Last Letters: A Photographic Investigation of Taiwan White Terror - PhMuseum

Last Letters: A Photographic Investigation of Taiwan White Terror

Billy H.C. Kwok

2017 - Ongoing

Taiwan, Taiwan

70 years after the political suppression - also known as White Terror - in Taiwan beginning from 1949 to 1991, societal amnesia takes place in the society and the rising generations.

Last Letters is a visual and archival investigation into a dark chapter of Taiwan’s political past, taboos and societal amnesia.

It excavates the hidden histories of the period of authoritarian rule in Taiwan under dictator Chiang Kai-shek known as White Terror (1949 - 1991). Over 150,000 civilians were arrested and more than 20,000 were executed.

Incarcerated civilians were allowed to write final letters to their families before they were executed. Most of these letters were kept by the authorities, never sent, never received, never answered. They remain in the national archives, some of them classified. 179 of these letters with the prisoners’ last words have been released and collected by their families — 70 years on. The total number of letters unreleased remains unknown. 

I researched and collected letters which have been concealed from their families by the government. I photographed victims, the families left behind and invited them to reply to the last notes from their late relatives.

The wounds left over from that period of authoritarian rule still fester, just as the statue of Chiang Kai-shek remains ubiquitous around Taiwan. I also made ‘portraits’ of his likeness and invited the families of the massacred to intervene with my prints. 

The images I’ve made and archival material I’ve collected speak to the hidden traumas and memories that have passed on, one generation to the next. Underlying these excavated memories are the absent presences — which leave their traces in the past, present and future.  

With this work, I try to memorialise some of those traces, with the hope that it might help reunite those last letters with their rightful owners, finally. 

Before victims and their second generations withering away, I aim to build an archive of these classified letters with the families’ response, as well as to open up conversations in the society. Its not only because of the importance of exploration of collective memory, but also for us to know more about our past before we decide our future.

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  • Workers clear up the old studio owned by a KMT veteran. They believe that its a taboo to remove the statues, they also believe that there are some kind of spirit inside Chiang Kai-shek's statues so they will pray to it before remove or clear up.

  • "Thinking of the past, the painful feeling never end. Trying to forget, the nightmares never vanish into the air. Waiting to forgive, the persecefors never appears before me. So to whom should I forgive? Looking for the truth, the answers seem in distance, but I will never give up but move on till the daylight comes. I will straggle and tread a thorny path, till the end of my day. 2019.08.24."

    Written by Chen Chin-sheng

  • Cutters used by Guo-Chih-kang. A Taiwan independence protestor. He used the cutters beheaded statues of former president Chiang Kai-shek, and hang the heads in his place.

  • Zhong Yiren, 98, a White Terror victim who was in prison for 17 years. In his house.

  • From Guo Ching’s last letter. Executed in 1952.

    Left:

    My Dear Yuxia,
    1. Husband and wife say goodbye in the half way. I am so sorry, please for give me
    2. If possible, I hope you will remarry!
    3. Zhi-yuan and Su-jen rely on you in future, please let them go to school
    March 5, 1952

    4. A person has to die on day, please don’t be too heartbroken!
    March 26, 1952

    5. Wish you healthy and be blessed
    6am. April 1, 1952. My last words

    Centre:

    Dear father in law,
    1. I am so sorry, please forgive me
    2. Please give good care to Yuxiz, Zhi-yuen and Su-jen
    3. All my best to you
    6am. April 1, 1952. My last words

    Right:

    My lovely Zhi-yuen and Su-jen,
    1. When you grow up please take care of your mother
    2. Wish you two healthy and happy

    Your father
    March 26, 1952, night
    6am. April 1, 1952. My last words

  • Liu Yaoting's photo album handmade in prison in 1952-1953. Liu decorated the books with ornately folded candy wrappers, using the materials he had to pass the time in prison. Some of the letters are written in a pidgin Chinese, a reminder that many held in the KMT prison where the Sheraton Grand Taipei sits today had only limited knowledge of written Chinese, the result of 50 years of Japanese colonisation.

  • Huang Chunlan, 66. She discovered her father Huang Wen-kung's last letters 56 years after he was executed in 1953.

  • Upper left: An identity card copy of Yang QingLian, Huang Wen-kung's wife.

