Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

March 13-14, 2004
Diving Green Island-The Alcatraz of Taiwan

I took a weekend trip to Green Island with a scuba diving group. Green Island is a small island off the east coast of Taiwan, which is best known as “the Alcatraz of Taiwan.” For me, visiting Green Island had a two-fold purpose. The main event for the diving group was a challenging, deep dive to see the hammerhead sharks that appear in the surrounding areas annually at this time of year. But I had also been long interested in exploring this little island- on which was the prison that has held some of Taiwan’s most famous political prisoners during Taiwan’s White Terror Era. The White Terror Era is considered to have begun after the February 28 Incident in 1947 and the declaration of martial law in 1949. Some say that the White Terror Era has lasted for almost fifty years, ending after the repeal of martial law in 1987 and Taiwan’s first direct popular election in 1996. The name of this time period refers to the reign of terror during which there were many human rights infringements; people were jailed, murdered and persecuted at home and abroad for their “civil disobedience” i.e. their political views.

March 13, 2004
A Hammerhead Shark Dive in Turbulent Waters

Since diving was on the agenda, the way to and from Green Island consisted of a ferry ride from Tai Dong (which is on the east coast of Taiwan). So I took a train from Kaohsiung to Tai Dong on Friday evening, where I spent the night and got up early to take the morning ferry out to Green Island. On Saturday morning, just before boarding the ferry, I convened briefly with the other divers, who had come down from Taipei. The rocky one and a half hour ride on the induced quite some stomach flipping discomfort. You could see it in the exhausted, pale-faced looks of some of my fellow travelers, who within the first 30 minutes of sitting on the upper deck, quickly sought the relative stability of the main deck or relief in the lavatories. I managed to avoid this pesky affliction to which I am prone, by taking a nap. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before.

Not long after we arrived at our accommodations, those of us who were keen to get into the water, decided to do a shore dive before lunch. This first dive of the day was not quite within walking distance from our accommodations, so what did we do? When in Taiwan, do as the Taiwanese do- hop on a scooter. So all ten or so of us suited up, and prepared to double up on scooters. The driver had to gingerly balance his equipment and tank up front and the passenger-completely suited up in full gear (and yes!) with a tank on her back, hopped on the back of a scooter. It was not the most comfortable arrangement- riding on the back of a scooter with all of my scuba diving gear on, and balancing the tank (which I wore on my back) on the edge of my seat. People in Taiwan routinely load up their scooters. I’ve seen it all- an entire family of four, every shape and size of boxes, bags, and personal items, in other words everything including the kitchen sink, all packed on a single scooter! So no one so much as batted any eye about this- it was definitely scuba diving Taiwan style.

A brief stop to gas up and fifteen minutes later we arrived at the shoreline. As I was getting off the scooter, I forgot to lean forward in order to counterbalance the extra weight on my back and I promptly fell right on my ass. As this was happening I heard a loud scream coming from the dive master who had witnessed my fall. She had had more of a scare than I did! I was actually laughing as I got back on my feet, and my friend “W” said:

“Next time try to remember leaning forward when getting off.”

‘Oh gee thanks for the advice!’ I thought. Fortunately, when I fell backwards, the rubber casing on the bottom of the tank, which hit the ground first, cushioned my fall. So I didn’t _really_ fall flat on my ass. But little did I know that that was just the beginning of my mishaps.

Just before entering the water, my dive buddy “W” and I did our equipment checks and as I went to inflate my BCD (buoyancy control device- which is like an inflatable life vest- for those of you not familiar with scuba diving lingo) and put my regulator (the mouthpiece through which I breath air from the tank) in my mouth, I discovered that there was no air coming from my tank. I was quite panicked since I knew that I had just turned on my air and checked it after getting off the scooter and before walking to the entry point from the shoreline. I couldn’t imagine what would have happened had I jumped into the water without realizing this or double checking my air. The assistant diving instructor promptly came over and turned on my air.

Later at lunch, I asked “W” what had happened with my air and he sheepishly said:

“Oh, I think I accidentally turned it off.”

This- from my dive buddy, “W”, who’s supposed to be checking the safety of my equipment, including my air supply! I can’t believe that he accidentally turned off my air. Some dive buddy “W” turned out to be…

Live and learn. We are still friends of course, but this incident has made me realize that you can’t take anything granted with diving. Diving with someone familiar doesn’t guarantee anything, as the above incident illustrates. And “W” has been diving for more than 5 years! Perhaps the longer people dive, the more lax they become about procedures and there’s an assumption of responsibility that each diver must to take for him or herself. But nothing can or should be left to human error. It’s so important to be vigilant and to put safety first. It’s so important to know and follow procedures, to be cautious and careful.

