Hong Kong versus Taiwan: Who’s Chinese?

At last, a post about my recent visit to Taiwan!  I considered doing another post about some job anxiety I’ve been having as I submitted my first resumes this week, but perhaps we can just let that simmer a bit.

Oddly enough, I decided to take advantage of the National Day holiday to, what else, leave China!  Although it would be a huge celebration, being China’s 60th anniversary, I was already advised Hong Kong wouldn’t be all that exciting with regard to the holiday anyway (now if I were in Beijing, I would have done otherwise), so I figured I’d take advantage of the day off and make a long weekend for myself (the holiday fell on a Thursday, and we had off from school, so I’d skip Friday’s business Chinese class).  Further, that Saturday also happened to be Mid-Autumn Festival, and it would be nice to go to Taiwan to be with family where my youngest sister has been living in Yilan since August.

So from the SAR (Special Administrative Region) of Hong Kong, I fled from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to head to the ROC (Republic of China), or Taiwan!  Confused yet? Well, I think you should be — because here I started to see the lines blur in terms of what it means to be Chinese.

Taipei is easily a very different city from Hong Kong — with about 2 million inhabitants spread out over 271.3 square kilometers versus Hong Kong’s immensely dense 7 million crammed into what is actually way less than the 1,100 square kilometers it measures out to be, since something like only 40% is livable (I know I’ve heard this number but had trouble finding some web resource to cite to just now), Taipei feels almost suburban to me.  There aren’t too many skyscrapers, or much of a famous skyline, and while Taipei 101 is easily an icon of Taipei, it stands alone, making for one striking skyline.

Like Hong Kong, the Taiwanese prefer traditional Chinese, and as I look around at the signage free of the simplied stuff I quite loathe, Ifeel familiar, as if I were in HK or even NYC’s Chinatown.  While everyone speaks Putonghua, Taiwanese is far more prevalent than I expected.  I initially thought my Mandarin must have been really bad, as I couldn’t seem to understand any of the conversations within earshot or would feel completely puzzled when vendors would reply to me in Taiwanese even though I initiated discussions in Mandarin!  All the subway stops are translated in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English, and unlike my Taiwanese-American friends who barely know a lick of the language, and whose parents also barely know it, it seems there has been quite a resurgence in Taiwanese.

This all seems to be a part of the Taiwanese nationalism, and the Taiwanese are very proud of their history, where the pride is evident wherever you go.  There is apparently a Zhong Shan (another name for Sun Yat-Sen) road in every city, and I even found an 愛國 (literally “love country”) road in Taipei.  I visited both the Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek memorials, and quickly learned where much of this Taiwanese pride came from.  Both men’s histories are closely guarded by the Taiwanese, and their efforts and accomplishments are celebrated at their memorials, both of which are quite grand and surrounded by peaceful parks, complete with koi ponds.

I’d never paid all that much attention to Chinese history when I was young.  In spite of having the luxury of attending some of the best schools in the U.S., I really wasted a lot of it, just studying to get by, and not really comprehending.  Sun, Chiang, Mao, Deng – all a bunch of names that didn’t make any sense to me at the end of the day, but by the end of my first visit to Taiwan, I absorbed far more about Dr. Sun and Generalissimo Chiang in those few days than what must have been weeks of study throughout high school and college.

Over the summer, having run into a mysterious Dr. Sun memorial park in Maui, I made the effort to check out his wiki page, and also read a historical fiction about him and his wife Song Qingling, who is allegedly a relative of mine on my father’s side.  While I didn’t quite grasp all the historical details, I felt remorse for Dr. Sun.  He had some very good intentions that he was simply never going to be capable of executing, being far too academic and lacking financial or physical backing.  I learned in Taiwan that Dr. Sun eventually sought the military talents of Gen. Chiang, who  was incredibly charismatic and accomplished many amazing feats of persuasion.  Although the KMT got pretty far, it seemed a number of problematic incidents would finally thwart their efforts (Dr. Sun’s ailing liver and the Japanese kidnapping of Gen. Chiang).

I learned a lot at the memorials, particularly about Gen. Chiang’s incredible diplomacy, even decades after his presidency.  He was tireless with his efforts to continue Dr. Sun’s Three Principles of the People, and was awarded a great array of medals and awards from countries around the world.  I also noticed that in both memorials, both Taiwanese heroes always appeared incredibly warm and friendly, with smiles on their faces in nearly all their icons, photographs, portraits, etc.  For someone also known as a murderer and dictator, Chiang Kai-shek seemed incredibly sweet and friendly!

But looking at just these glimpses of Chinese history, it led me to wonder, who is Chinese?!

When my sister and I finally met up over the weekend (she worked in Yilan while I did all this cultural touring in Taipei), she further explained to me some of the difficulties of Taiwan’s national identity.  Basically the fall-out of the whole KMT – Communist Party fight resulted in two distinct groups claiming its right to be China.  For some reason, I’ve been incredibly ignorant about this matter.  The U.S. has not recognized Taiwan as a nation since 1979, and Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations.

This makes trade and relations with Taiwan particularly tricky, as it is proclaims to be the ROC.  Anyone who collaborates with Taiwan is under the constant threat of offending China, and since few want to do that, I guess this would be the reason why I barely hear much about Taiwan back in the U.S.

This trip has led me to become much more fascinated by Chinese (which includes Taiwanese) history than ever.  The nationalism in Taiwan is ever-present, and I see a huge contrast to Hong Kong in that sense.  In HK, there are no memorials, and having been under British rule for so long, it has lost a lot of self-identity.  HK wants to be Chinese, yet it doesn’t want to be PRC.

At least in Taiwan, in spite of this identity mix-up, it seems to grasp very clearly who they are.  Unlike HK, there are several old historical sights (HK is good at tearing down the old and building plenty of new — case in point, the Lantau Buddha), art is revered and treasured at the National Palace Museum, there is a great variety of distinctively Taiwanese foods that I barely had space in my stomach to try all of which, and pride in MIT (no, not my alma mater — but Made In Taiwan) goods is overwhelmingly ever-present wherever you shop.  All this is completely devoid and lacking in Hong Kong, and that is quite sad to me.  Yet the problem with Taiwan is, while they know who they clearly are, do they know who they will be or who they want to be?

It seems they want to be China, but many don’t want to identify with PRC, whereas others, including Taiwan’s current president, are making a move to seeing a future in a united PRC-ROC.  And in the meantime, HK has yet to figure out who it really is.

So will the real China please stand up?

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