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Escape From Taiwan

Legacy of Oppression



Escape From Taiwan: Legacy of Oppression, Published January, 2019 Editorial and proofreading services: Kathleen A. Tracy, Karen Grennan Interior layout and cover design: Howard Johnson

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Title Page and Chapter Openers: Dragon Silo; Designed by Freepik

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ISBN-13 (print): 978-1-7321115-9-2

e-ISBN-13 (ebook): 978-1-7327933-2-3

Library of Congress Control Number: 2018964675 Copyright 2019, Chiufang Hwang, M.D.

Printed in the United States of America

Table of Contents







5. PAT




9. DOC






The United States is a country of immigrants. Unless you’re Native American, your family came here across some ocean at some point during the last few hundred years. The European cultures have been well documented, from the Pilgrims escaping religious persecution to the Irish fleeing the potato famine. But not much has been written about the Asian immigrant experience in general or the Taiwanese community in particular.

The first incarnation of this book was a planned scholarly psychological case study of American-raised daughters of Taiwanese immigrants. But upon reflection, I realized presenting the experience I lived first-hand in a dispassionate, academic presentation would do the story I wanted to tell—not to mention the readers—a disservice. I want to tell the story of people, not subjects. I think the more we understand about other ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities, the more empathy we’ll have and perhaps the better we can coexist.

Taiwanese people in general and Taiwanese immigrants in particular tend to be very private, insular, and emotionally reserved. It might be a stereotype, but it also happens to be a very real cultural trait. As a rule, no matter how turbulent our lives are, we maintain tranquil appearances. Our parents were raised to be very secretive, even with their closest friends. And that instinct to fly under the radar and not cause waves was borne from an ingrained fear passed down through many generations, the legacy of living under an oppressive regime that ruled with brutality, where vocal dissent could be fatal.

Many Taiwanese who came to the United States in the last half of the twentieth century, still looked over their shoulder, careful to keep their political opinions about the ruling party in Taiwan to themselves, fearful of possible consequences. For those born and bred in the United States I’m sure it sounds paranoid, something out of a John Le Carré spy novel. Usually the biggest threat Americans face for criticizing their current government is an argument during Thanksgiving dinner. But if you think authoritarian powers-that-be aren’t dangerous, just consider the number of ex-pat Russian dissidents who have ended up poisoned in the past decades, including the March 4, 2018, attack in England on a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter with military grade nerve agent.

Taiwan’s totalitarian government carried out several suspected hits of their own over the years but they mostly controlled their ex-pats by holding relatives in Taiwan accountable. If you wanted your parents to keep their jobs or didn’t want Uncle to disappear, you avoided doing anything that could bring unwanted attention, keeping your political opinions to yourself regardless of where you were in the world.

And we’re not talking ancient history here. Martial law did not end in Taiwan until 1987; the first free—and fair—elections took place in 1992; and the first fully democratic presidential election was held in 1996. My parents moved to the United States in the late 1960s so even though I grew up in this country, I was raised by people whose outlook was informed by fear and oppression, and they did their best to instill in me the dangers of speaking out—about anything. My mother especially kept me on a very short leash even when I was in college, not wanting me to have a social life outside their small circle of other Taiwanese families because you never knew who might be spying on you. She clung tightly to all things Taiwan, from the food she cooked to her refusal to learn English to not wanting me to blend in with American kids and dressing me in traditional Chinese styles when I was younger. While it may have been her security blanket and made her feel closer to those she left behind, it made for a lot of childhood confusion and teenage resentment from me. It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered the daughters in the other Taiwanese families I’d grown up around had also all gone through the same emotional and cultural struggle to find their identity, which affected our efforts to assimilate at school, in our neighborhoods, and with our peers when we were younger. It also created conflicts, both internal and familial, as we became adults. Leaving the nest is a rite of passage all teens and young adults go through. It’s made more complicated when your parents see your rejection of their Old World customs as not just a rejection of them but of your heritage.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I had an independent streak that was decidedly American. I was also ambitious. There were not enough spies in the world to keep me from going to medical school and being a success. I also made life choices I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of—like getting engaged without asking their permission—because I wasn’t willing to sublimate my life and goals just to make them happy or abide by quaint customs. It’s not that I didn’t respect the cultural traditions my parents embraced, but they were designed for a different place and time. They simply didn’t apply to my life in Texas. It’s a fine line many first-generation children of immigrants constantly walk. I was willing to endure my parents’ occasional disappointment for not being traditional enough or dutiful to their wishes. But not all my Taiwanese friends were, so we ended up taking very different paths in life.

But regardless of where we ended up, we were all products of the generations that came before us in our family trees. We may not have lived under Japanese occupation in the 1800s or totalitarian Chinese rule after World War II, but those events shaped the people our grandparents were, who in turn shaped our parents who in turn influenced who we became, either by acquiescence or rebellion. Their legacy is ours by default, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change the narrative. For Taiwanese immigrants, instead of teaching fear, we can instill hope. Instead of being socially isolated and insular, we can encourage inclusion and show the benefit of diversity. Instead of watching from afar in silence, we can support those in Taiwan who seek to maintain democracy.

