A gripping, vital account of one man’s imprisonment by Taiwan’s police state early in the Cold War.
In 1954 Tehpen Tsai was arrested by the Kuomintang regime on suspicion of being a Chinese communist agent. After initial weeks-long interrogation near his home he was transferred to a detention facility in Taipei specifically for seditionists and enemy operatives. The evidence against him: two books, one on his shelves at home, and one that another arrestee told police he had seen at Tsai’s house.
Tsai was not a communist. But in the febrile atmosphere of the early White Terror era in Taiwan that scarcely mattered; the secret police were commonly thought to operate by a rule to “never miss one true criminal, even if a hundred are killed mistakenly.” He had just one thing counting in his favour: he had recently returned from a scholarship in the USA, and the Chiang Kai-shek government at the time was sensitive to American attitudes and pressure.
In prison he met genuine communists, anti-government activists, intellectuals, and others like him, unlucky people swept up by a tenuous accusation or a chance encounter. One by one his cellmates disappeared, some to the execution grounds, others to Green Island, the notorious political prison off Taiwan’s east coast. Tsai was more fortunate. Sentenced to a term of “re-education”, he was released in November 1955.
Elegy of Sweet Potatoes is a thinly-fictionalized version of Tsai Tehpen’s experiences as a political prisoner. Names are changed, dates are fudged, but the narrative here is true to life. A compelling story full of rich description, pathos, and odd moments of humor, it is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the realities of martial law in “Free China”.