My Grandfather, a Colonial Subject

2022 marked two anniversaries – the 100th year since my a-gong (Taiwanese for paternal grandfather) C.J. Hung was born and the 10th year since he died. In his honor, I reflect on some of his experiences, many of which I’ve only recently learned of. I base this post on conversations I had with him, my ongoing conversations with my dad, and my own personal research.

This 1912 map of Japan includes Taiwan (inset). (Wikimedia Commons)

It was 1944, and 22-year-old C.J. Hung was beside himself with anger. His father was ordering – yes, ordering – him to return from Japan to Taiwan, breaking things off with his Japanese girlfriend to marry a woman from a prosperous Taiwanese family like their own. The nuptials were planned as an arrangement for social and financial prestige, in addition to being a way to prevent C.J. from marrying someone from Japan and staying there forever. The Hungs, after all, had been prominent for a century in rural Nantou County, labeled Taichū Prefecture on Japanese-language maps. The family’s large mechanized farming operation was just one of many that collectively made Taiwan one of the world’s leading exporters of sugar.

The Meiji Sugar Company processing mill in Taichū Prefecture during the Japanese possession of Taiwan. It is a sight my grandfather undoubtedly would have been familiar with. (Layfayette College)

But the family business wasn’t at all on C.J.’s mind; instead, he was anguished by his parents’ insistence that he leave the woman he loved in order to marry a Taiwanese woman he’d never met. And he wouldn’t just be breaking up with his girlfriend; in a way, he would also be breaking up with the land he deeply loved. Since the start of high school, C.J. had actually lived on the largest of the Japanese islands, Honshu, doing his studies in Tokyo, where he stayed with relatives. He was fluent in the language, extremely comfortable in the culture, and though many Japanese thought of people from the colony of Taiwan as second class, he blended right into Japanese society.

Japanese students in the 1930s. (Flickr user Mudra51)

C.J. was far from alone in feeling warmth for Japan. All Taiwanese of his generation had spent their entire lives under the rule of Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Starting in 1895, when Taiwan became a Japanese possession, kids went to schools where they were given Japanese names (C.J.’s Chinese family name Hung became the Japanese surname Ko), taught the Japanese language, and required to pledge their loyalties to the emperor and the nation, bowing every morning before class in their direction.

A classroom in Taiwan during the Japanese period. (228 Memorial Foundation)

C.J.’s love for Japan only grew when he stayed for college. Ko-san, as he was often called in those days, continued to live in Tokyo, and during those years he joined the military training programs required of all young men by the imperial government. He never served on active duty or saw action in combat, but one of the things that the training regimen forced him to do was climb Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji, something that became a treasured memory for him. Yes, Japan was very much a part of who C.J. was.

An American soldier’s photo of Mt. Fuji in 1945. (National World War II Museum)

After college, he became a high school teacher; he would work as an educator for much of his life, except for the two terms that he later served as the elected head of Nantou County and the years that he worked as a bank president, suffering and overcoming false accusations of corruption. Yet teaching was his lifelong passion, and he would years later fondly recall many individual students he worked with. And it all started with this first teaching gig; the only downside to it was that he had to travel 500 miles to see his girlfriend back in Tokyo. But the wonderful life he had made shattered when his father’s letters made it clear that if he truly were an honorable son, he must prove it by returning to Taiwan, marrying the woman chosen for him, and settling down there.

For several gut-wrenching days, he pondered his choice. But as a dutiful son, he felt like he didn’t really have one. So obeying his father’s command, he left his job, his sweetheart, and the land that had been his home for a decade. The voyage across the East China Sea back to Taiwan was one of silent, bitter tears.

A Japanese bride and groom in the 1930s. (Alexander Gross)

A year later, the Japanese school at which he had taught was obliterated when the first atomic bomb exploded above its city, Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945. C.J. was devastated by the news. Several years later, he returned to Japan and searched for as many of his former students as he could, hoping against hope that some survived the blast and the horrific burns and cancers that decimated the populace afterward.

Within one second of detonation, the temperature in the city of 550,000 rose 7000 degrees Fahrenheit. 80,000 people are estimated to have died in the blink of an eye, many of them vaporized. (National World War II Museum)

Despite all his efforts, he never found a single one alive. 

The grief would haunt him for years.

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  1. Pingback: When My “A-Gong” Led “Chinese Taipei” at the “World Baseball Classic” – Feminist Asian Dad

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