Written by Chieh-Ting Yeh.
Taiwan’s voters will soon decide who will represent them in crafting their nation’s future. Many eminent scholars and journalists have weighed in on the possible results of those elections, which are expected to usher the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power, and perhaps even legitimize new political parties in the process. But amidst all the forward looking predictions, allow me to reflect on the past. I would like to talk about my grandmother.
Lai Ying-tsi was born to a farming family of moderate means just west of the city of Kagi (嘉義) in modern Chiayi County in southern Taiwan, sometime between 1919 and 1922. During this time, the Japanese engineer Hata Yuichi and his team had just completed the construction of the Chianan canals (嘉南大圳), a system of irrigation channels and reservoirs that turned Taiwan into a subtropical agricultural powerhouse. When the legendary Kagi Agricultural School baseball team earned second place in the all Japan Empire high school tournament, my grandmother would have been around 10 years old.
When my grandmother married, she moved to Tsui-gu-tshu (水虞厝), the next village over. She raised four sons and three daughters (my father is the third son). My grandfather worked a small plot of land and herded ducks, while my grandmother took care of everything else for the household. As far as I know, she was not formally educated, and was illiterate in the languages of either colonial governments, Japanese and Mandarin.
Since she only spoke Taiwanese, I was fortunate enough to learn it as a child, when she lived with my family in Daxi (大溪) in northern Taiwan to babysit for me. Otherwise, she mostly lived in my father’s childhood home in Chiayi, a very modest one story, thatched roof structure my grandfather built, adjacent to a temple and the temple grounds. At one end of the house was a kitchen, the walls caked black by smoke from the wood burning stove. I remember visiting her a few times a year as I grew up. Upon seeing me and my parents, she would slip behind the house, snatch a chicken, and squat over the wood oven butchering, cooking, and setting up a feast, which we ate over a folding table in the kitchen.
In 1992, when I was 10 years old, I emigrated to New York, and I never saw my grandmother again. Shortly after I left Taiwan, a new central avenue was planned for the village, which required half of her home to be appropriated and demolished. A few years later she fell ill, and passed away soon afterwards. She was in her mid-seventies. As my US immigration status was unclear at the time, I could not leave the US to attend her funeral; my father only told me of her passing after the funeral was over, when I asked over the phone how grandma was doing.
It was not until many years later that I gathered, from my parents, that her death could have been indirectly caused by a misdiagnosis by the local clinic where she went. And that the doctor was either careless, or needed extra motivation in the form of a red envelope, or both. In any case, my grandmother was not treated properly and was not transferred to a larger hospital in time. It was a failure on a human level, but also a failure of the workings of the social system, an institutional failure, at which I felt both angry, and pretty powerless.
As I thought about her death, I also thought about her life, and the silhouettes of Taiwan’s evolving social institutions over the course of her life. Could she have lived longer than she did? Was the demolition of her home inevitable? Would her life have been different if she had received formal education and was taught to be a proper Japanese subject, and then a proper Chinese nationalist? Should I be grateful for land reforms that gave my grandparents their own land to farm on, and at the same time disparage the local agricultural associations that held power over their livelihoods?
Institutions are important, much more so than who is voted into power at any given time. Since 1987, Taiwan has embarked on a road to democracy and rule of law. There are formal, institutionalized, competitive elections for government representatives at the local and national levels. But no matter which party is in power, and no matter how popular a mandate Taiwanese presidents enjoy, the political process in Taiwan eventually disappoints the vast majority of the citizens. Bills, even those initiated by the majority party’s counterparts in the executive branch, have a hard time being passed. Members of parliament are usually junior politicians, more interested in pandering to local constituents to set up for their governor runs than national issues. Votes are not represented equally across the nation. Worst of all, the responsibilities and powers between the President, Premier, and the Parliament are murky at best, leading to extra-constitutional decision making through party mechanisms rather than state mechanisms.
Furthermore, the social structures and traditions built over time during Japanese colonial rule and Chinese martial law remain in place. The few families who accumulated wealth through government dealings continue to hold court, while the economy suffers. Unemployment has risen, especially sharply for the 20-24 year olds. Business barons, like the heads of Farglory, Ting Hsin, Far East and Want Want, seem to extract benefits from common societal resources, be it land, the airwaves or public trust, with impunity, while the public feels powerless in holding them accountable. Meanwhile, the popular media feeds their audience’s need for vicarious glamour and tasteless spending, spotlighting the carefree and irresponsible lives of wealthy scions.
If my grandmother were still around, I am not sure what she would think of how Taiwan has turned out. Then again, I doubt my grandmother would think too much into these kinds of questions. She was a quiet person, who chose to accept institutional forces beyond her control. During her time, institutional forces were beyond her control; in a better Taiwan, that should not be the case.
When the excitement of the election inevitably subsides, I hope we, both the citizens of Taiwan, and those of us who study and care about Taiwan, return our focus to institutions. Taiwan deserves better institutions, and as outside observers who may be able to see the bigger picture more clearly, it is our job to drive the institutional changes that Taiwan needs.
Chieh-Ting Yeh is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Ketagalan Media.