Vern Sneider was a 1950’s writer whose hands-on experience in post-WWII reconstruction helped form the storylines for his novels. The U.S. Army had sent Sneider to Princeton University to study Taiwanese society in preparation for a post-invasion U.S. military administration of the island – which was later aborted. Instead, Sneider was assigned to Japan and Korea. His experience as a commander of a Japanese village formed the basis for his well-known first novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, set in Okinawa. That book was later made into a Pulitzer-prize award-winning play and a hit Hollywood movie starring Marlin Brando.
On the heels of this success, and after spending time in Taiwan, Sneider wrote A Pail of Oysters (1953), a novel critical of Taiwanese military rule. Though brilliantly insightful, his second book was not destined to meet with the same success as his first. While it was no surprise that the governing Kuomintang (KMT) banned it in Taiwan, not as foreseeable was that copies were reportedly stolen from libraries and bookstores across the United States, perhaps by Taiwanese sympathetic to the KMT government. And given the book’s indictment of an anti-communist U.S. ally during the McCarthy era, the China lobby and U.S. military persuaded Congress that the book presented a negative and biased view of the U.S. government’s activities in Taiwan. John Caldwell, a former director of the U.S. Information Service, in testimony to Congress, described it as a “thoroughly dishonest book.” And, despite positive reviews, Hollywood producers were not enthusiastic about adapting A Pail of Oysters’ sad tale into a movie. What might have been a post-WWII classic was quickly buried.
The book was only republished in January 2016, on the 69th anniversary of the 1947 2-28 incident (a massacre of thousands of civilians by the KMT), and just one month after president-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen. As the book states in its introduction, “the conflict over Taiwan’s future – whether or not its leaders should bind the island more and more to the fortunes of China – is closely connected with the debates about Taiwan’s past. Americans, many of whom know little about Taiwan, might be asking again what, if any, role the United States should play.”
A Pail of Oysters tells the tale of three coming-of-age Taiwanese forced to survive under the brutal misrule of Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT military government. Precious Jade and her younger brother are the property of a Taipei brothel owner. The two escape and take shelter in a Buddhist temple, where they encounter a young peasant from the countryside whose father has tasked him with retrieving a picture of their family’s God—which has been stolen by government soldiers and is critical to his family’s spiritual destiny. Barely adults and at risk of arrest, the three work together to eke out a living under harsh conditions. Their luck improves when they cross paths with the protagonist, an American journalist, Ralph Barton, who befriends them and helps them get on their feet. Meanwhile, through his own research, Barton gradually discovers how U.S. support of the Taiwanese regime is helping to perpetuate a system of ghastly injustice that he is forced to witness, and powerless to prevent.
The book is an informative snapshot of Taiwan as it was run in the decades after WWII, with all the poverty and corruption associated with perhaps the worst of all possible political systems: a military dictatorship. It offers the reader a realistic picture of how such a system was able to perpetuate itself, despite widespread unpopularity even among some in the Taiwanese ruling class, and the resulting effects on everyday people.
But traveling around Taipei today offers an uplifting contrast to the time in which Sneider wrote. The island has thrived since martial law was lifted in 1987 and since the first direct democratic presidential election in Taiwan’s history was held in 1996. In Taipei, stroll around the former Chungwa Market Bazaar area, where Precious Jade, her brother and Li Liu lived together in a one room shack. At that time, lining Zhonghua Road were three rows of temporary shanties that housed people recently arrived to the city (often mainland Chinese). Today, at that location around the Ximen MRT station exit 1, is the old Westgate, Ximen, of the city. (Have a look at the small library inside the Ximen MRT station, one of several installed in Taipei MRT stations – the Taiwanese are serious about their reading, now that they have the freedom to do so. People living under authoritarian speech codes tend to be less intellectually curious.) The neighborhood is a busy commercial and cultural center, with restaurants, bars, a movie theater, the Ximen Red House Theatre, and a night market nearby. Head north to Beimen (Northgate), past the old post office on the right (which I am told is the only place in Taiwan where the very rare Chiang Kai-shek NT$200 bills are still circulated) and, across Civic Road and the customs museum on the left. Continue to Dihua Road, in the heart of the Dadaocheng neighborhood, an historic area that still appears much as it did in the 19th century. There you will find galleries, traditional medicinal teas, crafts, and various traditional Taiwanese products such as oolong meiren cha (‘oriental beauty tea’) which derives its distinctively sweet flavor from the saliva of the ‘tea jassid’, an insect that chews part of the leaves; there are also giant hot and sweet olives, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, jarred fermented tofu, and grilled sweet pig blood cake on a stick. There are also some elegantly beautiful Buddhist temples in the area, including the small one at Xia-Hai City God temple on Dihua Street.