The original purpose of this book was to tell the story about the immigrant experience of my people. But I now realize that at its heart it’s also about the human experience of figuring out who you are, where you belong, reconciling your parent’s past with your own present, and deciding what you want to add to your family’s legacy for the generations that follow.

In other words, it’s the story of us all.


While frowned on today, scaring children into compliance has probably been a tried and true parental strategy since Cain and Abel were bickering at bedtime. Sometime during the Middle Ages, probably in the Scottish Highlands, misbehaving children were told a monster called the bogeyman would take them away, never to be seen again. The bogeyman would have staying power.

Fast forward several centuries and today it refers to any frightening, faceless threat. For Taiwanese children in the United States, the bogeyman was the Kuomintang, or KMT, the authoritarian political party ruling Taiwan. It was well-known that they had spies everywhere who would report any subversive activity back to the regime and get paid for their patriotism. These reports, true or not, could cause problems for family members still on the island. Many of the spies were Taiwanese students, so my father was always careful when at school.

I grew up hearing about the KMT. While American kids were taught not to talk to strangers, Taiwanese kids were warned against talking to anyone because your neighbor or teacher could be a spy. It was like living under a constant overcast sky, hoping it wouldn’t rain. When the storm finally came, it caught us completely off guard.

Looking back, I realize my mother was a bit of a stage mom. And let’s face it; I’ve never been shy about performing, so I didn’t mind. Back in Taiwan my mother had worked as an elementary school teacher, and it was common for classes to put on skits. When a holiday was coming up, the teacher would pick a theme and direct a performance that usually included some simple dance steps, costumes, and props.

I made my performing debut when I was five during my graduation from Henley Homes kindergarten. The school had given my mother permission to stage some entertainment. My mother was a capable enough choreographer; she had taken some ballet classes at a studio for a while, so she borrowed from that for the dance moves. But she did have a sharp fashion sense. She came from a wealthy family and had been a clothes horse as a young woman before getting married to my father. And she knew how to sew, so my costumes were always Chinese in style. My mother acted out the performance, and I memorized her moves. Soon enough it was show time.

My classmates were milling about, waiting for the show to start. All of the black kids were formally decked out in three-piece suits and party dresses. The few white kids were wearing everyday clothes. But I really stood out in my improvised ballet costume. I was wearing a white tulle tutu, white tights, a white T-shirt sewn onto the homemade skirt, and white bedroom slippers as ballet shoes.

The kids, their parents, and the teachers gathered together, and my mother started the music from the ballet Swan Lake, my cue to strike a pose. Then I launched into the performance. The song was a good five minutes, which feels like a really long time when you’re in front of an audience. By yourself. Twirling, waving my arms, and prancing. When the song was (mercifully) over, I bowed to everyone. The applause gave me a thrill, a validation that made me feel both shy and pleased.

After that I started performing a few times a year— on Chinese New Year, during summer get-togethers, in September for the Autumn Moon Festival, and over the Christmas holidays.

I was a six-year-old second-grader when I first danced for the Chinese Student Association on Chinese New Year at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where my father was in a doctorate program. A bunch of students rented a place for a potluck celebration. That night there was a jovial atmosphere, and eventually it was time for my performance. As usual, it was only me. The other kids were off playing in another room. To celebrate the holiday I did the plate dance, which is exactly what it sounds like. You dance around waving plates in the air. Or in my case paper plates wrapped in tin foil to make them shiny under the lights as I waved them around. I was costumed in a lavender nightgown decorated with sequins to make it festive and a floral headband. My mother had added just a touch of makeup: a dusting of face powder, some eyeliner to make my eyes look bigger, her red lipstick on my lips, and a little rubbed on my cheeks. In Chinese culture the color red is believed to bring good luck, so the lipstick represented good fortune for the new year.

People watched politely although I’m sure the college students in attendance couldn’t have cared less about a little kid prancing around on stage doing a folk dance. When my performance was over, everyone watching applauded, I took a bow, then ran off to join the other children. It was a good evening all around, getting the new year off to a good start.

That optimism lasted a couple of days until we got an anonymous letter in the mail, written in Chinese. My mother looked stricken and read it out loud.

How dare you put bright-red lipstick on such a young child? She looked like a cocktail lady at the bar in a nightclub. That was something that a sleazy lady would wear. Such red lipstick on a young child is not appropriate. What are you trying to do to your daughter? She looks like a tramp.

I’d later learn that was code for a prostitute, which was a bit harsh considering I was six.

When my mother put the letter down her hands were shaking, and she kept saying, “Oh, my goodness.”

The upshot of the letter was that having me perform in makeup somehow made Taiwan look bad. It was too showy, in bad taste, and not in keeping with the behavior “nationalists” needed to show.

I remember my parents reading the letter over and over. My father’s eventual response was to tell my mother to stop having me perform because it drew unwanted attention to our family. In the end my mother ignored my father’s directive. I performed a few more times on special occasions, and my mother continued to slather on ever thicker stage makeup.

