February 28 is a Taiwanese national holiday commemorating the 228 Incident, a historical anti-government uprising in Taiwan that marked the beginning of the White Terror1, or martial law era, in the country. What better way to remember the victims than to visit a museum in a former martial law-era prison and learn about their stories, right?
So, during the school holidays, I visited the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park (景美人權文化園區), which is the site of the former Taiwan Garrison Command Martial Law Detention Center. The museum has an excellent visitor center where you could get a guided tour (available at 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM) or rent a free audio guide. Admission is free of charge as well.
When I got to the museum, I was the only tourist there, which is a pity because with the well-preserved facilities and exhibits, the place really deserves more visitors. The whole site itself is not that huge, but there are lots of interesting things to see. Along with the audio guide, I was given a map of the whole place, with audio tour spots marked with a number. The people at the visitor center recommended that I visit all 19 spots and listen to the audio guide for each one. Of course the exhibit descriptions were all helpful, but the audio guide also tells you many significant details about each spot that you won’t be able to notice or appreciate if you were just looking through the whole facility without any guide.
The courtrooms (17 and 18) were the first places I saw near the visitor center, so I went there first. From the very first moment I stepped into the courtrooms, I was instantly drawn by the whole setup.
If you go even further ahead, you will see an imposing building with steel rails at the top and a fountain in front. This is the main detention facility.
When you enter the facility, you will see two different paths. The left side leads to the guardhouse and the prison cells, while the right side leads to the work area.
At first, I was still leisurely walking and reading all the descriptions in the work areas and the other rooms, but when I got to the cell area I just started getting the chills. Do you know the feeling of being in a place that you know has witnessed a lot of pain and suffering? I felt that kind of emotion, that kind of chill, the moment I entered the corridor. I actually heaved a sigh of relief when I reached the end of the corridor because I felt like a heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders.
Throughout the tour, I was reminded of the experiences of the Filipino people who went through the same thing during the Philippine martial law in the 1970s. I’ve realized that the road to freedom and democracy wasn’t easy at all, not just for the Taiwanese but for everyone who had to go through the same experience as well. Now, I understand why this period still evokes painful memories and why many families and victims are still hurting and fighting for justice even decades after these events happened.
This experience is a reminder that I shouldn’t be taking my rights for granted. Since I was in elementary school, we have been educated about martial law in our history classes but I must admit that the lessons didn’t really make an impact on me, perhaps because my young mind thought at that time that nothing much has changed. But now that I am older and more opinionated, I am slowly beginning to understand why people fought the way they did and why people are trying so hard to prevent something like this from happening again.
Right now, when people ask me whether I am in favor of something that my government does, I can confidently say what I think without being afraid that someone might report or arrest me. I am free to believe what I want to believe and I have free access to information that would help me make informed choices. This wasn’t the case for the people who lived during the martial law era, where people lived in fear. Seeing all of this got me to appreciate the freedom and rights that I enjoy now. Of course, it’s still up to us how we are going to use that freedom, and my visit to this prison is a painful but beautiful reminder that I should be using my freedom to make informed choices, to care about my country’s future, and make my country a better place in my own little way.
If you’re ever in Taipei and you’re interested to delve deeper into Taiwan’s history, be sure to check out this place. I hope more people visit this museum because the exhibits are so well-preserved, it is a shame that the place doesn’t see many tourists. This facility deserves more visitors and the stories of the victims in these halls deserve to be heard.
- During the White Terror period, many Taiwanese were arrested or executed for opposing the KMT government led by Chiang Kai Shek. The officials at that time arrested anybody who they felt posed a threat to the party or to national security. Many of those arrested were intellectual elites or communist sympathizers, but a great number of individuals who were simply suspected or wrongly accused of opposing the government were also arrested, even without any solid proof. Even simple dissatisfaction with the status quo could cause you to end up in jail. ↩