July 16, 2008 / 4:02 AM / 10 years ago

History comes alive on Taipei graveyard tours

TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - Horror and history come to life for brave souls on tours of a Taipei graveyard that highlight hard-to-find headstones for fallen heroes of a seldom discussed, and often grim, time in the island’s past.

People walk between headstones of victims of "white terror" in which about 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned or executed for their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang (KMT) government led by Chiang Kai-shek during a graveyard tour in Taipei July 15, 2008. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

About 150 people, including university students and visiting scholars, have followed American-born assistant professor Linda Arrigo through thousands of 20th-century gravestones on a hill behind Taipei’s high-rise riddled downtown.

“People in Taiwan really don’t know the history,” said Arrigo, 59, who has lived in the island for 45 years. “There are many tragedies in this history and an instinct to run away or deny it. You have to go through a process of digesting it.

“Taiwanese in general are scared of graves,” added Arrigo, who teaches a class titled “Experiencing Taiwan Social History” at Taipei Medical University.

Ethnic Chinese tend to avoid discussing death, but some hold elaborate rituals to honor deceased in their own families.

On her 90-minute bilingual tours which began in October, Arrigo has led groups ranging from five to more than 20 people to see the ornate graves of Muslims who fled to Taiwan from China’s Communists and the chipped, barely marked headstones of 200 people who died in the “white terror” era.

In that period of the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan executed or incarcerated some 140,000 people suspected of advocating democracy, communism or the island’s independence from China.

“I feel a tremendous sadness knowing that there were people executed and buried without their families,” said Timothy Fox, a former Chinese Culture University language instructor who went with five of his students on a grave tour this week.

Some tombs belong to historical figures such as Chiang Wei-shui, who went to jail under Japanese colonialism but who later became a hero for standing up for Chinese identity.

Others belong to foreigners who washed up in shipwrecks.

During this week’s tour the five students, all Taiwanese, kept quiet along the walk and did not take photos as they would do on normal tours.

But during the trip, the graveyard came alive, student Lauren Lee said.

“When you see history in books, the feeling isn’t the same,” said the first-year English student. “This tour is an opportunity that’s hard to get.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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