Various statements about Taiwanese identity for story by Joanna Chiu. fo-Chinese-identity-Taiwan Dreamstime; Toronto Star Photo Illustration

Who do the Taiwanese think they are?

Taiwan is an island (dozens of them, really), but historically that hasn’t meant peaceful isolation; far from it. It’s been under the rule of powers from beyond its shores for much of the last millennium — from the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries to the Ming and Qing Chinese dynasties to Japanese control from 1895 to 1945.

After the Chinese Communist Party drove the Kuomintang, or KMT, off the mainland in 1949 during the Chinese Civil War, the KMT ruled Taiwan with an iron fist. Democratic reforms did not start until 1987, but political change since has been brisk: it’s now a vibrant democracy with a free press and relatively progressive policies (the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019).

Still, a shadow has loomed over the lush island, with Beijing claiming Taiwan as its own territory and not ruling out using military force to take it. (The question of whether Taiwan should say it belongs to — and in theory stake a claim to — China or declare its independence has loomed over Taiwanese politics for decades.)

Tensions rose after independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016 and spiked recently following a one-day trip by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island in 25 years. Beijing sees high-level official contact with Taiwan as encouragement to make its de facto independence permanent, an idea that inflames the CCP.

While more than 90 per cent of people in Taiwan trace their ancestry to mainland China, most Taiwanese have since embraced a separate identity.

In 2020, a Pew Research poll found that 66 per cent of Taiwan’s 23 million people solely identified as “Taiwanese” while 28 per cent identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese. Past data show the former position surging from a small minority in a generation.

There are 16 recognized Indigenous tribes in Taiwan, as well as hundreds of thousands of migrants from all over Asia. Yet in the West, discussions over the future of the island democracy too often exclude the voices of Taiwanese people, let alone capture their diversity.

For our View from Taiwan ongoing series, the Star visited last month to ask people there about the biggest questions and challenges that they face. Here’s what they want the world to know about who they are.

Editor’s note: Some of these interviews were conducted in Mandarin or Cantonese, and they have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ruby Lu, 28

I was born in the city of Taichung in the middle of Taiwan. Now I’m in Tainan to the south. I’m an editor at an entertainment news website.

My parents were born in the 1960s and are pro-KMT (the once-dominant party, opposed to official Taiwanese independence). But I don’t think they have a strong affection toward China. Their view is that making peace with China would be safer than supporting independence.

Before university in Taipei, I was indifferent but then the Sunflower Movement happened in 2014 when I was a student and awakened my political consciousness. Protesters resisted against Taiwan signing a free-trade agreement with China, and for many of us, it became something more.

I learned more about what the KMT did when it ruled as an authoritarian regime, and how they arrested and killed people during the White Terror (Taiwan’s decades of martial law). I know some governments like in Canada try to atone for atrocities in the past, such as that was done toward Indigenous people, but I don’t think the KMT is interested in anything like that.

I clashed more and more with my father, and we had a lot of fights over this issue. My parents lived through the White Terror but said they didn’t personally suffer.

I know my father doesn’t necessarily align himself with the KMT but he’s scared of what China could do. The previous Taiwanese (KMT) president Ma Ying-jeou was very friendly to China and made lots of agreements. At the time, some people thought it was a kind of surrender and others thought it was a way to prevent war.

My family still primarily identifies as Taiwanese. My grandparents came from mainland China. I seldom had a chance to talk about politics or the past with them. I don’t think there’s a way to resolve generational differences. Now, I prefer not to talk about politics at home.

I won’t call myself Chinese. Even with the word huaren (people of Chinese ethnicity), to me, there are big differences between people who are in Malaysia, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan or overseas. Just because we speak some form of Chinese doesn’t mean we are the same people. Grouping together all these people erases cultural differences.

Lilian Hsieh, 58

Lilian Hsieh, second from left (with her parents in Taiwan in the mid-twentieth century).

My parents are from Guangdong in China, and my father joined the Nationalist army in 1949 near the end of the Chinese Civil War. He was among the last to retreat to Taiwan.

When I was young, I felt like I was Chinese and felt happy to hear about family stories from my father. We were natives of Guangdong, where I had never been until recently.

