Jingmei Prison is a large site that is an important part of Taiwan's Martial Law era history. It was however, unknown to me for a very long time. It seems I'm not the only one to have missed this place. Compared to most historical sites in Taipei, there is not much information about it. I first noticed it far from Taipei, while in Green Island Prison, which is managed by the same group. A search brought up a few good blog entries such as this one. Although I visited years after this author, it still seems this site is very little known or visited, even among Taiwanese. I went on a sunny Saturday, the MRT was packed with people on day trips, but I maybe saw 30 people here in well over an hour. It is a shame, as the museum is informative, well organised, and deals with a powerful and tragic period of Taiwan's history, that everyone in the country should know about.
A quick note for those of you unaware of the Martial Law Period. This ran from 1949 to 1987 under the one party state. As the country was technically still at war with the Communists, the military, with the President at the helm, were given absolute power over the people of Taiwan. Chaing Kai Shek, President of Taiwan, and leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) party imposed it. It was finally and reluctantly lifted by his son Chaing Ching Kuo after a long struggle by pro-democracy groups. During this period many aspects of public life were suppressed, including free speech and the right to a fair trial. Much of the ruling Kuomintang's real, or perceived opposition, were imprisoned or executed. There were thousands of victims, and this prison held many.
The prison is about a 15-20 minute walk from Dapinglin MRT Station, past the large Tzu-Chi Hospital. Just inside the entrance is the "Grand", military courthouse, built in 1977, where the 'Kaohsiung Eight' were tried.
The room looks much as it did during the trial. The 'Kaohsiung Eight' were a a group of democracy activists. They were involved in Taiwan's first opposition magazine "Formosa Magazine", which promoted democracy and soon irritated the KMT. When the magazine organised a human rights forum in 1979, the KMT led a crackdown and arrested many participants. In doing so they locked up many of the key opposition movement leaders. The eight were given heavy prison sentences, although Martial Law ended before their full terms were served. A few key figures in the DPP are members of the Kaohsiung Eight, including the former vice-president Annette Lu, and the current mayor of Kaohsiung Chen Chu.
A lot of trials held in military courts were not political. Simple criminal cases such as robbery, or assault could be tried in these secret courts. This kept the general population quite fearful of the state. Many of the cases described in the exhibitions here are quite ludicrous. One that particularly sticks out is the 12 year sentence for one illustrator, whose translation of a Popeye cartoon in 1968 landed him in trouble. In it, Popeye and his son buy an island and both run as presidential candidates. The translation of one of Popeye's speeches mirrored one of Chaing Kai-Sheks common speech phrases. The KMT made the bizarre mental leap of deciding this subverted the government, and so the illustrator (Po Yang) was arrested, tried, and sent to Green Island.
Other cases include a group sentenced for causing explosions that they had nothing to do with, and no evident connection to. Others seem to have been arrested as soon as they gained a little too much influence in public life, such as the broadcaster Tsui Hsiao Ping.
There are a couple of other courtrooms and general buildings leading to the main prison structure. Some of them have small exhibits inside. The former military barracks, where the guards and soldiers lived, houses some displays on the victims families. Many were shunned if they had a relative in the prison, and even afterwards both the victim and their families still found life tough and work hard to come by.
The main building (known as the Ren'ai Building, meaning benevolence or charity) was formerly a school called The Military Law Academy. It was built in 1957, and the school moved out to make way for the prison in 1967. In many ways schools are designed to make it hard for students to leave, so a conversion to a prison was probably very easy. The cells and main rooms are arranged around several courtyards.
While not every part of the prison building is accessible, a fairly large part is. Part of the cell area, the laundry, workshops, dining hall, and library can all be visited, and have some interesting original artifacts and machinery. The surveillance room still has the crude listening devices in it, and the clinic is stocked with medicines and an old dentist chair. Unlike many heritage sites in Taiwan, where things are stripped out and exhibition rooms renovated with white walls and new lighting, much of the prison has been left as is. I have to commend the group that run both this site and Green Island Prison, for managing to keep it intact, and therefore all the more real and powerful.
Below is the private jail of Wang Shi Ling, who was formerly the chief of the MOD intelligence department. In 1980, a journalist in San Francisco was murdered by gangsters operating on behalf of the KMT. A tape was found implicating the MOD, and the FBI pressured Taiwan to act. As head of intelligence, the buck stopped at this guy. Of course, as one of their own, the KMT treated him and his deputy to this relatively cushy house arrest style imprisonment, with none of the overcrowding and bad food of the main jail.
The location of the prison can be found on the Hidden Taiwan Map, along with directions to it. It is not marked on maps at Dapinglin MRT. This should be a more frequented site. Perhaps, as I've seen written, the KMT are indeed embarrassed by it, and keep it low profile. But the Green Island counterpart is usually full of people. Maybe it's simply too out of the way for many people to bother, or too somber for a family day out. Nevertheless, I highly recommend visiting for a little more understanding of a dark part of Taiwan's history.
On a lighter note a number of these strange sayings, and totally unrelated pictures, appear above the urinals in the men's bathroom. I saw the same ones in Green Island Prison, and it was quite bizarre to see them again. Someone from the heritage group clearly has a pet project.