A few kilometers West, at the modern Shandao Temple next to the Shandao Temple MRT station, one can hear Buddhist chants like this in the early morning and late afternoon:
Just a seven or eight minute walk further west on Zhongxiao East Road is Huashan Creative Park, an old factory that has been converted into restaurants, galleries, a good movie theater, and coffee houses. In the evenings, with American music from the 1920’s in the air, young couples dance the Foxtrot and the Charleston, and free live concerts are often held in the large open parks in front of and behind the buildings. Taipei is also famous for its night markets dotted in and around the city (some of which stay open until three or four o’clock in the morning and sell everything from food to clothes). Tamsui, just outside the city, is one of the better-known ones, with many things to do and see there. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is an impressive space devoted to the memory of Chiang Kai-shek (a controversial idea these days). But for a surreal experience, you can also visit the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden, a park to where the thousands of Chiang Kai-shek statues that once dotted the island have found their final resting place – a kind of compromise between their continued overbearing presence everywhere on the island, or their complete destruction. (The memorial garden is also known in English as the ‘Garden of the Generalissimos’.) Don’t miss the National Taiwan Museum, where many of China’s most impressive and ancient works of art, removed from the mainland before Mao Zedong came to power in 1953, are on exhibit. Climb the well-known (and very crowded) Elephant Mountain, or one of the many other small mountains in and around the city. There are also some beautiful parks in the city, such as the 2-28 park, where two museums are located.
Outside Taipei, there are many scenic places to visit that make Taiwan ideal for a two or three week vacation. (The Portuguese called it La Isla Formosa – The Beautiful Island.) It is a great place for trekking and water sports. In the Southeast, Green Island is famous for its hiking, old lighthouses, and snorkeling, though I did not visit. It is said to be also very expensive. Some Taipei locals told me they prefer the western Peng Hu Island, aka Pescadores Islands (the name given by the Portuguese explorers), though be aware that in the off season, there are more or less constant high winds and rough waters – but far fewer tourists, and of course the seafood is great year-round. An English-speaking guide can be hired to show you around the island for a day for around US $120. One very interesting site is an old seaside village of houses constructed from coral. Some of the houses are still inhabited. There are also nice beaches, snorkeling and scuba diving, surfing and windsurfing.
On the East side of the Taiwan, near the city of Hualien, is Taroko Gorge, with gorgeous marble cliff walls, rushing waters, beautiful shrines and temples, and steep hiking trails that reward hikers with picturesque views. This is probably the most popular tourist destination in Taiwan. So be ready for crowds of people. (Worth noting: Hualien is home to The Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest nonprofit charity in Taiwan and the greater Chinese-speaking world, founded in 1966 by a Buddhist nun, but doubling in size in only the first four years after the 1987 democratic election. Among its many domestic and international charities, it runs a hospital and university in Hualien.)
In the central part of the island, there is Sun-Moon Lake, so named because the east side of the lake resembles the sun, and the west side the moon. The streets around the lake are full of restaurants selling traditional Taiwanese fare, and the smell of sweet ginger tea floats through the air. There is no tourist trap atmosphere; the vendors are not aggressive, and the people I met were friendly. The lake is surrounded by bike paths, and small mountains that are good for short day hikes, like the one that will take you past two Buddhist temples, finishing at Xuanzang temple, which holds a piece of the skull of the famous 7th century Buddhist monk, who traveled to India to study Buddhism – he appears as a character in Journey to the West. And a cable car offers great views of the mountains.
In the south, another main destination is Kenting National Park, which has some beautiful white sand beaches, with surfing, snorkeling and scuba diving, as well as nice hikes through meadows and along the coast. Just traveling around the island, you will encounter many other places with gorgeous natural settings and friendly people. So grab a good guidebook, and discover them for yourself.