Monday, July 09, 2007
Changing of the Guard at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
In an ever-changing world, keeping information up-to-date is among the most challenging parts of writing a guide book. Little things change: The restaurant I raved about in May for a book being published in October might well close in August; most readers will forgive this.
But what’s the intrepid writer to do when big things are changing, in a big way: Say, the city's most iconic landmark changing both its name and meaning, a seismic cultural shift that’s highly political, volatile, and by no means "a done deal," right before deadline?
Answer: I write about it, and hope my editors find the space to cram a last-minute box in the appropriate place.
Chiang Kai-shek has been pushing up daisies (or whatever it is deceased dictators push up) since 1975. The Generalissimo cast a long shadow over Taiwan for decades after his death; nearly every city, town, and village still has streets, schools and parks bearing his name. However, over the past several years, a massive "de-Chiang-ification" has been going on all over Taiwan. The airport for decades known as "Chiang Kai-shek International Airport" (the first and last place most international visitors see) is now called "Taoyuan airport," named simply after the city in which it sits. More dramatic has been the recent removal of scores - if not hundreds - of Chiang's statues from public places. Many of these statues have been moved to a park not too far from the airport, which itself may become a quasi-tourist attraction to those with an interest in the peculiar march of history.
But the most striking example of Taiwan’s break from the Chiang Kai-shek era is still in progress, in the very place considered sacred ground to those still adhering to the cult of Chiang Kai-shek: The ostentatious blue and white memorial bearing Chiang's name, his larger-than-life statue, and the main museum dedicated to his glorious exploits, is now ground zero in the battle between those who revere Chiang's name and those who would like to see it thrown on history’s ash heap.
The debate was raging way back in early May, when I was putting the finishing touches on my Taipei Chapter. The new name for the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial had already been proposed: National Taiwan Democracy Hall. However, with the KMT in control of the Taipei government, it seemed unlikely that such an audacious decapitation strike on Chiang's memory had any real chance of succeeding, at least not by the time the book went to print. I chose to leave the entry unchanged, but mentioned the possibility of future change in the history chapter.
But history often moves in unpredictable bursts, and as this book goes to final edit it seems clear that something big is happening over at the monument only possibly still known as Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. It’s mid-July, and on a visit just last week I was surprised to find the cavernous entrance to the upper portion of the monument (the area housing Chiang's statue) blocked by an impenetrable layer of scaffolding. The plaque above the doorway bearing Chiang’s name was also absent. Walking around the monument, I saw that green and blue banners reading "National Taiwan Democracy Monument" had been hung just under the eaves on three of its four sides.
Walking into the ground floor museum, it was clear that the whole story had yet to be written. The outer wings of the museum were unchanged, still filled with the same Chiang memorabilia and propaganda that I’d seen there way back in 1994; Back then, an earlier version of the Lonely Planet Taiwan guide might have advised visitors asked by a local to opine on the merits of CKS to play it safe by simply answering "such a handsome man!”
However, in the center of the museum, a new exhibit, one which the Generalissimo certainly wouldn’t have found amusing, had gone up. The exhibit was entitled “Goodbye, Single-language Education.”
Tyng, a local university student, explained the significance of the exhibit.
“For many years, all education in Taiwan was conducted in Mandarin, and the only version of history that Taiwanese students learned was the KMT version, in which Chiang Kai-shek was the savior of Taiwan. This exhibit is about the need to ending of both single-language education and the myopic view of Taiwan’s history.”
Tyng also confirmed that the battle over the hall’s name, one being waged on a governmental level, was far from over. While the building, as a museum, is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education (which leans towards the Democratic Progressive Party), responsibility for the park itself (not to mention the Metro Station) is handled by the Taipei City Government, led by a KMT mayor.
Unless things move very quickly in the next few weeks (always a possibility), by the time the book hits the stands it’s likely that the final status of the (Chiang-kai Shek or National Taiwan Democracy) Memorial or Monument will still be undecided. It’s also quite possible that visitors to Taipei in 2008 will be getting off the Metro at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park station, but find themselves visiting the National Taiwan Democracy Monument.
As for the eventual whereabouts of the Colossal Generalissimo himself...whether he’ll remain inside the building that once bore (and perhaps still bears) his name, or will be evicted and sent to join his miniature simulacrums close to the airport that once bore his name...this still remains to be seen.