A Scion’s Story Full of Twists

Times Staff Writer

It was 1963 and John Chang was a skinny young cadet completing basic training at a military academy on the west coast of Taiwan. As Chang stood stiffly at attention, Chiang Kai-shek strolled by, inspecting the troops.

Their eyes met for a second, and it seemed to Chang that a smile passed across the lips of the older man. But there was no way of knowing for sure if the legendary figure, who led the nationalist camp in the Chinese civil war and who was now Taiwan’s president, recognized his 21-year-old grandson standing there nervously, barely an arm’s length away.

“I had this kind of urge in my heart to run up to him. But it was unthinkable. He was the Generalissimo,” Chang said of the only time he saw his famous ancestor.


It would have been a terrible scandal if Chang had spoken up. Along with a twin brother, he was born out of wedlock to a young woman who had an affair with Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo, who later became president of Taiwan. Chang had no more of a relationship with his father than he did his grandfather.

It was only six months ago that the Taiwanese government amended Chang’s birth documents and officially recognized him as a scion of the political dynasty.

The story of John Chang and his family is one of love and revolution, of deceit and possibly murder. It is a story that also has implications for the 21st century because Chang, now a member of parliament, is one of the most prominent voices calling for Taiwan to end its historical enmity with China.

Whereas his grandfather spearheaded the fight against communism in the 1940s and his father later ruled the breakaway island of Taiwan almost until the end of the Cold War, the illegitimate offspring of the family is now seeking rapprochement.

“It all started when my grandfather was on the mainland fighting the communists. That was five decades ago,” Chang said. “Now the entire world has changed.”

The relationship between Taiwan and the mainland remains largely undefined, as China deems Taiwan a renegade province. But there is a free exchange of phone calls, letters and e-mails, and of trade and people, albeit through indirect routes.


Chang scored a coup this year when he organized Taiwan’s first flights to the mainland since 1949, the year Chiang Kai-shek’s forces retreated to the island and established a government. The charter flights took place over two weeks around Chinese New Year and carried 2,462 passengers. Chang is now pushing for direct cargo flights to the mainland.

Chang today bears scant resemblance to the tentative young man who was too scared to introduce himself to his grandfather. At 61, he is a bespectacled politician who wears impeccably tailored suits and switches flawlessly among six languages.

Gallery of Memorabilia

His office near the National Assembly building in downtown Taipei is crammed with paintings and photographs of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Indeed, there is so much family memorabilia that one would hardly sense anything unusual -- if not for the fact that Chang is conspicuously absent from the pictures.

Chang and his twin brother, Winston, (who died in 1996), were born Chang Hsiao-yen and Chang Hsiao-tzu in Guilin, China, in 1942. They took the family name of their mother, Chang Ya-jo, and as adults adopted the English names of their political idols, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill.

Their mother was an attractive young woman who worked at a training camp for youth enlisting in the fight against Japan. The camp was run by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army and headed by Chiang Ching-kuo.

When the brothers were 6 months old, their mother went to dinner at a friend’s house and came home complaining of stomach cramps. She went to the hospital and was dead by the next day. Her family suspected that she was killed by Kuomintang loyalists who feared she might hurt the Chiangs, who were in the throes of a power struggle with the communists. Three years ago, Chang visited the hospital in Guilin seeking the records of his mother’s death. He was told that all files had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.


“The rumor is that my mother didn’t die of natural causes, but nobody knows for sure and probably will never know,” Chang said.

In 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China and Chiang Kai-shek fled with about 2 million followers across the Taiwan Strait. The orphaned Chang twins were among them.

The boys settled in the town of Hsinchu, 40 miles southwest of Taipei, the capital, living with their maternal grandmother and an uncle in a sparsely furnished room behind a tiny storefront, where the family eked out a living selling cigarettes and groceries. The twins lived as poor refugees and were told that their parents had been left behind on the mainland in the chaos of civil war.

They had no inkling that their grandfather was Taiwan’s absolute ruler, a legend in his time. Or that their father was Chiang Ching-kuo, the second-most-powerful man on the island, controlling at various points the armed forces and the intelligence services.

Just the same, their lives were touched by mystery. A military man would visit their uncle periodically, parking his jeep on the outskirts of town to avoid undue attention. After each visit, they were a little less poor than before. Once, the boys were awakened by the sound of their grandmother sobbing. She was looking at a photograph.

“When you’re older, I’ll tell you who the lady in the picture is,” Chang recalls his grandmother saying.


It was not until they were teenagers that their grandmother told them that the woman in the photo was their mother and that money had been sent by their father.

