I had just turned eleven years old when my gonggong passed away. I never got to know him very well; my memories of him are pieced together from summer trips to the East Coast, when we visited my mother’s side of the family. But between his deteriorating health and my distraction of getting to play Wii with my cousins, my gonggong and I did not spend much time together. After his death, his transformation into an unknown, distant figure in my life felt inevitable.
This year, I took it upon myself to dig up the biography my aunts, uncles, and parents had written for his memorial service and refamiliarize myself with his life.
Wang Pinglei (王平雷) was born in 1927 in Zhenjiang (wait, like the vinegar I cook with?), Jiangsu Province, China. Less than twenty years later, his recently widowed mother, overwhelmed with eight children, sent him, the eldest, to Taiwan with a younger brother; he would not see her again for over three decades- after Mao Zedong’s death. In the newly acquired province across the Strait, outside the political turmoil of the mainland, my gonggong not only had to fend for himself and his brother, but also hoped to find better educational opportunities. His time as a student, however, was tragically cut short. The biography then covers the next momentous event in his life: his five-year incarceration as a political prisoner on Green Island, or Lü Dao.
In an attempt to emotionally guard their family from a traumatic and potentially taboo family history, my grandparents did not discuss my gonggong’s imprisonment with my mother’s generation, and their incomplete understanding that resulted was passed onto my own generation. It was not until 2018, five years after his death, that my parents were able to find the correct years of his imprisonment. They traveled to Lü Dao, to the Green Island White Terror Memorial Park.
My parents’ visit to Lü Dao coincided with my participation in a summer Mandarin study program run by the Overseas Community Affairs Council of the ROC. Often abbreviated to OCAC or SCLP, the program’s official title was “Language Study Program for Compatriot Youth.” Of my own volition, at the age of sixteen I came to study at Tamkang University in New Taipei City alongside other international teens, supposedly all with family from the ROC. Seizing the opportunity, my parents decided to take their own trip to Taiwan.
It was at that memorial site that my parents were able to uncover more details of my gonggong’s imprisonment. From 1951 to 1956 he served his sentence as a political prisoner, unjustly accused of communist sympathies only because of second- or third-degree associations as a university student. He was tried in a mass trial where many were sentenced to death, and several others to lengthier sentences than him. This time haunted him for the rest of his life.
It could be said that my gonggong’s identity as a recent migrant from the mainland—as a waishengren—primed him for persecution in early post-war Taiwan. His trial and sentence were part of many waishengren cases concentrated in the early 1950s; in fact, waishengren were disproportionate victims of the White Terror, comprising 40 percent of those known to have been targeted, despite constituting less than 15 percent of Taiwan’s population at the time (Yang and Chang). To the KMT, migrants from the mainland posed a greater likelihood for Communist infiltration than the local population (benshengren).
Completed at the end of 1999, the Green Island White Terror Memorial Park is representative of Taiwan’s shift to a democratic, open society. According to one of its information plaques, its purpose is to commemorate the victims and shed light on this period of history “written in blood and tears.” When I decided to study in Taiwan in 2018, this was the only Taiwan I knew: a democracy willing to confront its dark past. 2018 also marked the year I had begun to claim a Taiwanese-American identity for the first time, indeed with much pride.
When I decided to study in Taiwan in 2018, this was the only Taiwan I knew: a democracy willing to confront its dark past
For my grandparents, however, Taiwan symbolized an oppressive regime. Four years after his release, my gonggong married Shih Pilwun (施璧倫), my popo. After having three daughters with his wife in quick succession, including my mother, he left for the United States. Exploring various educational fellowships in the States, my gonggong was leaving behind a place with little hope, a place with nearly nothing but trauma, hardship, and oppression. In 1967, his family followed him to Ithaca, NY, where they settled for decades and also had a son. Even when her mother passed away in Taiwan in the 1970s, my popo did not return to the island under martial law for fear of political repercussions.
Neither of my grandparents were self-proclaimed Nationalists or loyal followers of Chiang Kai-shek—my popo had come to Taiwan with her family around 1947 because of a job offer her dad had received—but regardless, their understanding of the island was forever locked into the ways they had experienced Taiwan: first as a province of China, and then as the remaining ROC-ruled territory under martial law, forcibly cut off from the mainland. Thus, they hoped for reunification, and firmly believed themselves to be Chinese.
My departure from my grandparents’ political identity and ideologies is one that I still grapple with today. Like many other third-generation waishengren, I have only witnessed a democratic, independently governed Taiwan, and that is where my familiarity lies. Furthermore, as a second-generation immigrant to the United States, my diasporic identity is rooted solely in Taiwan, absent of any longing for the mainland. For certain, my grandparents would not have used the label of Taiwanese or Taiwanese-American like I do today, let alone organize in student associations that sport these same titles.
My departure from my grandparents’ political identity and ideologies is one that I still grapple with today.
In 2004, my gonggong was finally exonerated. Curiously, he received monetary reparations from both the ROC and PRC governments, but with the latter of these gestures caught up in its own political underpinnings, only one felt owed. He had been awaiting an apology from the ROC. As I reflect on my family’s 2018 trip, I can’t help but notice its irony: for me, that summer was defined by my enthusiasm for a Taiwanese government-run program—in fact, it played a pivotal role in shaping my Taiwanese-American identity—yet simultaneously, that summer brought my parents back to a dark place at the heart of what ultimately drove my gonggong away from Taiwan.
In an effort to get to know him better, I took a dive into my gonggong’s past- a past that can easily be shrouded in obscurity and silence, and one with which I neglected to engage growing up. And still, I find myself asking: what would my gonggong think of my relationship to Taiwan today?
Beia Giebel was born and raised in Seattle, Washington to immigrant parents from Germany and Taiwan. She is a lover of languages, cooking, bakeries, and tea. As a student, she studies East Asian languages and cultures, and in her free time, she likes to hang out with her siblings and three-year-old boxer pup.
Yang, Dominic Meng-Hsuan and Mau-kuei Chang. “Understanding the Nuances of
Waishengren: History and Agency.” China Perspectives, 2010, pp. 108-122. https://www
https://www.nhrm.gov.tw/ErrorPages/PageNotFound?aspxerrorpath=/NHRM/Code/gi_park_about.aspx – link from QR code on information plaque at the Green Island White Terror Memorial Park, though no longer functioning (last accessed 10/17/2022); similar information can be found elsewhere on the National Human Rights Museum’s page: https://www.nhrm.gov.tw/w/nhrmEN/GreenIsland_Explore