Retired Richmond physician Charles Yang’s life has been marked by a series of different identities.
He was born in 1932 in Taiwan, which was then under Japanese colonization. At the age of two, he moved to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which had been established in Manchuria, where his father studied medicine. At the time, Yang had a Japanese name.
Then at the end of the Second World War as the Soviets were invading Manchuria, his family fled back to Taiwan.
In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Yang said that returning to the island of his birth at the age of 13 was a massive cultural shock because he felt Japanese.
“In Manchuria, I spoke Japanese,” Yang recalled. “I attended Japanese school.”
For the next 12 years, Yang lived under martial law in Taiwan before moving to America to study medicine.
In 1964, he immigrated to Canada, where he and his wife raised their children, and he became a successful obstetrician-gynecologist.
Yang’s story is chronicled in a new book, Shadows of the Crimson Sun: One Man’s Life in Manchuria, Taiwan, and North America, by Vancouver writer and teacher Julia Lin. She has deep insights into what it’s like to be displaced in childhood, having moved from Taiwan to Vietnam before immigrating to Canada when she was nine years old.
Yang expressed deep admiration for Lin for turning his recollections into a cohesive book.
“She did a fair amount of historical research about the geopolitical situation in Manchuria at that time and I learned a lot from that, too,” the retired physician said. “I’m very grateful to her.”
As part of the annual TaiwanFest celebration, Shadows of the Crimson Sun will be launched at the Orpheum Annex (free admission) at 1 p.m. on Monday (September 4). It will be a bilingual presentation in Mandarin and English celebrating the life of Yang, one of the pioneers and most influential figures in Canada’s community of Taiwanese expats.
TaiwanFest salutes friendship with Japan
Yang’s struggle to come to terms with his identity reflects the theme of this year’s TaiwanFest, which is celebrating the island nation’s connections with Japan. The slogan for this year’s festival, which takes place in downtown Vancouver from Saturday to Monday (September 2 to 4), is “Kanpai Japan”.
In effect, it’s a toast to the former colonial power for its contribution to the development of Taiwanese identity and the country's emergence as an economic powerhouse in the late 20th and 21st century.
TaiwanFest will explore Taiwan’s ties with Japan in a multitude of ways, including through an art exhibit called Who Am I? on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
There will also be workshops and demonstrations of origami, which was brought to Taiwan by the Japanese. That’s in addition to a food-painting exhibition by Japanese dessert specialist Yui Aida and several musical performances highlighting the links between the two nations.
Among those will be award-winning guitarist and vocalist Sheng Xiang Lin and his indie-music bandmates from Japan and Taiwan. They will perform at the Vancouver Art Gallery stage on Sunday (September 3) at 8:30 p.m.
In addition, 17-year-old Taiwanese artist Ning Hsieh will demonstrate how he creates life-size superhero costumes from paper.
Japanese roots run deep in Taiwan
Taiwan came under Japanese rule in 1895 as a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the first Sino-Japanese war. One Vancouver expat born in Taiwan during the Japanese colonization, accountant James Chou, acknowledged to the Straight by phone that Taiwanese were often treated as second-class citizens.
But he also said that the Japanese created the foundation for the modern Taiwanese state by developing railway lines, a hydroelectric power plant, irrigation systems, and other important infrastructure.
“When Japan took over Taiwan in 1895, they did not plan to give it up,” Chou said. “They treated it as their new earned territory. It was part of their country. They didn’t treat it like a traditional colonial area that you exploit and you leave.”
Japan also played a pivotal role in the development of Taiwanese culture in the 20th century. That’s because Japan’s rulers looked to the West for ideas, and then transplanted these concepts to Taiwan.
“Early on, I think the Japanese wanted to use Taiwan as a model for colonization to show people around the world how well Japan can rule and how a society can prosper,” TaiwanFest managing director Charlie Wu told the Straight by phone. “So during that time, Taiwan actually benefited tremendously.”
One of the highlights of TaiwanFest will be the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra’s Saturday-night concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Maestro Ken Hsieh is the son of Taiwanese immigrants to Canada and he studied music in Japan.
Among the pieces that his orchestra will perform is “Formosan Dance”, which was written by a Taiwanese composer, Bunya Koh, during the Japanese colonization. It won honourable mention at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when Koh was working under his Chinese name, Jiang Wen-Ye.
Hsieh told the Straight by phone that Koh’s identity as a Taiwanese during the Japanese colonization has resulted in his work not receiving its due in the music world. Hsieh described Koh’s compositions as a cross between those of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, albeit with a Taiwanese folk-dance element.
“I think there’s a lot of talent with this composer, but it’s just a pity that his pieces never got played,” Hsieh said. “So I’m really happy that we’re able to showcase it.”
Hsieh credited the Japanese colonizers for bringing classical music to Taiwan.
At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre concert, Taiwanese child prodigy Lin Hao-wei will perform. The 12-year-old pianist will also perform on Sunday (September 3) at noon at the Vancouver Playhouse.
Artists showcased in exhibit called Who Am I?
It’s not just classical music that emerged in Taiwan as a result of the Japanese colonization. Wu noted that Japanese artists also introduced western watercolour painting to Taiwan in the early part of the 20th century.
Ishikawa Kinichiro and Shiotsuki Toho, to name just two, tutored several celebrated Taiwanese artists, including the most famous, Tan Ting-pho [also known as Chen Cheng-po].
A book of essays called Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895-1945: History, Culture, Memory tells the story of Ishikawa. Only a few months after he arrived in Taiwan, he wrote an essay, “Watercolour Painting and Taiwan Landscape”, in which he expressed his love for the similarities between the island and parts of his home country of Japan.
