As editor-in-chief of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, I try to adhere to a level of curatorial prudence and precision of language — because not every great book must be essential — but I truly believe that Wendy Cheng’s Island X is essential reading for Taiwanese Americans. It is an unprecedented origin story of Taiwanese Americans, lyrically charting not only where we come from but, crucially, why it matters.
In the final chapter, Becoming Taiwanese American, Cheng notes that her book captures the experience of a “unique generation as they are aging and passing away. Most of the people interviewed and involved in the major events [discussed] were born between the 1930s and 1950s.” Directly salient for our readers, though, is the question of “what legacy this generation will leave for future generations, within and beyond Taiwanese and Taiwanese American communities.” In the concentric circles of Taiwanese American identity, the first layer is pride, then political consequence, then historical context and positionality. So many of us have taken the first step in acknowledging that we are Taiwanese. Most of us are proud of this, and can note that it is a “political declaration.” And now, in a way never before this accessible, we have an opportunity to reflect on the terms of those politics, the conditions of our pride.
While comprehensively researched and published as scholarly text, Island X is compulsively readable, and some sections even feel like “uncle/auntie lore,” untangling and grounding the mysterious elders of our community in vital context that even they are not fully able to articulate or perceive. For those lucky enough to be raised in proximity to such elders, we’ve heard valiant recountings of their efforts to “pa-bianh” on behalf of Taiwan. But Island X evenly offers both credit and gentle critique to such histories, and it is a mighty, revolutionary thing to see them afforded the full dignity of humans who tried desperately to get it right, but in the long, complex arc of their world, sometimes fell short. And, because I am a deeply filial Taiwanese American girl, the opportunity to humanize my elders was a gift.
As Cheng more beautifully writes, “retelling the history of area studies… presents a shadow – and shadowed – intellectual and political history, full of the beautiful dreams and complicated realities of intellectual migrants whose opportunities and stark limitations were shaped by Cold War priorities far beyond their control.”
Island X also offers timely analysis of some baffling contradictions within our community: our intuitive solidarity with the repressed, who do not elect their harmful leaders; our strange romanticization of and continued reliance on the United States government (who not only funded the 228 massacre under the Kuomintang government but allowed them to spy on and intimidate Taiwanese students on American college campuses); our few progressive allies and advocates despite becoming a progressive nation. Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that once the constraints that prevented our grandparents and parents from developing a sustained critique of the United States are illuminated — we their children can build upon their work, stand upon their shoulders, and continue to reach for a political articulation that leaves no one behind. If “Taiwanese American identity should be understood as merging from a specific dialectical and semi-colonial relationship between Taiwan and the United States,” may we as Taiwanese Americans dedicate our politics to accountability for both.
I also know of leftist organizers who treat Cheng’s work as a form of sustenance. In particular, her research on the genealogies of a Taiwanese diasporic left have been instructive on working through, and not becoming discouraged by, “contradictory relationships to multiple empires… [and how to] charge principled courses of action amidst constraining circumstances.” Her scholarly contributions have, throughout the years, proven that they/we are not alone and that our threads of solidarity with Palestinians, Hong Kongers, Uighurs, Tibetans, and abolitionists are not as tenuous as we may fear. This, too, is a profound gift.
I’ve also had so many conversations over the years with second-generation peers who were, like me, handed a baton of tongxianghui community organizing (alongside a roster of members 50+ years older than us). This baton has often felt conditional, partially relinquished, and enigmatically heavy. At times, the baton has felt more like a burden, which is an awful way of describing something given to us with so much pride and trust. Reading Island X transformed this burden into an inheritance; I now know more clearly than ever its origins, its circumstances, and what is at stake. I know what my elders have forged, I know what they have fought for. And I know that the work isn’t simply frontline action, but the slow and careful and sometimes silly work of building trust and camaraderie, of meticulous note-taking and accounting of donated funds. I especially appreciated the attention paid to the labor of communal care and social reproduction among women. I know that every protest I ever attended growing up began with an auntie who planned the bland logistics and ended with an auntie that made sure I got home safely.
I am so grateful to see this recalculation of who “contributed” to the movement, of who deserves to be remembered as a revolutionary. Taiwanese independence activists, many of them men, describe their sacrifices as painful but worthy; Island X prompted me to wonder more deeply about those who were sacrificed when their husbands and fathers essentially abandoned them. Some were held as hostages by the state; others were simply left behind, and we may never know the extent of their complicated resentments. I hope their descendants find some peace in our wondering.
Island X offers so many things at once to the Taiwanese American canon and political education, recovering what was discounted and articulating what continues to be murky, without the self-consciousness of a memoir or the distance of an outsider-observer. It is a labor of deep, lasting love from a daughter who brings honor to her radical parents’ legacy and hope to her children’s future.
When I rave about the flourishing catalog of Taiwanese American literature, especially in fiction and picture books, the first-generation aunties are the first to sharply request elaboration: “Okay, okay, but are they New York Times bestsellers?” One could interpret this as an exacting demand for high achievement, but one could also, more sensitively, understand this is a heartfelt longing for our stories to become visible and known by the broadest possible audience (or, the audience “that matters” – a categorization carefully examined in Island X). To be a bestseller is not simply a code for success; it is the aspiration itself, for our stories, written on our terms, to be widely read and valued. I of course want this for Island X, and for all Taiwanese American literature and scholarly work.
But whom I serve above all else is Taiwanese Americans. My hope is that Taiwanese American organizers – from student groups to professional groups to social ones – treat Island X as a precious, serious opportunity to better understand themselves. As much as representation in media and literature affirm worthiness, an explanation is what really affirms that you belong and offers careful guidance for what’s possible. In the conclusion, Cheng offers Island X as an “opening.” My call to action to my peers, my friends, my community is thus: please, please, take this opening and see what we could become.
ISLAND X: Taiwanese Student Migrants, Campus Spies, and Cold War Activism
Island X delves into the compelling political lives of Taiwanese migrants who came to the United States as students from the 1960s through the 1980s. Often depicted as compliant model minorities, many were in fact deeply political, shaped by Taiwan’s colonial history and influenced by the global social movements of their times. As activists, they fought to make Taiwanese people visible as subjects of injustice and deserving of self-determination.
Under the distorting shadows of Cold War geopolitics, the Kuomintang regime and collaborators across US campuses attempted to control Taiwanese in the diaspora through extralegal surveillance and violence, including harassment, blacklisting, imprisonment, and even murder. Drawing on interviews with student activists and extensive archival research, Wendy Cheng documents how Taiwanese Americans developed tight-knit social networks as infrastructures for identity formation, consciousness development, and anticolonial activism. They fought for Taiwanese independence, opposed state persecution and oppression, and participated in global political movements. Raising questions about historical memory and Cold War circuits of power, Island X is a testament to the lives and advocacy of a generation of Taiwanese American activists.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Wendy Cheng is professor of American studies at Scripps College. She is author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California and coauthor of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles.