Erenlai - Alice Lin (林炳秀)
Alice Lin (林炳秀)

Alice Lin (林炳秀)

Alice is a Taiwanese-born journalism major who spent most of her childhood in Windhoek, Namibia. Having left home at a young age for boarding school, she has since then lived in Singapore, New Zealand and France. She worked briefly as a translator for a Paris-based NGO and recently returned from a work placement in Morocco, where she freelanced for local papers El Watan and Morocco Today. She is now studying in France.

Alice worked as the English editor of eRenlai from December 2008 to June 2009.

Monday, 16 March 2009 00:00

Japan, your silence is deafening

I recalled watching for the first time the series of Eve Ensler’s celebrated theatre production known as The Vagina Monologues several years ago. Apart from being thoroughly entertained by the actresses’ witty antics, I was especially taken by the segment on the memoirs of a soft-spoken woman, forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. She spoke about the horrors, experiences so tormenting that she has yet to overcome at an elderly age; she is one of the few women to have survived the ordeal till this day. 

Like many others in Asia during her time, she was what we now call a ‘Comfort Woman’ – a term that I personally find highly inappropriate. Her story and appeal, however short, brought tears of pity and anger amongst many in the theatre, and it certainly left an impression on me. I was bewildered as to why I wasn’t taught of it in school, a detail so crucial that could easily have fit into any of the chapters of my history textbook. An estimated 200, 000 women (predominantly Korean and Chinese), whom during their enslavement, endured torture, malnutrition, sexual abuse, under an institutionalised setting, to me, is war crime history at its foulest. I was instead, informed of it through a former Singaporean television sitcom on the Japanese Occupation.


"Historians estimate 200,000 women, from Korea, the Philippines, China, Indonesia and the Netherlands were pressed into wartime prostitution for millions of Japanese soldiers stationed throughout Asia. Some former comfort women said they were forced to service up to 50 soldiers in a day."

- VDAY, founded by Eve Ensler
(For more information, refer to


A tragedy times 200,000

To me, the term ‘Comfort Women’ is a euphemism, a sugar-coated term that made reality easier to swallow. I’m afraid it may be too mild a term to reflect accurately on the situation of the women, whom, recruited through dissemblance or force by Japanese soldiers and locals alike, were exploited sexually and enslaved. Military sex slaves would be conceivably more accurate.

In Taiwan, a certain Ahma, aged 92 was forced into military prostitution at the young age of 17, sent to serve as a ‘prostitute’ on the island of Hainan. She was one of the very few to have spoken of her experience very early on. It was not until 1991 that a South Korean woman, Grandma Kim Hak Soon, became the first person to speak publicly about the existence of comfort women.

Sexism was not the only factor underlying the Comfort Women system, a system thought to boost military morale and deter open rape in occupied territory (which was in fact the same thing, only institutionalized), limit anti-Japanese resistance among the local population, avoid international disgrace and protect the Japanese soldiers from venereal disease. Racism played a large part too. For whatever reason, they were indoctrinated to see the Chinese and other Asian prisoners as sub-human and inferior, thus the numbers of Japanese ‘Comfort Women’ were of a significantly smaller number in contrast to women of other ethnicities. In the seminar held in Taiwan on ‘Comfort Women’, the lecturers mentioned a significant difference in the treatment between the Han Chinese and Taiwanese Aboriginals. Han Chinese women were either recruited by force or shipped to serve elsewhere in different Military brothels overseas, whereas aboriginal women were often kept as house and sex slaves locally.

Wrongs to be righted

In January 1992, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa admitted, after Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi uncovered indisputable evidence, that the Japanese government was involved in the "comfort woman" business throughout the war (1931-1945.) Accordingly, in August of 1994, Japanese Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which offered $18,200 in atonement money to each surviving "comfort woman." This fund however, is not from the Japanese government. The women feel that the Japanese government must officially assume responsibility for these acts and that to accept the privately raised money would make them prostitutes; not the victims of war that they are. Former "comfort women" continue to seek redress in the courts in Japan.

With the surviving victims, organisations and international parliaments, hot on their heels for an official apology, the Japanese government has yet to break their silence – a silence that would soon no longer be heard by the remaining ailing victims.What will not be reported, are the voices of the already-deceased women and what the Japanese perpetrators have recollected in their time. To look behind the scenes in War-time Asia and juxtapose the unreported realities with the personal stories of trauma and recovery told by the survivors will simply reduce the stories to a few simple facts, and an array of supposedly unfathomable war violence. I believe there are always more facts lurking behind the shadows of the Japanese society, and it will be up to their descendants to acknowledge their atrocities and compensate accordingly.

