Monday, August 14, 2006

Down memory lane

A fascinating account of life and culture in “Formosa the Beautiful” by National Geographic from March 1920.

“[the name Formosa] has clung to [the island in all European countries, and never was a more appropriate name given to an isle of the sea.”

The reason behind the beauty:
“[…] sometimes five and sometimes even six parallel ranges are visible at once, each a separate ribbon of colour, shading from the deepest sapphire to the palest azure and extending in an unbroken chain of beauty from north to south.”

A peek into life under the Japanese era, and how a hybrid of colonial and indigeonous cultures and customs make Formosa and its people different from the ‘Chinese’. This was a time when Kelung (Keelung) was the principal harbour, when Tamshui River was known as the Bund, when Taihoku (Taipei) was a still sleepy town, when wild camphor forests were still abundant, and when the Aborigines (“Savages”) reigned the land (but were slowly being driven into the mountains already).

About Formosa’s history:

“[…] the Chinese […] possession of Formosa [was] a period of gross misrule, from all accounts”

“The bulk of the population of Formosa is, of course, Chinese. Several centuries ago the island used to be the stronghold of both Chinese and Japanese pirates, who found it very a very convenient base from which to intercept vessels following the trade routes between Japan and the rest of the Orient.
It was not until the fourteenth century that the first industrial class of Chinese, the agriculturist Hakkas, who were outcasts in their own country, came to settle in Formosa. After that, at the time of the Tatar invasion, several thousand Ming loyalists sought refuge on the island.
Then there has always been more or less an influx of immigration from the overpopulated province of Fu-kien, just across the Formosa Straits. These Chinese from Fu-kien far outnumber the others, and their speech, known as the “Amoy dialect”, is the vernacular of the island.
When the Japanese came into control of the island after the Chino-Japanese War, in 1895, a third element was added to the population. […]

The Japanese have instituted great material improvements in Formosa. The most important, of course, are modern courts of justice in lieu of the old mandarin courts, where the man with the greatest “pull”, which needless to say, spelled money, invariably won out. There is also greater security to life and limb now, for not only is the Japanese police system a most thorough and efficient organization, but the sanitary measures that they have adopted have practically eradicated such diseases as malaria and bubonic plague.

The future of Formosa under its present benevolent paternal government looks bright, indeed. Never before has the island, so beautiful to the eye, enjoyed such a degree of prosperity. […]”

The astonishing pictures and vivid description really brings back that sense of nostalgia, back in the days when Formosa seemed to be so pure and innocent—a far cry from the noise, pollution and politics of modern Taiwan. Written in that dry, humourous, sometimes condescending, but nonetheless elegant style characteristic of a ‘Lonely Planet’ guide from so many decades ago. A time when “gay” meant something else.

I got this link from “A view from Taiwan”, a wonderfully written and maintained blog by an American professor living in Taiwan. A must-visit for news and insight on daily life and background on the island.

· Mixed Parentage
And because of Taiwan’s unique mix of populations, histories and cultures, it is currently straddling between non-existence and silent admiration in the eyes of the international community. A look at Taiwan’s ‘orphan’ status through classic literature:

“Much else has changed since Wu [Zhuoliu]wrote ‘Orphan of Asia. Taiwan today governs itself, and its population is well-educated and forward-thinking. […] Although Taiwan has embraced modernity as presented by the Western world, however, the Western world has not yet embraced Taiwan, and so it lingers unrecognized even by many countries sympathetic to its government system and appreciative of its role in global trade.

Is Taiwan today the orphan described by Wu Zhuoliu or simply the child of diverse parents? It is a question of perspective, and though the problem of Taiwan's international status might seem insoluble at present, the Taiwanese are freer than ever before to shape a national identity of their choosing.

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