Split Over Taiwan’s Future
In her beauty salon tucked down an alley in Temple City, Anna Hsu chats gregariously as she tends to her customers’ facials and dabs makeup on brides on their wedding days.
Most of her customers are native Taiwanese, and the discussions often turn to the tense political standoff between their homeland and China. The banter ends abruptly when a Chinese customer enters.
“Business is business,” Hsu said. “I’m very careful about what I say when I have Chinese clients. This is not the right place to talk about politics.”
She has no such compunction outside work, however. She and hundreds of other Taiwanese Americans have spent the last few weeks holding a series of raucous demonstrations against the Chinese government across Southern California.
“I am American Taiwanese, definitely never Chinese!” a quivering and teary-eyed Hsu told a handful of local Chinese reporters at a news conference a few weeks ago. “One China! One Taiwan! We will fight until the end!”
At a time when many Chinese immigrants have put profits before politics, overcoming their animosity toward the Beijing government to do business with the booming mainland, Hsu and Southern California’s small population of native Taiwanese remain true believers in a cause that has, at times, never seemed more unlikely.
They want Taiwan, an island 100 miles off the coast of China whose independence has long been disputed, to become an internationally recognized sovereign nation, even if it means igniting a war.
The question of Taiwanese independence has consumed the island for weeks, generating protests that have sent hundreds of thousands to the streets of a country the size of Maryland. The subject of the demonstrations is China’s new anti-secession law, in which the Communist government threatens to use military force if Taiwan explores permanent independence from the mainland.
Taiwanese Americans in Los Angeles County -- home to the largest population of Chinese in America -- have been keeping the flame alive, and in the process alienating themselves further from the rest of the Chinese community.
Just as Taiwan often says it feels overwhelmed by China’s power, some in Los Angeles’ Taiwanese community offer a similar complaint about their lives in the predominantly Chinese suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. There are about 300,000 Chinese Americans in the county, many of whom hail from Taiwan and opt to call themselves Chinese, but only about 35,000 consider themselves full Taiwanese.
“They’re not playing with the other kids in the sandbox,” said Richard Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA. “They’re commonly outsiders.”
For Taiwan die-hards, political life flows from a nondescript, two-story building in Rosemead that used to be a health spa.
The structure’s main facade is covered in a massive banner that reads: “More than 700 Chinese missiles not only target at Taiwan but all of East Asia. Next could be Pacific Islands and eventually ... “
The center also is where the Los Angeles chapter of the Formosan Assn. for Public Affairs meets regularly. More commonly known as FAPA, the national organization was formed in 1982 to promote opposition by federal lawmakers to the ruling Nationalist government, but has switched in recent years to pushing for independence.
K.C. Chen, president of the L.A. chapter, the largest in the U.S., is a tall, bespectacled man who wore a suit, tie and a green headband at a recent rally in front of Los Angeles City Hall. Carrying a megaphone, he roused the protesters by chanting “Protect Taiwan, fight China!”
The crowd took up the cry with chants of “Anti-aggression!” and “Shame on China!” Organizers wielding aluminum baseball bats struck at a cardboard model of a camouflaged Chinese tank, pulverizing it.
A Chinese flag was battered with eggs. Another was stomped on by protesters as they marched on Main Street.
One woman pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair swerved to run over the tattered red flag. Some cheered when a pair of native Taiwanese dogs arrived.
A few days earlier, some of the same organizers gathered in South El Monte for a news conference for the local Chinese media. A skit was performed in which a man festooned with Chinese flags was ordered by “the devil” to swing a plastic ax at an actor representing Taiwan.
Chen, 54, says he was first inspired to get involved politically as a student in Taiwan. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he joined any L.A.-area Taiwanese groups. He said he gained his inspiration from several American Jews he worked with at an accounting firm in Woodland Hills. He said they spoke passionately about Israel, and he likened that country’s struggles to Taiwan’s.
Chen does not mask his discomfort about living in an area with a growing population of mainland Chinese. He complains that immigrants from the mainland have supplanted Taiwanese by becoming waiters and waitresses at traditional Taiwanese restaurants. “I can tell by their accents,” he said.
Chen’s father came to visit from Taiwan one recent Christmas and, after eating at a nearby Shanghainese restaurant, the elder Chen said he was too upset to ever return.
“He came out of it saying, ‘Never again,’ ” Chen said. “He couldn’t take it. It reminded him too much of the bad times with the Chinese.”
