Photo caption: The old Pai family residence on Beigan Island dubbed “Ghost House.” Photo credit: Shin Yu Pai.
On Beigan Island in the Matsu archipelago of Taiwan, my 71-year-old father insists on walking everywhere, as he did during his military assignment nearly 50 years ago. We retrace the path from Tangqi to Houao Village, a trek that he made almost daily in 1964. The two villages were once connected solely by Baisha Beach, a long sandbar, where crossing was made at low tide. But now, a paved road and bridge connects the two centers. As we enter Houao, my father gapes in disbelief at the two-story houses lining the main road. At the time he left, villagers lived in primitive structures with straw roofs, dirt floors and no electricity.
At the eastern edge of town, we stumble upon the “ghost house” where my father was stationed as an officer.
“I set a bad example for other soldiers by rolling up my shirtsleeves and refusing to wear my cap, so I was transferred to the barracks up the mountain,” he explains in English.
The house we visited in December 2012 has survived time — never razed nor rebuilt due to the villagers’ fear of the ghosts that have haunted the property for over a century. We enter the structure through a portal where there was once a door, fighting wild grass and brush to get to the back room where my father once made his bed on a wooden board. The villagers congregate outside, curious to know more about the foreigners.
“Do you remember me?” an old woman asks my father in Taiwanese.
My father has vivid memories of the family that lived next door to his haunted house. The young daughter of the family would haul crabs in from the sea and share her bounty with my father.
“What happened to the young girl who lived next door?”
The old woman shakes her head. It isn’t her.
“She grew up to be a teacher and moved to Taipei. She’s retired now.”
Another villager explains the government’s subsidization of housing, which has allowed the town to modernize.
“I always wanted to show your mother this place,” my father says.
I’ve come to Taiwan with my father for a reunion of the living – to visit his remaining siblings. My father is the only Pai family member to have relocated to America. One after another, my cousins drive the aunts and uncles home to Ching Shui, a small town on the central coast of Taiwan. At his fourth brother’s house, my father receives his relatives over cups of oolong tea harvested from Alishan, while I thumb through tourist guidebooks and Skype my husband back in Seattle.
The conversations in Taiwanese between my father and relatives span health ailments, wayward children, bad son-in-laws, financial troubles and the differences between life in Taiwan and abroad. A television broadcasts news in the background of the Newtown shootings in Connecticut, while relatives speculate on the circumstances that resulted in the shootings.
“He came from a broken home; his parents were divorced. His mother told him Doom’s Day was coming,” an auntie declares with absolute authority.
A little over a year ago, our Taiwanese family embarked on a grave reorganizing project, bringing the remains of our ancestors together into one central burial site. Hired men dug up five plots in cemeteries scattered across the township, only to find that the bones at three of the graves had been pillaged. The bones of the missing include our relative from China that crossed the ocean to first establish my family in Taiwan. The ancestor is reputed to have been so filial that the only possession he crossed with were the bones of his parents strapped to his back.
Now, the rain hasn’t stopped falling and delays us from visiting my grandparents’ muddied graves on the hillside behind my uncle’s house. So we head for what we hope will be better weather.
Back on the Matsu archipelago, we scale a small mountain to climb past barracks, abandoned cannons, and artillery training stations, to arrive at the island’s military museum. My father chats with visitor services staff and learns that the young soldier manning the desk attended college for engineering. But like all of the other young men on the island, he’s now putting in his obligatory time in the service.
“This kid’s got it easy,” my father mutters, while pointing out a glass case that displays the kind of Howitzer shell that rained down over Houao during his assignment to the village. “I brought one of those shells back as a souvenir for Grandma, but it kept getting rusty.”
We take a taxi southwest to the Wusha Behai Tunnel, a decommissioned military area that was carved out of solid granite by soldiers using pickaxes, shovels, iron rakes, baskets and other tools. The building of the tunnel took three years, and the lives of more than 100 soldiers were lost to careless blasting. My cousin Sue-Juen’s last words, before we got on a plane to Matsu, echo throughout my mind: “There were so many men that never came back.”
As the tide rises, we hurry out of the cave, water lapping our ankles.
We leave Beigan to fly to Taipei, where my father and I spend a few days touring heritage sites. On the northern coast, we make our way to Yehlio, where I beg my father to pose for a picture in front of Queen’s Head Rock. Recalling a black-and-white photo of my father from the 1960s, I want to recreate the moment. Overheated and uncomfortable, my father complains about all the Chinese tourists cutting the line. Around us, security officers outfitted with whistles sound their alarms any time anyone gets too close to a rock formation or past the line of safety. After 20 minutes, my father has not stopped being sour. I finally take a picture.
We spend the last leg of our trip on Ludao (Green Island). Neither my father nor I have ever traveled to the notorious island. Under Martial Law, 20,000 political prisoners from Taiwan were shipped off to “Oasis Villa.” Our relatives and friends can’t relate to my curiosity: “What’s to see there? It’s the dead of winter. You won’t even be able to go snorkeling.”
The tourist bureau transformed the site of the former prison into the Green Island Human Rights Cultural Park, the first human rights memorial in Asia. A verse written by poet Bo Yang is inscribed outside the prison walls on stone: “In that era, mothers cried night after night over their children imprisoned on this island.”
As my father and I tour the ruined buildings, we catch sight of workers sweeping the grounds. Inside the part of the prison that’s been transformed into a museum, I enter a panopticon to walk down unending hallways of empty cells. At the end of one wing, I discover two padded cells without windows. My father translates the exhibition in the main hall, explaining the journal excerpts and drawings of those that were tortured and imprisoned. He grows somber, remembering the father of a classmate who was incarcerated for years on Green Island during the White Terror.
A friend connects me to Mr. Tsun, a Green Island local who takes us on a tour of the major sights. When Mr. Tsun asks me what we want to see.
“Can you take us where the bodies are buried?” I ask.
He agrees to drive my father and I to the cemetery outside of Swallow’s Cave. We drive the car off a paved road and hike into a seaside area surrounded by wind-fallen trees. As we turn a corner into the graveyard, wild goats grazing in the cemetery scatter across the hills. My camera jams just as Mr. Tsun points into the distance and casually reveals: “That cave is where they burned the bodies.”
I discover later while reading a local guidebook, that locals promote this myth, though it’s untrue. But I sense my father’s reluctance to disturb the spirits by walking too close to Swallow’s Cave. One can’t be too careful. I think about the gust of wind that blew my father off his electric bike when we arrived, the fragility of human life, my recent miscarriage.
On “dongzhi,” the shortest day and longest night of the year, the rain finally ceases. Upon our return to Ching Shui, my father and I hike up a hillside near sunset to pay our respects at the gravesite of his parents. My uncle leads us to the grave by memory, through wild grasses as high as our shoulders, full of bramble and thorns. The mosquitoes swarm. We make an offering of fruit and chocolate, and I remember the dumplings waiting back at home, eaten all over Taiwan on this day — in common households, and in prisons — marking the passage of time and one more year.