I arrived on the “beautiful island” with my wife, originally a native of Taiwan, and five children nearly ten months ago. That arrival was not unlike many of our arrivals over the last twenty years. But, although over the years we have also experienced many departures, this departure was unlike any in the past. Unlike other times, the children and I left this time less as foreigners. Rather than returning from a place we were merely visiting, we left a place we had lived. Indeed, during this time, we lived in Shulin District of New Taipei City. More importantly, we lived on Zhongshan Road, and what a road it is. In this essay, I use Zhongshan Road as a focal point to say a little bit about Taiwan’s history, its current society, and what it was like to live in such a place.
To understand that Zhongshan Road translates to Sun Yat-sen Road in English is to understand something essential about the recent history and ongoing question of identity in Taiwan. The name itself is both a relic of a bygone era and a symbol of a continuing journey. The three districts surrounding Shulin—Banqiao, Xinzhuang, and Tucheng—also have their own Zhongshan Roads, as do practically every city and district in Taiwan. Why is this road so popular? Some background is essential.
In the mid-seventeenth century, as the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was taking over mainland China, the Chinese pirate-patriot Zheng Chenggong, having been chased from mainland China, established an island base on Taiwan and polished his commercial ambitions with the cause of restoring the defunct Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). By the late seventeenth century, Zheng’s descendants went over to the Qing, and Taiwan was incorporated as a far-flung imperial territory. Over the next two hundred years, mainland Chinese, the vast majority of whom hailed from only two counties across the Taiwan Strait in China’s Fujian Province, migrated to Taiwan. These newcomers joined the yuanzhumin, the people originally native to the island. Over this period, the southern Fujianese dialect became known as the Taiwanese language, and the yuanzhumin and Chinese immigrants became the Taiwanese people. As other people continue to come to Taiwan even today—such as the “foreign bridges” one encounters from time to time walking to the market along Zhongshan Road—one can see that this process of becoming a people is still ongoing.
By the late nineteenth century, the Qing Empire was weak, and Japan was a rising power. Japan defeated the Qing and ruled Taiwan as the crown jewel of its imperial possessions for the next half century. Certainly, the Taiwanese were treated by the Japanese as second-class citizens in some respects, but in other ways, they benefited from a country bent on modernizing Taiwan as a showcase of Japanese achievement. Members of the oldest generation, many of whom still live and walk along Zhongshan Road, remember the Japanese, some quite fondly. For instance, one cannot imagine the 2014 movie Kano, set in colonial Taiwan yet showing deep sympathy with its Japanese characters, being produced in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world.
Sun Yat-sen, our road’s namesake, was a Chinese revolutionary fomenting rebellion (often from afar) against what he perceived of as the alien rule of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. There is no evidence that during his life he ever had the slightest inkling that one day his name would proliferate on roads, parks, and public buildings across what was in 1911 a Japanese colonial possession. That year, the Qing Dynasty was finally overthrown, and the Republic of China (ROC) was established on the mainland. One can imagine that this was perhaps not the most significant event for the imperial subjects of Japanese Taiwan. Sun died prematurely and was succeeded by Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek, who led an epic struggle against Japanese aggression in mainland China only to later be defeated by the Chinese Communists and pushed off the mainland completely in 1949. With nowhere to go, in some ways like Zheng Chenggong three centuries earlier, Chiang and the remnants of his Kuomintang (KMT) party and army fled to Taiwan, carrying the ROC flag with them. Here, they set about convincing the world that the ROC, with its territory reduced to one big island and a couple smaller ones, still existed. After the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States and many other powerful countries supported this position.
Millions of common Chinese soldiers and civilian refugees, including some of the brightest lights of the twentieth-century Chinese intellectual world, crossed the Taiwan Strait that year. What were those already on Taiwan to think of these newcomers and their flag fleeing the catastrophic collapse of their mainland government? The newcomers had an answer, and the exigencies of war left no time or will to debate. Japanese names were stripped from roads and buildings, and soon every district in Taiwan had a Sun Yat-sen Road. After all, he was to be the father of the country, the guofu. These events still are playing out in the evolving Taiwanese identity. The ROC flag still flies, but only over Taiwan and a couple of small islands.
There is no doubt that the above events contributed significantly to Taiwan’s current awkward international sovereign status, but I also think they contributed to Taiwan’s view of itself in a more intangible way: Taiwan feels like a big country on a small island. How could it not? For forty years, the Taiwanese people were told that they alone had the sacred mission of saving the ancient Chinese race and its culture from certain destruction, and given the events occurring in the late 1960s in mainland China, it seemed to many a credible charge. Despite being a small island, it was also a huge player on the geopolitical Cold War stage. Taiwan even voted on the UN Security Council, authorizing UN action in the Korean War. Yet such a sacred mission could not tolerate too much dissent. Martial law, the White Terror, spy networks—the police state—were in many ways the price of the dream. In fact, there were in some ways two ambitious dreams: to restore the ROC to the mainland and to liberate Taiwan from the ROC. In the midst of this came Taiwan’s economic miracle, as political differences were set aside to build what might be the biggest economy in the smallest place ever. Both of these forces still play out on an island with ambitions and expectations bigger than the small size of its scenic land mass suggests, but also with an intense, palpable love for freedom and democracy.
