Grand Prize Winner, Adult Category
March is the rainiest month in Taiwan. Not the afternoon cloudbursts of a tropical summer, nor the furious monsoons of early fall; in the time between winter and spring, the sky is a steady stream of black. But this was the period when the boys and I could spend some extended time on the island. During that first family trip to Taiwan when the boys were seven and ten, the kids and I stayed in Taipei after my husband flew back to the states for work. My job was flexible, and my older son was just months away from starting middle school, with its more rigorous academics and mercurial social system. Let’s go to Taiwan so the kids can get a glimpse of the motherland, I said. But really, I was the one who wanted the experience. We could live like locals in Taipei—and of course, eat more Taiwanese food. But as the days passed, my understanding of this place only grew cloudier.
One of the things I really wanted to do in Taipei was to eat at the Michelin-starred restaurant known for its xiao long bao. At the time, Din Tai Fung had several locations in Southern California, but none in the Bay Area. I had heard about their legendary xiao long bao, with skins so smooth and evenly pleated, they did not stick to the bamboo steamer or break open, spilling the precious broth cushioning the filling.
My father had other ideas, which focused around the Taipei of his youth. Longshan Temple—built during the Qing dynasty, with elaborately carved stone dragons on its curved roofline—marked ground zero. The temple was darkened with layers of soot from three centuries of incense. Everything in the temple and the streets around it was old, from the buildings to the people left to beg on the sidewalk, without any family members to wipe their watery eyes or to buy prosthetics in place of truncated limbs. Even the vendors in the nearby alleys were aged. Leathery hands scooped herbs, shelved religious texts, and wrapped leaves around bah chàng.
When Uncle was not available to chauffeur us in his Honda Accord, my father was committed to traveling by Taipei’s efficient subways and buses—or by foot. In the morning, my father met us in the lobby of our hotel (lāi-má’s flat was spacious by Taipei standards, but not large enough to accommodate four or five extra people, plus the one or two cousins who always seemed to be around). Just across the street was the entrance to a metro station. We descended down the steep stairway and were greeted by fluorescent lights and the buttery scent of milk bread from the bakery inside the station. Elementary school students sized like my boys jostled past, swinging their lunch boxes as they pushed through the turnstiles. Each of us grabbed a pole or handle as we packed into the rush-hour train.
“Mng bē kuainn”
The woman’s recorded words told me the doors were closing; her language, Taiwanese Hokkien, told me I belonged here. The announcement came after the one in Mandarin, and before the translation into Hakka, and finally English, reflecting the hodgepodge (and hierarchy) of languages spoken in the city. When we emerged out of the Longshan Temple station, we walked up the stairs to the sidewalk to find relentless rain. “It’s too wet to walk around the neighborhood,” my father clucked. “Let’s go back to the underground mall.” In this part of the city, subterranean corridors spiderwebbed out from the subway stations. There were small boutiques, snack vendors, and trinket stores, just like any street above-ground. The kids hoped to find a trading card shop selling rare Pokémon cards they couldn’t get in America. My father was looking for a pair of short-bladed iron scissors—the kind my mother used to trim our nails and to harvest chives from the patch of garden outside our cinder block graduate student apartment in Ann Arbor. My eyes darted from the donut stand to the cell phone cover kiosk, taking in all the small luxuries for the metro riders of Taipei. Finally, my father found a pair of scissors in a small shop next to a stall selling dried plums and seeds.
Our extended time in Taipei was anything but relaxing. We walked miles each day, from the hotel to the subway, to lāi-má’s flat, to the bus stop, to museums and temples. My plantar fasciitis was flaring up, and my younger son complained that his ankle hurt. My father didn’t seem to be able to slow down. He wanted to guide us with laser-focus to the destinations he deemed significant—pointing out a historical marker or display—and then move on to the next stop. All I wanted was to sit in a place and observe the people, eavesdrop on their conversations, and inhale the air. I needed to experience Taiwan for myself, not just take his word for it.
As a result, the various districts in Taipei seemed like discrete points connected by subway lines. All the metro stations began to blur together. My sense of direction became unmoored, as we emerged from the matrix of underground tunnels and emerged in different neighborhoods. From a broad boulevard with modern skyscrapers, we dipped into the underground world and popped up on a narrow street where the sidewalks are used for motorcycle parking. I got Bangka mixed up with Twa-tiu-tiann, which irritated my dad. Yes, they were both older districts of Taipei, with red brick buildings and traditional shops—but Twa-tiu-tiann was settled by a faction of southern Hoklos who were constantly fighting with the northern Hoklos who settled earlier in Bangka.
