An experimental piece about my hopes and fears about the historic presidential election in 2000 when the people of Taiwan elected their first democratic president and ended 50 years of one-party authoritarian rule – juxtaposed against my impressions from Taiwanese and Asian films at a film festival.
“A City of Sadness” (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1990) depicts the hardships of a Taiwanese family from the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 to the arrival of the Nationalists (Kuomintang) and Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The three elder brothers run a drinking establishment where they regularly indulge in gambling, fistfights, and women of the night. But the character I identified with was Wen-ching, the youngest brother who is as quiet and gentle as his brothers are rowdy. Born deaf and mute, Wen-ching “talks” through gestures and by writing on a notepad. Though he’s able to communicate, he can’t engage in a truly equal dialogue. He remains a witness and outsider, able to understand but not speak.
The climax of the film is a riot scene based on the infamous 2-2-8 Incident. On February 28, 1947, a woman selling cigarettes without a permit was harassed by Kuomintang police officers, and a bystander was killed in the confrontation. Hundreds of Taiwanese unleashed their pent-up anger by rioting and attacking mainlanders, recent arrivals from China whom they associated with the corrupt KMT regime. In the scene, Wen-ching and his best friend are about to board a train for Taipei when they get separated in the raging crowd. Wen-ching boards the train alone and is stopped by a couple of hoodlums looking for mainlanders to beat up. They ask him where he’s from, and he stands paralyzed, eyes wide, mouth open, unable to answer. They stare at each other for a long moment, and as the thugs move in on him Wen-ching chokes out the words: “Goa Tai-oan lang! (I am Taiwanese!)” The words sound awkward and slurred, for he has never pronounced them before. But they are magic words, and they save his life."
- Read the full essay in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.