Of Mountains and Molehills

In 1336 Petrarch hiked up Mount Ventoux, near Avignon. Supposedly, no one before him had made such a trip just to see the view. Once on top, Petrarch opened a copy of St. Augustine’s  Confessions (obviously a different kind of climbing gear was carried in the trecento) and happened on the passage where Augustine rails against those who “go wondering at mountain heights … and to themselves they give no heed.”

Suitably abashed, Petrarch scuttled back downhill. But during his brief sojourn upon the Ventoux peak, the poet stood astride the medieval and modern agesthe first European to climb a mountain for the heck of it and the last to feel like a jerk for doing so.

–P.J. O’Rourke, All the Trouble in the World

The last few months of my life have been riddled with hindrances  those contributing to my failure to touch this blog in 2013 are  among the most irksome, but unavoidable. It is no fun to say that what is keeping me from writing is writing (of a mind-numbing variety). 

Still, the long weekend for Tomb Sweeping Day, was failure distillate. Let’s start at the top. Or about 10 metres shy of it. For, after more than six hours of walking, we quit within frozen gobbing distance of the peak at Yushan (玉山).

The early hours when we couldn’t see the woods for mountain mist.

We’d started the walk from the hostel at 4 a.m. and got back down to the same spot at 3:20 p.m. From there, it was a three hour-plus journey back to Chiayi (嘉義). The whole day was about 15 hours and it rained doggedly for about 12 of those.  I have to admit that I was more than a little scared at several points during the ascent, but when I no longer had any feeling in my fingers and the chains attached to the rock face began to slip through my grip, I called time to my partner and “team leader” The Inveterate Bede.

I actually told him that I’d cling to the rock I was perched on while he made the final push;  but he was also in a real two-and-eight by this time, unable to see a thing through the fogged up lenses of his glasses and, hands almost as numb as mine (I think my fearful clutching of the chains throughout had exacerbated things; indeed, worryingly, I still have not regained full sensation in my two ring fingers), terrified he  would lose his specs to the white abyss.

Flecks of snow spattered off the rock as we stood there prevaricating, but the swirling veils of wind sealed it. Bede reluctantly conceded that, yes, it was getting too hairy. The retreat began. We had been agonisingly close and as we made our way back down, Bede was already playing out plans for his next assault in his mind. An hour into the descent, it was a few months off. By the time we were back in Chiayi, he had decided to apply for another permit immediately.

Although I, too, am thinking of having another go, I wasn’t half as gutted as he was. In fact, the other frustrations that beset our trip were as grating, if not more so, for me. Some attractions in the city were closed for the whole holiday, including the Chen Cheng-po Cultural Foundation (陳澄波文化基金會), which I had very much wanted to visit.

“Chiayi Park” by Chen Cheng-po in, funnily enough, Chiayi Park.

Chen Cheng-po

Coincidentally, I had first heard about the painter Chen Cheng-po just the week before from Christopher Young, grandson of another renowned artist and target for the KMT during the White Terror era, Yang San-lan(楊三郎). Patrick Cowsill has a short blog on the gallery that Christopher runs dedicated to his granddad’s work. I’ve not had the chance to visit yet, but shall do so when time permits.

Yang eventually fled to States via Japan. Chen was not so fortunate. Just weeks after the start of the 228 uprising, Chen was executed along with other civic leaders and intellectuals. As with many such decent, law-abiding citizens during those horrific months, they were lured 100 flowers style  into openly expressing their views, the chimaera of reforms and a part in a future government cast before them by Governor Chen Yi. Expecting reasonable negotiations with the authorities  they made their way to the airport where the military were engaged with protestors. Instead, they had their hands tied behind their backs with wire and were paraded through town before being shot like dogs in front of Chiayi Train Station. Their corpses were left to rot for days as a warning.

A friend related this personal anecdote about Chen’s body: “Among the witnesses was the then 8-year-old immediate past vice president (Mr Hsiao Wan-chang1) whose mother handed him a lit incense stick and asked him to walk over to Mr Chen’s body and say a prayer. This was an unusually courageous act as the body was guarded by armed KMT soldiers.”

Late last month, Chiayi residents marched in commemoration of the fallen. Particularly apposite was the observation by one of the march leaders that Zhongzheng Park (中正公園) opposite the cultural center is named in honour of “the main culprit” of these atrocities, with a statue of the murderer still taking pride of place. “This is just absurd,”  Chen Ying-hua (陳英華) said. Disgusting, I would say. The demonstrators called for the renaming of the park and removal of the statue. In the meantime, they made sure the late dictator couldn’t observe proceedings by covering  his old peanut dome with a bag.

Chiayi apparently has something of a reputation as hotbed of artistic talent 2 and Chen Cheng-po was the preeminent Taiwanese oil painter of the colonial era and one of the few to be accepted as a peer of his  Japanese contemporaries. He was noted for his representations of Danshui (a perennial favourite with aesthetes, it would seem) and reproductions of these and other paintings can be found on fringe of the park.

The not-so-dear leader just yards away from where Chen’s paintings are displayed and the cultural foundation dedicated to his life stands.

It took as a while to find the cultural foundation as it is basically through a courtyard in a nondescript residential building opposite the park. The concierge confirmed that it was closed until the following Monday, which meant we wouldn’t get the chance to check it out on our final Saturday afternoon in Chiayi, the day after the Yushan hike.


