In search of roots, young Taiwanese dig through foreign archives

2017/09/26 14:35:34
In search of roots, young Taiwanese dig through foreign archives

By CNA staff reporter Lo Yuan-shao and staff writer Elizabeth Hsu

Hsiao Hsin-cheng (蕭新晟) emigrated to the United States with his family after he finished middle school in Taiwan, but as he settled in New York where he now lives, the 34-year-old software engineer came to regret the lack of Taiwan history taught in school as he grew up.

That longing has only been reinforced in the United States, where Taiwanese expatriates recounted a history totally foreign to him.

The Republic of China (Taiwan's formal title) did not exist in the version he heard, he says, leading him and others to ask: "What exactly is Taiwan?"

That curiosity prompted Hsiao and two other U.S.-based Taiwanese to embark on a root-searching journey in 2016 by initiating an ambitious open source project called the "Taiwan National Treasure" at a g0v hackathon event in New York.

Along with friends Lin Yu-cheng (林育正) and Abraham Chuang (莊士杰), Hsiao urged fellow Taiwanese around the world to "dig out" historical materials related to Taiwan in archives in the U.S. and other countries that have had close contact with Taiwan.

The initial target for the trio was the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), with its more than 60 million files from many government agencies that are declassified after being kept out of the public eye for 30 years.

The documents in the archives related to Taiwan span several periods of history, from the Japanese colonial period, World War II, and the Kuomintang's retreat to Taiwan to the Republic of China's removal from the United Nations and the severing of diplomatic ties with the U.S.

None of the valuable files are digitized, however, and Hsiao sought to create an online platform to change that.

He invited those interested in learning Taiwanese history to help dig out relevant paper files, and photograph and upload them to the platform to establish an open databank.


Image taken from Taiwan National Treasure's Facebook page

In March, the initiative earned a g0v civic tech grant of NT$500,000 (US$16,566), helping project leaders open a website at https://www.nationaltreasure.tw on Sept. 10 to share and compile data and make it more accessible.

"The pieces of a jigsaw puzzle featuring the past of Taiwan are scattered around all corners of the world. We need to seek them out before digitizing them and translating them into open data and historical stories available for everyone," a statement on the website's home page says.

"The process of putting the pieces together will enable Taiwanese people to know their own history and truth."

Hsiao designed an app for mobile devices that allows voluntary "treasure hunters" to easily upload their finds online. The content in English is then automatically translated into Chinese, and volunteers correct mistakes manually.

At present, over 16,000 historical files from NARA related to Taiwan have been stored in the Taiwan National Treasure databank on the open source website with the help of interested volunteers, Hsiao said.

"In the beginning they were mostly retirees; now there are many passionate young people on board," with some even willing to take time off from work to join the hunt because NARA is only open on weekdays, he said.


Image taken from Taiwan National Treasure's Facebook page

Before the treasure hunters enter the archive, they have been assigned sequential numbers that allow them to locate files efficiently. It also means the volunteers cannot pick subjects on their own.

"We hold the mindset of a librarian, which is having an interest in the data itself, rather than seeing it as being used for research or any specific purpose," Hsiao said.

One of the more recent finds was a protest letter addressed by the faculty and students of Taiwan's National Chengchi University to U.S. President Jimmy Carter in December 1978.

The five-page letter written in Chinese characters starts with a quote of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius: "If the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing for the state."

The letter details Taiwan's strong protests against Carter's decision to sever the U.S.'s diplomatic links with the Republic of China.

Hsiao also recalls photographing a report written by the then U.S. deputy secretary of state about how shocked and helpless Taiwanese officials were during talks on severing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The 22-page report described Taiwan as engulfed in an atmosphere of sadness and anger, and that Taiwan's then president, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), sent an apology to U.S. representatives, who were frightened by fierce protests in Taiwan.

Another document records a 15-minute conversation between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Taiwan Vice President Yen Chia-kan (嚴家淦) at the White House in 1974.

The transcript shows Yen telling Nixon: "We will do everything possible to coordinate our policy with yours." Yen also mentions that "there is possible oil near Taiwan. We are cooperating with U.S. oil companies on this."

For Lin, who also lives in New York, "not knowing the history of my own country is no different than having a country that no longer exists," he said.

Lin began in September 2016 browsing NARA's historical materials related to Taiwan two years after learning of a huge stockpile of declassified data about his homeland at NARA and the United Nations Archives in New York City.

In skimming the files, Lin learned a lot about Taiwan's history, such as Taiwan's ports and military facilities described in detail in American research reports from the World War II era.

The reports were done to help Washington make plans to invade Japan from Taiwan during the war, Lin said.

Those historical records "are history that belongs to the Taiwanese people. There should be more of them who know (the history)," he recalled thinking.

The Taiwan National Treasure project has won the applause of Lo Shih-chieh (羅士傑), an assistant professor of history at National Taiwan University.

"There can be no historical science without historical materials," he said.

"Although NARA collections are U.S. administration records that represent Washington's stance, different sources can help (historians) trace the sequence of events," Lo said.

He suggested, however, that the students use keywords or themes to search NARA's archives rather than simply go document-by-document in sequential order as is the case now, saying that it will allow for more meaningful finds.

The scholar said he has also asked for help from academia and hopes to form an advisory team.

"Documents can't talk. Letting professionals in will give more meaning to the records," Lo said.

The national treasure team headed by Hsiao, Lin and Chuang, a New York-based neurologist, now has a bigger dream of expanding the scale of treasure hunting from U.S. soil to other countries like Britain, Russia, Japan and Australia.

"If you feel you are Taiwanese, join us to bring Taiwanese historical materials back to Taiwan," Lin urged.

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