Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan – a Review

Green Island

As a child born and brought up in a Veteran’s Village in Taiwan in the 60s and 70s, my early childhood was overshadowed by the constant warning – from my ex-Nationalist army officer father – of the Communist bandits who lurked in dark alleyways who kidnapped and murdered children. Communist bandits were not the real danger of the night. The real menace came knocking on your door without warning.

The White Terror cast a very long shadow in the history of Taiwan after the arrival of the Nationalist Government following their defeat by the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Martial Law was declared on 19 May of the same year, the Island was subjected to the draconian administration of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT). The brutality of Taiwan’s new ruler made the locals nostalgic for their Japanese colonial master who only returned the island to the Chinese in 1945. The authoritarianism of Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorship created a climate of suspicion and surveillance. Dissidents who criticised the KMT and supported a Taiwan self-rule were not only suppressed, they were liable to be arrested and persecuted. Many of these arrests were carried out in secret. It was estimated that before the lift of the Martial Law on 15 July 1987, some 140,000 people were imprisoned and 3,000 to 4,000 were executed, most of them intellectuals and social elite.

Preluded by Green Island Serenade, a well-known folk song to the Taiwanese, Shawna Yang Ryan’s historical novel, Green Island, chronicles the enduring saga of the three generations of the Tsai family, spanning from the aftermath of the 2-28 Massacre in 1947 to 2003 when the Island was threatened by another deadly threat of SARS. Through her meticulous research, Ryan interweaves her tales with historical events that shape not only Taiwan’s political destiny but also those of her characters. Growing up through some of the decades covered in the novels, Ryan’s story will resonate with much of the lived experience of many of my generation in Taiwan: when aspirations are tested in every turn by oppression, racism and personal demons. It is fiction made powerfully authentic by its social realism.

Indeed, social reality is documented with a narrative detachment free of sentimentality but oppressive in its evocative images. Ryan’s narrator takes us back to her mother’s attempt to track down her missing father, presumed dead, at the Keelung Harbour that has acquired a dubious reputation of “a watery graveyard”:

Enterprising fishermen offer their dinghies for a small fee. My mother beckoned one over and the boatman held her hand as she stepped in. He wore a peaked straw hat, like a farmer, which cast his face in shadow, and a bandanna masked everything below his eyes. She huddled in the boat, holding me to her chest and a handkerchief pressed to her nose and mouth. Her blouse was damp with milk.

With a long pole, the fisherman carefully negotiated their way around the bodies . . . My mother scanned the water as if one swollen corpse could be distinguished from another. She swallowed the nausea that rose up her throat. She ignored the faces, which waterlogged, had become alike, and looked for a telling glow, a chain of gold revealed through the translucent wet seam of a shirt. She cried out a few times, and each time the fisherman stopped and nudged the body, but something would be wrong: the hair was too long, the watch had a square face not round, the pants were brown not black.

They searched all afternoon, until the fisherman finally said, “He’s not here.”

Distant this particular scene of macabre must seem to many readers unfamiliar with the socio-political upheaval of Taiwan but accustomed to its stereotypical images as a factory of cheap imitations, or perhaps one of the “four little dragons of Asia”, or even for its “economical miracle”, and in the educational context, its top spots in the international tests (PISA).

Ryan’s Green Island succeeds in not only telling an important story of survival that would have been silenced only a few decades ago. It is a must-read for those thirsty for the knowledge of the cultural imperatives that help explain and dispel some of the stereotypes, misconceptions and misunderstandings of contemporary Taiwan – not Thailand, and definitely not China.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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