Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Academic Shu-Ming Chung explores hidden history of Taiwanese diaspora in Southeast Asia during Japanese colonization

Shu-Ming Chung
Shu-Ming Chung is the deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan History at Academia Sinica.

Like many historians, Dr. Shu-Ming Chung is driven by curiosity. In her case, it concerns how Taiwanese people responded to the Japanese colonization of the East Asian island from 1895 to 1945.

“There was a question that kept echoing in my own research: what kind of revolt did Taiwanese people take under Japanese colonization?” Chung told Pancouver in Mandarin over Zoom. “In Japan’s official historical narrative, you can’t really see a shadow of the Taiwanese people.”

Chung, deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica, is the author of Taiwanese in Nanyang During the Japanese Colonial Period. Nanyang is a Chinese term describing much of Southeast Asia.

She pointed out that under Japanese rule, many who emigrated from Taiwan went to Xiamen in China’s Fujian province, as well as other parts of China. But she was puzzled by the difficulty in finding records of the Taiwanese diaspora in Southeast Asia during the period of Japanese colonization. Chung has a PhD in literature from the University of Tokyo and is well-versed in researching Japanese archives.

During the same era, she noted, there was significantly more information available about overseas Chinese people in this region. (Chung’s comments in Mandarin were translated into English by Pancouver associate editor becky tu.)

“Personal records are very, very important for this kind of research,” Chung emphasized. “It is sad that you can find lots of records on Chinese people or records of Japanese people, but personal records from Taiwanese—especially overseas Taiwanese from that period—are very hard to find.”

Shu-Ming Chung book
Shu-Ming Chung’s book reveals the history of the Southeast Asian Taiwanese diaspora under Japanese colonization.

Chung cites other obstacles

One reason is that Taiwan was considered a part of Japan at that time. Following the first Sino-Japanese War, Japan took possession of Taiwan in 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Therefore, Taiwanese who moved to Southeast Asia in subsequent years were educated in the Japanese language.

But after the Second World War when Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek asserted control over Taiwan, Taiwanese in the diaspora had to switch back to becoming Chinese nationals. And Chiang made Mandarin the national language of Taiwan and strongly discouraged the use of Japanese.

“This might have caused confusion in the keeping of records,” Chung said.

In addition, she stated some in the Taiwanese diaspora or their descendants destroyed their records in the Japanese language. Despite these obstacles, Chung managed to unearth remarkable information in her book about the Taiwanese diaspora in Southeast Asia.

In the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia), for example, Japanese nationals were treated in the same way as Europeans after 1899. Because Taiwan was part of Japan at that time, it meant that overseas Taiwanese in this Dutch colony ranked higher on the societal pecking order than other Asians.

Moreover, there was intense competition in the Dutch East Indies between vendors of Taiwan’s lightly oxidized baozhong tea and those who sold Fujian or Javanese tea. The historian tracked down records of the existence of these merchants from Taiwan.

Chung also noted that Taiwanese opera was popular in British Malaya (today’s Malaysia and Singapore) prior to the Second World War. This also offered evidence of the existence of a Taiwanese diaspora in that part of Southeast Asia.

“The actors were handsome and dashing, young and beautiful, [with] exquisite singing voice [s], gorgeous costumes, and repertoire that could resonate with the audience,” Chung stated in a PowerPoint presentation.

Diaspora confined to internment camps

Perhaps most striking was the confinement of overseas Taiwanese in India and Australia. They were locked up along with members of the Japanese diaspora in the eruption of the Second World War. Chung also documented the “repatriation” of eight batches–comprising 242 members—of the Taiwanese diaspora to Indonesia after the war.

Thailand was never colonized by France or Great Britain. In her PowerPoint presentation, Chung cited the Xin Fang Chun Tea Company and Wang Lian-peng as two examples of Taiwanese tea merchants in Thailand before 1924. During the Second World War after Japanese troops moved into Thailand, another 150 to 160 people came from Taiwan, according to Chung’s research.

Following the war, the Thai government detained all Japanese nationals—including those from Taiwan—in the Bangwutong, Dacheng, and Kunxiyu concentration camps.

“The Taiwanese in Southeast Asia were forced to leave because Japan was the enemy,” Chung said.

However, a different story unfolded in the Philippines, which became independent after the Second World War after spending nearly half a century under the control of either the United States or Japan.

“Unlike the Dutch-Indian and British Taiwanese who were escorted to India and Australia, the Taiwanese in the Philippines were not forcibly left the Philippines, making it possible to continue before and after the Pacific War,” Chung wrote.

Loveday 14 was an Australian internment camps for Japanese and Taiwanese diaspora.

Hualien shaped Chung’s perceptions

Chung’s personal history, in addition to academic work, helped her gain insights into Japan’s historical ties to Taiwan. She is from Hualien County on the eastern part of Taiwan. This is where Japan created “immigrant villages” as relay points to settle its citizens in Taiwan or to move them to Southeast Asia.

Growing up in Hualien, Chung noticed that these areas were different geographically from other areas occupied by Taiwanese farmers. The immigrant village areas were laid out more systematically, reflecting the Japanese influence. That piqued her curiosity, leading to many more discoveries later in life.

“On Taiwan during colonial rule, the Taiwanese were always considered second-class to the Japanese,” Chung noted. “But for the people who were able to move out internationally, they were classed as Japanese. So they would enjoy the benefits of government protection because they would have the same status as Japanese people in Southeast Asia.”

Chung will speak about her research in a “Hope Talk” at the upcoming TAIWANfest Toronto and Vancouver TAIWANfest celebrations.

Charlie Wu
TAIWANfest organizer Charlie Wu came to deeply appreciate his Taiwanese identity in Canada.

Scholarship thrives in democratic Taiwan

According to TAIWANfest organizer Charlie Wu, much of this history was suppressed under four decades of martial law in Taiwan following the Second World War. In that period, the Taiwanese government under Chiang Kai-shek and his son went out of its way to erase the island’s connection to Japan.

“They selected the history for you to learn,” Wu said in an interview.

He pointed out that this new era of historical scholarship has only blossomed since the country transitioned into a multi-party democracy in the early 1990s.

“There is a movement in the country to try to unearth the history of Taiwan,” Wu stated. “The reason we selected these stories is to help people to understand the context of what Taiwan is in a different perspective.”

The research of Chung and others like her, in turn, has contributed to a deeper understanding of Taiwanese identity. However, according to Wu, people who trace their roots back to China and Hong Kong often accept a historical narrative given to them for a particular purpose and which is at odds with historical reality.

Meanwhile, residents of the People’s Republic of China still live under dictatorship. Wu suggested that this means they won’t be exposed to the nuances of their own history, let alone the emerging history regarding Taiwan.

“The whole movement is really relevant for Canadians—and especially Canadians interested in Asian history—seeking to really understand the complexity of what ‘Chinese’ is,” Wu said.

Dr Shu-Ming Chung will deliver a free lecture, Unearthing Formosa, at The Lookout from 4:30 to 6  p.m. on August 27 as part of TAIWANfest Toronto. She will also speak at 5:30 p.m. on September 2 at the Annex as part of Vancouver TAIWANfest. Charlie Wu is a co-creator of Pancouver. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.



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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.