Taiwan’s Unsung Hero: A Tribute to Linda Arrigo

Linda Arrigo takes visitors on tours of a White Terror era graveyard in east Taipei. Photo: Trista di Genova

One of the most underappreciated intellectuals around, for decades Linda Gail Arrigo has stuck to her guns and stood up for human rights in Taiwan. She should be thanked for always being a truth-teller, and providing authorities with at times a much-needed cattleprod to their conscience [Note:Other publications have declined to publish this article, as for some Arrigo is a political and controversial figure.]

By Trista di Genova, The Wild East

I heard about Linda Arrigo (艾琳達; pinyin: Ài Líndá) through a friend of mine, who said that Linda lived a quiet life these days — comparatively speaking — with her horde of cats in the mountains ringing the Taipei basin, and seemed somewhat relieved to hear from old friends.

My interest was also piqued to learn that Linda ran informal tours of a Taipei graveyard where victims of the White Terror era were buried. The graveyard was a few minutes’ walk from Taipei Medical University in east Taipei, where she teaches humanities.

Eventually, I made contact with Linda, took the tour and wrote a story about it for The China Post (my editors who’d lunched with Shih Ming-teh were furious, but that’s another story). For a woman in her 60s, she’s incredibly lively, animated, loquacious and fluent in all matters Taiwan. She reminded me of a bustling auntie, and perhaps because she is of Italian-American heritage she even bears a resemblance to members of my family. Even more beguiling, with her penchant for loud, colorful fashions and ever-ready grin, she’s the spitting image of Janis Joplin.

In fact, the more I learned about Linda Arrigo the more I was amazed with this person. She first came to Taiwan as a teenager in 1963, aged 16, with her father, a military man. She married a Taiwanese and had one son with him, and after finishing graduate work at Stanford and a stint working in New York, she returned to Taiwan.

“For facts,” she wrote by email, “I was kicked out of Stanford in 1976 with a terminal masters. I got my Ph.D. 1996 finally from SUNY Binghamton. I worked at the Port Authority of NY and NJ to make some money before I finished my Ph.D. — that was 1986-89.”

For the past 40-plus years, Linda Arrigo’s lived through, and been at the nexus of every important event in Taiwan’s modern history: the Kaohsiung Incident, Martial Law and its lifting, the White Terror era, the Lin Family murders; seeking the release of political prisoners and justice for families of 2-28 victims; Lee Teng-hui’s historic presidency; Taiwan’s democratization; human rights and civil rights movements; speaking up for indigenous peoples and their naming and land rights. Read her article on Orchid Island’s aboriginal culture here.

In fact, I’d argue that if anyone is worthy of the title of Taiwan Xi-fu (“Taiwan daughter-in-law”) as well as numerous accolades and peace prizes for her life’s work, it must be Linda Gail Arrigo.

Yet for speaking out and being a much-needed advocate in all of these key areas, she’s often merely labeled and dismissed as ‘an activist’, what is surely a serious underestimation of her extensive contributions to bettering Taiwan’s society.

With Lynn Miles, she recently edited and co-authored the book “A Borrowed Voice”, a seminal and meaty collection of contemporary articles about Taiwan’s human rights movement. You can’t find it in any Eslite or Caves because they won’t stock it, but this book should be on the shelf of every self-respecting Taiwan-lover, researcher and historian.

In it, a tale of intrigue is told. Taiwan is under martial law, and the KMT is taking extraordinary measures to prevent details getting out of the human rights situation in Taiwan. In this vacuum, intellectuals are arrested, interrogated, followed, harassed, put on trial, maybe even worse, but information is closely guarded and kept from the outside world. Cloak-and-dagger-type operations were necessarily carried out, to communicate to Amnesty International and the outside world in general what was going on in Taiwan. By collaborating with and helping mobilize an underground of human rights sympathizers that spanned from Japan to San Francisco, Lynn Miles and Linda Arrigo were critical players in the silent struggle that eventually managed to get the names of hundreds of political prisoners to the outside world – and ultimately assure their release.

Times sure have changed. Today, people usually know ‘Ai Linda’ for having been the American wife of Shih Ming-teh (施明德; pinyin: Shī Míngdé, a.k.a. Nori), a well-known Taiwanese dissident. Shih survived incarceration on Green Island during martial law, then avoided certain persecution and further prison time under the KMT administration by marrying an American, Linda (conveniently, this allowed her to stay in Taiwan, which she now considered her home). Shih quit the DPP in 2000 and later became the gadfly by leading the ‘Redshirt Rebellion’ in 2006 against then DPP President Chen Shui-bian, calling for Chen’s resignation; incidentally, this is a strange twist in plot, since Chen was Shih’s lawyer after the Kaohsiung Incident. But for this and other actions, Arrigo publicly denounced her fickle, high-profile, now ex-husband ‘a traitor’. They divorced in 1995.

