Ah, Green Island. What a place it is. For some in Taiwan it evokes memories of their youth and a taste of freedom as they rode motorcycles around the island enjoying the scenery. For others, it evokes terrible stories of grim horror and nightmares, of stories told in secret, whispered between family members. An island of such immense beauty, and yet, also such immense tragedy.
Ironically, the most immense beauty is so well hidden that you only really get to see it by immersing yourself in the sea and either snorkeling or scuba-diving your way through the coral reefs, or by traveling in a semi-submersible glass-bottomed boat. The fish and the coral are truly amazing. We went snorkeling and it was really the highlight of the trip, and indeed of any trip to Green Island. But my camera doesn’t work underwater, sorry about that, so all I can do is recommend you check out this You Tube video of someone who did go snorkeling in Green Island here, our experience was just like his. Which means we had a really fantastic time watching all sorts of fish of every different colour and size, all swimming so close. And the really wonderful snorkeling coach turned out to be one of our students here at St. John’s University on a work placement as an intern for his last semester before he graduates next month. He was great. And he made the snorkeling so relaxing and enjoyable, even for our group who ranged in age from 13-83! Here we are getting all dressed up….
Green Island (綠島: pronounced as ‘Lyudao’ in Chinese) is “a small volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean about 33 km (21 miles) off the eastern coast of Taiwan”, originally inhabited by the Amis people. The first Chinese arrived about 200 or so years ago and the only traces of Amis habitations these days are some ruined homesteads. Most of the people live along the northern and north-west coast of the island, and are served by 2 elementary schools and one junior-high school, a small airport, a harbour, a Baptist Church, Jehovah Witnesses Meeting Place, lots of temples, one 7-Eleven, one Family Mart, one big 2-story Duty-Free Shop, restaurants and BBQ places galore, several soft drinks shops, many government buildings and a huge number of hotels and diving / snorkeling centres. Tourism is the main business of the island. The harbour is lined with motorcycles for rent, ready for the passengers disembarking from the passenger ferries that make the one-hour journey to Taitung maybe 5 times a day in each direction. Tourism big time!
Every year, Bishop David J. H. Lai and Mr. Di Yun-Heng from St. Paul’s Church, Kaohsiung organize a 3-4 day trip for members and friends of the Taiwan Episcopal Church to visit some wonderful scenic places. In November 2017, we went to Wuling Farm in Taiwan’s central mountain range to see the beautiful autumn colours (see that report here). This year, we went to Green Island from Tuesday to Thursday, May 8-10. Sadly Bishop Lai was unable to come with us due to an important meeting, but 33 of us joined Mr. Di to go along. It was great! This is the first group photo…
Church members and friends from our churches in Taipei, Chungli, Taichung and Kaohsiung joined the trip. The northern group met early on Tuesday morning at Taipei Rail Station, where we had tickets for the 6:50 am train to Taitung. I had stayed overnight at the diocesan office hostel so as to be there on time, and Bishop Lai not only took me to the station, but also came in to meet everyone and pray for us all. And he gave us some tea, which we were to enjoy drinking together on the trip.
The southern group traveled over from Kaohsiung, and the Taichung group joined them, and we all met at Taitung Train Station soon after 11:00 am ~ off we went for lunch and then to the ferry. Actually I didn’t eat any lunch, in preparation for the ferry – which is renowned for being a rough ride. Glad I didn’t, as it was rough, and many people were seasick. Enough said. It was only an hour. I survived, many didn’t!
The weather forecast was for the plum rains to come on Tuesday night. In fact they had already come to Taipei on Monday night, but Tuesday was a mostly sunny day on Green Island. We made the most of it. The rain was coming. Actually it didn’t really hit us until Wednesday afternoon when it poured down for several hours. That cooled the temperatures nicely. Green Island is famous for its high summer temps. And for its deer meat. And for its sea food. We had flying fish!
We were staying on the northern coast in a hotel just near the sea, and we enjoyed all the views. It really was so convenient. Early morning walks around, and a half-day tour meant that we saw most of the island. Even if it was in the rain!
