A look around Jingmei Prison

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.

The exterior of the First Courtroom.
The First courtroom was arranged according to how it appeared during the trial of the Formosa Incident, a famous incident that was widely regarded as one of the most important parts of the Taiwanese democracy movement. The Formosa Incident started when a group of opposition politicians held a pro-democracy rally as part of their Human Rights Day celebration. At the time, Taiwan was a one-party state dominated by the KMT, so the government used this event as an opportunity to arrest the leaders of the political opposition.
Unlike usual court martial proceedings where everything is closed off from the public, the trial of the Formosa Incident was covered extensively by the media because of the signficant pressure of the US and international human rights organizations on Taiwan’s authorities at that time.

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.

The fountain features a 獬豸(xiè zhì), a Chinese mythical beast that could tell right from wrong, innocent from guilty. According to legend, it could tell which side is telling the truth and would strike the guilty party with its horn; thus, it is the Chinese symbol for justice. It is quite ironic that such a beast is displayed outside the building, where many of the detainees were actually innocent and were just wrongfully accused.

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.

Lower-security inmates could become laborer-inmates, and officers could assign them to the laundry, ironing, or boiler areas.

In my opinion, the most dangerous job of all is performed in the boiler room. This boiler room is the source of hot water for washing and steam for ironing, so this has a really important function. But before you can work in this boiler room, you need to have professional plumbing training. It is not hard to see why: the pressure needs to be controlled with precision in order to regulate the steam; if not, explosions could happen. Moreover, the temperature of the steam reaches several hundred degrees.

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.

Entrance to the cell corridor
I actually went inside each cell to have a look at their living conditions. The cell area was actually uncomfortably hot on the day I visited. It must have been even more uncomfortable for the prisoners, who shared the space with other people. I wonder how many people were cramped into a single cell during the peak of White Terror.
The prison officer actually lived right outside the prison corridor, so it was quite easy for him to keep an eye on all the prisoners.
The guardhouse is the first stop for all prisoners when they enter the facility, and the last when they are about to be executed.
PS: The wall clock only ever shows the time 4:04 AM. The Chinese word for number 4 (四 sì) sounds like the word “death” (死 sǐ) in Chinese.

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.

  1. 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.

30 Comments

  1. I remember reading about the White Terror and yet, this is chilling to see photos that are living proof of such atrocities. I think I’ll visit that when I go to Taiwan, which is something I wanna do. A good friend of mine and her family is from Taiwan and knowing the troubled history of both China and Taiwan…well, it’s just…I lack the words to describe the horrors that happened during the White Terror.

    I’m glad you visited and shared this bit of history with us.

    1. I really think it’s a good place to visit when you go to Taiwan. The White Terror is a significant part of Taiwanese history, yet not a lot of tourists know about it. I would definitely recommend this museum if you want to learn more about their history as a nation!

  2. I think that it’s really lovely of you to remember the victims of the White Terror, by visiting the museum! Understanding the past is great for the future <3

    Reading through the post gave me chills, to me I can't simply comprehend what they must have gone through. I know I would've felt overwhelmed walking through that cell corridor.

    I'm glad that the experience got you thinking about your rights – it's definitely something we all overlook and take for granted nowadays. Thank you for bringing this awareness to us <3

    1. I’m glad you learned something, Pauline! <3

      Walking through the cell corridor was almost unbearable, and for a while I even thought of stopping and turning back. Definitely not for the faint-hearted!

  3. Oh wow, I didn’t know about this national holiday in Taiwan. Thanks for sharing your visit to this museum and for the descriptions with the photos! I thought it was really interesting to read, and I can see how the prison would give you chills. Even from the photos, it looks like a very sad sight. It’s good that they don’t try to hide this part of their history.

    You make a good point about how we shouldn’t take our rights and current freedoms for granted. People went through hard times and fought for us to have them. That really is too bad that the museum doesn’t get more visitors!

    1. I didn’t know much about the holiday and the White Terror era prior to my visit, but apparently the White Terror was actually a taboo topic in Taiwan for many years, and people did not like discussing it. But from what I can see, I think the Taiwanese are slowly making progress in acknowledging and discussing what happened during the period.

    1. It definitely was an unpleasant period for Taiwan, and something that I wouldn’t wish for any country! It’s heartbreaking that these things happened but I guess the least we can do is learn from these experiences so we don’t repeat the same mistakes!

  4. Learning about the stories of the victims and going to the place where it all happened is the perfect way to really learn about the holiday. And wow, what a powerful place in history. I’ve got chills just looking at some of your pictures. It is a shame you were the only visitor – places like this should have so many more visitors experiencing a piece of history.

    This makes me want to look a bit more into this holiday and into Taiwanese history because I’ve never heard of it before!

    We definitely take for granted the liberties and freedoms we have today and it’s easy to forget the amount of suffering and sacrifice that it took to get where we are today.