By that he meant life after the Communist revolution in 1949, when the Red Army sent the toppled Nationalist government fleeing to Taiwan. Though native Taiwanese want a formally independent nation, the Chinese consider Taiwan rightfully theirs. The Nationalists have taken a more diplomatic stance than the native Taiwanese, and are open to returning to a freer China.
The clash of viewpoints plays out in local Chinese media, which Chen accuses of bias. He said KAZN-AM (1300), a popular Mandarin-language station based in Pasadena, has talk shows that are pro-China and pro-Nationalist Party.
“People like me hate that station,” Chen said. “We used to get people to call the show. But we gave up the last year or two. It was a waste of time.”
Felix Guo, the station’s manager, laughed off the criticism, saying it was impossible to please everyone. He said that for every pro-Taiwanese independence person who called, there probably were eight to 10 who would disagree. “The number of listeners from the [Nationalist] side is overwhelming,” Guo said.
Recognizing the animosity within the Taiwanese community, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in L.A. held a banquet at a Cantonese seafood house in San Gabriel in November, inviting backers of independence and the Nationalist Party, partly in hopes of forging a friendship.
“It was awkward,” Chen said of the arrangement in which round banquet tables had longtime foes seated together. “Next to me was the president of the army alumni association -- a Nationalist. We talked a little, but we didn’t try to argue either.”
No Chinese Identity
There are few things that bother Chen and other Taiwanese activists more than being called Chinese.
They are Taiwanese, multi-generational natives of the island formerly known as Formosa. They do not want to be confused with so-called “49er Taiwanese” -- a reference to the Nationalist supporters who arrived after 1949 and maintained a strict hegemony in national politics for decades.
Chen and others said years of second-class citizenship in their former homeland separates them from the experiences of Chinese immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of Asia. As a result, they reject the umbrella of Chinese identity that has traditionally united these groups.
Instead of speaking Mandarin -- Taiwan’s official language and arguably the most common Chinese language in the San Gabriel Valley -- this minority prefers to converse in Taiwanese, a more obscure idiom that traces back to China’s Fujian province.
But as the tension between China and Taiwan intensifies, some say the hot rhetoric and protests are counterproductive at a time when cooler heads should prevail. They say that China will reform in time, and that Taiwanese activists need to calm down.
“They are very stubborn; they’re always thinking of themselves,” said Stephan Chang, a former columnist for a local Chinese newspaper and Nationalist supporter.
And the notion that the Taiwanese were not Chinese miffs others.
“How can we say we are not all Chinese?” said Roy Kao, an overseas Nationalist Party representative who lives in Pasadena “We are all the same race. We are tied together by history from so many sides.”
Path to Activism
Anna Hsu’s path to political activism came, not during her youth in Taiwan, but when she was already established in the United States.
Like many native Taiwanese, Hsu’s great-grandfather migrated to Taiwan from China’s coastal Fujian province to harvest the island’s fertile soil two centuries ago.
As she grew up under Nationalist rule, Hsu said, she could not fathom a Taiwanese independence movement.
“I used to be brainwashed,” said Hsu, who was born and raised in a central Taiwan farming community. “I didn’t know who I was.”
Hsu came to Los Angeles in 1976 to be closer to her older brother and go to college. After earning a degree in accounting at Pasadena Community College, she joined a Taiwanese university alumni association and was elected treasurer.
By the mid-1990s, she felt confident enough to run for chairperson of the organization.
“Then they found out I spoke Taiwanese and they went against me,” said Hsu, now 52. “They asked me, ‘Are you pro-independence?’ ”
She said after members of the group found out her politics, they refused to support her.
Hsu considers that moment a political awakening.
She began getting more involved in pro-independence groups in the San Gabriel Valley, volunteering at organizational fundraisers. She returned to Taiwan in 2000 to rally behind presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian, who became the first opposition candidate to unseat the Nationalist Party for the presidency.
“I felt so ashamed that I never fought for my country,” Hsu said. “I swore that as long as I’m alive, no one could ever say I was Chinese. I get so emotional because I try to make up for all the years I’ve lost.”
Hsu said she even felt empowered to leave her husband.
Also Taiwanese, he often traveled to China for business. When Hsu discovered he had a mistress, she said, she considered ignoring it, as other wives she knew did. But the fact that his paramour was Shanghainese enraged her because the city so represented modern Chinese culture in her mind.
“He was becoming too Chinese,” Hsu said. “So I got tough.”