One of the highlights was the Lyudao Lighthouse, which we managed to visit just before the rains started: “On 11 December 1937 the Dollar Steamship Company luxury ocean liner SS President Hoover ran aground in a typhoon on a reef at Zhongliao Bay. All 503 passengers and 330 crew survived and were safely brought ashore. Over the next few days the cargo liners SS President McKinley and SS President Pierce took the survivors off the island, helped by boats provided by the Japanese cruiser Ashigara and an Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer. Dollar Lines sold President Hoover’s wreck to a Japanese salvage company, which spent the next three years breaking her up in situ. In response to the wreck, members of the US public gave money through the American Red Cross for a lighthouse to be built near Zhongliao village. Lyudao Lighthouse was designed by Japanese engineers, built by local islanders in 1938 and is 33.3 metres (109 ft) high.” And of course, it’s a great place for photos!
We spent Wednesday evening having a short service, led by Rev. Lily Chang, using the Ascension Day liturgy, in preparation for the next day which was actually Ascension Day. Lily shared about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come‘ Project, an international and ecumenical global wave of prayer between Ascension Day and Pentecost. We spent time each thinking of 5 people we were going to commit to praying for over these 10 days, and spent a few minutes praying for them in small groups.
And then we drank Bishop Lai’s tea. Here we are making the tea and talking to him on face-time!
Green Island is beautiful. Green. Very green. And very beautiful. But unfortunately it has also seen a huge amount of tragedy. And that tragedy cannot be ignored. Green Island is a prison island. There are three prisons in total, although only one is in use today. That prison was within walking distance of our hotel. The outside walls are decorated in 3D wall paintings, and there is a small field with goats there, plus all sorts of touristy things for people to do on a prison theme.
The other 2 prisons are no longer in use and are open to the public, located near the village of Gongguan on the NE side of the island. I visited the place on the first afternoon, and also walked past early one morning. Then we went as a group for a short visit on our afternoon tour – in the pouring rain.
The whole of the bay there is filled with prison buildings and prison property. It is now known as the ‘Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park’ and is managed by the government department called the ‘Preparatory Office of the National Human Rights Museum‘, who also manage the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park 景美人權文化園區 in Taipei. I went to Jingmei a few weeks ago, partly in preparation for coming to Green Island (my report about that visit is here). The Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park is the site of the former Jingmei Military Law Detention Center of the Taiwan Garrison Command (1968-87) where political prisoners were incarcerated, indicted and sentenced during Taiwan’s White Terror Era ~ the suppression of political dissidents following the February 28 Incident in 1947. Martial law in Taiwan lasted from 1949-1987. Many went on to serve their lengthy prison sentences at the prison on Green Island.
The leaflets handed out at the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park give a brief introduction, as follows, “The park was originally home to 2 prisons built to accommodate political prisoners during the time of the White Terror. First was the New Life Correction Center (1951-65), operated by the Taiwan Security Command, reflecting Taiwan’s isolated position in the global Cold War. Later came the Ministry of National Defense Green Island Reform and Reeducation Prison (1972-87). It was also the time of the rising tide of the human rights movement, when overseas human rights activists came to the rescue of Taiwan’s political prisoners. The postwar history of the repression of human rights in Taiwan finds its concrete expression in the relics and exhibition activities of this park.”
The New Life Correction Center (1951-65) at its peak had 2,000 prisoners, divided into 12 squadrons, and from 1951-54, there were also about 100 women. With staff included, there were about 3,000 people in total. Conditions were harsh. Hard labour involved clearing land, breaking up rocks and coral, constructing walls and buildings. The authorities made certain that the inmates were kept fully occupied with hard labour and thought-reform instruction so as to tire them out physically and mentally. But every evening, prisoners were allowed an hour of ‘free’ time, and many used that time very constructively. Today, some of the buildings remain derelict, but in others, the museum has tried to recreate the situation of the inmates.
One exhibit shows the translation of the ‘Life of Jesus’ that one of the prisoners, Mr. Tu Nan-Shan secretly completed, from Japanese into Chinese, with 9 revisions, during his time here.
Another shows the violin that enterprising prisoners made from wood collected from a shipwreck, with the strings taken from wire from discarded electrical cable.
