“Without history… none of it has meaning.”
If there is any singular detail of Taiwanese American creative work that I hyper-fixate on, it is the conflation of “Chinese” and “Taiwanese” identity. At its most egregious, converging Taiwanese and Chinese identity is an ongoing tactic by the Chinese Communist Party to erase Taiwan’s distinct identity and history. For decades now, the CCP has actively coerced corporations, academic institutions, and creatives to label Taiwan as a province of China while escalating an aggressive, militaristic campaign to annex our island nation.
At the everyday, individual level, though, I’ve typically encountered this practice as coordinates to determine a person’s intent, family history, or politics. And more recently, I’ve consciously tried to approach this triangulation with curiosity before critique or rejection.
The choice to (or not to) name Taiwanese identity as distinct from Chinese, when made with intention and investigated with empathy, can be deeply revealing. Which is why I and several friends have wondered, after watching Netflix’s The Brothers Sun, why would a gang explicitly named as Taiwanese be referred to, and acknowledge themselves as, Chinese?
Why would a gang explicitly named as Taiwanese be referred to, and acknowledge themselves as, Chinese?
As my friend Calvin Chen suggested, historically the Taiwanese (in this case, specifically referring to being located in Taiwan) triads have been largely composed of waishengren, those who arrived in Taiwan as political migrants from Mainland China as a result of the Chinese civil war. For them, a Chinese identity would have been accurate, and could have endured through generations as their ideology remained steadfastly committed to being the real representatives of China. The founders of the Bamboo Union, for example, were said to have been the young sons of senior Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) officials. They might have observed from their fathers the expediency and efficiency of illicit underground operations; indeed, Chinese Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek often leveraged the Shanghai-based Green Gang in profit-sharing schemes and as executioners in a shared anti-Communist campaign; and the Chinese Nationalist Party itself had origins as a secret society radicalized by other revolutionary uprisals.
That the Chinese Nationalists were such nefarious and corrupt refugee-colonizers in Taiwan, then, might be attributed to the mechanisms through which they attained power in the first place. (Recently declassified political files have also revealed close institutional ties between the Kuomintang and the Bamboo Union, not simply brokered one-off deals). Within mobs like the Green Gang, violent actions against outsiders and “the other” were framed as self-defensive and protective. We can thus see how the Chinese Nationalists might have self-justified violence against native Taiwanese — and how the need to counter threats such as these may have given rise to, or sustained the need for, native Taiwanese gangs as well. To note, the Bamboo Union and triads of today include those who are Taiwan-born, who may even identify as Taiwanese, pointing to the material conditions and systems that still incentivize membership (which could explain why some of the characters in The Brothers Sun speak Taigi/Taiwanese).
Taiwanese Americans should also be aware of one particular occurrence of Taiwanese gang violence in the United States: the 1984 murder of Henry Liu (also known by his pen name, Chiang Nan), a Taiwanese American journalist critical of the Kuomintang. He had been living in Daly City, California when he was assassinated by Bamboo Union members, as ordered by the Kuomintang’s Military Intelligence Bureau. (This incident was one of two events that later inspired the plot of the 2009 American political thriller Formosa Betrayed.) Some sources have framed this incident as a political assassination of a Chinese American by the Taiwanese government; while this is technically true, Taiwanese Americans know that this nomenclature inadequately captures the political tensions at stake. Liu was indeed a waishengren, who as a Chinese-born migrant to Taiwan who later became a naturalized United States citizen, might have identified as Chinese American. But the Taiwanese government that ordered his assassination was not representative of the Taiwanese people; it was the authoritarian Kuomintang government whose active suppression of any critique – whether it came from “outside,” among the Taiwanese (benshengren) or as betrayal from “within,” among the Chinese who became disillusioned by their ineffective and unscrupulous leadership.
This government carried the banner of the Republic of China, which even after democratization in the last few decades still struggles to fully shed the mantle of its authoritarian past and Chinese legacy, and is therefore perceived by many to be a dissatisfactory steward – even in name – for today’s Taiwan. On the other hand, Liu could have also found ideological alliances with those who explicitly identified as Taiwanese in opposition to the Chinese Nationalist government. “By categorizing and persecuting any identification with Taiwan and Taiwaneseness in the diaspora as radical, subversive, and suspicious,” as Wendy Cheng writes in Island X, “the Kuomintang inadvertently hardened the terms of their own opposition, polarizing diasporic Taiwanese and Chinese-identified communities and making them internal enemies of one another.” To put it clearly, the Kuomintang government that outsourced the execution of Henry Liu would not have called themselves the Taiwanese government. Given this history — to mischaracterize the murder of Henry Liu as the ‘political assassination of a Chinese American by the Taiwanese government’ is to evoke the inherent absurdities and inefficiencies of names and labels. But my years of interrogating these labels has also challenged me to seek a more thoughtful vocabulary or framework to faithfully understand – and hopefully explain – what happened to our people and why.