“However, Taipei’s colours appear more beautiful, with red roofs, orange walls, and green bamboos, contrasting strongly against the viridescent tree leaves,” he wrote. “Can we imagine such serene and solemn scenery of sublimity in Japan? Under the blue sky Taiwan shines even more brightly.”
Ishikawa taught part-time at Taipei Middle School from 1907 to 1916 and then full-time at the Taipei Normal School from 1923 to 1933.
In the 1920s, there was greater emphasis on the arts and humanities, according to the book, and Prince Hirohito himself expressed satisfaction with the level of art education during one of his visits to Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Tan grew up loving Chinese literature, according to Wu, and immersed himself in the Mandarin language. This fascination with Chinese culture led him to Shanghai, where Tan taught western art at Xinhua College of Art and Chang Ming Art School.
Wu noted that because he had come from Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony, this became a problem when the Second World War broke out in Asia.
“His family became worried about their status so they returned to Taiwan,” Wu said. “While he was in Taiwan, he also tried to build this Taiwanese identity among the Taiwanese artists.”
That came back to haunt him when the Kuomintang rulers in mainland China began asserting their control over Taiwan following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. Because Tan spoke Mandarin, he became a local government official and negotiated with the KMT before meeting his demise.
“Because he was considered a member of the elite of the society, being an artist, he was actually killed by the KMT government,” Wu said.
It occurred amid the carnage of the notorious February 28 Incident, a.k.a. the 2.28 Incident, in which an estimated 10,000 Taiwanese were massacred on this date in 1947 for resisting KMT rule.
“He loved Chinese history, literature, and everything, but he didn’t really get the benefit of being Chinese because of this uncertainty at the time," Wu said. "During the Japanese era, he was Chinese and was a second-class citizen. In China, he was Japanese. So who exactly was he?”
A similarly sad fate befell Koh. He moved to China, where he enjoyed adapting folk music into classical compositions. But eventually, he was considered a traitor because of his “Japanese” ties.
Identity is a constant theme in Taiwan's development
Taiwan’s history has been marked by colonization not only by the Japanese but also by the Dutch, the Qing dynasty, and after the Second World War by the KMT (Chinese nationalists) led by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.
In December 1949, he moved his government to Taipei and was followed by two million mainland Chinese after losing the Chinese Civil War to the communists led by Mao Zedong.
Retired Richmond physician Yang called the KMT under Chiang a “severe repressive regime” that “carried out terrible things”. Among them was the so-called white terror, in which tens of thousands of Taiwanese were killed or imprisoned, or went missing.
“I lived through my entire life in Taiwan under martial law,” Yang said.
So did Yang feel that life was better under Japanese colonization than under Chiang’s KMT?
“I think so,” Yang replied. “It’s a fanatic anticommunism that made the KMT behave the way they did.”
Chou echoed that point of view, saying life was better in Taiwan under Japanese colonization than it was under Chiang’s dictatorship.
He recalled that when he was a young boy, his sister once had to hide him in a garbage can on the street when authorities were looking for people to arrest.
Many years later after moving to North America, Chou received a reminder of the degree of repression under the KMT. He was visiting his relatives in Taiwan when he received a visit from the police.
"It was a warning: 'You're being watched'," Chou said.
In 1979, Yang and Chou were among a group of Taiwanese Canadians who travelled to Seattle to hold a demonstration against martial law in Taiwan. They recalled that they had to wear masks over their faces because they didn't want to subject relatives living in the island nation to any punishment if their faces were shown.
A TV crew said they wouldn't do any interviews with demonstrators who weren't showing their faces.
"I had no choice but to remove my mask and accept the interview," Yang recalled. "I was on the 6 o'clock news. My family back in Vancouver saw me being interviewed."
Taiwan has an Indigenous history
The island of Taiwan’s earliest inhabitants were Proto-Malays whose language and culture were “characteristically Indonesian”, according to Taiwan’s 400 Year History: The Origins and Continuing Development of the Taiwanese Society and People, by historian Su Bing.
These Indigenous people lived communal lives and are the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal people in Taiwan, who are two percent of the population.
Prior to Dutch rule in 1624, there were approximately 25,000 Chinese people living on Taiwan, which is roughly the size of Vancouver Island according to Su Bing. That grew rapidly under the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1683 to 1895.
The troubled history of colonization has had an impact on the Taiwanese sense of identity.
“I often wondered: what is my culture? Am I Chinese? Am I Japanese?” Yang said. “Eventually, I would identify as a Taiwanese Canadian.”
Along similar lines, TaiwanFest’s Wu had this to say: “People will say to us that you bleed Chinese, you read Chinese, you speak Chinese. Then you have Chinese heritage. That’s how I grew up. And we never thought of the possibility of being something other than what we were told.”
But then he cited the example of Vincent van Gogh, who embraced Japanese painting style even though he wasn’t Japanese.
Wu also mentioned the Japanese adopting the paper fan from China and turning it into something reflecting their unique identity.
“Some people call it cultural appropriation, but if it’s something you like and you embrace it and it becomes part of your creation, then it’s not,” Wu insisted. “It’s only if you’re using it [cultural appropriation] to pretend you are someone else.”
Taiwanese artists of the 20th century embraced western symphonic music and painting watercolours. Does this make them any less Taiwanese? Not according to Wu.
At the same time, Wu said that immigrants from China have sometimes shown a tendency to want to force Taiwanese Canadians to self-identify as Chinese rather than holding back on imposing their beliefs on others.
“It’s self-determination,” Wu said. “You determine who you are rather than being forced to be who you are.”More