The Story of the Taiwanese community in Germany

by Shih-cheng LIEN

I have now been a member of the "Taiwan Association" for nearly two years since I joined the association in 1997. In the meantime, by taking part in various gatherings, I have come to know a number of compatriots, who have been living in Germany for over ten or even up to twenty years. Sometimes I would listen to them talking of the past and getting curious I would ask them more and more questions. In this way I learned that the association had already existed when they came to Germany. At the time, the name of the association was "Formosa Association", in the meantime the name was changed to "Taiwan Association". I wanted to learn more about the founding and history of this association, being an overseas association by and for the Taiwanese with a history of thirty years.

As the material available was quite limited and difficult to obtain, and only few documents have been preserved at all, I had to rely partially on oral accounts from the members of the Association. However, as most of the founding members have left Germany in the meantime, and myself having been a member of the association only for a short time, I am not in a position to go into much detail. I hope that this text may arouse a sympathetic response among my elderly fellow compatriots so that the contents may be gradually enriched to provide a more comprehensive picture.

The "Formosa Association in Germany" was established in early October 1971 in Frankfurt. Before its official establishment there existed some regional organisations of Taiwanese compatriots, such as "Welfare Association of Taiwanese compatriots in Northern Germany" and the "Association of Taiwanese compatriots in central Germany" that were established in spring 1971. The date obviously illustrates that the establishment of a Germany wide Taiwanese association didn't come about by chance. It was rather an idea that evolved before this date among the various regional organisations. As these associations had converging objectives and interests, why not establish one common association for all Taiwanese? This common understanding led to the official establishment of the "Formosa Association in Germany" and the "European Federation of Formosa Associations" within the subsequent months.

Today's "Taiwan Association in Germany" is an association registered with the German authorities. Anyone interested in Taiwan is welcome to become a member of the association. As stated in the minutes of the meeting of the "Formosa Association in Germany" from 1977: "The Association pursues the objective to promote relations and friendship among the compatriots, so that they can offer each other mutual assistance and help in their studies, in their livelyhood and other matters." This is easy to conceive: the conditions that Taiwanese faced when studying abroad twenty or thirty years ago cannot be compared with today's conditions. The students arrived in a foreign country mostly all alone. And it was not easy to establish contact with other compatriots, as there were not many of them in one city. Through various meetings a kind of association thus came into being so that they could better get to know each other and to further exchange among each other. It is important to note here that Taiwan's economical situation in the sixties and seventies was still in the process of catching up with the developed world and that the average family's capacity to support their children financially when studying abroad was rather limited. It was often enough the case that due to high air fares students who had gone abroad couldn't afford to return to Taiwan for a visit. For them the occasional get-together with their compatriots was a great consolation. Some compatriots still like to think back to those days. In those days it was very time-consuming and involved a lot of work to inform the members of the dates of the meetings, as communication was not as easy and fast as it is today. Nevertheless, our compatriots came to the meetings from places all over Germany. This illustrates that the association was of great importance to all members attending and organising the meetings.

In the beginning most members were university students, however, there were also some who worked as nurses in Germany. Those members who lived here to make a living were a minority. In order to support students who were in financial difficulties, they established a fund to grant them interest-free loans.

In the year when the association was established, the magazine "Courrier des Formosans" was published for the first time and served as a bridge for communication and dialogue among the Taiwanese residing all over Europe. Initially, the Taiwanese in Belgium were responsible for editing and producing the magazine. Later the associations from other European countries undertook this task in turns. This magazine is still being published every year to the present day, though during the course of nearly thirty years some issues were cancelled. The magazine is nonetheless an important source of documentation to trace the story of the Taiwanese in Europe.

The meetings of the Taiwanese compatriots fulfilled the purpose of exchanging news and opinions. What interested them most was the latest news from Taiwan. An association, most of whose members are intellectuals, is potentially a political association. The regular meetings and discussions further intensified exchange and contacts among the members. It is thus no small wonder that also political issues were addressed, especially during a period when the situation in Taiwan was rather unstable. With this background, intellectuals were motivated to think about reforms and to spread their ideas.

After Taiwan (see: Brief history of Taiwan) was freed of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, it was ruled by the dictatorship of the Kuomintang (Party of the Chinese Nationalists). Under their rule, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press were strictly controlled. Under one-party-rule there was no elbow-room for the democratisation of Taiwan. In the sixties a movement for democratisation of the country gradually emerged. In the seventies and eighties their were constant confrontations with the ruling party. The members of the Taiwanese associations passionately followed the process how society continued to develop.

Many detailed accounts were published in the association's magazine "Courrier des Formosans" dealing with current events, the leading figures and with in-depth commentaries. The magazine evolved into a forum where the Taiwanese compatriots could express political issues. Since then the Taiwanese associations moved towards eagerly supporting an acceleration of the process of democratisation and independence from mainland China.