Now, I don’t feel like I’m Chinese anymore, because I don’t feel like I’m someone ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. I feel like I’m Taiwanese because I grew up in Taiwan, and while China is in my blood, geographically my home is Taiwan.

However, I do think we can use the term huaren, because there are similarities between mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Singaporeans and overseas Chinese. We came from the same land in different eras. It’s just that a lot of people don’t want to call themselves Chinese because they don’t agree with the CCP. Taiwanese think that the CCP has achieved economic progress, but there is no freedom of speech in China.

My father finally visited our relatives in China in 2011. He felt very disappointed because of the great changes there, so he didn’t want us to go. After my father passed away, I felt as if I lost contact with my relatives, and my uncles and aunts who were all on the other side. So after my father passed away in 2016, I visited Guangdong for the first time to see my aunt and uncle, had dinner and talked together with them and visited some cultural landmarks. It felt very nice to go there.

I’ve since visited China several times as a tourist, and all over China, they think Taiwan is part of China.

Icyang Parod, 61

Icyang Parod.

I was born in Hualien County on the east coast in the Amis tribe. At 16, I moved to Taipei to attend high school in 1977. I was worried people would see that I was Indigenous, since my eyes are big, so I wore dark sunglasses everywhere.

There have always been both negative and positives stereotypes in Taiwan about Indigenous people, which at about 570,000 make up 2.5 per cent of the population. Some think we’re lazy, like alcohol and only sing and dance, but they think Indigenous people are beautiful and are jealous of our typically larger eyes and double eyelids.

Taiwan’s Indigenous groups have lived under the rule of the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese empires. This has led to a great loss of language, culture and land.

I became involved in 1988 in the Tudi Yundong “Return our Land” movement, which developed into a push for Aboriginal constitutional rights. I was arrested and detained for about one year. But we successfully made some gains. There is more representation of Indigenous people in government now, and while there is not a lot of land in Taiwan and Indigenous people are quite mixed with ethnic Han majority people, there are some Indigenous villages and townships that are more independent.

I joined government work as a researcher in the Aboriginal People Council in the executive branch, and took office as the Minister of the Council of Indigenous Peoples from 2007 to 2008 and again since 2016. We serve Taiwan’s Indigenous people and liaise with the government.

When President Tsai issued a formal apology to our Aboriginal communities in August 2016, it was a very good step toward reconciliation and peace. It was the first time for any head of state in Asia to do such a thing. At the council, we went on a delegation trip to Canada earlier this summer and we have learned a lot from the Indigenous self-governance model and reconciliation efforts in other countries.

When Taiwanese Indigenous people leave Taiwan, I think most tell others we are from Taiwan. And if people inquire future, we may explain that we are Taiwan’s original people.

Should we ask Taiwan’s other former colonizers to apologize? I think that is a good question. Maybe someday. Internationally, we focus more on connecting with other Indigenous communities and definitely have more in common with Indigenous people of Austronesian descent than the idea of a global Chinese diaspora.

Ling, 65

Ling.

I was born in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. My parents were born in Kaohsiung too and I don’t know of my ancestors being from anywhere else.

People in Taiwan are very free and self-sufficient. I think some of the best fruit and food is grown here. It’s such a lush place. So I’m very satisfied with being a Taiwanese person.

I don’t think I would be able to function in another part of the world, with all that we have in Taiwan. I moved to Taipei to start a business selling tea at this market. Taiwan’s traditional people are more realistic, particularly from the south, so I think that helps us in business.

We speak Mandarin, but it’s a Taiwan form of Mandarin, not like what is spoken in mainland China. I do feel that culturally, there are both linguistic and cultural ties between the Chinese diaspora, whether you’re from China or Hong Kong or Taiwan. The difference is politics. That’s how it is.

Now, there are many tensions between Taiwan and China. Every day, with all the news, it makes us ordinary people feel less safe. We wish we can all just live in peace. I’ve been to mainland China before and the people there have good characters.

We should separate politics from ordinary people’s lives. I want to be able to go to China and travel and enjoy it. We can understand each other better by spending time together.

Mira Luxita, 40

Mira Luxita

I immigrated to Taiwan 11 years ago from East Java, Indonesia. I had gotten a scholarship from the Taiwan Ministry of Education to do my master’s degree in Taiwan in linguistics.