So, to understand why Zhongshan Road is named after a mainland Chinese revolutionary who died while Taiwan was still a Japanese colonial possession is to gain some understanding of Taiwan’s past and the ongoing processes involved in Taiwanese identity today. But Zhongshan Road is much more than that. It is a living, flourishing community. There is a Chinese saying that although the sparrow is small, it contains all five organs: “maque suixiao, wuzang juquan,” meaning that despite its small size, it is complete in every way. In this respect, Zhongshan Road is a synecdoche for all of Taiwan. On this one road, less than one mile in length, there is a train station; a 7-Eleven; an electronics store; three securities firms; five banks; at least ten restaurants (including a McDonald’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), and a Korean restaurant); two car rental agencies; several general medical, obstetric, and dental clinics; a public library; a fire station; a cram school (buxiban); a preschool; a drug store; a Catholic church; a Protestant church; an electric company; a temple supply store; several cellphone stores; some apartment buildings; several bubble tea stands; a hospital; a kindergarten; a swimming pool; a pawn shop; our home; and thousands of great friends and neighbors. Each of these places and people has a story, but there is only time enough to touch on a few.
First, I like to think that the Catholic church my family attended Mass at on Sundays represents the incredible diversity and welcoming warmth of Taiwanese society. Our priest was from Indonesia (but spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese like a native); some of our sisters were recent arrivals from mainland China. Many of our fellow parishioners were yuanzhumin. Our Mass was in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and aboriginal, but the next mass was in English and drew an overwhelmingly Filipino community.
A short walk from the church along Zhongshan Road, one would arrive at the train station, which represents Taiwan’s amazing transportation network, an impressive combination of subways, traditional trains, buses, and high-speed rails. Except for perhaps in the most remote areas in the mountains or countryside, a car is completely optional. With one swipe of a transportation card (youyouka), a person can go from one local destination to another, or from one end of the country to the other. Of course, one must exercise much caution when crossing the street to get to the train station. Here, pedestrians never have the right of way, despite whatever is written in the formal law. Crossing Zhongshan Road, even on the crosswalk with a green signal, is often a death-defying experience. In a single road-crossing, one might be nearly hit by a huge bus or crushed by the onslaught of a hundred scooters.
The dental and health clinics on Zhongshan Road attest to the affordability and availability of high-quality medical care for all, the miracle of Taiwanese medical care. Several years ago, Taiwan committed itself to a robust National Health Insurance program. The result today is that almost no one on the beautiful island lacks medical care. The juxtaposition of traditional medicine clinics next to modern ones also reveals the unfolding dance between modernity and tradition that plays out so seamlessly in this place. Finally, the nearly empty obstetric clinic also brings to mind something a bit disheartening. It is my understanding that Taiwan currently has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. Given that the island has virtually no natural resources other than its people, this is, in one sense, an economic issue. But it also goes to the very character of Taiwanese society. It is high population density that results in Taiwan’s amazing convenience in so many aspects of life. It is the energy of encountering people everywhere that gives Taiwan its spirit. Who will occupy the legislature or rush the Executive Yuan if there are so few young people in thirty years? What will life be like for the next generation without the warm family networks Taiwanese have become so accustomed to? What will Zhongshan Road feel like without the energy and hope of bustling youth?
Taiwan is an incredibly international place. The presence and effect of international trade, international finance, international education, and international migration are ubiquitous throughout the land. The McDonald’s and KFC on Zhongshan Road are only two of endless examples. Yet, for all the cosmopolitanism, Taiwan is still an intensely local place. There is no local news that does not proliferate from one end of the street to the other in a matter of days. I went to the dentist (whom I had never met) one day, and the doctor started talking about my impending move to the United States (we were in the process of moving to New York). I got in a taxi that last week and the driver, a stranger to me, knew the general outline of why my family and I were in Taiwan (he explained that another taxi driver had told him). It might not seem odd that a place could be so local, until one comes to grips with the fact that the district has well over 100,000 people. It’s local despite being cosmopolitan and sophisticated.
But at last, our time on Zhongshan Road came to an end. On that last Saturday, at 8:00 p.m., two vans pulled up to our apartment building. We hauled our twenty-one suitcases down from the eighth floor and packed them in, beginning our journey back to the other side of our small planet. As we departed, the bright neon lights of Zhongshan Road were still three hours shy of dimming—it is, after all, a sleep-deprived road in a sleep-deprived country. To the casual observer, nothing would have changed on the bustling thoroughfare as those vans drove off. Yet the next day, a whole pew was empty at Sacred Heart Church. And the following Monday, a man and a woman didn’t walk to the train station hand-in-hand, one teenager with her iPad in her Monster Bag didn’t get on a bus, two little girls didn’t show up for third and fifth grade at Shulin Elementary School, and there was one less mischievous little girl at Shixiang Kindergarten. One grandmother’s heart broke as she rode her bicycle along Zhongshan Road to the market with an empty child’s seat, where a little four-year-old boy had sat for the last ten months. But there can be no doubt about one thing. Within a day or two, some taxi driver said to another, neither of whom we ever met, “What happened to those foreigners—adouwa/waiguoren—we used to see walking past the taxi stand? I haven’t seen them in a few days.” The other no doubt responded, “They went back last week; they’re moving to New York.” And life continued on Zhongshan Road.