“Gua sì Bangka ê lâng,” my dad proclaimed to cab drivers and anyone else who might be old and salty enough to understand the significance. I’m not even sure I understand the significance of this. What does it mean to be a person who can trace their roots to one of the oldest neighborhoods of Taipei? In the United States, I bristle at the notion that some people are more American than others simply because their ancestors migrated earlier than others. In Taiwan, I hoped to find a connection to the land and the traditions, and to know deep in my bones who I was and where I came from. But in the back of my mind, I heard the uncomfortable whisper that even in the motherland, we were descendants of migrants and settlers.
In Taiwan, I hoped to find a connection to the land and the traditions, and to know deep in my bones who I was and where I came from. But in the back of my mind, I heard the uncomfortable whisper that even in the motherland, we were descendants of migrants and settlers.
In the evenings, my father went back to lāi-má’s flat, and the boys and I sat in our hotel room. I replied to emails on my laptop; they did homework and watched Adventure Time cartoons dubbed in Mandarin while eating chili-crab flavored potato chips. Every morning, my father checked the weather forecast hoping for a clear day for us to walk from the Longshan Temple metro station to an old neighborhood in the Bangka district. Every day, I asked my father if we could eat at Din Tai Fung. Every time, he grumbled some excuse.
My father grumbled at this idea. “Only tourists go there!” He muttered. It was overrated and overpriced, in his opinion. More importantly, my father didn’t consider Din Tai Fung to be a truly Taiwanese restaurant. “You need to see the real Taipei,” he insisted. “The way it used to be.” There is a kind of newness to Taiwan, the kind that is lit with neon lights and set to an endless loop of auto-tuned pop music. It tastes like boba tea and coffin bread, and at the end of the day, it peels off its false eyelashes and farts on a couch next to a-má and watches soap operas. My father hated this kind of Taiwanese-ness, and I was offended at the insinuation that this was the experience that I was seeking.
The skies were forecasted to remain dark during our entire time in Taiwan. If we wanted to visit this old neighborhood, we would have to do it in the rain. Again, we boarded the same subway to Longshan Temple and walked up the stairs into the downpour. This time, my father hailed a cab.
“We’re going to Bo Pi Liao,” he instructed the driver. Most tourists might know this as Bei Pi Liao jie, but my dad only uses the Taiwanese name: Bo Pi Liao, the street where the bark is stripped off trees. Hundreds of years ago, this was the site of mills that processed timber into wood for constructing the city’s earliest buildings.
As we stepped out of the cab, I could see why my father was so fond of this neighborhood. Not only was it near his childhood home, but it was architecturally beautiful. The red brick buildings were built during the Japanese colonial era. Most of the first story businesses were set back from the street, the upper levels of the buildings forming a covered walkway shielding us from the downpour. Brick archways supported this overhang every ten feet or so, creating a tunnel-like effect. Some of the stops had wood-paned sliding doors. Every once in a while, I’d look up to see a painted Majolica tile on a gable or transom, fingerprints of European traders. Jars of desiccated roots and seeds lined the shelves of apothecaries. Other stores sold dried shiitake mushrooms and jujubes out of bins lined up on the sidewalk. We were transported back to the early 1900s.
Our first stop was a historical museum with rooms set up to look like a kitchen or living room from an early twentieth century Taiwanese home. My heart leapt, seeing the red floral tablecloth and the turquoise metal fan, slightly rusted at the edges. These artifacts pre-date my lifetime, but something inside me tingled with the recognition of an ancestral home. The courtyard was filled with toys for children to touch and try: a tin pinball machine, wooden stilts, a hoop and a stick. My dad beamed while his grandsons tried to balance themselves on planks of wood.
For my father, this Taiwan disappeared when the Nationalists arrived on the island. At the end of World War II, Japan ceded the island to China. But China was in the midst of its own civil war, with the Kuomintang losing to the Communists. Mainland merchants began fleeing to the island. As defeat became imminent, Chiang and his top brass fled to Taiwan, a jungle hideaway for the resistance until they could stage a comeback on the mainland. The streets of Taipei, including my father’s beloved Bangka district, were suddenly filled with uniformed soldiers speaking an unintelligible dialect.
While we were visiting this neighborhood, my father showed us his elementary school, a tiled two-story building surrounded by a metal fence. As a young boy, he started school with Japanese-speaking teachers, who were soon replaced by ones who spoke guo yi, the “language of the nation”. In those days, my father was known as Hiro. He is the eldest son, and the only one of his siblings to have a Japanese name.