Next door to the New Life Correction Center is the ‘Green Island Reform and Reeducation Prison’ (1972-87), better known as ‘Oasis Villa’ 綠洲山莊. The main area of prison cells is in the shape of an ‘X’, for better control from the central area. Lots of famous prisoners were incarcerated here, and “after their release, many of the prisoners jailed between the late 1940s and the late 1980s went on to establish the Democratic Progressive Party, most notably Shih Ming-teh. Cartoonist Bo Yang also served his prison terms here.”
In a separate heavily-gated section there is the solitary confinement area. Some have padded cells. Some are completely dark, others have only one small window at the top.
Finally there is the Human Rights Monument, where the words of Bo Yang are written in Chinese, translated as: “In those times / How many were the mothers / Who, for their sons / Imprisoned on this island / Wept through the long night?” The names of all those who were incarcerated here are given, along with the dates of their imprisonment or death.
But the tragedy of Green Island is not just restricted to the prison area. Even street art has appeared all over, some related to the prison.
On my final morning, I went as far as Swallow Cave, which is at the far end of the bay where the prisons are. Past the graveyard for the 13th Squadron, ie those who died from sickness or suicide. Inmates, officers and troops were all buried together. On the same site. What irony.
Swallow Cave is dark. Dark physically and very dark spiritually. I prayed the whole time I was there. Local people don’t go there. It was the place where the prisoners were forced to rehearse and perform their thought-reform plays, paint their backdrops and cremate those who died. Swallows were flying in and out. Water was dripping from the roof. It is a natural cave, but the black volcanic rock makes it even darker. I hated it. But I went. Fortunately there were also many beautiful plants growing nearby.
The 2 Green Island prisons are not easy places to visit. Nor the cave. Nor any of the places where terrible things happened to the prisoners. Even on the beach, where they had to break up the rocks and use them to build things. It is all horrible. Man’s inhumanity to man is indescribably awful. And seen on Green Island in all its grisly reality. The government is doing a good job of restoring the prisons and opening them to the public with so many helpful notices around the place, plus a lot of research and work on oral and written history of the prisoners. It needs to be done, the truth needs to be told. Even if it is uncomfortable and terrible. If you are sensitive to this kind of thing, make sure you pray before, during and after your visit. And pray for the people who were imprisoned on Green Island, or those whose family members were imprisoned there. The evil and suffering experienced on Green Island did not just disappear when a prisoner was released or the prison closed down. Healing, release, freedom and peace are not just needed physically, but mentally and spiritually too. For individuals, for families, for the whole of society. For now, and for generations to come.
May God have mercy on us all.
And so to Thursday morning, and we went back to the harbour for our return trip to Taitung. The ferry trip back was much smoother than the one coming, that was good news.
And I met 2 RC sisters at the Green Island harbour. They turned out to be Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross 聖十字架慈愛修女會 who had been in Green Island doing some ministry there, and who are the same order as the sisters in Shangwu Village 尚武村, Taitung ~ who St. John’s University annual charity bazaar supported at Christmas 2016. We had visited the sisters in Shangwu to present the money we raised, and I stayed overnight (my report of that visit is here). Now these 2 lovely sisters were pleased to report that the work we had donated to, that of transforming their kindergarten into a day care center for the elderly, is now complete and the grand opening is in mid-June. Wow, thanks be to God!
And so to Taitung, where Fu-Gang Harbour is full of blue fishing boats!
Green Island is an island of such great contrasts. Well worth visiting. Well worth snorkeling or seeing the underwater sea life from a glass-bottomed boat. Well worth visiting the prisons and learning more of Taiwan history. And well worth walking or biking around the island to take in the beautiful scenery. Must go, must see!
This was my second trip to Green Island. The first was in July 2003 with friends from St. James’ Kindergarten, Taichung, including many small children, when we went round on motorcycles. That was fun. But a little hot! This time it was much cooler. Also great fun! Thanks to Bishop Lai and Mr. Di for all their planning, support and leadership. To all the group of friends and church members who came along and shared in such a good time, and so many laughs, and to all who took photos and shared them with us.
And thanks be to God for an amazing trip!
Updated May 18, 2018: The Taipei Times is reporting here on yesterday’s official opening of the Human Rights Museum on Green Island by President Tsai Ing-Wen, “The opening of the museum yesterday marked the 67th anniversary since political prisoners were first incarcerated on Green Island on May 17, 1951.”