Until this trip, I had always been very cautious about my diving procedures, perhaps to a point of rigidity due to my relative inexperience. I have only had 2 major dive experiences. I began by diving with a friend with whom I got certified in Kenting. My second major experience diving was with a 5 Star PADI dive company in the Great Barrier Reef; the crew followed strict dive and boat safety procedures. So until Green Island I’d had rather safe, controlled diving experiences.

After lunch was the “main event”- a deep boat dive to see the hammerhead sharks that appear off of Green Island annually at this time of year. But this particular site required a deep dive (to 40m!) in a strong current and therefore a quick head first descent. The descent was so fast, that I wasn't able to equalize my ears properly, so I had to ascend a few times to relieve the pressure and discomfort. Meanwhile, the current was pushing me farther and farther away from the dive master and group. Luckily another diver “A” saw me getting swept away by the current and diverging from the dive master. He followed me and I tried to go down deeper, finally getting to around 30m or so, but since we had drifted so far from the other divers he motioned that we should try to resurface.

It wasn't until we were in the midst of ascending that I realized just how dangerous the water was. At one point we had ascended to 15m, but then I started feeling pressure in my ears. As I looked at my pressure gage I saw that we had suddenly gotten pulled back down to 30m. All I could think about was the possible damage I might be doing to my ears and that this is how divers get into trouble or go missing... At the same time I didn’t feel that I was in a life or death situation until afterwards. Throughout the entire ordeal “A” was very calm, he gave me clear instructions to hold on to him and relax as we reached the surface. At the surface he inflated his safety sausage (a long, inflatable, neon colored flotation object used to signal dive boats that there is a surface diver waiting to be picked up) and we inflated our BCDs so that we could float with ease at the surface while waiting for the dive boat to spot us and pick us up. Later, when we were safely on the boat I could see just how big the waves were and how difficult it was to see surfaced divers, hence the importance of having and using a safety sausage.

It was a pretty intense experience- I guess it was a little foolhardy to think that I could do this dive, but I didn’t completely know what I was getting myself into. When I initially signed up for the dive trip, the dive instructor “K” who organized the dive trip told me that there was a dive that required a quick descent in a strong current and proceeded to ask me about my diving experience. Later he emailed me a response saying that I could probably do the dive if I stayed close to the dive master.

When I returned to our accommodations after the boat dive, “K” came up to me and said,

“What were you doing going on the hammerhead shark dive?! You weren’t supposed to go. I’m just glad that you made it back in one piece.”

Apparently “K” had changed his mind after initially saying that I could do the dive, but he neglected to write me an email to specifically tell me this. He only changed the names of people on the dive schedules, which I didn’t know were rearranged, and besides, they were included in email attachments, which were half in Chinese, which I basically can’t read.

This experience was a harsh reality check. I couldn’t believe the danger I had put myself in. Up until this trip I’d always been very vigilant about diving safely. The hammerhead shark dive was an unfamiliar, challenging situation and I didn’t have an assigned dive partner, so this presented some problems for me. I was lucky. I couldn’t stop thinking of what I had gotten myself into. I wondered what would have happened if I finally did get down to 40m, but being so far from the dive group, would I have been able ascend safely by myself in the strong current conditions? I couldn’t stop thanking “A” and I even told him that I think he was my guardian angel that day.

I also realized that I’m not sure if I like aggressive diving. What I enjoyed the most about diving in the beginning was the calm floating feeling, gliding in a different dimension as unobtrusively as possible, in the underwater world, a world that I am privileged to be able observe, one in which with every breath, I am reminded that I am an intruder.

March 14, 2004
Green Island By Scooter… Finding Alcatraz

The following day, Sunday, I opted not to scuba dive because I wanted to take a look around the island, which is only about 16.2 square kilometers in area. So four of us- “A”, myself and “V” and “M”- two women who were non-divers but had come along for the trip to Green Island the diving group- decided to take a ride around the island by scooter. We did a few light hikes, admired the tropical foliage and admired the jagged, volcanic rock formations along the coast of the island.

This isolated island was first used as the site for a prison during the Japanese era (1895-1945). It’s size and rocky landscape which was shaped by ancient volcanic eruptions, seemed to make it an ideal location for confinement; the surrounding turbulent waters served as a natural deterrent from escape attempts. It is doubtful that anyone could survive a trip through the surrounding waters without a proper boat. Green Island and its surrounding ferocious waters- was certainly no joke, as I can now attest to. Every year divers go missing in its surrounding waters.