A name worth knowing: Yoshiaki Yoshimi
Professor of modern Japanese history at Chuo University in Tokyo. Yoshimi is a founder member of the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s war responsibility. Following the discovery of incriminating Imperial Army documents by a Japanese historian in 1992, the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged "moral, but not legal" responsibility for the comfort women. The government of Japan still refuses to make an official apology and provide proper compensation. It continues to deny legal responsibility for the system. Some of the surviving victims tried suing the government in Japan seeking an official apology and reparations but to no avail.

Friday, 27 February 2009 00:00

Tricky Appearances

We all know that fusion is exotic. It’s that urge that propels us to douse a hamburger with teriyaki sauce or pair your denims with a Cheong-Sam. Marriages of East and West are a harmless intermingling of culture, and second-generation Asians in the U.S and Europe are increasingly becoming the largest minority, but what are the complications for a generation of people of either pure or partial Asian heritage with a tendency towards Western orientation?

The world generally prefers its citizens in their own categories: Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean. They represent the sanctity of our nation-states. After all, if you’re not one or the other, what are you? Whether you’re half Asian half-Western, or purely Asian raised in the West, you are associated by ethnic groups by your facial features – not that it determines half of what you are – but it often elicits a certain regard from others. This is the case in Taiwan, where most are inclined to associate one’s character with the way one looks, talks, and their mannerisms. Mainly the way one looks.

Classification by appearance can be good and bad news, depending on what you resemble. “In Taiwan most people think I am A.B.C because they think I sound American when I speak English”, says C.B Leeuwenhoek, who is a half-Dutch half-Taiwanese, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. “They look at me and they know that I’m not local but that I look like Asian…They look at foreigners a little weird here, but they think I am still one of them”. Born and raised in Rotterdam, the 21-year-old is not at all bothered by the recurring mistakes made on his nationality in Taiwan. ABCs (American-born Chinese) have the privileges in Asia of being the offspring of Asian immigrants whom are often associated with many of the Western qualities that many Taiwanese deem impressive i.e. ability in the English language, overt American/Westernised culture. A lot of it has to do with the general high regard for the American entity in contemporary Taiwan.

C.B recalls a time in his childhood when Chinese was all he could speak at the age of three, facing rejection from the other local kids in the Kindergarten at Rotterdam who could not communicate with him. “My teacher told my mum that she’d have to teach me either Dutch or English otherwise no one would play with me. From then on, my mum only spoke in Dutch with me.” C.B now speaks Dutch as his first language, fluent English, and consequently, little Mandarin. All that trouble, only to find himself now living in a predominantly Chinese-speaking environment.

“You do Kung Fu?” is a common question that French-born Belgium Jean-Jacques Chen hears on the streets of Brussels. Jean-Jacques is born to Taiwanese-Chinese parents whom immigrated to Paris during a particularly difficult financial time in Taiwan. They later moved to Brussels where Jean-Jacques spent most of his life growing up. “When I was little, the fact that I was the only Asian in my class, I was often gibed at”. In entering schools that were more multi-cultural, Jean-Jacques finally felt at ease in an environment where one would be less likely to adopt a condescending attitude towards foreigners who were now the majority.

“In Brussels, most would think I am Chinese, while in Taiwan, often people would think that I am either an old man or an alien, and very often, Japanese. Perhaps because of my moustache and the fact that I sport very traditional Chinese clothing that none of the young locals would wear...” When asked about the difficulties he faces living here with his looks and old-school fashion, Jean-Jacques laughs, “I face difficulties it comes to hitting on girls, it doesn’t work so well when one thinks you’re old, but in Brussels it does!”

Just as one may be approached with admiration for being or mistaken as an American-born-Chinese, one may also face hostility in Asian circles, with the latter of a visibly smaller extent in the Taiwanese society. Peter-Nam Hoang Dinh sports dreads and was born in Oakland, California to Vietnamese parents and looks little like any of the Asian-American crowd in Taiwan- or what I have seen so far. He is often complimented for his facial features and the fact that he is Asian-American, but upon hearing his heritage, a man responds, “Vietnamese? But your features don’t look Vietnamese.”. Having had just complimented on his good-looking features, one couldn’t help feeling a tad bit insulted for the Vietnamese person. Peter is often treated with much respect and admiration, with or without his thick-framed glasses, which apparently made him look more Taiwanese. “They generally treat me very well, when I have my glasses on they are less afraid to come up and talk to me- thinking I am a local. When I don’t have them on, Asian-American is what they see.” And Asian-American he is - Peter is in the lucky position for being recognised for who he is. Some us are less fortunate.

