Reflections on ‘Burnt Island’ – Youth in Exile
The Light of Hope
Hope ignites a light that casts the shadows from every corner of that dark era, affording us belated justice and succor. It is our earnest hope that the people of Taiwan will never again be so mercilessly destroyed by their rulers, that they will sleep soundly in their beds each and every night, happy and at peace.
Chang Yen-hsien, 2008
As young people we are hesitant but determined, indecisive but passionate, and as we watch the vibrant society we are unable to contain ourselves as we focus on the pursuit of knowledge and the realization of ideals. Despite our disparate backgrounds and politics, we gather, speak out or actively engage with society through fashion, music, reading, consumption and social movements, creating an era of youth for our times.
However, beginning in the 1950s and lasting for nearly four decades, many members of this generation, with its youthful zest for life, were exiled to “Burnt Island” – a place built on political taboos. As a result of their passion for social issues, pursuit of cultural knowledge or simply because of implication by association, young people were stripped of their freedom for years, some even paying the ultimate price.
This exhibition tells their story of a generation whose youth ended in exile. It is also a salute to those from an earlier generation who having braved the flames of “Burnt Island” dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to the promotion and protection of human rights and freedom in Taiwan.
Bitter Journey – The Beginning
From 1950, several young men and women still at school or only recently graduated were arrested as part of cases investigated by the police and intelligence agencies, such as the National Administration for Protection of State Secrets and Taiwan Provincial Security Command. After being tortured into confessing, imprisoned in cramped, sweltering conditions and threatened with death, the “suspects” were subject to punitive judgments by secret courts and given long sentences, sometimes referred to as disciplinary education.
Institutions holding political prisoners included military jails, Jingmei Detention Center (1968-), Green Island The New Life Correction Center (Green Island) (1951-1965), Taitung Taiyuan Prison (1962-1972) and Green Island Oasis Villa Prison (1972-1987). Moreover, the geographical isolation of Green Island, formerly known as “Burnt Island,” made it the main location for such prisoners. At that time, as far as Taiwanese society was concerned, “Burnt Island” was a political black hole, one that robbed everyone of their social ideals and freedom of speech, a taboo few dare talk about other than in whispers.
The New Life Correction Center (Green Island) was established in May 1951. In public, the government declared it to be a detention center for civil war prisoners, but the vast majority were actually political detainees from across Taiwan found guilty under martial law in Taipei. The number of prisoners reached a peak of about 2,000, each isolated in a rectangular wooden barrack where they underwent ideological reform. The main work undertaken by the prisoners was to cut wood in the mountains, plant crops or food processing related tasks. In addition, male prisoners would break rocks on the coast to build walls and makeshift shelters.
The few staged photographs that still remain from that period give some indication of the lives of the “new inmates” and a few of the specially arranged activities in the early years of Green Island as a detention center. Together with filmed interviews given by political prisoners from that era, it is possible to gain a rough idea of the difficulties faced by prisoners on a daily basis, the spirit of mutual assistance that existed among them, the countless hours spent in reflection contemplating the star-filled heavens, and the profound sense of fear that was an integral part of living trapped somewhere between life and death.
Surviving ‘Burnt Island’
For many prisoners, being released from long-term incarceration merely marked the start of a new and different set of difficulties. After spending such a long time in prison, political detainees often found it difficult to make a living or maintain interpersonal relations, particularly as they invariably remained under police surveillance and were therefore under constant psychological pressure. Despite this, many still successfully applied their skills and forged new lives for themselves. On release some turned to the new battlefield of politics, becoming the backbone of the new anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy movement. Others exerted a broader social influence by focusing their efforts in the fields of art and literature.
Although many of these memories are tinged with unbearable sadness, recalling this history is the only way to truly cherish the memory of a generation’s lost youth.
Southern Hometown – Life Memory of Ko Chi-hua
Behind the bitter travails of youth we find stories of family growth. This part of the exhibition makes use of letters to and from Ko Chi-hua and his family as well as related artifacts. These provide us with a glimpse of what life in prison was like for a young teacher such as Ko, who loved Taiwan and campaigned for democracy.
From these letters we can read about the emotional desperation that made Ko try to take his own life, the way the writers encouraged each other to be strong, the invention of a father who was studying overseas, the gradual appearance of the real father and the interminable length of life in prison.
The letters, which reached their destination only after being read and inspected by the prison authorities, record the ups and downs of the Ko family over the 17 years Ko Chi-hua was incarcerated, the yearning to be together again after such a long period of separation, and the indomitable courage and determination needed to survive. It is only because of the burdens borne by those who first fought for human rights and freedom, as well as their accumulated experiences, that we today listen to Voice of Freedom (自由的歌聲) in a democratic and free Taiwan.