Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Adding a bit of anger to the 228 commemorations

Events surrounding the anniversary of the 228 Massacre are usually sober, depressing things. Some people are changing that, and the results are surprising

Every year as Feb. 28 approaches I can feel the sadness descend upon certain Taiwanese. That date, written in blood and known as 228 for short, is the anniversary of the 1947 crackdown by Nationalist forces against an escalating insurgency targeting government corruption and inefficiency. In the weeks and months that followed the initial incident, several thousand Taiwanese, Aborigines, Hakka and Mainlanders were slain and imprisoned by KMT troops in an orgy of blood meant to force the population into submission. As many as 20,000 people were killed, most of them highly educated and politically connected Taiwanese. The massacre opened the door to the White Terror, a period that did not end until the late 1980s as Taiwan democratized.

Inevitably, 228 is also the date when the revisionists come out. Some aim to downplay the role of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the KMT in the massacre. Others argue that nobody (or everybody) was responsible (a new one this year: An academic claimed that ultimately it was the Japanese who were responsible for 228 because of the “chaos” that they had left in their wake following the conclusion of World War II). Another one, this one by a person who is in charge of the “minor” revisions to high-school textbooks: The massacre of 20,000 people was a “small case.”

Evidently, such comments cannot but bring pain to the victims and their descendants, and contribute nothing to the healing, reconciliation, and understanding that are necessary for the nation to move forward. 

Comparisons might help fully understand the scope of the 228 Massacre. Taiwan’s population at the time was about 6.5 million. Using a conservative estimate of 20,000 people killed, this means that 0.3 percent of the population was slain, most of them men. The same ratio today would mean approximately 70,000 victims. In the U.S., this would mean more than 958,000 killed; in China, 3.9 million.  

The challenge is to keep the issue alive at a time when, decades later, it is perhaps “convenient” to forget the past, or to buy into the propaganda claiming that the incident was indeed a small matter. After all, some would say, it’s now been 67 years. The problem with this line of thought is that 228 remains a key formative event in the nation’s history, a defining moment that reminded everybody of the reasons why they wanted nothing to do with China’s violent tendencies. For many, Taiwan was to China what North America was to the settlers who had fled the scorpion-filled bottle of warring Europe, hoping for a new start, for a better life.

I’ve often worried that the format of the 228 commemorations might no longer be suitable for young audiences. From what I had witnessed here in Taiwan over the years, and based on accounts by Taiwanese Americans, the events are usually limited to emotional speeches by elderly victims and choir ensembles. There is obviously a need for those, if only for the victims and their descendants. But that is insufficient, especially if the goal is to attract a new generation of Taiwanese.

Fish Lin and Community Service
Hence my great surprise in the past two years, where the organizers of the 228 events at Liberty Square in Taipei have succeeded in offering something for everybody. For one, the site was transformed into a venue where various activist groups sold T-shirts, books, DVDs and food (including “freedom sausages”), distribute pamphlets, and raised awareness about their causes. This year’s event had a plethora of activists, from self-help groups against forced evictions to supporters of same-sex marriage. All of this occurred under the umbrella of the 228 commemorations, and near a stage where musicians, politicians and academics each in their own way made their contributions to remembering and understanding the massacre.

Chang Jui-chuan
More than ever before, musicians also demonstrated the power of music to engender emotional responses and reach out to people who might otherwise have little interest in politics, let alone events of 67 years ago. This year, performers included a traditional choir, a modern dance troupe, a theatrical ensemble, as well as various musicians, from the hip-hop group Community Service (勞動服務), global hip-hop singer Chang Jui-chuan (張睿銓), rock band Fire Extinguisher (滅火器), and extreme metal band Burning Island (火燒島), among others. (Interestingly, “burning island” is also the name political prisoners gave to the infamous Green Island, which “looked ablaze” from the sunlight reflection.)

Fire Extinguisher
What’s interesting about those bands is that they are all political. Some of them, like the members of Community Service, are often spotted at protests. Others, like Louie Lu (pictured at the top), who does lead vocals  — mostly “cookie monster” guttural howls in Taiyu — for Burning Island, are well known for their comments on various social issues. Those artists join others before them in telling Taiwan’s story. More than that, and perhaps more importantly, their art serves to channel youth’s energy, which can be a powerful tool for change if it is used wisely (no wonder that Little J of Community Service has launched a “music to change the world” apparel chain). The energy unleashed when Lu, speaking in Taiwanese, hurled invective at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall behind us on 228, or when his band launched barrage after barrage of heavy metal, was something to behold. Similar feats were achieved when Fire Extinguisher sang “Goodnight Taiwan,” or when Fish Lin of Community Service encouraged the crowd to sing with him on “Civil Revolt Pt. 2.”

Three very different genres, and much less contemplative than the macabre dance and melancholy choir, but unsurpassed in their shared ability to engage youth while delivering a message. These guys are on to something. Silly alterations to history textbooks by pseudo-educators do not stand a chance in the face of the emotions, the anger, unleashed by such performances. These guys are on to something. (Photos by the author)

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