Growing up abroad it is hard to find a comfort zone with Asian features as kids of other nationalities can tease and be cruel. Despite being one the very few Asians at school in Africa, I myself was rarely teased with racial slurs growing up. In coming to Taiwan I was held at times with, if possible, a lower regard apart from the times when they mistake me for an Asian-American. Among many incidents, one that I often raise as an example for my friends is a rather unpleasant encounter in a taxi- whereby a taxi driver asks me upon boarding his car, if I was looking for my ‘Master’ in a tone that left me feeling rather undignified. “No sir, but are you?” was my wry response which he chose to ignore, “Philippines or Indonesia, you?” asked the nasty fellow.

Filipinas are largely employed as domestic maids in this country, a fact that I am well aware of. His reaction and the reactions of many others showed me a side of Taiwan’s bigotry with respect to Filipinas, Indonesians and Thais that came as a surprise. It occurred to me as highly unfair to be treated in this manner – whereas if I had been speaking in English loudly in open public, one would have given me more credit. In any case, I was pleased to be referred to a race of people whom I find beautiful, though it would’ve been admittedly nicer had they spoken with me in a more respectful manner.

False assumptions and stereotyping are passé, I no longer pay heed to what one may say about appearances.

Friday, 05 December 2008 00:00

Down With Zugunruhe

Aimless travelling has always been a fixation of mine. At the age of four and from my first toddler steps away from the land where I was born- small town Hualien, home to predominantly aboriginals in the East of Taiwan- I have been moving relentlessly and joyously, further and further away from my natal home. From a blissful childhood in the heart of Namibia, to colourful teenage years in the island countries of Singapore and New Zealand, I grew to be able to effortlessly adapt to diverse cultures and surroundings. My graduation from high school was followed by numerous years in Europe where the meaning of nomadism was taken to a whole new level.
Growing up in three different continents I have become incapable of passing more than two years in one place without the slightest hint of restlessness. Many friends I have made along the way have been puzzled by my avian migratory restlessness (or Zugunruhe as behaviourists would call it) and questioned if I lacked a sense of belonging. Years ago, my answer would’ve been a yes. Though faithful as I may be in keeping contact with people I care about, I’ve always found it difficult to leave all behind and start anew, particularly in my younger years, when networks of friends were formed and meant to linger till marriage and decades after.


You might also say, constant migration has disrupted my ‘train of life’. With each place I move to I left lifelong friends, but friendships that have endured nonetheless, and strayed further away from my roots. My apparent identity crisis has never occurred to me as problematic, yet it has distressed my parents. Why the sudden need to be subjected to a title of people, race, religion and nation when one was meant to be from all over? I had little memory of Taiwan and even less so of Oklahoma where I entered Kindergarten. With each place I discover, I would take on a befitting identity and consequently turning the previous one obsolete.


It leads me to ask: In the earliest days of the Palaeolithic era, hadn’t humans migrated endlessly? Be it voluntary or involuntary migration, anthropologist David Haines has described migration as a ‘vital part of society’, and especially crucial to the economy and the social future of America. I think his hypothesis might very well apply to everywhere else, though it is often an oversimplified challenge.


Travelling as recklessly as I have may not have all the positive markings of a swift path to early academic achievement, but it has taught me one of the most valuable lessons I can ever ask for: the inability to see the language and cultural barrier that separates the locals from the foreigners and the children of immigrants. In Southern Africa I sing and dance to the slow-tempo of kwaito beats, speak Afrikaans (albeit broken) and trudge through the lands of stark contrast. In Europe I live and breathe the languages and way of life, finding refuge on the squalid banks of Die Maas. In Northern Africa I let what Arabic dialect words I know roll off my tongue with ardour, and in Taiwan I stress each and every intonation of my newly regained Mandarin, chortling at my own mistakes and revelling in the moment.

Recently I have decided to make a detour of my pilgrimage, and found my feet set on the tar roads of Taipei, which I might add, appear to be constantly under construction. One wonders how long it might last before that irking feeling of Zugunruhe kicks in again.

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