Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Before I knew Rosa, who was my son’s research cohort in Toronto, I didn’t quite know that many Taiwanese were hostile of the island returning to the fold of the motherland. We are all descendants of Yellow Emperor, right? And after all, by that time (early 2000s), China had already expressed its preparedness to accommodate “one country, many systems” type of federation. My third brother Yew Sim went to Taiwan for his university education; it was in the early 1960s then. Taiwan was synonymous with Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek then. As a school boy, I always thought that they had a mission, i.e., to recapture the mainland. And why are they talking about independence now?

Oh, we don’t consider ourselves Chinese; as a matter of fact, my father hopes to see me marrying a Japanese!” This was more or less what Rosa told me!

Of course, it was not nice for me to ask her why. She was already a medical doctor doing her sub-fellowship at one of the top neurological science centres in the world. She was young, pretty and smart. “Maybe she had not met the right calibre Chinese,” I thought.

Let’s face it; we Chinese men are not a very appealing lot to many “sophisticated” western-educated ladies. As a matter of fact, one of my nieces who grew up in Melbourne has never thought of going out with an Asian! She is tall and beautiful. She says she finds Chinese men “boring’!

I have not given much thought to the subject until I read this book: Become “Japanese” – Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation by Leo T.S. Ching.

I won’t say the book is an easy read. The substance in its original form must have come from a literature review perhaps undertaken by the author when he was doing his graduate research. But I must say the book offers me a great deal of insights into what being Taiwanese is really all about.  
Now I can understand what Rosa has said and why Tsai Ing-wen, who won the recent presidential election with a huge majority, has chosen to thank, of all countries, US and Japan in her victory speech. Tsai, who is a former university professor, is the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Isn’t this the party of Chen Shui-bian, the disgraced ex-president of Taiwan?
DPP draws its support largely from the locally born Taiwanese, who form the majority of the population now! Kuomintang’s fraternizing with China is bad news to them now!
If I may paraphrase Ching: The early settlers (from South China, mainly Ming-nan Fujianese and Hakkas) did identify themselves very much as “Ming” Chinese. Unfortunately, under the Qing (Manchu) rule, they were left much to their own devices. The island was ceded to Japan in 1895 after China lost the Sino-Japanese War. The Republic of China (ROC) regained control of the island only in 1945. But much “damage” had already been done during after this 50 year “absence”. Even though the Taiwanese were not treated as equals, Japan did everything to “nipponise” Taiwanese whom the Japanese considered were so culturally inferior that they might need 80 years to make them “Japanese”. Much was also done by the colonial government to improve the island. At the outset of World War II, many Taiwanese, especially the elites, had already identified themselves as Japanese. Poverty and corruption were rampant in the mainland; on the other hand, everything seemed “perfect’ in Japan. Lee Teng Hui’s family were a case in point. The Stockholm syndrome[1] ran its course!
The return of Taiwan to ROC did not help much to reverse the course. After his defeat by Mao in 1949, Chiang Kai-sheik fled to Taiwan with some 2 million mainlanders. He ruled the island with an iron fist. The mainlanders did not speak the local Ming-nan dialect; there was simply little love between the two Han groups. When mainland China was still doing all the sloganeering, Taiwan was already becoming a new economic tiger. Contempt for the former was simply natural, hence the rise of DPP.
Come to think of it; if Yuan had ruled China long enough, would Chinese-ness be different? And didn’t Chinese wear pit-tails during the Machu rule?
Under a new environment, isn’t a fact that ethnocentrism will begin to fade with the emergence of second or third generations? Maybe the Jews are an exception - for obvious reasons.

[1] A phenomenon in which hostages become empathetic toward their captors to the point of defending and identifying themselves with the latter. Some of us may still remember the case of heiress Patricia Hearst’s abduction and indoctrination by the Symbionese Liberation Army and subsequent involvement in a bank robbery.  

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