This transformation process did however not lead to a formal revision of the orginal principles of the association. "Taiwanese Independence" was not made a common objective. Here is the main difference to "World United Formosans for Independence". It was sufficient for the common work of the association that the members showed great interest in the future of Taiwan, as the basic condition for the spirit of solidarity among the members had already been ensured by the original objectives of the association.

In those days the people of Taiwan were exposed to suppression by dictator Chiang Kai-shek and his regime that denied them democratic rights and tolerated no criticism. Even Taiwanese residing abroad were not safe from persecution. During this period of so-called "White Terror", power and control by the Kuomintang went beyond Taiwan to all places where Taiwanese lived. Some Taiwanese studying abroad were included in so-called "black lists", because they had publicly expressed their views on democratisation and independence of Taiwan. They were threatened with prison sentences, should they return to their homeland. In addition, their relatives living in Taiwan were interrogated. During this difficult period the "Formosa-Association" was politically active in Germany. Members took part in demonstrations, they made public their criticism of the Taiwanese government and they protested against the inhumane treatment of political activists by the Kuomintang.

One such example is the "Chen Tzu-chai-Incident" that occurred in the seventies. In order to raise money to give bail for the release on parole of the university student Chen Tzu-chai, many students donated significant sums despite their limited financial resources. At the same time they organised numerous actions to arouse the attention of the international press. They hoped that the press would exert pressure on the governments of Taiwan and the United States in order to prevent extradition of Chen Tzu-chai to Taiwan, where he would be put on trial. These actions led to an international alliance of Taiwanese organisations all over the world, in America and in Europe. The subsequent "Meilidao-Incident" of 1979 also aroused great attention among these associations. On the occasion of the International Day of Human Rights on December 10th, members of the opposition had gathered for rallies in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung that were dissolved by the police by the use of force. Many of them were arrested and put to trial.

Since the 1990s the Taiwan-Association in Germany has not been as active as it used to be. The organisation has been weakened, the number of members has decreased and it is difficult to mobilise the remaining members. There are several reasons for this: with the continuing process of democratisation and lifting of the state of emergency, the association has largely lost its main original aims that for nearly twenty years consisted in the struggle for the ideal of a democratic and independent Taiwan. The immediate objective of democratisation of Taiwan seems to have been achieved by now, the long-term and final objective of internationally recognised independence has, however, not been realised yet. The association needs to face the issue which course to take in the future. In the course of time many members left the association when their several years' stay in Germany ended, some of them have been taken from our midst. On the other hand, the association has largely been unsuccesful in recruiting new younger members, because compared to the generation of twenty years ago, later generations of Taiwanese students have lost sight of the "sacred" goals of democratisation and independence.

In the course of further development of international trade many businessman have come to Germany with their families in recent years. The Taiwanese government is also making great efforts in promoting trade relations between Germany and Taiwan. This has led to a greater variety of Taiwanese associations in Germany. There is an Association of Taiwanese Businessmen, their wives have founded a Women's Association and the students have established their own Students' Association. With all these organisations that pursue their own interests, the Taiwan Association has lost attraction to the Taiwanese, there is a lack of identification with the Association. The businessmen identify with the "Association of Taiwanese Businessmen" and the students identify with their respective associations. This has little to do with the widely held contention that young people are not interested in politics or that they do not identify with Taiwan. I rather believe that in a pluralistic society the individual chooses on his own and according to his own standards of values with what group he wants to associate himself.

In the course of time Taiwanese has become the standard language within the association. That was the main reason for my joining the association. I was surprised that the Taiwanese language had after all survived among the Taiwanese living in Germany. When during my first meeting I nearly only heard Taiwanese, I was full of joy, but I also felt some bitterness as it caused me great difficulty to communicate with the others in Taiwanese. Similarly to me, many young Taiwanese are not able to express themselves fluently in Taiwanese. This certainly is an evident sign that it was a great political mistake of the governement during recent years to suppress the use of the Taiwanese language. Therefore interest has waned to join the Taiwan Association. But I am taking a different perspective. Taiwanese being the means of communication within the association is much to be appreciated, especially in the present, where Taiwanese is increasingly coming out of use.

About thirty years ago, when the Association was founded, it was not allowed for political reasons to use the word "Taiwan" or "Taiwanese" in public. In all matters concerning nationality, the wording "Republic of China" had to be used. Therefore the association could not use the designation "Taiwan Association". The members at that time thus chose the name "Formosa Association" in order to avoid the word "China" and because the name "Formosa" was the widely known name for Taiwan abroad. Today the situation has greatly changed. On the international scene Taiwan is a notion attached to a country, even though it is not officially recognised as an independent country. For this reason in 1994 the "Formosa Association" was renamed into "Taiwan Association". At long last we can fully justified and openly say: we are Taiwanese!


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