My response to the letter was surprise; I couldn’t believe I was important enough for a spy to put me in report. It meant I probably had an official file in some regime office back in Taiwan. A six-year-old who lived halfway around the world. That was both surreal and terrifying because like many Taiwanese children, I’d been indoctrinated to fear what the Kuomintang might do. The bogeyman was real and living in Columbia, South Carolina.

It wouldn’t be until I was older that I would understand how it was that Taiwan came to be at the mercy of a merciless regime that forced its people to spy on one another and made speaking your opinion—even if you were thousands of miles away from the island—a potentially fatal act of defiance. Taiwan’s history of occupation had cultivated a fertile environment for fear, distrust, and betrayal.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


The Revolutionary War didn’t just turn thirteen colonies into a nation; it also cemented the American identity, which was based on independent thought, personal freedom, and self-rule. Americans know that if they don’t like the president, senators, or congressmen representing them, they can vote in new people every four, six, or two years respectively. I think many Americans take this ability for granted and don’t appreciate how that power informs their very way of life.

For most of Taiwan’s history over the past five hundred years, its people have not had much say in their country’s future or how it’s governed. They did not grow up assured freedom of thought and speech were their inalienable rights. They were subjugated or occupied or controlled by any number of foreign countries, with true independence and self-determination elusive.

For many years Taiwan was known as Formosa in Western countries like the United States and Britain. Lore has it that name came from sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers, who were the first known Europeans to reach the island in 1544 and dubbed it Ilha Hermosa, which means beautiful island. As Renaissance explorers had a habit of doing, they summarily staked claim to the island on behalf of their mother country and established a colony named Formosa in northern Taiwan in 1626. The interest went beyond natural beauty; the Europeans were looking for resources such as gold, minerals, and spices.

While Taiwan may have been new, exotic, and undeveloped to the Portuguese, the island had been home to several indigenous tribes of hunters and later traders for five thousand years who were of Austronesian descent, meaning they were in the same family tree as the indigenous tribes in Malaysia and the Philippines. They were not ethnic Chinese.

But a hundred years before the Europeans arrived, Chinese from the mainland began crossing the Taiwan Strait in the sixteenth century. They arrived bringing farming tools, clothing, jewelry, and other items to trade for deerskin, deer meat, gold ore, sulfur, and other items Taiwan had to offer. These Chinese were largely made up of fishermen, explorers, and business people, many fleeing the mainland which was going through political turmoil at the end of the Ming dynasty. Most came and went, but a small number of them stayed behind in Taiwan.

In the 1620s the Dutch and Spanish joined the party. The Dutch came looking for gold while the Spanish, with help from one of the indigenous tribes, located sulfur, the main ingredient in gunpowder, in one of the mountain ranges. Also, both countries used Taiwan as a base of operations to establish global trade—and piracy. But these Europeans did not intend to occupy Taiwan and build permanent settlements. So when the locals rose up and rebelled at the foreigners’ presence, they withdrew completely.

But before leaving the Dutch had encouraged Chinese from the mainland to immigrate to Taiwan, which helped drive a large wave of immigration from China during the early Qing Dynasty.1 Some of the influx was prompted by a mini gold rush after gold was found in Eastern Taiwan, but mostly it was people looking for space and a place to start over, away from overcrowding and scarce land on the mainland. To support their presence on the island, the Dutch advertised in Fujian that there was available agricultural land in Taiwan. Anyone willing to relocate to the island was offered land and protection in exchange for the payment of taxes.

Just as the native Indian tribes of North America found their cultures overrun, assimilated, or eliminated by British and other European colonists, the indigenous Taiwanese tribes would soon get elbowed aside by these Chinese colonists who were mostly from Fujian and primarily spoke Hokkien, a dialect of Mandarin.

And just as Americans developed American English, as opposed to British English, over the years, the immigrants from China who settled in Taiwan developed a dialect of Mandarin that was uniquely their own: Taiwanese Hokkien, which is now considered the Taiwanese language and is spoken natively by about 70 percent of the island’s population. And the descendants of that wave of Chinese immigrants from southern Fujian are called the Hoklo people, who today consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese, even though they share the same ethnicity. China has never acknowledged the difference.

The Dutch eventually left the island in 1662. After the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty on the Chinese mainland and started the Qing Dynasty, a rebel Ming loyalist—and pirate—named Koxinga showed up in Taiwan with twenty-five thousand soldiers in 1661 and drove out the Dutch, who had no interest in fighting over the island. Koxinga established his own anti-Qing government and his soldiers, along with some Ming loyalist refugees from Fujian, settled in. Koxinga died not long after the Dutch left, but his son kept Taiwan an anti-Qing stronghold for the next twenty years. But he died in 1681, and two years later the Qing leader sent a fleet to invade Taiwan and after a brief skirmish, got it back under mainland China control. During those decades after the Dutch left, many of the indigenous tribes (aborigines) retreated to the mountains where many remain to this day.

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