This handover would end 50 years of Japanese colonisation and put the people of Taiwan under a government it had not known before — the Nationalist government and Chiang Kaishek’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) Party. Previous to this period, the last time Taiwan belonged to China, the Guangxu Emperor sat on the throne in Beijing, and it was during the spiraling tail end of the Qing Dynasty. This sudden change of power and handing over of authority would result in an intense culture clash as the ROC “liberated” the island, and the people of Taiwan would through almost 4 decades of censorship, persecution, and suppression of identity.
“I’m sorry, the museum is closed.”
The man at the front of the National Human Rights Museum 國家人權博物館 says the line with a matter-of-fact look on his face. There’s no smirk of pleasure to tell me these words. He just wants to inform me that I’ve come on the wrong day. I had been meaning to visit this museum for quite some time, but due to COVID-19 restrictions the museum remains silent and unopened for the time being.
“You can walk around the grounds, but don’t go in any of the buildings, even if they are open,” he continues. Housed within what was formerly the Military Justice Academy, the buildings were later used by security agencies as detention centers and military courts for accused political prisoners. During Taiwan’s “White Terror” period following the 228 Incident, prisoners were prosecuted, detained, imprisoned, and even killed here.
I decide since I’ve come all this way to visit the museum that I may as well wander around the sleeping buildings. Although the weather is quite warm, there’s a gentle breeze, and I have the entire complex essentially to myself. That’s what I think, at least, until I see a stray cat, crouching in the grass…
1945-1947. The Nationalist Government had been abusing the seat of power for two years since liberating the island from Japan’s colonial rule. For 50 years, local citizens have known the Japanese way of life. Although the first 10–15 years of colonial rule were undeniably rough for local citizenry with persecution, detainment, suppression, and execution (with aboriginal tribes being especially hard hit), one byproduct of the latter years of Japanese rule was the installation of an orderly and effective infrastructure and eventually a sort of consistent rhythm to a much more modernised way of life than what had been happening in war-torn China. Roads were built, railroads connected the North and South of the island to one another, resources were being developed and used — towards the end of colonisation, order had been mostly restored. There was even a short period of time called the Taisho Period from 1912–1926 that led to more democratisation in Japan, which echoed more autonomy for its colonised island of Taiwan.
Many of the local citizenry may have even lost touch with what it meant to be Taiwanese, because for those who were younger, “Taiwanese” were supposed to be as close to “Japanese” as possible. The homeland was not China, but Japan. This is what was taught in school. They were meant to identify as Japanese, and aspire to be Japanese if possible. It was as if someone had stripped them of their own identity suit, thrown that suit in the washer, and upon retrieval, they put on a completely different identity suit that was fresh, crisp, and clean, but definitely not the original suit. When the Japanese surrendered Taiwan, they left the islanders still wearing the Japanese identity suits. All the infrastructure and rhythm and language of Japanese life had been instilled in local everyday life. Now the new masters of their new destiny, the Nationalists, would enter Taiwan to liberate a people that they did not recognise. And the people on the island did not recognise their liberators. The Nationalist government from China were now asking the Taiwanese to take off the Japanese Identity suits they were wearing, already getting some comfortable creases in certain spots. They would give them instead, a crumpled and hand-me-down suit that was very reminiscent of the opening days of Japanese Colonisation 50 years prior. The results would be explosive.
February 27, 1947. A Tobacco Monopoly Bureau enforcement team visits the Dadaocheng 大稻埕 area to make a sweep for contraband items. One of the local citizens that they encounter is a widower named Lin Jiang-Mai. She is not a Mainlander. She was born and grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese Occupation. When approached by the enforcement team, she at first refused to hand over her contraband cigarettes. Who were these hooligans to order her around? As best she knew, they would probably smoke the cigarettes themselves. It wasn’t beyond local officials to bully and take advantage of local Islanders, discounting them as displaced “Japanese slaves.” She argues with one of the armed men. A scuffle ensues. He violently bashes her head with the butt of his rifle. She falls. Blood on the ground. A crowd watches. The fuse is lit.