His new classmates bring unfamiliar smelling lunches. When they open their metal canisters, Hiro gags at the musky odor of beef and tang of fermented tofu. I imagine him taking a deep breath of his pian tong, holding in the aroma of the minced pork sauce and short-grained white rice. “Ló ba png cho hó chhiáh!” He whispers to a classmate in their home dialect, prompting the teacher to slap his hands with a ruler.
“Oooh, Hiro’s in trouble now,” a classmate snickers.
“And stop calling yourself Hiro!” The teacher adds. “Don’t you know you’re Chinese?”
Another time, my father took me on an outing to Twa-tiu-tiann (home of those southern Hoklo), my father stopped and pointed out a gray office building. “That’s where the old woman was selling cigarettes on February 28,” he told me. This was the place? Only a small granite plaque marked the spot. The sidewalk was jostling with people on their way to the subway, the bank, the coffee shop. Nobody else stopped to read the sign. Across town is the 228 Peace Memorial, a generically pleasant name for an interpretive center that marks an event that started a dark, four decade-long chapter of Taiwan’s history.
I first learned about the 228 Incident when I was in middle school. Mrs. Schwarer assigned one of those social studies projects where we had to interview our parents. “Here’s a great example from last year,” she gushed, pointing to a blue poster board displayed at the front of the room. Pasted to it was a black and white photograph of a Chinese man dressed in an official looking military uniform. “Eugene Chang’s grandfather was an officer in the Chinese army. He fought the Communists!” This was during the early 1980s Cold War era, and the Communists were always the bad guys in movies.
I chose to interview my father, since he was more eager to tell stories than my mother. During one of our weekend meals at a Chinese lunch special restaurant, I asked him, “What’s one thing you want me to know about your life?”
“When I was a little boy, I witnessed a massacre in Taiwan,” he told me, his voice unusually solemn. When my father told me the sparse details of this story, I was dumbfounded. Being a good student and obedient daughter, I wrote down the main points, but I was not sure whether to believe him. He was not angry the way he was when he argued with my mother; instead, he looked distant and sad, the muscles clenching in his jaw the only sign of the memories inside him. What happened after he saw those bodies lying in the street? Did he cry? Did he run home to lāi-má, who folded him in her arms, or did he tell lāi-gong, who punched the wall in frustration? Could this be just another exaggerated tale to underscore how much easier our lives were in America? Or had he just revealed to me something that he was afraid to tell anyone else? Asking questions was unthinkable. Nobody in our family did that.
After lunch my father wanted to go for a hike in the Santa Cruz mountains. “Nature’s health club!” he proclaimed as he steered our square-back Volvo into the parking lot of the county park. “I think I’ll stay in the car. I have a lot of homework to do.”
I watched my father, clad in his beige jacket and bucket hat, walk up the trail, then sat in the passenger seat with my thoughts. This event wasn’t in any history books. Did it really happen? I wasn’t sure my eighth-grade social studies teacher would have believed me, either, if I turned in this story. I made up something else.
As an adult, my father’s words—”When I was a little boy, I witnessed a massacre in Taiwan”—echo through my head. In the years since I was a middle schooler hearing my father’s skeleton of a story, I have harvested details of the incident from books, museums, and conversations with other Taiwanese Americans. As we stood in front of that plaque in Taipei, I reconstructed the events of another gray day decades ago.
Kuomintang officers patrol the streets, enforcing Chinese law, including fining people who spoke in Taiwanese. On February 27, 1947, a forty-year-old woman is sitting on the sidewalk, selling packs of cigarettes.
“Do you have a permit?” A tobacco bureau agent asks her.
“Permit? The old woman (as that was how she is always described in accounts) answers. “I’m not bothering anyone. My husband is dead. I’m just trying to make some money to feed my children.”
A few other soldiers come for backup. A crowd of onlookers gathers around. “You need to buy a permit. I’ll tell you what, you can just pay me, and we can forget this happened.”
“I’ll just go then…”
“Not yet, old lady. Give me those cigarettes!”
“Those are mine! How am I going to buy rice for my children?”
The soldier attempts to grab the woman as she turns. The crowd jeers at him for letting this obasan make a fool of him. He swings the pistol in his hand. It makes a terrible sound against her skull.
“She’s just an old lady! Chinese pigs! You have no hearts, you monkey-brain eaters!” The crowd closes in on the soldiers, who begin to push back, raising their weapons. “Break it up!” They yell. “Mind your own business. Go home!”
One of the soldiers fires a shot into the crowd. A man falls down.
“You’ve killed him!” The crowd rushes the soldiers.