Green Island is most famous for the prison which held many political prisoners during Taiwan’s White Terror era. Today the prison is no longer in service, but is still standing. Among its most famous political prisoners are Taiwan’s current Vice President, Annette Lu, who served 6 of a 12 year sentence there and Chen Chu, the Chairperson of the Council of Labor Affairs, who served 6 years and 2 months of a 12 year sentence there. Both of these women were among the people arrested and imprisoned for their participation in a Human Rights Day Rally, in which demonstrators demanded more democracy and human rights in Kaohsiung on December 10, 1979. This event- which began as a peaceful demonstration, ended with a crackdown by police, violence and arrests, is often referred to as the “Formosa Incident” or “Kaohsiung Incident.” Prisoners were coerced into making confessions and held in solitary confinement. After their release, some of prisoners were so traumatized that they were temporarily unable to speak and had even forgotten how to use chopsticks.

As we drove around, we saw several correctional facilities and “A” translated the signs on the buildings, which read ‘vocational retraining center’ or ‘reeducation center.’ We could see the basketball courts, running tracks and open courtyards, which were part of the correctional facilities. Doing hard time wasn’t looking so bad after all.

“A” astutely commented that (and I paraphrase with some added comments of my own): For gangsters and other criminals, being jailed on Green is a dubious “honor.” I suppose you know you’ve “arrived” or “made it” as a criminal when you’ve been sent there. It’s somewhat of a bragging right; a boost to one’s notoriety; a testament of one’s ruthlessness.”

Isolated Deserted Island Prisons: Bastions of Hate and Perversity

Prisons on deserted islands around the world all seem to share a legendary, larger than life reputation. Whether based on fact or fabricated by our imaginations, the public seems to have a twisted fascination with them.

brutal, oppressive, isolation
banished to
inhumane conditions, tyrannical wardens discipline the
sadistic, murderous, villainous, contemptuous

Upon reaching the most infamous “reeducation center” of the White Terror era, we first visited the exhibition hall building, which stands separately from the actual prison. It showcases various types of documentation and images related to the reign of White Terror and Taiwan’s period of authoritarian rule; there were propaganda images, film footage, international media reports, banned publications, and photographs and lists of those who were politically persecuted.

Next “M” and I walked down the hall of prison cells and peered into individual cells, we were surprised to see that the cells were undergoing some sort of renovation; the walls were newly painted bright white, there new hardwood floors, and even the squat toilet, by the far wall was new.

There was nothing to imagine in these sterile quarters
sterilized for public consumption
Nothing but silence, white silence
Institutionalized public denial of injustices past
Dignity stripped away and re-floored
Absent voices
suffer
purged Guilt

Still not much is known about the actual conditions of the prison on Green Island. It is almost as if it were a mirage in the history of Taiwan. In fact, most Taiwanese don’t even know the actual name of the prison- it has always been generally referred to as the “Prison on Green Island.” For more on Green Island, click here

As I wrote this I wondered what has happened to other infamous island prisons around the world since their closings. So, I offer three examples here:

First there’s Alcatraz (San Francisco, USA), which opened in 1934 and closed in 1963. It’s held some of the most notorious criminals of its day. In 1973 it was reopened and has become perhaps the most popular island prison turned tourist attraction in the world. Alcatraz attracts over a million visitors per year and tickets to tour the island are usually sold out a week in advance. All this is probably thanks in part to the Hollywood marketing machine (Escape from Alcatraz, The Rock).

Then there’s Robben Island (12 km from Capetown, South Africa) prison, which opened in 1961. Political prisoners, who were opponents of apartheid, were kept there along with hardened criminals. During the apartheid years it became internationally known for its harsh conditions. The most famous inmate was Nelson Mandela who was released in 1990 after spending 27 years in confinement. Since 1997, Robben Island prison has been turned into a memorial and museum. Tours are given by former inmates, who were jailed there for their political opinions. Inmate pictures, mementos and historical relics have all been preserved and remain in many of the cells. Robben Island was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999.

Lastly there’s Devil’s Island, which a small island off the coast French Guiana, but the name Devil’s Island not only refers to this little island of exile, but collectively to a series of prisons including those located on the mainland. Devil’s Island existed as a penal colony from 1884-1945.
It was legendary for its abominable conditions (convicts worked in waist deep water cutting down timber in dense jungles), diseases (yellow fever and dysentery, malarial mosquitoes), and piranha infested, surrounding waters. So it came to be known as a point of no return. At one of the deadliest camps in the colony, four thousand convicts died in three years. Convicts were overworked and underfed. And there was the notorious Route Zero, a road that convicts were sent to do work on from 1907-1946, but the road never got longer than 25 km.

Books have been written by Devil’s Island ex-convicts about their escape attempts and time spent on Devil’s Island. The prison closed in 1946 and today access to Devil’s Island is forbidden. It is seen as a reminder of horrible shameful monstrosities that occurred in French history, and many believe that it should remain closed out of respect for the past.

Three island prisons, three examples of how we can remember despicable things of the past.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home