Ian Yu-Hung Tseng: “Deconstructing Daan Forest Park”

From The First Journal of Lost Taiwan’s History, Pub. 2087, Vol. 12, Iss. 8, p. 122-127

Daan Forest Park once sat in the heart of Taipei, at least according to the cardiologists at the National Taiwan University Hospital, though the pulmonologists must have been more popular when they supposedly nicknamed the park, “the lungs of Taipei City.” Surrounded by a metropolis that suffocated in its own humid smog, it is said that Daan Forest Park offered a block of fresh air with its fir trees, palm trees, bamboo trees, and, as one American tourist pointed out, “bok choy” trees. 

The tourist was a social media influencer by the name of Joe Conman, and he posted that he had discovered the only place in Taipei that had been untouched by modern civilization since Eden—“a Heart of Park-ness,” he somehow tweeted from the park’s remotest depths. This caption accompanied a fuzzy selfie with rows of white-haired “aboriginal elders, performing a rare tribal ceremony at 5 AM, can you believe my luck!?!?!” Below the tweet, a presumably Taiwanese commenter replied, “bruh, that’s literally just my grandparents and their friends doing tai chi to exercise, u dumbass American.” 

Most locals would have agreed that Joe was, indeed, a “dumbass American.” That said, most locals also believed that the park was, at least, untouched by Taiwan’s former parents, the ever-abusive, twice-divorced China and Japan (though, as historians often ask, were they ever really married?). To the local residents in Daan District, their beloved park was not only the heart and lungs of Taipei, but it was also their entire baby. This living being was born in the Taiwanese year 83, which converts to the Western world’s calendar as either 1992 or 1995 according to conflicting calculations—in any case, it was long after China had taken custody of Taiwan from Japan in the wake of the Second World War. This was so long after World War II, in fact, that Taiwan had unofficially orphaned itself from China, perhaps in order to be unofficially adopted by the United States of America. If anything, then, Daan Forest Park had more to do with America, for this was like Taipei’s very own Central Park. 

Still, the park belonged to the Taiwanese. Elderly Daan District locals documented the growth of their baby in the form of quatrain poems, romanticizing how they had watched this Formosan fantasy world sprout out of the wasteland of a Taiwanese tragedy. The land used to house an old slum, which was home to even older military veterans, but it mysteriously burned down in the year 83. Local elders lamented in their poems about the cremation of their fellow seniors, praying for a survivor to rise out of the ashes like a phoenix. A year later, though, neither survivor nor phoenix arose. Instead, the wet ashes had become fertilizer for blades of grass, which cut through the concrete with their sharp shade of jade, and the local elders claimed that they had watered all of the trees themselves with their typhoon of tears. By the year 99, the last known “大安絕句” (“Daan Quatrain”) was published by the historical fiction writer Zeng Yi-Bien: 


Paradise within Taipei 


Loud cicadas fly all day 


Trees taller than 101 


Quiet sleep when day is done 

In his poem, Zeng plays on the Mandarin meanings of “Da” as “big,” “loud,” and “tall,” as well as the meanings of “an” as “quiet,” “safe,” and “peaceful.” As such, many literarians believe that Daan Forest Park came to symbolize Taiwan’s vast sanctuary from all kinds of dangers, from natural disasters to Chinese and Japanese colonization. It is said, though, that the park may have had more to do with China than the locals thought. In one of the years after the Kuomintang took control over Taiwan, the headline of a newspaper article from The R.O.C. Bee reads, “KUOMINTANG CHAIRMAN AND PRESIDENT LEE TENG-HUI PLANS TO PLANT MOST GLORIOUS PARK IN TAIWAN.” Of course, the Kuomintang was the dominant political party in China before they apparently fled to Taiwan for “civil reasons” in the late-1940s, so if they truly did plant the seeds of Daan Forest Park, Taipei’s vast sanctuary from foreign forces would, indeed, have fifty-year-old roots from China. Still, by that logic, even most of the Taiwanese locals had four-hundred-year-old roots from China when their ancestors emigrated over during the Qing dynasty, and some anthropologists argue that President Lee’s Hakka heritage makes him more Taiwanese than Chinese. As if these identity politics weren’t complicated enough, a few American historians argue that his nickname, “Mr. Democracy,” made the Kuomintang Party more American than Chinese at that point, and he must have gotten the idea for Daan Forest Park from New York’s Central Park when he gave a speech at Cornell University in the summer of 1995. 

According to another article, this time from the Taipei Times, Daan Forest Park may have been borne out of another Kuomintang assault on both the Chinese and Taiwanese people. The article states that poverty-stricken Mainlanders had been living on that block of land for decades ever since they landed in Taipei, but in an effort to win over the Taiwanese people, the Kuomintang government decided that these useless old Mainlanders were illegal squatters, and that replacing these dirt-poor people with a grassy park would improve the city. The Mainlanders may not have had the proper permits to prove otherwise, but they did have the support of young Taiwanese activists, who scurried to the slums and squatted with their seniors. A black-and-white photograph depicts the peaceful protest, captioned by a quote from a Taiwanese teenager: “Taiwanese people, Chinese people, Mainlander people, Islander people—we’re all people! They’ll have to bulldoze thousands of us if they want to build a pathetic park here, and that’ll just go to show that they’d rather give a home to hairy bugs rather than human beings.” A year later, another article from the Taipei Times featured another black-and-white photograph shot from the same place, but this time, instead of young and old protesters, the picture shows a series of sickly saplings sticking out of black, cockroach-infested soil. 