My father’s family was from the Bangka neighborhood, less than a mile away from the scene. But as a new professor, lāi-gong had been appointed to head an agricultural research center in Chiayi, moving his young family to the central part of the island. Six-year-old Hiro was lying in bed in this sleepy town the night of February 27. Chiayi was just a few hours by train from Taipei, and news spread quickly of an uncle that had been nabbed by police at a protest.
Before the sun rose, commotion. Yelling. Smashing. Something that sounded like firecrackers. The doleful horns of police cars. In the dark, Hiro creeps out of bed and into the living room, where A-bú and A-pa were whispering. His parents’ tatami mat is standing on its side, leaning against the window. A-pa was pushing a table in front of the door. “Don’t go!” His mother pleads, holding her infant son.
“I have to go to the farm, to make sure my research isn’t destroyed.”
“What’s happening?” Hiro asks, rubbing his eyes.
“It’s nothing,” A-bú says. “Hurry to sleep, Hiro.”
He slinks back to his tatami but cannot not sleep. So much screaming. Angry Taiwanese words. Angry Mandarin words. He hides his head under the buckwheat pillow; the weight of it cannot drown out the terror outside. Eventually, sunbeams stream through the thin cotton curtains. The outside is too quiet. Had he dreamed of the chaos in the night? Hiro tiptoes through the house. The living room is still dark, sunlight blocked by straw mats propped against the glass. A-pa wasn’t home. Did he go to work, like any other morning? Or did he go out in the night and not return? A-bú is slumped in a chair, sleeping with number two brother resting on her chest. Carefully, Hiro pushes the table aside, cracks the door open, and slides his narrow body through the opening. Nobody is outside, except for men lying in the street. He walks toward one of them. The man’s face is frozen in a scream, his shirt purple with blood.
Like Americans use the numbers 9/11 as shorthand for the September 11 terrorist attacks, Taiwanese simply say 2-2-8, to refer to the massacre that started February 28, 1947. For much of my life, the 228 Incident remained a misty, hushed secret among the Taiwanese American community. In the days after February 28, an estimated 20,000 Taiwanese were killed or disappeared without explanation. Some became political prisoners. Others became nameless bodies floating in the Tamsui River. My grandfather came close to becoming one of them.
Lāi-gong comes home later that day, escorted by a friend from the research center. “He’s from China,” lāi-gong explains to lāi-má, who crumbles under tears of relief. “He talked to the soldiers in their language, and they let me go.”
“When they took him to the police station, I followed,” the friend says. “I told them he’s a good man, he’s done nothing wrong.”
Not everyone was so lucky. Everybody knows someone with no father or grandfather. They whisper, because they are afraid of being spied on and punished, even as students in Midwest, even as engineers in San Jose, maybe even as parents talking to their eighth graders who ask questions for school reports. Speaking the Taiwanese language in public was illegal; openly discussing the idea of national sovereignty was unthinkable. The island remained under martial law until 1987.
So Taiwanese clung to traditional foods as the one safe expression of their identity. Before 1949, islanders ate a diet heavy on rice, sweet potatoes, and the flours made from these starches. Oyster omelets with the bouncy QQ texture made possible by sweet potato starch, savory rice pudding formed in a bowl, tangy soup studded with pork and squid dumplings. While restaurants serving wheat-based dumplings and noodles proliferated, even in San Jose, we ate our foods almost in secret—in our own homes, at potlucks, maybe off of secret restaurant menus—the way we spoke our mother tongue in secret.
On top of the physical exhaustion of this trip, my mind was constantly on alert, trying to parse my father’s opinions. The National Palace Museum was bad, because it was filled with Chinese relics snatched from the mainland by Chiang Kai-Shek’s fleeing forces. Japanese Buddhist temples were good, because they were places for pursuing spiritual enlightenment. “The Japanese were strict, but at least we knew what to expect from them,” my dad often lamented. But Japanese department stores were sort of bad, because they were expensive and catered to the extravagantly wealthy. Chinese operas were good, but atonal melodies fell flat to my ears and wait—what really was the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese, then?
Mostly, I wondered if I could honor the past without being scarred by it. These conflicted feelings might may actually be the most Taiwanese thing I have ever felt. The island, as a whole, has lived for hundreds of years in a state of ill-defined limbo. It has been governed by Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Kuomintang Chinese. Portuguese sailors spotted the island in 1590, naming it Ilha Formosa, the beautiful island. Dutch sailors controlled the island’s southern coast during the 1600s. At the same time, my ancestors began sailing across the Taiwan Straits from China’s Fujian province. The aboriginal tribes, who were once the sole inhabitants of this tropical paradise, were either killed or pushed to the most uninhabitable mountain regions. To be Taiwanese is to juggle multiple identities and constantly explain oneself, and when the parsing of names and identities got too tiresome, to simply look the other way and enjoy the present.
