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Scouring the Globe for Taiwanese History:The Taiwan National Treasure Foundation

Cathy Teng /photo byTaiwan National Treasure Foundation /tr. byScott Williams
The TNTF team asks volunteers to visit the National Archives to help digitize Taiwan-related historical information. From left, the team includes Cai Sih-ting, Hsin Hsiao, Hou Kuang-yuan and Darren Yang. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
The TNTF team asks volunteers to visit the National Archives to help digitize Taiwan-related historical information. From left, the team includes Cai Sih-ting, Hsin Hsiao, Hou Kuang-yuan and Darren Yang. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Taiwan has its own group of dedicated treasure hunters! But instead of searching for riches hidden in caves, they are trawling the US National Archives for historical information related to Taiwan. This isn’t the sort of treasure that will make anyone wealthy, but it can help Taiwanese better understand ourselves and how we got to our present place in the world. More, gaining a clearer view of where we’ve been will enable us to hold more firmly to our course into the future.
Since 2017, a group of Taiwanese based in New York have gathered roughly once every month at 5 a.m. to begin the four-and-a-half-hour drive to the US National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland. There, they request boxes of documents related to Taiwan, then go through them page by page, uploading copies to a cloud-based repository. The group, the Taiwan National Treasure Foundation (TNTF), has already duplicated more than 220,000 documents chronicling the history of our island. 
History in hand

TNTF was founded by Hsin Hsiao, Lin Yu-cheng and Chuang Shih-chieh. The three had learned that there were many Taiwan-related documents and records in the National Archives, and wanted to make them available to larger numbers of Taiwanese. Their solution was to create the TNTF, raise some money, and recruit volun­teers to go through files at the archives.

The US National Archives collect records of all kinds, including official documents dating back to the founding of the United States. These records also include 60 million items related to Taiwan. The TNTF team began its work by collating documents relating to 1979’s end of formal diplomatic relations between the US and the Repub­lic of China, and to the Taiwan Relations Act. Hsiao went through those files personally. “The information was amazing. You could see the two sides wrestling back and forth, how our officials lobbied, and the basis on which the US rolled out the Taiwan Relations Act following the break in formal ties.” He says they photo­graphed four or five draft versions of the act because there were notes about amendments on each draft that illustrated the policymaking process and suggested how US‡Taiwan relations came to be what they are today.

Foundation CEO Darren Yang explains, “US law makes this kind of information public after 30 years. All of the documents we copy are originals.” That means that volunteers are handling papers that played a dir­ect role in history. They’re like portals through time, opening cracks that offer glimpses of actual events. For example, in 1925, when Taiwan was still a Japanese colony, the US consulate in Taipei received a card from the ROC consulate-general inviting its staff to attend the celebrations of the 14th anniversary of the ROC’s founding. Preserved intact, the invitation card is a physical embodiment of the complexity of Taiwan’s past.

The National Arch­ives’ collection is incredibly granular, including items as diverse as the product catalogs that American firms such as the Parker Pen Company and children’s clothing companies sent to Taiwan when seeking customers; correspondence between homesick US officials and the Coca-Cola Company’s headquarters in which the former sought to order Coca-Cola for delivery to Taiwan; and even pamphlets promoting public health from the US Aid period. Personally handling these docu­ments transports the volunteers back in time, painting a picture of life in those days.

A different perspective

Hsiao, Yang, Cai Sih-ting, and Hou Kuang-yuan, all of whom are in their thirties, tell us that they didn’t know Taiwan that well when they came to the US, and that it was the act of trying to tell others about their homeland that exposed just how little they knew.

Hsiao, whose parents sent him to study in the US while still a young child, says: “The US doesn’t recognize the ROC, so those of us over here really wanted to know, if they don’t acknowledge that the country I come from is called the Republic of China, then where the heck do I come from? So I started thinking about this question.”

Cai, a PhD candidate in public health at the University of Pittsburgh, recruits volunteers in the Pittsburgh area. She says she used to have trouble answering questions about her identity. “We call ourselves ‘Taiwan­ese,’ but I found I couldn’t answer questions about Taiwanese identity.” She says further, “We often just ­emphasize that we’re different [from mainland China], but then can’t explain how we’re different.”

That conundrum prompted Cai to volunteer with the foundation, and has led her to an understanding of how Taiwan is seen by other countries.

Seeing the catalogs of products sent to Taiwan from all over the US made her realize that everybody wanted to do business with Formosa. “I was surprised to discover that Taiwan was once like Hong Kong, London and other big cities, that so many companies were actively pursuing contacts with us. That’s very different from what we were taught—that Taiwan was a tiny country that no one had heard of—and it made us rethink things and see the potential Taiwan had back then.”

“I’m especially moved by finding things that I have a personal connection to,” says Hou, a graduate of National Cheng Kung University. When he found information in the archives relating to the university during the American aid period, and then came across the name of a former professor from his department, it was like stumbling upon the name of some great master of former times.

Taiwan has benefited in many ways from its relationship with the US. Hsiao says that numerous documents reveal that the US pushed Taiwan’s democratization from behind the scenes, pressing Taiwan’s Nationalist government to move from authoritarianism to demo­cracy. Hou, who studied engineering, mentions that US engineering firms also assisted with the planning and design of Taiwan’s ten biggest infrastructure projects from the 1970s.

“US investment in Taiwan goes really deep,” says Hou. The friendship can be read in different ways depending on one’s point of view, but Cai nonetheless encourages everyone who has the opportunity to visit the US to participate in the document copying project at least once. “Coming to know this land anew through the copying process really gives you a different perspective.”

The way forward

There are similar teams from Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines at work in the US National Archives as well, with the costs of their copying efforts paid directly by their governments. But the TNTF has always relied on volunteers and donations. “The materials are aging and the ink on some documents is already fading. The more time that passes, the less legible they become,” says Hou, explaining the urgency of their mission.

The foundation would like to have a full-time team dedicated to searching for and copying documents, and to accelerate its digitization project by setting up an AI-based text recognition system. They’d also like to have a professional social media editor to share the stories behind the documents.

More, the TNTF would like to extend its efforts to other countries connected to Taiwan’s history and likely to have preserved information about that contact, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Japan, Portugal and Spain. The group’s aim is to recover bits of Taiwan’s history that are currently scattered around the world, and bring them home where people can see and interpret them for themselves. After all, our history belongs to us all.

Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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