It’s not a fully grown cat, but it’s not a kitten. I don’t know much about cats, but I’ve seen enough Nature shows to know that it’s trying to hide itself in the grass as it crouches and practices its hunting skills. But what is it hunting? I follow its gaze and see a large blue bird with red beak and yellow eyes perched on a short tree, head cocking left and right as it glances down towards the grass. I’ve seen this bird before in pictures and in video. Known as the Formosan Blue Magpie, it almost seems cartoonish with its color scheme, like the kind of combination I would imagine a bird should look like, like a bird wearing lipstick. But this is a real bird, and this is a real cat clearly stalking the bird. The cat creeps closer. As I watch it inch nearer, I do a mental size comparison. The bird is really about the same size as the cat, and if the cat were to actually catch the magpie, I am not actually sure what the result will be. I don’t have to wonder for long about this scenario because the bird flies above me and lands on a higher tree branch. The cat loses interest and exits out the front gate of the complex past my feet to who-knows-where. I turn around and look at the bird. It’s clearly looking directly at me.
February 28th, 1947. An angry crowd of protesters gathers outside the Governor General’s Office. The situation from the previous day had gotten out of hand when police fired into the crowd after the assault of Lin Jiang-Mai. A bystander was shot and later died of his wounds.
Enough was enough. Police came out to disperse the crowd outside the governor’s office. When they did not leave, once again, the armed soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing at least 3 people. This led to a chain reaction of Formosans rising up in revolt against the oppressive and corrupt Nationalist government. Within days, there was complete anarchy with locals taking over several government institutions and calling for a rise up of the local population. There were random beatings of Mainlanders across the island as the government was slow to react and stop the violence. The majority of the its forces were still in mainland China, and the man in charge, Chen Yi , was not prepared for this chain of events and stalled engagement with the local populace. After Chiang Kaishek sent in reinforcements from China to Taiwan to suppress the uprising, martial law was declared across the island. It would not be lifted for almost 40 years. This was the start of the White Terror.
The Formosan Blue Magpie takes off from the branch, still looking directly at me. I stand there to watch its flight. It doesn’t really flap its wings, but swoops in my direction, still looking at me. Those yellow eyes get closer, its flight gets lower. Then I realise that its actually flying directly at me! This bird is not blind. This is clearly an attack and I’m in its territory. I freeze and then realise I have to actually move out of its flight pathway and crouch as it swoops overhead. I can hear the wind rush through its wings as its shadow passes over my head and it lands in another nearby branch.
I relax out of my crouch and stand up again. Was this a fluke? Did it accidentally fly in my direction, or did it mistake me for something else? My question is soon answered as it flies towards me once again. This is clearly another attack. As if to say, “get the hell out of my area,” it swoops in towards me again. I crouch and the shadow rushes overhead again. The bird rests on another branch. The walls of the complex fade away, and it’s just me and the bird this time. I actually feel a bit uncomfortable now, my heart beating. The bird is so beautiful, and I don’t want to have to hit it if it attacks me any closer. A thought runs through my head. What if the bird never stops attacking me? What if this bird pursues me for the rest of the day? For the rest of my life? Can I get in a taxi fast enough for it not to fly into the door with me? Will it remember my chemical signature and track me down? No, that’s ridiculous. Clearly it doesn’t want to actually hurt me. I’m just in the wrong….
CREEEAAK…the gate the cat exited from earlier moves as someone else leaves the complex.
Distracted, I turn my head to the sound of the gate, and as I do I realise my mistake for taking my attention off of the Formosan Blue Magpie. I hear a “swooooosh” and feel the claws of the bird snap at my head. It actually makes contact with me this time! There’s no pain, but I touch my head in the spot where it touched me. There’s no blood. This is no game anymore. This is clearly the end of my visit to the museum on this day. I take the message the bird is giving to me and walk out the entrance past the gatekeeper, hoping to return on a day where Nature is more welcoming and I am able to pay my respects to the true suffering that took place on these grounds many years ago.