The Gentle Rebel

People — By on April 23, 2013 11:10 AM
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Chang Tieh-chi’s journey of resistance from frontline protest to the editor’s chair

By Cindy Ng

The 40-year-old man sitting cross-legged at the conference table speaks calmly and smiles warmly. He has the air of an intellectual but would not otherwise stand out from the crowd. He is Chang Tieh-chi, the renowned Taiwanese cultural commentator, author and now the editor-in-chief of the iconic Hong Kong monthly, City Magazine. Twenty years ago, he was a bleeding and beaten mess, a student activist campaigning on the frontline for the University Bill to be passed into law to bring democracy to the campuses in Taiwan.

Although his protests today are more likely to be made through print, Chang is still a rebel who does not want to set limits on his life.

Chang was born in Taipeito a blue-collar family in 1972. His grandfather was a Kuomintang (KMT) veteran who fled from the mainland to Taiwan after the 1949 Chinese Civil War. He was raised in a juan cun or military dependants’ village, made up of clusters of ramshackle housing built as temporary shelters for KMT soldiers and their families. In these settlements, the KMT families, all mainlanders, were largely segregated from the local Taiwanese communities.

“There is an invisible line between juan cun and the local community,” says Chang. The juan cun embody one of the core tensions in Taiwan – the gulf between the post-1949 mainland arrivals and the local Min Nan communities. But Chang never felt discriminated against or isolated, or that there was a boundary between his community and the world outside it.

“I did not feel distanced from my friends … I would use their native language, which is Taiwanese to communicate,” he says.

While children might not be fully aware of such a complex social reality as the relationship between juan cun and the rest ofTaiwan society, they could not fail to be shaped by their family environment. Chang’s parents were divorced when he was 14, leaving his father to raise Chang and his younger sister.

“My father is good at doing housework. He took very good care of us. Sometimes, I thought he did too much, was too indulgent of us,” Chang laughs.

He is grateful to his father for creating a liberal and caring environment. “My father encouraged me to do whatever I want,” he says. Chang’s passion for reading was influenced and supported by his father. Their humble life did not stop Chang’s thirst for knowledge but instead sowed the seeds of rebellion and his worldview.

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