Interestingly, one of the oldest documents from Taipei hints that the roots of Daan Forest Park actually connect to Japan. Before the last Japanese officials sailed off into the Taiwanese sunset in the mid-1940s, they had sketched a rough vision of Taipei’s future. Included in this plan was a total of seventeen parks, with Daan Forest Park—which the Japanese titled “Oki-an Park”—coming in at number seven. Of course, before they could bring these seventeen parks to life, the Japanese were defeated in World War II, and China forced them to retreat from Taiwan. In their haste, officials left behind their sketches, which were all done in black pen. Some Japanese archaeologists have dismissed them as merely the rough draft of a map that someone had drawn for their failed fantasy manga. 

The number seven, though, could have a superstitious correlation to the fact that Americans thought Daan Forest Park to be lucky. On the International Map of U.S. Embassies, there was an “American Institute in Taiwan” just east of the park in Daan District. Sometime between the 1950s through 1970s, decades before Joe Conman’s arrival, American soldiers had already been housing in the embassy ever since China launched missiles into the East China Sea, just dozens of miles from Taiwan’s northern coast. Taiwanese military personnel could not confirm whether these missiles were armed or false, but America sent their soldiers anyway to protect their trade relations with the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. However serious the situation may have been, many of the American soldiers wrote in letters and journals that they felt lucky to live by Daan Forest Park (instead of being sent to, say, Korea or Vietnam), and they even helped build tennis and basketball courts for the locals. Funnily enough, our old friend Joe Conman must have missed, or perhaps ignored, the evidence of American occupation in the park. 

The last known information about Daan Forest Park roughly dates back to the early 2000s, though nobody knows just how early. These stories were preserved in quasi-corrupted messages from the popular Taiwanese messaging app, LineTM. At first, many people were just wondering how surgeonfish from the Pacific Ocean (not to be confused with freshwater sturgeon) had ended up in the park’s famous man-made pond. Most dismissed the mystery as another random, useless stunt from the government. Other locals claimed that a drunk fisherman had released them in the pond when nobody was looking. A few ecologists explained that they had entered Taipei through the Tamsui River, then got to the pond by swimming through an underground canal from the Qing Dynasty that flowed beneath Xinsheng Road. One conspiracy theorist asserted that the underwater explosion of the Chinese missile tests in years 84 and 85 had launched surgeonfish eggs all the way from the Taiwan strait into the heart of Taipei. 

For a few years in a row, always during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, tourists and locals alike started to go missing in Daan Forest Park. One Taiwanese college student had been found hanging from a tree, a failed exam still bunched up in his fist. Police found another American tourist face down in the pond with the surgeonfish, half-eaten by who knows what (fingers were pointed not only at the surgeonfish, but at the egrets, ducks, and even the turtles). Dozens could not be found at all, no matter how many search parties were organized on LineTM. Locals started to fear that ghosts of the old Mainlanders—or the spirits of the young Taiwanese protesters—had returned to take revenge on anyone who invaded their sacred land. One night-jogger even posted a viral picture, using flash photography to capture a blurry, fifteen-foot-tall ghost-woman, pale as the moon. The comment section debunked this woman as merely the beloved Guanyin statue, who protected the park rather than haunted it. 

Then, one day, in either year 102 or 103, a Taiwanese American woman from Florida spotted a familiar log submerging and resurfacing in the pond. She realized it wasn’t a log, but an alligator (or crocodile; the Mandarin word, “鱷魚,” does not differentiate between the two). This was odd because alligators (nor crocodiles) were not endemic to Taiwan, and it would have been physically impossible for an alligator (or crocodile) to swim over from China. Out of their element, the police brought in an old man who had once owned an illegal alligator (crocodile) farm in the Taiwan countryside, and there turned out to be two Daan gators (crocs) that he wrangled into captivity. Everybody blamed the old man for letting alligators (crocodiles) loose in the heart of Taipei, though as the old man was arrested again, he shouted that these beasts were crocodiles (alligators) and not the alligators (crocodiles) that he had once owned. But whether it was the allidiles or the crocogators, the ghosts or the Guanyin statue, or maybe even the surgeonfish, the biggest mystery still remains: just who were the Taiwanese people who had gone missing in Daan Forest Park, and what were their stories? 

Deep in the heart or lungs of what was once Taipei, Daan Forest Park now sits in a humid mist of mysterious history. Ironically, if you change the tone marks of the two characters, the meaning of “Daan” changes from “big and peaceful” to, simply, “answer.”

FROM TSENG: “Although I’m the only one in my immediate family who was NOT born in Taiwan, I love Taiwan with all of my Formosa-shaped heart. The roots that stretch to my ancestral homeland grow more robust every day, as I sit down every night to research and write about Taiwan. One day, I hope to publish a picture book, an early chapter book, a middle grade novel, a young adult novel, and an adult fiction novel–and I hope to infuse my Taiwanese heritage into each and every one.”

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