A ghost month ad brings victims of Taiwan's White Terror to forefront

The PXmart ad that promotes ghost month sales sparks debates over whether a murdered Taiwanese Carnegie Mellon University professor should be presented.

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(The screenshot image of the PXmart commercial video)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) - A commercial video that promotes grocery sales for the upcoming Taiwanese ghost month has sparked fierce discussions in the country, and has sent the name of murdered Taiwanese Carnegie Mellon University professor Chen Wen-cheng (陳文成) to the first place of Google's top trending searches on Monday, Aug. 6, in Taiwan.

Many people in Taiwan started wondering who he was, and why the video upsets some people.

The video is said to have been created by the Ogilvy Taiwan team, for their long-time client PXMart, the country's largest supermarket operator, and is sparking free speech debates. The video is striking a chord among people who have knowledge of the White Terror era and the atrocities committed by the Kuomintang. A professor calls it a "tasteless" ad, but a renowned writer calls it a "world-class" piece.

Let's have some background information about the advertisement. The 7th month of the lunar calendar has been known by Taiwanese people as Ghost Month, and the 15th day of the month is a time when many people provide offerings and prayers to their ancestors, gods, and spirits. It is believed by devout Taoists and Buddhists that during this time of year the gates of the underworld are opened for a full month for spirits to roam the world of the living in search of food. Therefore, people usually shop snacks, beverages, incense and joss paper as offerings for them. The ghost month this year run between August 11 and September 9. (Related Article: How to pray on Hungry Ghost Day )

In the video, a young man portrayed as a spirit sitting in front of a giant mirror said in monologue that he initially didn't believe what he saw (offerings on tables) as he returned to the living world, he thought everything might have a purpose, but for years past, he has started to believe in the kindness of people, for treating strangers like this. Holding a black cat in hand, he continues to say, "these people even prepare something for the cat." At the end of the footage, the young man says he wants to thank people on behalf of the "good brothers" and "good sisters," meaning male spirits and female spirits respectively, from the underworld.

The company even set up a FB fan page for the role. In the bio, the young man carries the name "Allen Chen," and "graduated from National Taiwan University." Some netizens quickly associated the young man with the murdered statistics professor, as he held a bachelor degree from the same school and his body was found near a library at the same campus. Also, netizens found that the year 1981 written on the mirror is the exact year the professor was brutally murdered.

To some people whose family members or acquaintances have been victims of the political persecution against the then authoritarian single-party Kuomintang state three decades ago during the White Terror era, it would provoke heart-wrenching pain to recall the memory. The ad upsets National Cheng Gung University Professor Li Jung-Shian (李忠憲), who called it tasteless and inappropriate.

Longson Chang (張龍喬), however, the chairperson of the Dr. Chen Wen-cheng Memorial Foundation, said on Tuesday, that when he learnt that Dr. Chen might be featured in the video, he felt emotional as decades later finally comes a commercial video visiting the issue, probably helping other people get to know the White Terror victims. "The young people use their way to present and pass down the untaught history," as there is a slow progress on transitional justice.

As the controversy swirled, more and more people with little or no knowledge of Dr. Chen started to google the name. The more they searched, the more names they found. The incident has also been widely covered by local media outlets to tap into the trending topics.

The video in question was taken down when the supermarket giant received a backlash, saying the video is intended to highlight the virtue of Taiwanese people of being thankful. As more opinion leaders voiced support, the company launched the video in question online along with two other videos that featured two different spirit figures who also give account of their surprise and gratitude for the offerings.

Who is Chen Wen-cheng?

According to information provided by the Dr. Chen Wen-cheng Memorial Foundation, Chen was born and raised in New Taipei City, and he studied mathematics as an undergraduate major at National Taiwan University (NTU). He obtained master and doctoral degrees in the U.S. and was hired as an assistant professor at the Department of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University for his outstanding academic performance in statistics.

Chen had been allegedly monitored by "campus informers" or "student spies," when he was in the U.S. because of his support for the pro-democracy movement in Taiwan, according to some studies. In May of 1981, Chen returned home on vacation with his wife and one-year-old son. He was invited to deliver speeches at different schools. According to an account from his older sister Chen Bao-yue (陳寶月), on July 2, 1981, he was called by the Taiwan Garrison Command, a military state security agency under Martial Law, which was lifted in the late 1980s.

No one knew where Chen was going, but a day later, someone called the family saying his body had been found on the NTU campus near a library. The body, she recalled, was covered with horrific wounds with his eyes wide open. The talented statistics professor is believed to have undergone brutal torture before death.

Chen's family members had since been closely watched and surrounded by secret agents and received several threatening phone calls, and which lasted for several unknown years. The then ruling Kuomintang government arbitrarily concluded Chen died from a falling accident from a building, while the police told the family they were not allowed to speak to reporters. The family had been living in grief and fear for many years, according to his sister.

His death was linked to the campus spying event in the U.S., according to a Newsweek clipping dated May 17, 1982 (News Headline: Spies in the Classroom). And the Carnegie Mellon University Chairman reportedly wrote a letter to the Kuomintang leader asking for an explanation.

Is/Are the killer/killers in this case brought to justice? Unfortunately, nearly four decades later, the culprit and murderers were never caught. The death of Chen along with several well-educated elites being murdered during the White Terror era, received no deserved attention over times, despite ongoing efforts to redress a miscarriage of justice under the Democratic Progressive Party government.

(Screenshot image of TIPI 玉山社)

Opinion leader Lu Chieh (呂捷), a high school history teacher, said on his Facebook fan page on Aug. 7 that the news of Dr. Chen's death had been a taboo during the White Terror, and after Martial Law was lifted, had been barely mentioned in media coverage. "Honestly, the coverages about him do not get much clicks," Lu said, "but the professor probably implied in the video successfully got people's attention, reminding people of the tragedy."

Names of the other murdered well-educated elites who supported Taiwan's democracy movement and unsolved murder cases associated with political persecution during the White Terror era have also become Google trending key words following the launch of the advertisement, according to the data.

The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation posted on FB on Tuesday, calling people's attention to victims under the horrific events, and pressed the concerned parties to uncover the truth, so Chen's sacrifice won't be in vain.

(image courtesy of pixabay)