    1. I agree, more people should see this museum! Apparently, it’s not very high up on the “must-see” destinations in Taiwan, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m blogging about it – more people should know about this place!

  5. I’m happy that you took some time to visit the museum to learn some history of Taiwan. Wow, the courtroom feels modern for some reason but the laundry room gives that prison vibe!

    You should be free to believe in whatever you want – we should be in the age where people’s opinions should be respected as long as it doesn’t promote violence.

    Thanks for sharing your adventure!

    1. I agree! I felt the whole prison vibe from the work area too, especially with their industrial washing machines and ironing stations. I still wonder how it was like when the people were still working here as laborer-inmates.

  6. I was born during the early years of Martial Law in the Philippines. My younger brother was born during Martial Law, and even though many of us family survived through that era, it was still scary. I remember my mom telling us that when she was pregnant with my brother, they had to be escorted by soldiers patrolling the streets to the hospital because it was past the curfew period that night. They had to be sure that my mom was really giving birth and not because they were sneaking around underground as accused rebels against the Marcos Regime. I remember hearing stories about some of our neighbors back then, in which some of them would sneak out of the house late, and some of them would never return back home to their families.

    Thanks for sharing this piece of Taiwanese history. I remember how there was so much political unrest in many countries in Asia (including ours) during the ’60s-’90s, how so many innocent people have been wrongly accused and wrongfully imprisoned or worse. The saddest part today though is that not very many people in the younger generation would even take the time to learn how life in their own country was like before their time. My parents recently came back home from their Philippines trip few weeks ago and they were quite taken back that my niece failed her Philippine History class in school because she skipped so many field trips to historical sites like Intramuros and write a report about them because it wasn’t “interesting.” 😣

    1. I don’t have any firsthand experience about Martial Law so I didn’t really appreciate its significance until I grew a little older. It’s so sad that some people from the younger generation don’t take the time to learn about history. I wish this mentality would change because it’s so important to learn about the past to make the future better 🙁

  7. That is such an interesting place that has played an important part in history. I hope that more people will take the time to see it because things like that should not be forgotten. It would have been very creepy seeing the cells and thinking about everything that happened there. 😬

    1. I really think this place is a great way to learn about the country’s history and deserves to have a lot of visitors, that’s part of the reason why I blogged about it 🙂

  8. Never heard about that yet but seems interesting!
    Is it already abandoned? So it’s like a haunted? 😀
    I honestly wanna try visiting haunted prisons and houses XD
    So far I only visited one in Baguio, the Laperal house which was also a war site during WW2 😀

    Also, the place was well-preserve! I’d love to try there too if given a chance! Thanks for sharing Claudine! 🙂

    1. I don’t really believe in ghosts and the place is not really known for being haunted, lol but some parts of the facility would definitely give you chills!

  9. I can’t imagine visiting a place with such a horrific history. It must have been awful for all those people and it makes me so sad to think that things like that happened. Hope you found your trip interesting, even if it was quite an uncomfortable place to visit.

  10. Wow, thanks for sharing this. I always want to know more about things like this but when you don’t even know the names or where to start it makes it hard. It is scary to think those times aren’t all that long ago and it makes you really feel for the people who suffered through.

  11. Felt the same way claud, last Mon was also a holiday here for Araw ng Kagitingan, commemorating the death march. I like how the museum seem so realistic, esp that glass thing where you can see the people working before. Those cells are really small! We are really blessed today having the freedom we have!

    1. I really like that detail in the ironing room too! Of course the exhibits were well-preserved so you can get a sense of how things were before, but having that portrait of the workers integrated with the exhibits makes everything feel alive.

  12. Oh, wow. I know nothing about Taiwan, so this was a great post! This is such an interesting prison, and to see it first hand with the guided tour . . . if I’m ever in Taiwan, I will definitely consider this place to visit. As a history buff, this is the kind of place I’d rather go to than a “normal” museum.

    Thank you for the photos and the descriptions. You’ve reminded me that I need to visit Seodaemun Prison in Seoul!

    1. Thanks a lot, Tara! 🙂 I like visiting place like this too, even though it might be a little bit scary or overwhelming thinking about all the possible things you could see!

  13. I felt chills just reading this post. I didn’t really pay attention in history class before, just doing what was necessary to past. I didn’t have a solid opinion other than what was fed to us in school. It was only just lately that I got into it – reading more and forming changing opinions. It was rough, just thinking about what went on during Martial Law – both in Taiwan and in the Philippines. I do think people should go to more historical places like this. It really does put things in perspective.

    1. I agree, in my case primary and high school didn’t really do a great job teaching me about my country’s history and actually getting me to care about it. I’m glad that you’re starting to care about the country’s history and events now! We really should be aware of what has happened in the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.

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