Chiang Ching-kuo became president of Taiwan in 1978 and died in office 10 years later. The twins never met him. Chang saw him in person only once -- at a diplomatic reception in 1973 when Chang was a junior foreign service officer and his father was prime minister. They did not speak, and the encounter was no more intimate than when Chang briefly saw his grandfather.

Attempts at a Meeting

“After Winston and I got married and had our own children, we tried repeatedly to arrange a meeting with our father,” Chang said. “The answer always came back that it was not convenient and that we should try to understand.”

The twins may have gotten even by following the old adage of living well. Both excelled in school, and by the time they were in their late teens, local newspapers started running stories about the brilliant boys who were rumored to be part of the Chiang family. Meanwhile, Chiang Ching-kuo’s three sons from his marriage had less stellar careers.

“Our half-brothers were all spoiled. They didn’t study hard. Winston and I had to do everything for ourselves,” Chang said.

Winston Chang enjoyed a successful career in academia, becoming president of the prestigious Soochow University in Taiwan until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage when he was 54. John Chang rose through the government ranks to serve at various points as foreign minister, vice premier, assemblyman and secretary-general of the Kuomintang, the nationalist party that had dominated Taiwan’s political life since his grandfather’s day. He also was briefly a presidential aide but resigned that position in 1999 in a scandal over an extramarital affair.


When the Kuomintang lost power in the 2000 elections to the pro-Taiwanese-independence party of President Chen Shui-bian, Chang found his voice in the opposition as a leading advocate of better relations with China.

Chang does not think that Taiwan will become part of China in the near future -- or that it should until gaps are narrowed in terms of democratic systems and economics. Nonetheless, he notes with resignation that when he began his diplomatic career in the early 1970s, Taiwan was recognized by more than 100 countries. Today the number has dwindled to 27, many of them tiny dots of land in the Pacific.

“Mainland China is changing. That’s the reality. And it is a huge market that we cannot afford to ignore,” he said.

Barriers to Mainland

China surpassed the United States early last year as Taiwan’s leading trade partner. But there remain many obstacles, not the least of which is a ban on direct flights. That turns what should be a 90-minute commuter trip -- from Chiang Kai-shek Airport, as Taiwan’s international airport is predictably called -- into a daylong journey through Hong Kong or Macao.

Chang last month enlisted the support of 129 of the legislature’s 225 members for direct cargo flights to Shanghai, which he says could compensate for some of the island’s economic losses resulting from severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Chinese aviation authorities have also endorsed the proposal, but it has generated anger in some corners, including the influential Taipei Times, which last month ran an editorial branding Chang as a self-aggrandizing politico who was “seeking to capitalize on SARS fears.”

“Chang’s proposal shows how little he cares about this nation’s security,” the English-language newspaper charged.


The most frequently voiced criticism of Chang is that he has a way of grabbing more than his share of headlines, exploiting his illustrious lineage to personal advantage.

“He’s good at publicity,” said Hong Chi-chang, a fellow legislator who says the proposal for direct flights came from his ruling party.

But Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei think tank, praised Chang for using his family connection to Taiwan’s advantage. Once considered an archvillain in China for his fervent anti-communism, Chiang Kai-shek has been rehabilitated somewhat in recent years for leading the fight against the Japanese occupation.

“He has become the one carrying on the legacy of the Chiang family, and he has done so very effectively,” Yang said of Chang. “His family ties give him an advantage in dealing with mainland China, while he enjoys a certain amount of sympathy at home because, for most of his life, he suffered from illegitimacy.”

Over the years, Chang’s paternity evolved from rumor to open secret to matter of fact. On Dec. 12, Taiwan’s Interior Ministry issued a new identity card to Chang listing Chiang Ching-kuo as his father. The decision was made largely on the basis of testimony by a 90-year-old former aide to Chiang Ching-kuo who had delivered the money to the twins’ relatives.

An Unspoken Pride

“The president cared very much about the twins. He was very happy after he found out they had passed their college exams,” the former aide, Gen. Wang Seng, told a Taipei television station last year.


Chang threw a large party on Christmas Eve in a Taipei hotel to celebrate his change in status.

In interviews, he shrugs off the years of struggling for recognition as a life experience that made him tougher.

But his wife, Helen, who published a collection of essays about her husband in 1999, tells a different story:

“As for his own father, John carefully suppresses his feelings during the day, but at night he can’t keep from dreaming about him,” she wrote. “Many nights I have been awakened by John’s crying for his father in his sleep.”