As a result of taking a stand against opposition to Chen, often people mistakenly believe Linda is a staunch defender of the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party). It is true she was involved in its formation, since 1990, although she left in 1996 to join the Green Party that same year. But here again she has been one of the DPP’s most vocal critics, years before Chen’s and the DPP’s corruption scandals pointing out to DPP insiders (and documenting; she’s a gifted writer, notetaker and researcher) some of the Party’s most dangerously corrupt tendencies. Her opinion was sidelined and muffled, as is the tendency, since it is not good for someone’s ‘face’ to have one’s weaknesses laid out so plainly.

As she put it, “The DPP was not unhappy with me until my article “From Democratic Movement to Bourgeois Democracy” was published in Chinese — and that time also there was a lot of criticism of the DPP abandoning its principles.”

Today, most people seem unaware Linda Arrigo has long been an active member of the Green Party — in terms of power a fledgling organization in Taiwan, as it is around the world. She is a highly prized member of the Green Party; she assiduously attends their functions and is feted on her birthday.

In fact, everywhere she goes she seems to create a ‘frisson’. People recognize her on the street — almost every Taiwanese who knows anything at all seems to know who ‘Ai Linda’ is. And whenever she gets into a taxi, the driver almost invariably recognizes her from her voice, since she’s been the guest on many radio programs (taxi drivers listen to these shows religiously as they’re driving around).

“But please take out the stuff about me being a public figure, everybody knows that already, and so what,” she commented after reading a draft of this article, demonstrating the extent of her tendency toward self-effacing modesty.

But I continue in this vein. Once I went with Linda to the opening of a new film about Dr. and Mrs. Tien Chao-min, long-time human rights and pro-Taiwan independence activists. Her Chinese is so fluent she simultaneously translated the entire film to me. Afterwards, when Mrs. Tien addressed the theatergoers and invited questions from the audience, I prodded Linda to say something, anything. “What do I have to say?” she responded, too modestly. I urged her, saying “I’m absolutely sure they would welcome any comments you made, as a show of support.”

When she rose and began speaking, a buzz went through the room and there was even some spontaneous applause. Linda Arrigo is not only recognized, welcomed and well-loved in many freedom-loving circles, her opinion and advice is constantly sought out. Several people afterwards made their way over to her so they could make her acquaintance, or renew an old one.

As a busy professor at TMU, she is probably one of the most accessible instructors I’ve ever met. She often spends hours with both foreign and Taiwanese students, generously giving them her time and advice, individually. She often buys the more strapped students lunch, or invites them on group hikes and outings and field trips.

“This is nice as a topic,” she writes, “but much too openly admiring — don’t get labeled a softie for propaganda! Doesn’t sound like a journalist. Who are you writing for?

Okay, fair enough. Today, she fiercely criticizes the state of academia, as a ‘publish or perish’ world overflowing with bureaucratic pressures and paperwork, with its overemphasis on specializations in obscure, irrelevant areas of ‘expertise’. Academics are being forced to eschew the ‘big picture’ that can only be provided through a multi-disciplinary approach. Further, Taiwan’s academics are now pressured to publish in English, but they’re often ill-equipped to do so. These are some of the things she talks a LOT about these days — privately and publicly. Keep in mind her critical viewpoint has been unleashed upon a wide range of controversial issues for decades; for example, she’s been blacklisted since the 1970s by the US State Department for her outspokenness in anti-war criticism.

Yet, after getting to know her, she also seems, curiously, almost annoyingly, never angry. Why?

“I used to be rather depressed and depressing, but I went through a course of hypnotism three years ago, and it changed my style for the better, to pollyanna. Still colorful. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but I’m going along for the ride, and will still have fun.”

This article “needs some sarcastic edge”, she wrote, “like why Linda (and Lynn) is not working for the DPP? Or, how can the apparently grandmotherly figure be a raving revolutionary Marxist who went to Nicaragua in 1980?”

Indeed! What’s it like being an unabashed Marxist — no doubt you find yourself marginalized in different ways! And in what ways are you Marxist, really? W.E. await your response…

4 thoughts on “Taiwan’s Unsung Hero: A Tribute to Linda Arrigo

  • June 27, 2015 at 1:13 am

    i went to taiwan in ’87 and worked in the tawian epa, and later had some contact with zhang guo-long and huan bao lian meng. i had heard about linda arrigo then. so so inspiring. linda, please write a book on that hypnosis you received (if you weren’t being tongue in cheek). the actions of other humans can be depressing. contemplating your actions is an antidote- but the hypnosis route sounds even better!

  • February 13, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Nice tribute to a `fierce` camarade. She, along fellows like Lynn, counts as one of the handful of people who have seen it all from the 60s and on in Taiwan, and one of the rare ones to have never given up on both the place and its many issues in spite of having, various times, taken some vitriol for exposing what needed to be exposed in some political and academic circles. Great story you did! Thanks

  • Pingback: Invitation: To all expat writers on Taiwan | Lone Wolf Press

  • July 18, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Linda is very very knowledgeable about everything related to Taiwan + always smiling, helpful and kind


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