Saturday, October 14, 2006

Green Island Commemoration, 2005

Linda asked me to post this report she wrote up for the Taipei American School from last year's Green Island trip. This is connected with the post below on the Green Island Political Prisoner Commemoration Activity.


Trip to Green Island, May 2005

by Linda Gail Arrigo

May 22, 2005

Taipei American School Class of 1966
for submission to Alumni News

A lot has happened since I graduated from TAS in 1966. In those days the roads to Shihlin were plastered with big painted slogans extolling Chiang Kai-shek as “the savior of the Chinese nation”, although he had set off the civil war through his corruption and vicious dictatorship, and thence lost China to the Chinese communists. I was very early intrigued with this dark history, and with what was behind the state of paranoia that could be sensed daily in Taiwan.

One thing led to another; I helped the democratic movement in Taiwan in the 1970’s and 80’s, in particular the Formosa Magazine group that later became the Democratic Progressive Party. So it’s not surprising that sometimes I get some freebies from the present government, most recently a trip to Green Island, where there were several prisons for “subversives” from the 1950’s on.

On May 17 the Bureau of Culture held a symphony concert at the new Human Rights Memorial on Green Island. For this they transported a few dozen journalists, over a hundred surviving former political prisoners from the 1950’s and/or their families, and even a grand piano. The concert, including musical renditions by a chorus of the political prisoners in their 70’s and 80’s, is planned for TV broadcast on the following Sunday. I took the train down to Taitung with them, and then the ferry, and heard a lot of their stories on the way.

[Photo 1: Quartet of four former political prisoners, about 50 years imprisonment among them. Tsai on left.]

[Photo 2: Miyake Kyoko, Linda Gail Arrigo, secret human rights reporters in Taiwan in early and late 1970’s, respectively. Syd Goldsmith in colorful shirt in corner.]

The combination of music and political prisoners might seem a little incongruous, but in the early days, when the prison walls were being built from coral blocks with their own labor, they were relatively free to roam the island once they got there, and music expressed and also helped to transcend their suffering and separation from loved ones. Among the political prisoners were the cream of the crop of teachers, artists, and musicians, both mainlanders and native Taiwanese. They learned from each other, and they created the performances that were allowed to them by the prison authorities to demonstrate the enlightened methods of political rehabilitation.

The auditorium was a huge round cave in a cliff at the northeast end of the island, certainly over fifty feet high inside. The stage was a slightly raised and leveled area at the bottom next to the sheer rock wall, while the spectators sat in tiers far above on a hillside. In about 1952, before the women were sent to a separate prison in Panchiao, there were performances by a famous dancer, Tsai Rei-yueh, and three other women whom she had trained. We heard about this during a tour of the cave on May 18, from Mr. Tsai Kun-lin who served ten years for his participation in a high school reading club.

[Photo 3: Tsai Kun-lin, left; Su You-peng, right. On the ferry to Green Island.]

[Photo 4: Famous three rocks in front of 1972 prison. Seen looking west from site of 1952 prison camp, long dismantled.]

[Photo 5: Prison built 1972, modern 8-hallway design for surveillance, now museum.]

[Photo 6: Pillbox where 1950’s prisoners were punished. 1979 prison behind it, looking east.]

[Photo 7: Entering the huge cave on the northeast tip of the island.]

[Photo 8: Looking down to the seashore from the cave entrance. Many former political prisoners practiced swimming to offshore rocks; but none escaped.]

[Photo 9a: Just inside the cave, arch of ceiling. Tsai in red shirt.]

[Photo 9b: Cave performance platform seen from the audience loft.]

Congruent with the KMT’s crackdown on the Taiwanese elite and intelligentsia during 2-28 (1947), many of the youth came from well-to-do and cultured families. Mr. Su You-peng, sentenced to ten years after being caught with a copy of Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman”, was sent a violin by his family, and taught others how to play as well. They hand-carved their own violins with his as a model, joking that this was a famous brand labeled “Green Island”. Su provided several pieces to the concert, including some from the Italian music book that had been confiscated because the title in Chinese sounded like “Soviet”.

But the cave was also used for cremating prisoners who died; on a hillside nearby there are rough grave stones hidden in the vines behind the posts marked “Taiwan Province Security Command, New Life Reformatory Center, Public Cemetery”. The prisoners also believed that if the communists landed on Taiwan, they would be herded to the cave auditorium and shot, just as the KMT shot all in the jails in Chungking as the Reds closed in.

