The Past is Greener (Part 1)

The Wild Lily Movement began with a group of just ten students who sat down in front of the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial in 1990. They wore Formosan lilies like the indigenous people and carried homemade signs demanding direct elections.

It was the first student movement in Taiwan and it was pivotal. There had been a groundswell of protests and demands for human rights and democracy since the mid-1980s, but until then, students hadn’t come out in support. The Wild Lily Movement took place over just six days in March and a week in May, but at the end of the second sit-down, it’s estimated that there were 300,000 people. That summer, democratic reforms were initiated by then-President Lee Teng Hui, which resulted in the first direct presidential election six years later.

The Wild Lily Movement at its height. Photo by Kingkang Chien.

Two days ago, I met one of those first ten brave students. His name is Hao Gi Liang and he was a philosophy student at that time. He also writes music.

“Weren’t you scared?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, “When you’re with a big group of people, you’re not scared.”

A friend had asked him to come along, he said. It was March and it was cold. He sat there for three nights and then left when it seemed there were enough people to carry on.

Hao Gi Liang at the Pingtung station.

We had met at the Pingtung train station and for lack of any other place to meet since he lived a good half hour away, we sat down in the waiting area to talk. I worried about the quality of sound but didn’t know what to expect from this dark brown man with the betelnut stained teeth. Of course, I regretted not being more particular about where we talked when I realized who he was.

We got up and he helped me buy tickets to Tainan, after which we went to a rickety little stall across the street to talk some more in relative quiet over papaya milk and radish cake. Popping betelnut into his mouth like gum, he told me that two years ago, after the Marakot typhoon, he had returned to Pingtung. His father was getting old and their house had been heavily damaged.

“Are you still writing music?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, “I haven’t written anything since I’ve been back.”

“So what have you been doing then?”

“My family has a banana farm,” he said. Tapping his box of betelnut, he added, “And this is my family’s betelnut. We don’t do banana so much anymore. But betelnut is still going strong.”

How wonderful, I thought, that this simple and good-hearted country guy was such an integral part of a watershed event in Taiwan’s history.

We had such a good time talking that when I looked at the clock, I realized that my train to Tainan was leaving in three minutes. Ah Liang grabbed my suitcase and I grabbed my camera bag. I raced after him, following his white flip-flops across a road choked with motorbikes.

“Are you on facebook?” he asked as I got on the train.

“Yes,” I said, “Let’s facebook each other!”

Ah the miracle of modern technology. I waved goodbye to him as the train set off for Tainan.

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