15 Taiwanese Sunflower Movement protestors and one police officer open up about what it was like to (possibly) save their country’s democracy.
interviews by Karen E. Bender
photographs by Lucie Starr*
Writer Karen E. Bender interviewed 15 protestors at a local café in Taipei, Taiwan and one police officer outside of Taipei on April 26 and May 4, 2014, respectively. Some interviews were conducted in English and others were conducted in Mandarin with translation by Ian Rowen, Jason Jones or Marie Turner. Ian Rowen is a Fulbright scholar researching cross-strait relations and tourism between China and Taiwan and has been speaking Mandarin fluently for 16 years; Jason Jones (a pseudonym) is an American with extensive language and cultural experiences across Taiwan and China since 2002. Marie Turner (who wished to remain anonymous) is Taiwanese and speaks both Mandarin and English. One interviewee wished to remain anonymous – a police officer we’ll call Tony Smith. Anonymity has been marked with an asterisk throughout.
The interviews have been translated “in their own words” with the hope to preserve the integrity of each person willing to share his or her story.
*Denotes that the photograph was provided by the subject.
(Part 2 of this interview series can be found here.)
Chung-Yuan Lin, 62, retired international importer
(interview translated by Jason Jones*)
When I was young, the educational system had been established by the government, of course. But the government had only one party—the Kuomintang (KMT). In our education we were told that we were Chinese and that we needed to retake Mainland China. But my family was from Taiwan, so it would not have been a “retaking” for me; I had never been there. I always wondered about this, but I couldn’t say anything out loud for all my life. In school, we had to speak Mandarin, but at home we spoke Taiwanese; if we spoke Taiwanese at school, we were fined. For me, one of the few times I could cultivate my Taiwanese identity was when I listened to underground radio. It offered a different perspective on events, and it spoke to that feeling I had in school where the propaganda just didn’t sit right in my mind.
I came down to the Legislature because I had seen the 30-second review process [of the Cross-Straight Trade Agreement, a treaty that would open industries such as tourism, publishing and banking to wide investment from China] on TV and it made me so angry. These are the same KMT party members who have been oppressing Taiwanese people since they came here in the 1940s.
When I came down here, my heart leapt. All my life I had thought about the disparity between what we had been taught and what the reality was. Suddenly, so many young people were out in the street saying this thing that I had kept in my heart. I wanted to be near them and see how I could help support them. So when they jumped over the fence, I walked around to the car entrance of the Legislative Yuan (LY). All the security guards had gone off elsewhere, so a group of us were able to just walk right in.
Once we got inside, it was very spontaneous. People with good ideas became leaders. Though we didn’t know each other, we all knew a good idea when we heard one. So when someone started organizing us to block the doors, we broke into groups.
There were eight doors. Twenty people went to each door and started putting chairs against each door, trying to stop the police from getting in. I went to door number five. It was the Sun Yat-Sen entrance, the door where the speaker walks through. Students lashed chairs together. Police were on the other side, trying to get in. I pressed my hands against the door, trying to keep them out.
The first night, at door number three, the police were strong, and seven or eight policemen got inside. There was a pushing match with the protesters, who pushed them back out.
At door number eight, there was a lot of pushing and police were about to enter. A spokesperson said, ‘Mr. Policeman, I suggest that you leave now, there are several thousand more students outside; it would be better if they didn’t come in.’ The police got scared and left.
The second or third day, students with organizational skills started making work groups that had different responsibilities. This was very smart. One can get anxious and scared with idle hands. We didn’t know if the police would come and take us away tomorrow. I took it upon myself to do the tasks that those students weren’t willing to do. Because there were no showers, people were washing their faces and hair in the sinks. So there was water all over the floor. No one wanted to clean the bathroom floor, but for me this was not such a big deal. So I took care of it.
I cleaned with mops and rags; from ringing out the mops with my hands, my forearms got sore. I called a friend of mine and asked him to buy a janitor’s tool to wring the mops, and he sent it down to the LY.
The city has strict rules about separating plastics, used chopsticks and other materials. With hundreds of people inside, we were eating many bento boxes and producing a lot of recyclable waste. No one really wanted to handle that stuff, but it seemed to me that it was no different from when we were outside. So I made sure the recycling was well organized to meet city codes. This was important, otherwise people would say that the students’ ideals and our actions did not match.
Legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were inside the legislative chamber; they were telling police, ‘Don’t be violent.’ If those legislators hadn’t been there, we probably wouldn’t have lasted 24 hours.
The young people are the same age as my son—they called me, Ah-be, which is Taiwanese for ‘uncle.’ Someone made me a card that said, ‘Super Uncle: Recycling Team.’
