Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ghost Stories

I recently published an essay, "My Mother's Ghosts," at Electric Literature.

I originally planned to include a parallel storyline about the supposedly haunted Grant Hyatt Taipei, but my editor asked me to narrow my focus (for which I am grateful). This section now seems timely, given the "historic" meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents.

Why is the Grant Hyatt Taipei Haunted?

After searching the Internet for  examples of Taiwanese ghost stories, I came across the story of the Grand Hyatt Taipei. Built in 1990, the hotel is rumored to be haunted. Link after link revealed a classic ghost story adapted to the Internet. The travel sites had reviews with titles like “Nice hotel, but haunted,” “Haunted, schmaunted,” and “Haunted beyond belief.” The Daily Telegraph published an article, “The World’s most haunted hotels,” that has this to say about the Grand Hyatt Taipei, “Taipei’s luxurious resort was built over a former wartime political prison and is said to be haunted by the ghosts of several inmates who were executed, according to local residents. The hotel has placed a Chinese sutra and other sacred scrolls throughout the lobby in an attempt to rid the place of any wandering spirits.” Like any good ghost story we have a plausible tragedy confirmed by a secondhand source. There is also an Internet rumor that Jackie Chan refuses to stay at the hotel after encountering spirits. Interestingly, according to the hotel’s Wikipedia page,Jackie Chan is not one of the Notable Guests, but Guns N Roses is listed, perhaps enjoying Chinese democracy while promoting their record, Chinese Democracy.

But why do Taiwanese people believe this hotel is haunted? All I could find were vague references to the hotel being built upon a wartime execution ground, or prison, or cemetery. When Taiwan was a Japanese colony, the Japanese held Allied prisoners of war on the island. I did research to see if the location of the hotel matched up with the known locations of Japanese colonial era prisons and it does not. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but POW survivors have published detailed accounts in English and nothing matched up.

The polite consensus about Japanese colonization of Taiwan is that it was a good deal for everyone because Japan built railroads and other infrastructure, but they also suppressed the Taiwanese language, banned Chinese language newspapers, and fought a continuous war against Taiwanese independence guerillas. In 1902 Japan offered these guerrilla fighters amnesty if they came down from the mountains and surrendered. The men gathered at a hall, believing they were being honored, and were told to wear white flowers. Historian Jonathan Manthorpe writes, “When 360 of the partisans were in the hall the doors were bolted and everyone wearing a white flower was killed.”          

In the chain of rumors the ones most grounded in actual historical fact were on Forumosa, a message board catering to Western ex-patriots. Again, the rhetorical strategies of the traditional ghost story are in play. One person says the land was a World War II battlefield, another says it was a prison and execution ground used by the current ruling party, the KMT. A book, “A Taste of Freedom,” by Taiwanese independence activist Peng Ming-min is cited as evidence. Another person claims that his godfather was one of the feng shui experts consulted. The Jackie Chan rumor resurfaces. Everything is second hand, but plausible; nothing is proven.

I went as far as matching up sites on my map of Taipei and taking a ride on Google Street view, but I couldn’t find any definitive markers that proved that the hotel was situated on tainted ground. I read several articles about a neglected cemetery turned into the Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park. It overlooks the land upon which the Grand Hyatt Taipei is built, but it’s too far away to be the origin of the supposed hauntings.

Which brings us to the White Terror. After World War II, control of Taiwan was given to the Kuo Min Tang—the Chinese Nationalist party— who then had a tenuous grasp on China, but they lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists, and fled to Taiwan for good. My mother has a Taiwanese saying about the period when the Japanese left, and the KMT arrived— “The dogs left so the pigs could take over.” Like the Japanese, the KMT suppressed the Taiwanese language, and quashed the Taiwanese independence movement. Many people were imprisoned on suspicion of being Japanese collaborators. In Jiu Fen, a gold mining boom town, my great grandfather and grandfather leased mines from the Japanese colonial government. After the KMT arrived, they fled into the surrounding mountains and hid out until they were sure they wouldn’t be arrested.

On February 27, 1947 a dispute between a cigarette vendor and government officials sparked an uprising. The deaths in the aftermath became known as the 228 Massacre (February 28, 1947). Martial law, and the White Terror lasted from 1945 to 1987, during which time the secret police surveilled political dissidents and civilians, hunting for Communist spies. According to Manthorpe, as many as 90,000 were arrested during this time period, and “about 10,000 of those were actually tried in military courts, but about 45,000 were executed summarily.” Where do forty-five thousand restless spirits go? To put this into perspective, the CIA World Fact Book lists Taiwan as being slightly smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined.


As I rolled past the Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park using Google street view, the land unremarkable, what had seemed like groundless superstition began to read as an expression of a collective grief and fear over past trauma. Even if no one can definitively name the execution ground upon which the Grand Hyatt Taipei supposedly stands, the fact that the hotel hired feng shui experts speaks to how ingrained the memory of terror is. The Martial Law Era Political Victim Memorial Park is one of the government’s shabby apologies for the White Terror, the first of which didn’t come until 1995. Much like Ghost Month, the White Terror is something to honor, but not necessarily talk about. Maybe ghost stories like the Grand Hyatt Taipei persist because the KMT government is still in place, the threat from China never ceases, and Taiwan remains in limbo, like hungry ghosts who died violent deaths, or whose ancestors have ceased to honor them.