Taipei graveyard may hold key to White Terror

At the gate to the Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park, from left to right: Linda Arrigo, Ann Heylen, professor of NTNU's Graduate Institute of Taiwan Culture, Richard Zalski a researcher and Kenbo Liao, whose father fell victim during the 2-28 Incident. Photo: Trista di Genova
By Trista di Genova / Originally published in The China Post [China Post no longer exists: broken link removed]

Barely a stone’s throw from Taipei 101 and overlooking one of the more scenic views of the city, a small group of foreigners, one Taiwanese and I clamber up the side of a gentle hill in eastern Taipei with noted human rights activist and scholar Linda Arrigo, to inspect a little-known site that is testament to one of Taiwan’s darkest periods.

Hundreds of political prisoners — both native Taiwanese and Mainlander — are buried here, in the “Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park” marked in Chinese only at the gate to the former military village. Many of the graves were not discovered until 1989 or later. According to most estimates so far, 5,000 people were executed, but where they are buried is largely unknown.

“For me this is a tremendous wealth of information, a time capsule especially for this period, when Mainlanders first came,” Arrigo said. “It just calls out for an archeology project, to research and understand who are the people who are buried here in this early period, late 40s and 50s.”

“This is all illegal housing, all kinds of little pockets where Mainlanders came,” she says of the area, mostly fairly nice shacks. “A lot of them were not formally soldiers, some were refugees or left the military early, so they didn’t have rights [to the land]. They were able to farm the land, but not allowed to build or sell. The people here are almost all marginalized. But this was the largest area of military dependents,” she said.

“It’s kind of hard to interview these people, but you can see them around in the area, picking up things for recycling. That’s one topic I give to my students — they try to find out who’s doing the recycling, how much they’re making, who are the people. There are a lot of people here living in the cracks of Taiwan’s rich society.”

Arrigo in the oldest section of the graveyard, in eastern Taipei. Photo: Trista di Genova

Her number one goal, she says, is for her students “to understand history, how their society came to be the way it. Because of the light on the political issues, it’s hard to get the students to accept the political issues. Part of the problem is the young people have no grounding in Taiwan history, or Chinese history. They just don’t believe that this really happened. They think it’s just a political controversy between two interested parties, which it is, but it’s not just that. So I hope to show them from this there’s a real history, and several sides to it, and they can go out and see it, and research it. Another part of it is for the students to develop a social conscience, because they’re medical personnel, and they will have to serve a lot of old farmpeople and Mainlanders living in the corners around here.”

But superstitions run high, keeping this “Ghost Tour of Taipei” in obscurity. “When my students come up here, they only walk where I walk. They don’t like walking on graves,” says Arrigo ruefully. “With local people, there’s a resistance to looking at death,” she says. “They say, ‘Well, you’re a foreigner, you don’t believe in ghosts and you’re a Christian, so ghosts won’t attach themselves to you.”

“My point is, this is a historical record of who migrated from China, of this refugee migration. We lost so much information, maybe the miliary will bring it up, but we don’t really have much information on what are the lives of those people. Many of them did become political prisoners, many of them died in the military with no relatives, or got out of the military and had nobody in Taiwan. So for me it’s a piece of Taiwan history that should be studied,” and for Mainlanders, too, she maintains. The ratio of Mainlanders to Taiwanese, she estimates was in most accounts 1/3 mainlander and 2/3 Taiwanese. “And for those who were executed, I think there was a slightly larger percentage of Mainlanders who were executed in that early period, and the reason for that is the Mainlanders could be more easily framed. CKS figured that they were communists infiltrating Taiwan and also he was really paranoid about anybody possibly being communist. In fact, they were [mocked] with the slogan “kill a hundred suspects to get one real communist.”

“If there was any kind of evidence, real or made up, they could execute them. It was easy for Mainlanders to find a picture of them evidence of classmates in position with the communists, even if not member of communist party, In those days it was very easy to torture somebody, get some kind of testimony and execute them,” she related.

“Mainlanders generally don’t want to keep records of the oppressed Mainlanders. So many of the Mainlanders were jailed, but there’s nobody in the KMT making an effort to keep their history. It’s extremely polarized between rich classes,” she explained, “bankers who fled to Taiwan, and soldiers forced to come here to Taiwan. I know a lot of people who went to jail for just trying to go home,” she says, “writing to friends in Hong Kong or abroad, to get in touch with their relatives, trying to get back to the Mainland, to see their wives.”

Then in the 1950s-70s people in the area were “White Terrified”: “They had property but they were dependent on the regime, and had to keep silent.”

Political Prisoners

The peaceful hill, overgrown and unkempt, is densely populated with modest, crumbling gravestones, as well as small red-painted stone markers (simply marked with epitaphs such as “Shorty Chu”) to mark the execution of political prisoners during the White Terror era, the suppression of political dissidents in Taiwan, beginning in 1949.

Buried here is the famous anti-Japanese Korean hero, Chiang Wei-shui, who was buried with high honors, modeled on Sun Yat-sen while the purge went on; and Huang Lun-chan, executed in 1952, a reporter and artist whose woodblock painting of the 2-28 Incident epitomized the tragedy. There’s even a Muslim section of the hill.

Linda Arrigo inspects a burial site of a political prisoner from the White Terror. Photo: Trista di Genova

In 1947, there were no markers; but there are accounts that a lot of people were buried in mass graves. Some bodies were thrown over the bridge, into the rivers.

The site “is not really well-documented,” Arrigo says. “Maybe the DPP didn’t work hard enough, weren’t in power long enough, or whatever, but there isn’t really a comprehensive, exhaustive record of it. People have been trying to get it out of the government files,” she noted.

The owner of the land, a Mr. Chen, whose family were Chiang associates in Shanghai, is trying to get the city to buy out his investment in the land, but chances are high it will fall into the hands of real estate developers who would most likely raze the area, she cautions.

Part 2 continues here

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