During my visits to Taiwan, I’ve seen reminders that xiao long bao are a point of pride for many islanders. In a gift shop selling clay teapot sets and soaps scented with mugwort or mung bean, a saleslady tried to persuade me to buy a magnet that looks like a steamer basket filled with tiny dumplings. “Din Tai Fung de xiao long bao!” she squealed.
Of course, Din Tai Tung isn’t the only restaurant serving xiao long bao. We ate them at plenty of other breakfast shops, although the dumplings were not as refined. The dough was thick and the pork not so finely minced. “Chha-put-to tō ē-sái,” he grumbled to Uncle, as I once again asked about scheduling a visit. Close enough is okay.
Why should I come this far and deny myself a taste of Michelin-approved dumplings? I thought about ways to sneak out, perhaps concocting a story that the boys were demanding McDonald’s and that we needed to make a chicken nugget run. But my father had taken us to the Golden Arches several times during this trip, and he secretly enjoyed it. If you asked the boys, they might have actually preferred a steamer full of xiao long bao to a carton of fries. And why should I sneak around like a rebellious teenager? I wasn’t running away to join the opposition. I was a grown woman who simply wanted to eat dumplings.
Finally, my father and I reached a compromise. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the original Din Tai Fung in the Dongmen district. My father hailed a cab and directed the driver, in Taiwanese, to go to the restaurant. The boys and I got out of the car, and my father continued on to lāi-má’s apartment. Cousin Walter and his mother were already waiting for us next to the statue of a mascot that looked like the Pillsbury doughboy, only with a dumpling for a head. The line wasn’t too long, thanks to the fact that it was raining outside and only 4:30 in the afternoon. The restaurant was a narrow, deep building, several stories tall. Black and white photos of the restaurant’s founder decorated the tight hallway, telling the story of how the Yang family arrived in Taiwan in 1948 from the Shanxi Province. I remember how as a kid, going out to lunch with my mother on Saturdays at Fat Wok restaurant in San Jose, we always ordered xiao long bao. But because my brother and I didn’t speak Mandarin, we called them “Shanghai soup dumplings”. After the Yang family arrived in Taiwan, they worked as merchants, pulling a tank from door to door and refilling jars of cooking oil for housewives. But soon tins of oil became available in markets, making the delivery service obsolete. The family turned to selling dumplings in the style of their hometown, and the rest was history.
We were seated in a subdued dining room. The menu, a small laminated book, was printed in Chinese — but luckily there were pictures. My aunt said of course we needed to try the traditional xiao long bao, and I put aside modesty and asked to order three baskets. The boys ate a lot. Not only did we order dumplings filled with brothy pork, but ones with crab, fish, and even shrimp with minced luffa squash.
One steamer basket after another started arriving on the table, the dainty baos resting on a muslin cloth. They were perfect: smooth, white, round. Their placid exterior belied their explosive interior. To make the liquid filling, cold gelatinized stock and minced pork are tucked into the thin wheat dough, which tasked with the seemingly impossible job of containing hot soup. My chopsticks didn’t pierce the skin when I lifted one from the basket into a porcelain spoon, and I raised it to my lips. I bit into it, feeling the broth singe my tongue. It was hot and salty, like tears.
I wondered if my father is unable to slow down because in the stillness, painful memories would too loud. Sitting in this elegant dining room, surrounded by old photos of Shanghai and of the family’s early days after escaping to Taiwan would be an inescapable reminder of his experiences during those times. The next morning, my father didn’t ask how our dinner was. Even though I’ve eaten at several Din Tai Fung restaurants since then (one opened in a mall near my home a few years after this trip), each visit feels slightly traitorous. I’ve never talked to him about these dumplings. I pinch those memories off and seal them away, hoping that no one gets burned.
About Grace Hwang Lynch: Grace Hwang Lynch is a Taiwanese American journalist and essayist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her reporting on Asian America can be found at PRI, NPR, and NBC Asian America. Her essays have been published by Tin House, Catapult, The Seventh Wave, and more. The anthologies “Lavanderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash and Word”, “Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting”, and “Nonwhite and Woman” have included her work. In 2021, she created the literary reading series: Kòo-Sū: A Taiwanese Storytelling Experience. She is currently finishing a memoir-in-essays about how food expresses what words could not in her immigrant family. Follow her @gracehwanglynch on Twitter or Instagram, or at gracehwanglynch.com.