    Yang QingLian has dementia and did not remember her children's name at her late years, the only thing she insisted is, carrying an identity card with her anytime, as the fear of National Security Police come for checking.

    Bottom left: A family photo last seen by Huang Wen-kung in 1951.

    Right: A painting of Huang's family portrait in her house.

    Taiwan government continued its suppression against political dissenters with the Act for the Control and Punishment of Rebellion. Most Victims and their families remained silent after the traumatic experience and political suppression. The event has become a psychological trauma or a family taboo that makes people reluctant to mention, while some restrain themselves from discussion and investigation due to pressure.

  • Lan Yuruo, 69, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Her father was executed in 1951 when she was 1 year old, and her mother was imprisoned in Green Island because of "Not reporting the communist".

  • A figure of Zhong Yiren, for puppet show about the white terror, In Taichung, Taiwan.

  • "What world is this? How shameful is it to build statues to an evil murderer."

    Written by Pan Hsin-hsing. Pan Hsin-hsing was just six years old when Pan Mu-chih, a doctor and local politician, was arrested, tortured and killed in a 1947 massacre that was the precursor to years of political purges in Taiwan, known as the White Terror.

    A last note from his father was scribbled on a cigarette pack given to him by a sympathetic jailer and smuggled out to the family. “Don’t be sad, I die for the residents of our city. I die with no regret,” it read.

  • At the age of 95, Wei-Lizhi suffers from dementia, his son hangs a small bell on the flip-flop for not losing him. Wei is a KMT veteran. Official sculptor of Chiang Kai-Shek.

  • "Love your country, against Communism" is seen on the prison wall. At the eastern coast of Taiwan, Green Island, also known as Isle of Fire, first served as an isolated spot and place of exile for political prisoners during the period of White Terror.

    There were two country's biggest prisons on this island - "New Student Training Centre" (1951-1965) and "Oasis Villa" (1971-1987). Most of the political prisoners are locked up at least 10 years or life imprisonment.

  • Xu Guibiao, 92. His daughter died at the age of 50. Xu Guibiao blames himself as he has no way to take care of his daughter because he was imprisoned during the White Terror, which made his daughter being in poor health in childhood and her whole life.

  • I hate idolatry. If we know what this person has done, would we feel being fooled? Don’t fool us! Great people never need statues.

    I feel the world is fake when seeing such a pleasant statue. Maybe there is no truth in history, maybe such “great” statues are too funny to victims’ families of White Terror – Is this our world? Is it?

    If my mother saw these respected statues, she would not only feel sad but also despise it. (Fortunately, my mother has already passed away.)

    Written by Guo Su-jen, daughter of executed Guo Ching. Guo Su-jen was less than three years old when police came to her home to arrest her father, elementary school principal Guo Ching.

    Speaking about him after Guo Ching's death was taboo and her family burned most of his memorabilia for fear of their own safety. Guo said: “When I finally saw the letters, it confirmed that I had a father, and he cared about us."

  • Taiwan marked the 71st anniversary in 2018 on the uprise against Kuomintang (KMT) where tens of thousands were killed during the White Terror from 1949-1991. Supporters of Taiwan Independence canalised the coffin of KMT Former President Chiang Kai-shek by splashing red paint on his sarcophagus. The Ministry of National Defence Security had reportedly condemned the action and said it was investigating the incident.

  • Statue of Chiang Kai-shek remains ubiquitous across Taiwan. After Chiang’s death, KMT initiated a large scale of statue-making movement. The mass is highly encouraged to make donation to the government for having more monuments of Chiang erected around. At its peak, provincial governor, bureaucratic departments, private companies, and even schools were drawn into the mass production. Statues overwhelmed the whole island, covering all major streets and institutions.

    There were around 45 thousands Chiang statues across Taiwan, meaning one political statue per 0.8 km² on the island, topping the list of having the highest density of political statue in the World.

  • Chen Chin-sheng, 70, a Malaysian political victim who was studying in Taiwan and jailed for twelve years during the 1970s.

  • Statues of Chiang Kai-shek, Former President of the Republic of China, has been centralised and placed in Cihu, which formerly located at Chunun City Administration, Hsinchu, North Taiwan.


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