Politics is part of life in Taiwan. I think Taiwan welcomes so many foreigners as a way to protect Taiwan from an attack from China. They can say that conflict would not only affect Taiwan per se but all the multinationals here.

In my first year in Taiwan, I only spoke a bit of Mandarin. My plan was to finish my degree and then go back to Indonesia. My background is in journalism, and I worked part-time as a journalist in Taiwan for an Indonesian news website targeted at the growing number of Indonesians in Taiwan. After I graduated, the CEO of the company, which does other work promoting trade ties, asked me to stay and edit the publication. Now I do various things for the company.

My Mandarin is better now but it is still difficult to connect with Taiwanese people who don’t speak English. I have been able to easily make friends with locals who are interested in attending international events I organize, such as hiking groups or language exchange programs.

Taiwanese people are very friendly but I’ve encountered racism from some older people, taxi drivers and police officers. Taxi drivers would often ask me, “Where are you from?” When I told them I was Indonesian, they would ask why I was outside during the daytime instead of working in a factory or as an aide for the elderly.

Those are two common jobs that Indonesian migrant workers do in Taiwan, but I am a permanent resident of Taiwan, and some people just can’t accept the fact that I have a university degree. When I went out with foreigners, twice police officers stopped us and only asked me for my identification card and not the foreigners from Western countries.

There are more and more professional workers in Taiwan who come here to work as engineers. Taiwan’s high-tech industry is famous in Asia.

President Tsai has said that Taiwan by 2030 will be multilingual with English as a second language. I feel pessimistic about it, because I don’t think there’s a lot of support for that policy. Taiwan isn’t ready to be like Singapore or Canada, since there are more conservative people here. But I think society will gradually change since I find that young people are more curious about different cultures.

I love Taiwan, and I might spend forever here. But I won’t change my nationality. I’ll always be Indonesian even if I stay in Taiwan.

Gigi Kan, 22

Gigi Kan

I came to Taiwan because I thought the political situation in Hong Kong wasn’t good, so I wanted to explore opportunities as an artist in Taiwan. There are a lot of independent cafés and concert venues here, and rent for studio spaces is much cheaper than in Hong Kong.

But the main reason for leaving, and coming here to enrol in university, is political. My degree is cultural studies. In Hong Kong, there is increasing self-censorship among artists. I’ve heard from friends that even when they are writing lyrics for songs, they have to think hard about whether the lyrics could be interpreted as political, and then they’d change the lyrics to avoid getting into trouble (from the national security law). In Taiwan, it’s very free. You can write and create what you want and there isn’t censorship.

I’m working on an experimental art piece that I will exhibit at a Taipei bookstore. I have created a track of music including the voices of Hong Kong protesters crying out and singing. People at the exhibit will listen on headphones and draw what it makes them feel.

Among my circle of students, teachers and artists in Taiwan, I see quite a lot of support for Hong Kongers and there are events, like talks, that bring together Taiwanese people and people who came here from Hong Kong to try to understand each other. But more can be done, and Hong Kong migrants here face many bureaucratic hurdles to getting permanent residency or citizenship (in part because Taiwan lacks pre-existing laws and mechanisms for asylum seekers). Some Hong Kongers in Taiwan have gotten fed up with the long processes and are leaving.

I have met a girlfriend who is Taiwanese, and same-sex marriage is legal here but not in our case because I don’t have a Taiwan residency card. I haven’t decided where I will live in the future, but I could see myself living in Canada or France where there is LGBT marriage and democracy.

I don’t think the term huaren makes sense because people of Chinese descent are not all the same. The identities are fluid and flexible and I think we should align on values, as people who support human rights, rather than with ethnicity.

Watch scenes from The Toronto Star’s reporting in Taiwan, from a quarantine hotel to the headquarters of the world’s largest semiconductor foundry TSMC to night markets and bustling streets. Global issues reporter Joanna Chiu worked with local journalists on a special package of feature stories, videos and podcasts highlighting Taiwanese voices on the biggest questions and challenges that Taiwan is facing.

With files from Tin Chen and The Associated Press

Joanna Chiu is a B.C.-based staff reporter for the Star. She covers global and national affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu

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