Thus, the concise answer to Why would a Taiwanese gang identify as Chinese? is simply: because that is how they saw and continue to see themselves. In fact, former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-lo, known as “White Wolf,” is a staunch supporter of political integration between the mainland and Taiwan, going as far as to found the Chinese Unification Political Party, which launched counter protests against student activists during the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
In essence, the speculation over name choices in The Brothers Sun has reminded me of the power and politics of choice itself. Taiwanese identity is categorically legitimate because Taiwan is sovereign, with a history of its own; but Taiwanese identity is compelling because of the circumstances that made it salient to use. The stunningly productive response to “who gets to be Taiwanese?” is thus, whoever would like to be. As Katherine Alexander wrote for us in 2014, “Taiwanese people come in different colors and speak many languages. We arrived thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, seventy years ago, thirty years ago, just a few days ago. Taiwan has, for millennia, received people from all over the world, touched their hearts, and in turn sent people back out into the world. People like you and me. Even if our feet have never touched its ground, we care about its past, present, and future, we call it a home. We still hope for recognition, personal and international, of what we know already to be true in our hearts. We are Taiwanese. We know, for ourselves, who we are. We know. To be Taiwanese is to self-determine. We Taiwanese are what we say we are. We are, every one of us, by our self-determination, shoring up Taiwan’s identity against those who would deny it.”
Such is the beautiful, complex consequence of a world in which nationality, ethnicity, and heritage are not necessarily equivalent but a single word is expected to capture these and more. That a gang from Taiwan would declare themselves to be Chinese says something about that gang’s origin story, what they stand for, who they would like to be. For others to declare themselves as Taiwanese sets them apart in more ways than one. We are always thrilled by Taiwanese American representation and the opportunity to see our stories offered widely. We also acknowledge that not all of “our” stories are your story, that even the best-intentioned works must sometimes sacrifice nuance for clear storytelling; and, above all, that representation for the sake of itself is not enough. Let this thread of wonder be your call to action to keep asking, searching, and offering your own imagination to answer: what does it really mean to be Taiwanese?
Other History Lessons
San Gabriel Valley
To pay homage to the Asian American ethnoburb of San Gabriel Valley (also known as the 626), The Brothers Sun cast members and directors joined Wong Fu’s Philip Wang in a food crawl through the most iconic filming locations.
To learn more about the San Gabriel Valley, we recommend Wendy Cheng’s The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California. And to learn more about the United States’ complicity in the Kuomintang’s overseas reach, read Cheng’s Island X.
If you especially appreciated the scene where Justin Chien’s character, Charles, pulls a tray of fresh pineapple cakes from the oven, watch Clarissa Wei’s 2019 investigative reporting on Taiwanese pineapple cakes for Goldthread.
For those lucky enough to have a Charles in their lives (or those even more fortuitous to *be* a Charles), consider gifting them Wei’s Made in Taiwan, which has a recipe for pineapple cakes on page 335 (you’re welcome).
To learn more about Taiwanese triads, consider this VICE INTL episode on the Bamboo Union.
Cheng, Allen. Taiwan’s Dirty Business. Asia, Inc. https://orgcrime.tripod.com/taiwansdirtybusiness.htm
Garnaut, John. Hungry like the wolf. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/world/hungry-like-the-wolf-20140707-3bh7j.html
Lee, Cynthia S. The Murder of Henry Liu: A Tale of Espionage, Dissidence, and the American Torts System. Asian American Law Journal. https://doi.org/10.15779/Z381G5R
Martin, Brian G. The Green Gang and the Guomindang State: Du Yuesheng and the Politics of Shanghai, 1927-37. The Journal of Asian Studies. https://doi.org/10.1017/ssh.2022.42
Shaw, Shullen. Chinese-American journalist Henry Liu spied for the Taiwan Government. United Press International. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1985/01/21/Chinese-American-journalist-Henry-Liu-spied-for-the-Taiwan-government/2060475131600/
Teon, Aris. The Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Republic of China. The Greater China Journal.