An image I can’t forget: When someone had to leave the building, they didn’t know if they would get back in again. So they cried and said, ‘Uncle, don’t forget me,’ because they didn’t know if they would get back inside.
Layla Lin, 24, a student majoring in Chinese Literature and English at Tsinghua University
(interview translated by Ian Rowen)
On March 19, I climbed a ladder to get inside the Legislative Yuan (LY). A friend was in the building and said, ‘Come help us, there are a lot of police.’ But there weren’t police by that ladder at the moment. I felt very passionate to help my friends; 80 percent of my friends were inside.
Once inside, at first there was nothing to do. I just sat on the floor. We waited for the police to come at any time. We were nervous but not afraid, because we knew we were doing the right thing.
There were two communities—the people inside and the people outside, protecting them. The information inside the legislature and outside wasn’t flowing. So I was part of the Communications Team. We had to use the internet to communicate between the people inside and outside. I wrote what was going on, about 12 posts a day, and posted it on Facebook. I wrote about things like, if there was a meeting, or if we lacked water or food.
My parents are pro-government, and they didn’t know I was there. I’d go to the LY in the morning and come home to sleep. I was inside for 23 days.
Taiwanese parents hope their children do well in school, get a good job and make money. Because of the ‘228 Massacre,’ a lot of parents want to shield their children from politics. My grandparents’ generation told children not to be political.
There was one Japanese chocolate that was very good—everyone was very stressed and needed sweets and coffee.
I want the world to know: Students are looking for what they should have already—democracy, basic human rights—but the government used violence to suppress a message they didn’t like.
An object that was important to me: a small container that holds eyedrops. I didn’t bring my glasses—I was just wearing contacts. I had no idea when we’d be invaded, so I couldn’t sleep. If I hadn’t brought this solution, my eyes would be in a great deal of pain.
An image I can’t forget: The barricades made by students, made of seats the legislators would sit on, made of ropes. I used to see the seats as sacred because they belonged to the state, but now they had been profaned by the state.
Shi Chi Heng, 21, student studying Chinese Literature at Chinese Culture University
(interview translated by Ian Rowen)
It was messy, chaotic and exciting as we stormed the building. I was part of the second wave [the second group of protestors] on March 19. At 3 a.m. on March 19, we took a bunch of ladders. Everyone was climbing. There was an urgency to get in and bring food and water. I filled my backpack with Oreos from the dorm and bottles of water.
I spent two days on the second floor. It was a mess. After two days of helping without a specific title, I went to the first floor and became part of security.
Some new activists wanted to fight police and were hoping for violence. That was not fun—so we stood guard both for cops and for students who would get out of hand and block them.
I was guarding a door. I was Door number one, right behind a podium. I did that for a couple days. I slept by the door. By the 20th, people brought in sleeping bags. I slept really badly. I’d have to say I didn’t sleep much. Some people would be sleeping at the front of the door, pushing their bodies by the barricades; others would be behind them.
I have a lot of Mainland Chinese friends, but I’m terrified by their system of government. And they point missiles at us because they don’t want us to be ourselves and wave our flag.
An image I can’t forget: On March 30, I left for one day to go home for Tomb-Sweeping Day [known as the Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese festival on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese calendar]. I saw a sea of black T-shirts [the protestors outside of the Legislative Yuan]—those were our protectors. It was like the rest of Taiwan was supporting us.
Ian Rowen, 34, Fulbright scholar in Taiwan
*Photo provided by subject
I think the most striking thing for me as a scholar-activist with an American background was the extreme selflessness, kindness and courtesy of protesters with each other and with police. There’s a word in Mandarin Chinese that’s vital to everyday life, and to this movement in particular, and it’s very hard to translate into English. Xinku literally means difficult or bitter, and it’s also a phrase used to express sympathy when asking someone for a favor. This word, xinku, was used by occupiers both with each other and with police in and around the site, even when simply saying goodbye to someone on the way out. In this movement, instead of being treated as enemies, police were talked to like family members.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Ian Rowen has published pieces on the Sunflower Movement in The Guardian, Occupy.com, Thinking Taiwan, and has an article coming out in February in The Journal of Asian Studies. He’s also managing transnational art and cultural exchange projects, including the building and operation of a Taiwanese Taoist Temple at Burning Man 2014. In late September, he flew to Hong Kong to research and support the student protests.
Oliver (Rui-Yung) Chen, 26, graduate student in law school, National Taiwan University
I started reading about the protests on March 18, and I came on March 21 to see what was going on. I got a call on March 23 from a professor at Academia Sinica, and he wanted to know if I was interested in translating. One of the key student leaders needed a translator, as many foreign journalists were coming in. He asked me if I wanted to come in for three days. I said I would—but I ended up staying until April 10.