[Photo 10: Graveyard where political prisoners and also guards who died on the island were buried, most with rough cement or stone markers, if any. Stone post marked "Taiwan Province Security Command, New Life Reformatory Center, Public Cemetery"]

The first time I went to Green Island was with Shih Ming-teh in November 1979, to look at his prison from the outside, a month before the Kaohsiung Incident and the arrests. He spent many years previously and subsequently in solitaire in the prison built in 1972 -- according to rumor, with U.S. funding and design. Concrete double security, stifling heat, no more roaming or swimming. Now the prison is a memorial museum. In 1979 we found they were building yet another huge prison grounds, on the site of the 1950’s “New Life Reformatory”. But in 2005 the remaining Chiang Kai-shek busts and KMT slogans seem to stir nostalgia rather than menace. The island has turned into a paradise for young tourists and scuba divers.

Later Syd Goldsmith and I got off the tour bus on the other side of the island, and strolled up a new, well-marked stone-step path to the highest point on the island, about 300 meters elevation, stopping short of the military communications base at the top. All along the roads I had seen bright yellow “pineapples growing on trees”, and from the botanical markers I learned that it was not a pineapple, but a pithy sweet fruit that was fed to pigs. The huge yellow flower tasted like overripe bananas with a very bitter overtaste.

[Photo 11: The flower of the "pineapple on trees". Its fleshy inner petals taste like very ripe bananas with a very bitter aftertaste. The fruit looks just like a large pineapple, but is tough and pithy, though sweet.]

The hike gave lots of time for conversation. Syd was the political officer at the United States Embassy in Taipei, 1971-74. He learned Taiwanese as well as Mandarin, and hung out with both military strongmen and dissidents. Now after some two more decades of residence in Taiwan and married to a native Taiwanese (he even speaks Chinese with his children), Syd in retirement has been inspired to write a novel set mostly in Taiwan, beginning in the era of martial law, and continuing through to the 1980’s. Those who have read “China Gate” (1982) by an early TAS alumnus, or “The Quiet American”, will recognize the theme of innocent American mesmerized by tragic Taiwanese bar girl. But Syd has woven more in the way of real historical events and his own foreign service experience into “Jade Phoenix” than he lets on in the blurb:

JADE PHOENIX transports the reader to a world of intrigue where the severed head of a chicken dooms heroes, and dreams of nationhood are shattered with the stroke of a pen. Foreign devils challenge ancient Chinese customs and love blooms in a wilderness of misunderstanding.

This marvelous collage of history, politics, mystery and romance was a finalist for the prestigious New Voices in Literature Award. Like no other novel, it reveals the anguish of those who stood to lose the most as the U.S. moved towards recognition of the PRC. Jade, Nick Malter, and Ko-sa poignantly humanize the historical impact of Americans on the Taiwanese, and the power and obsessions of love between them.

I think old TAS alumni with nostalgia for the days of pedicabs, rice fields, and temples will be fascinated, and the young ones will find a lot to learn about Taiwan’s heritage. The novel has not been published yet, but you may be able to get Syd to e-mail you an advance copy by writing to

Back to Green Island. After coming down by a route slightly more to the south, Syd and I were near the famous hot springs in the surf, one of only two in Asia. Now it has a resort facility built on it, entrance only NT$200, with several spa choices, but I preferred the large pools built right down on the coral flats where the hot water seeps up, some pools partly open to the ocean, where you can watch the ocean spray while you float buoyantly in comfortably hot water, and little crabs scuttle on the rocks. Salt water seems to almost polish the skin. Wonderful day, floating till the moon came up.

The next morning, watching from the back deck of the ferry (45 min), I was reluctant to see Green Island receding into the distance, but after a good lunch of fresh, exotic seafood at the port on the Taitung side, Syd and I were ready for the 13:05 express train back to Taipei, six hours that went by very quickly with the beautiful scenery of the rift valley.
[Photo 12: Syd Goldsmith on the ferry, Green Island receding in the distance. Jade Phoenix: the great new novel by Syd Goldsmith about Taiwan in the 70s! (my review)]


skiingkow said...

I wish I could have read Linda's words before visiting Green Island myself this year. I encourage everyone reading this to make it a point to visit this fascinating, poignant and extremely beautiful island.

One other memorable moment we had was a tour of the island's night critters (bugs and wildlife). During that exploration, our young niece and nephew's curiosity was no different from our own.

EmEf said...

Hi Michael, just wanted to say thanks to you now for keeping this alive on your blog and for posting it in the first place. I'm new to Taiwan, but have - through pure dumb luck on my part - had the opportunity to speak to a Green Island politcal prisoner. I've been writing up our brief conversations as a way to practice my Mandarin. The gentleman had spoken about attending the commemoration, about his views about it, as well as his time on the island as a political prisoner. I'm an avid reader of your blog - lots of good folks back in the UK couldn't recommend it highly enough - but coming across this piece was just wonderful. The pictures very much brought what he said to life for me, and seeing things from a different person's perspective will give me different ways to discuss his experiences with him. So thanks again. Mark