My biggest regret (I can’t really say failure here) is that I didn’t get to see another former Chiayi native who also had a significant part to play in the White Terror period. It was by chance that I happened upon Elegy of Sweet Potatoes: Stories of Taiwan’s White Terror when stopping by a friend’s bookshop in Taichung. She told me that, shamefully, a stack of copies of the memoir had been found en route to a dustbin down in Tainan (I think). A friend had rescued them and she gave them a home.

Tsai Teh-pen’s (蔡德本) fictionalised account of the year-plus he spent in custody on ridiculous, trumped up charges of sedition is without doubt the most moving of the several books I have read on 228 and the White Terror era, even managing to edge out George H. Kerr’s seminal Formosa Betrayed in terms of poignancy, if not historical value.

Chiayi Old Prison, which doesn’t look old anymore.

Cells along one of the prison’s corridors.

I learned from a friend that Mr. Tsai was still alive and now living in Tainan.  A couple of weeks before we were due to set off on our trip, I had managed to get hold of phone number for him, and  I started to think about whether I might change my plans and head further south for an afternoon post-hike. I called and spoke to his wife a couple of days before we left. At first she wasn’t sure what I was about, but once I convinced her that I wasn’t trying to cause any trouble, she remembered that our mutual friend had mentioned that I might call.”I’m afraid to say he’s unable to communicate properly anymore,” she said of her 87-year-old husband. “He wouldn’t be able to talk about this stuff.”

“Can he still understand you?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but ….” The line went quiet. Realising that she thought I was still angling at some kind of interview, I explained myself: “I’d just like you to let him to know that I thought his book was really moving and that I liked it very much.”

“Thank you, she said. That’s very kind of you.”


On the Saturday after the hike, we visited Chiayi Old Prison, the only prison to be afforded Class One National Monument status. On my checklist, this was pretty much the sole success, and it was crap. Firstly, the old facade of the archway has been completely redone, but instead of restoring it with contemporaneous materials, as is often the case, they’ve made a complete pig’s ear of it, using the ugly slabs of concrete that you expect in public buildings of the current era.

Then there are the dummies of prisoners scaling the walls to “escape”. Classy. If you’re up for a bit of role play can also be a  prisoner, guard, prosecutor or “correctional officer”; only on weekends, mind. Finally, I quickly realised from the description, diagram and photo in Mr Tsai’s book that this could not have the facility in which he was initially interrogated and held, so the one thing that could have been a redeeming feature of the place wasn’t.

A great way to add some gravitas to a historical monument.

A home-made tattoo gun – about the most interesting exhibit at the prison.

At a later stage, I intend to put up some more of the many resonant passages from Elegy of Sweet Potatoes, but, then, I intend to do many things. Our mutual connection asked me to put something down for posterity as there really isn’t much about this widely available in English. So,  for now, I shall leave you with a couple of passages that stood out for me, primarily because they show an optimism and pride that quickly turned to disillusionment and disgust as the Taiwanese realised their hopes of a say in their own future were naive pipe dreams.

Youde recalled the day when Chiang first visited Taiwan soon after the war was over. 3 On that day Yu-kun had clung to a tree branch and over and over, in his already hoarse voice, shouted ‘Long live President Chiang!’ … Yeh and Wen-bang, too, both astride the same tree branch, were shouting ‘Long live President Chiang.’ One by one, Chiang had sent these patriots to the execution yard, these young me who had once admired him and welcomed him with such fervor.4

It is ironic that the most whole-heartedly celebrated Double Tenth Day took place during the first two years after Taiwan’s restoration in the midst of a dire shortage of material goods. Even in a small town like Putzu, people insisted on having not one but two parades: one parade of flags in the morning and a lantern parade at night. ‘We felt then the day was indeed the founding day of our nation,’ Youde reminisced. But now Youde could only consider this day the founding day of a conquering foreign regime. No matter, the day must still be an eagerly awaited holiday for the children. Youde thought to himself: I wonder how my parents felt when I, as a youngster, celebrated Japan’s founding day and the Emperor’s birthday? Is it the destiny of the Taiwanese people to forever celebrate the national day of a foreign regime? An Aggression Memorial Day was more like it!5

Stone-carved monkeys are all over Chiayi. They’re a relatively new-fangled, touristy “tradition”. This one is outside the Kagi Shrine (a former Japanese shinto shrine) that is now the Historical Relics Museum.

Chiayi Park, which dates from 1910. Bede wasn’t so impressed but I found it a nice, leafy retreat. Several of Chiayi City’s main attractions adjoin the park or are within ambling distance. It reverted back to its old name in 1997, having been slapped with the ubiquitous Zhongshan in 1949.

  1. Vincent C. Siew (蕭萬長), whose Chinese name is more commonly but oddly romanised as Siew Wan-chang. Here Siew remembers another victim, a doctor who had treated him as a child.
  2. Via Bede, I inherited several art books from my errant cohort The Aesthete. One of them, upon which my laptop is sitting at this moment, stood out for me: a retrospective of abstract artist Chen Yin-huei (陳銀輝), another Chiayi native.
  3. This 1946 visit is not particularly well-documented and more than a couple of people have assumed I was mistaken when I’ve mentioned it. You can read more about it here on this KMT news site, as part of an assessment of Chiang and 228 that shows a  much more even hand than most of the drivel I’ve read from the Blue-tinged news services.
  4. Tsai, Teh-pen. Elegy of Sweet Potatoes: Stories of Taiwan’s White Terror, Taiwan Publishing Co., Ltd, 2000. pp.418-19.
  5. Ibid, pp.139-140.

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