The Past is Greener (Part 2)

It took me forever to figure out the bus system in Tainan. I was sweaty, tired, hungry, and in a pretty foul mood when I finally got to the hotel, especially since no one was in the office when I rang the bell. But someone finally turned up, apologizing profusely in a very Taiwanese way (there must be a million ways to apologize in Taiwan) and I found myself being ushered up the stairs into a small but sweet private room. I felt much better after turning on the AC and taking a shower. Then after checking emails, I went hunting for food, finding some nice Tainan-style noodles at a nearby stall for only about $1.50. Walking home, I stumbled onto a beautifully preserved old street.

The entrance to Shennong Street.

A teashop on Shennong Street.

Tainan is supposed to have more temples than any other city in Taiwan, and Shennong Street ends in two temples. This is the one at the foot of the street. The other one is on the side and seems to be build around a gnarled old tree.

Walking past teashops and art galleries, as well as residents slumped on sofas watching TV with the door wide open, I thought about how beautiful Taiwan must have been once. It was the showpiece colony of Japan and older Taiwanese speak nostalgically about how orderly it was. Postcards from the 1930s show boulevards with handsome brick buildings. In contrast, the Kuomintang regarded Taiwan as a stopping point and rebuilt bombed out streets helter-skelter with corrugated tin and other cheap materials. They never gave a thought to urban planning or city beautification. Taiwan is still disfigured by all the ugly post-war buildings.

I was in Tainan to visit Lin Xinyi, a member of the Green Team Video Collective, an underground group of videographers who supposedly had recorded over 100 protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had been looking for the Green Team Video Collective since I first learned about them a year ago. Someone at Georgetown University had put up on the National Archives a video of four protests shot by the Green Team Video Collective. It had been smuggled to Shu Lea Cheang, a Taiwanese filmmaker in New York City who produced an English-subtitled video that was distributed by Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish TV. I got her email and wrote her, but she said she had long ago lost contact with the Green Team.

I had just about given up on them when through Jerome Keating, I met Kenbo Liao, an animator who had created several subversive films in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Below is an animation of his that won a Golden Harvest Award in 1985. He showed me an even more radical pro-democracy documentary, Unknown Taiwan, which he made in 1992 for his cousin Annette Lu.

Kenbo is now working on an online video game on Formosan pirates with several very interesting people, including Junhung Liu (劉俊宏), a documentary filmmaker who formerly worked at Formosa TV. I spent a night bar-hopping with Junhong, visiting some great bars and meeting with very interesting people, including a fantastic photographer named Xie San Tai (謝三泰). The following evening, Kenbo invited me over to his place, where I spent a great night talking politics and history with a couple of his expat buddies over more Taiwan Beer than I ever drank in my life.

Graham, Kenbo, Jason and the beer that magically kept getting refilled.

Kenbo Liao and Junhung Liu. With more beer.

It was Kenbo and Junhong who hooked me up with Lin Xinyi in Tainan. As we settled in front of his computer, Xinyi told me that the Green Team Video Collective was comprised of just four guys. They ran around Taiwan from 1986 to 1992, filming protests and being the underground media-makers for the burgeoning democracy movement. First, they distributed their videos through VHS tapes, which were sold clandestinely by shops in Taipei. Then when cable television hit Taiwan, they were approached to create weekly broadcasts for a pirate station.

Lin Xinyi and I talking about the Green Team Video Collective.

Cover for a VHS tape made by the Green Team Video Collective about the farmers protest on 5/20/88. Xinyi said this VHS was one of the top sellers, probably since there was pretty brutal police action.

Their videos are now archived at Tainan University and available online. Xinyi helped me look up the several that I was interested in. We relived the Wild Lily Movement together and the first march in 1987 demanding that the government admit the truth about 228.

He also revealed to me why my mother had always told me when I was little that speaking Taiwanese was dangerous. My mother tends to simplify things – she has a deeply ingrained belief that children don’t understand anything, which was terribly frustrating to me, being a child who most certainly did understand things.

Apparently, in the 1970s, the Kuomintang instituted a program to enforce Mandarin in schools. Teachers were supposed to report on students who slipped and said something in Taiwanese or Hakka. At first, a fine was imposed, but with no one to enforce this, the KMT decided that humiliation would be a better strategy. Students who were caught speaking Taiwanese or Hakka had to wear a placard that said that they were Chinese and would only speak Mandarin.

Things have obviously changed a lot since then. I wasn’t in Taiwan during the democratization process, and like someone who has not seen a child in a long time, I am amazed at how Taiwan has grown. It warms my heart to hear Taiwanese in the streets, on the radio, in announcements at the metro. I can’t believe anyone can take this for granted since in my last memory, I was being warned that speaking Taiwanese could get you arrested. Working on this project always makes me think how human rights are so dearly won. And how we can’t take it for granted.

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