I was supposed to translate announcements from the student leaders. I did about three to four translations a day, Chinese to English and Chinese to Japanese, interviews with foreign media. I was part of a group of about 80 translators.
The first time I despaired about the integrity of journalism involved a journalist from the United States. He wanted to know if we had any core demands that we wanted to tell the public. He asked if there was a priority ranking to these demands. We said, we have four demands, and two are the most important. He interpreted this as two are important and two are up for discussion. But that wasn’t true.
He published his story like that. We told the publication that we wanted them to correct the story, but they wouldn’t.
After that reporter had manufactured our demands, I thought I wanted to go home. I went outside the building for a while—it was rainy and I saw the people there, waiting in the rain, 24 hours a day to protect us; I knew then that I couldn’t leave.
I left school to work on the movement—many people have made the same decision.
An object important to me: I was doing PR, and had to wear a button-down shirt. I brought about 20 of them, changed every day. When I started to run out, my friends brought me some. But everyone else was wearing the black T-shirts with slogans. I felt like a black sheep with what I wore.
What we did was more mild than a real revolution—but you have to see that we are determined, and that we are not going to give up or compromise our demands of what we want from this government.
WHERE HE IS NOW: On September 15, 2014, Oliver (Rui-Ying) Chen was killed in a scooter accident in Yilan county. He was 26 years old.
Jojo Yeh, 50, international ballroom dance teacher, Taipei
(interview translated by Marie Turner*)
I joined the Kuomintang (KMT) when I was a student in middle school. At that time, there were protests raised by farmers. On the TV, they showed farmers throwing rocks, so I thought farmers were violent. But then a friend showed me a video of the police brutally beating the farmers. I felt I’d been lied to and then changed.
I learned about the break-in at the Legislative Yuan (LY) on March 19. So I went there, as I wanted to be part of the people surrounding the LY, protecting those inside.
I slept outside the LY for over two weeks. The people there were strangers but became like a family. At night, people who were still awake would cover others who were sleeping with blankets. A student borrowed a coat from me and I still need to get it back. I lost eight pounds because of stress, the fear that the police could come at any time.
An image I can’t forget: Lin Yi-Hsiung, a famous protester, 73 years old, and former head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was going to go on a hunger strike to protest the country’s nuclear policy. He was going to start the strike on March 22, but when he heard the news about the Sunflower Movement, he decided to wait. When students began to leave the LY, one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement, Lin Fei-fan, knew that the older protester had waited to start his strike. They embraced each other at the door of the LY. The younger Lin knew that the older might die during his hunger strike, and that he was passing the burden to the next generation.
What I want to tell the world: Please recognize us as a country, or we’ll be an orphan forever.
WHERE SHE IS NOW: Mrs. Yeh said that she has never missed a protest involving justice or people’s rights. It’s all she does besides teaching dance classes. At the moment, she has been supporting the lawyers who are defending the protesters, and is involved in a project in which cameras are filming the legislature nonstop. She said that the protests made it difficult to deal with relatives who don’t understand, though her children have been very supportive.
Bruce Lin, 26, previously based in Australia and now returned to Taiwan, works in art industry
I got involved because I was watching the protest on TV on March 18. I was watching and trying to collect info about the trade pact. I felt it was important to protect Taiwan’s democracy—what happened wasn’t democratic at all.
I was outside the Legislative Yuan (LY) for three days; it was my first time protesting. I wanted to help. A lot of people were willing to help but didn’t know how. It was frustrating. On March 20, I went home and followed Facebook. There was a website called the Overseas Student Support Sunflower Movement. I joined the group.
On March 21, I went inside. There were a lot of police outside of the north gate of the LY. The people in the LY—Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators and students—negotiated with the police to let people in and out. WaIking inside, it was shocking. You never go into the Parliament House—it was unreal. There were protest signs aII over the chamber. I got a pass that said I was from an international group to support this movement. At the time we had 18 countries and 43 cities involved.
My job was contacting overseas students and passing information to them and telling them what was happening inside, what they could do overseas. I updated info; I went to web meetings. We had teams of organizers around the world; I’d post things like, ‘This wasn’t organized by people in Parliament.’ I was inside for 20 days; I came out four times.
A food I ate: a can of red bean soup. It was delicious.
Karen E. Bender taught creative writing at Tunghai University in Taiwan for the academic year 2013-2014. Her nonfiction about Taiwan has appeared in theatlantic.com and narratively.com. Her story collection, Refund, was just published by Counterpoint Press; visit her at www.karenebender.com.
Lucie Starr investigates intimacy, stillness and silence through photography. She works as a licensed social worker at a major West Coast hospital when she is in the United States.