I stood in front of the Sun Moon Lake and let the gentle breeze flirt with my hair. As the azure blue reflection of the sky fell on the water, I was drawn more and more into the limitless horizon of the lake. Many unguarded moments submerged into the water as I stood still and felt light and weightless.
The serenity and solitude of this lake lured not just me but hordes of other people whose presence I noticed once I withdrew my gaze from the water. I saw people jogged, walked and biked along the lake and as they were looking to engage with their senses. No wonder Nantou County, the second largest county of Taiwan and home to this magnificent lake, is a big draw with Taiwanese who travel to this part of the island to embrace that peaceful vibe of the place. To be in Taiwan before the tourist season kicked in was indeed a blessing. The only people I encountered along the way were sweet and smiling locals who were more than happy to shake hands with foreigners marching into their territory.
Slowly as the mist lifted itself from the water, I felt I should spend many more hours than I was meant to. It was the same solitude and serenity that once drew Chiang Kai-shek to the lake. “He fell in love with the lake, the setting and the place,” says Francis, my guide. In fact, this lake which was once an important facility used for generating hydroelectric power was built by the Japanese rulers in I919 and was completed only in 1934 during their five decades of rule. For the longest period of time, it was left defunct and the lake was deserted. When Chiang Kai-shek landed in the island, he took refuge in the natural setting as it reminded him of China, his homeland. He restored the power generation and spent many summer afternoons cooling his heels. All along the lake, one can now see modern resorts sporting a rather contemporary architecture that’s slowly redefining the landscape of the island.
“It was Chiang Kai-shek who gave a new lease of life to this lake,” says Francis. By now, I figured that Chiang Kai-shek is literary everywhere in Taiwan as his name still resonates across the country even 38 years after his death. And interestingly, I also noticed that the Taiwanese leader, who was president of the island until his death in 1975, meant a lot to a certain generation of people. Like the 60-year-old Francis, a former military attaché — his nostalgia about the man and his era was understandable. His parents came from Zhèjiāng, an eastern coastal province of the People’s Republic of China, to the island in 1948. That’s one year before Chiang Kai-shek marched to Taiwan. Francis’ mother was only 20 years old and father was 32. They moved with their own parents and along the way fell in love and got married. Francis first heard of Chiang Kai-shek in his elementary school. He also lived through that phase in history when all those who came from China, especially his parents and their generation, dreamt that they would return to their “homeland” (China) led by Chiang Kai-shek. Of course, that never happened.
I, on the other hand, had my own sentimental reasons when I heard of Chiang Kai-shek. My thoughts took me to my undergraduate days in Delhi University when my professor tried hard to drill into my stubborn head the name “Chiang Kai-shek” that I carried with me till that day in Taiwan.
So, everywhere I went, the shadow of this ruler followed me. Whether it was while we drove from Taipei to Beitou district, or in other parts of the island, I realised there was no abandoning the man and his memory. Suddenly in the middle of our journey when I saw a majestic grand building befitting a palace on my way, I had a hunch that it must have something to do with the man. Sure enough, Francis pointed out to the building and said it was “Madam Chang Kei Shek” who founded the building back then to host many visiting dignitaries. The hotel retains its name “Hotel Grand” to this day but the owners have changed hands many times.
One day when we drove through the central Cross Island Highway, which is an important link between the west coast and the east of the island, I saw no connect between what looked like a rather modern construction and Chiang Kei Shek. But I was proven wrong. Francis knew in his heart that there were indelible footprints of Chang Kei Shek etched all over the island. So, he began his introduction of this highway almost in as if in reverence that it was indeed Cheng Kai She’s elder son, a military general, was instrumental in the construction of this 190-km long highway in 1954. It was an important construction given that 10,000 retired military personnel were engaged to the task manually using only chisels and dynamos. It took them three years and nine months. The Central Cross-Island Highway is a narrow and winding mountainous road and driving through was scary especially in a bus that could barely pass through.
Later, at a family-run dumpling joint in Huwalien, on the East coast of Taiwan, about three hours’ drive from Taipei, as I set my hungry eyes on what I could devour from the menu, I was distracted by what I saw on the wall of the restaurant. It was around lunch time and many people had gathered to make sure they’d get the fresh helpings of wantons or dumplings floating in a clear soup garnished with chopped coriander. There were framed photographs of a young man clad in a military gear and enjoying a meal. The serving staff volunteered to be my guide and told me that the young man was Chiang Kai-Shek’s son who often came to enjoy this simple delicacy with his friends. Photographs of him taken at different times adorn the wall and under these frame pictures, diners consume their piping hot wanton soup.
In the 1960s Marshal Zhang Liang, also known as The Young Marshal, a warlord of Manchuria in Northeast China and his wife Zhao Di were put under house arrest by Chiang Kai-Shek in a place that is now called the Marshal Zen Garden and converted into gourmet restaurant. The grand mansion is nestled in the shaded foothills of the Beitou, a 20-minute train ride north of Taipei known for natural hot springs. So, when we arrived at Marshal Zen Garden for dinner, the eager staff led us through in the dark with a torch just to show us remnants of history. There is a huge photograph of Marshal Zhang and Chiang Kai-Shek, most probably taken before they were sworn enemies. Of course, once could spend an evening just pouring though the many memorabilia scattered around the place.
Finally, when I arrived in Taipei to head home, early one morning at a breakfast table, I casually quizzed Robert, a hotel staffer, on what I could do for that day. Without a pause, he told me eagerly that I should go and see Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which was a five-minute walk away. The 50-year-old has been there thrice so far but his younger colleagues have never been there. “I love the setting and the history,” he says. Perhaps, the memory of Chiang Kai-shek will probably end with this generation of people like Francis and Robert. As for the younger generation, caught in the whirlwind of modernity, his name means very little. “I don’t have much memory about Chiang Kai-shek as I was born in 1967, and he passed away in 1975,” says Bono Lin, who has business interests in Manila, China and Taiwan.
- Hoihnu Hauzel is a Delhi-based freelance writer. She writes on travel, food and lifestyle.