Chiang Kai-shek's legacy attracts respectful Chinese tourists to Taiwanese park

Young tourists pose for a photograph with statues of the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek at a mountainside park on February 13 in Tashi, northe

Young tourists pose for a photograph with statues of the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek at a mountainside park on February 13 in Tashi, northe

Transplanted statues of Chiang Kai-shek have been neatly spread along a verdant hillside in northern Taiwan, some showing him on horseback with his mustachioed face held high, others with him clutching a ceremonial sword or reading a classical text.
Chiang is much out of favor on this island of 23 million people, his 25 years of dictatorial rule regarded by many as justification for the relocation of his once ubiquitous bronze images to an isolated site in Tashi, an hour's drive from the capital Taipei.
But in an ironic twist, they have now become a pilgrimage target for tourists from mainland China - from where Chiang fled in shame in 1949 after his Nationalist forces were defeated by Mao Zedong's Communist Party in a bloody civil war.
Chiang is a contentious figure on both sides of the Taiwan Strait - though for very different reasons.
In Taiwan he is reviled by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Many of the DPP founders suffered imprisonment and worse under 39 years of martial law imposed by Chiang in 1948.
And many of the younger members of Chiang's Nationalist Party, eager advocates of the democratic system that Taiwan now embraces, freely acknowledge the excesses of his regime.
But in mainland China he is seen as an avatar of the unification that has long stood at the forefront of Beijing's Taiwan policy - so much so that his ruthless pursuit of the communist enemy during 23 years of on-again-off-again civil war has been conveniently shunted aside.
Here in this quiet hillside park, some 120 Chiang statues dumped by schools, public parks and once reverential communities attract a constant stream of mainland tourists, now permitted to visit Taiwan despite lingering hostilities between the sides.
The park abuts a somber Chiang mausoleum, and a local official said the two sites appear to appeal to mainland visitors far more than the island's loudly trumpeted scenic lakes and mountains.
"Whether they respect or dislike Chiang, they see the man as a symbol of Taiwan's ties to the mainland," said Chang Ching-wan, of the Tashi town government. "We were surprised to see some of the mainlanders bowing before Chiang's coffin."
A shop next to the park sells mugs and plates imprinted with Chiang's tall figure and a picture of his 1927 wedding to second wife Soong Mei-ling, who later became one of the most influential women in modern Chinese history as a prominent lobbyist for U.S. aid and the head of the Chinese air force during World War II.
Last year, nearly 40,000 Chinese visited Taiwan, and Taiwanese authorities are hoping for a tenfold increase in the number of tourists from China after a deal is struck with Beijing on travel arrangements - a development that could easily turn the trickle of mainland visitors to Tashi into a flood.
On a recent weekday morning, a group of tourists from northeastern China's Liaoning province carefully inspected an oversized bronze statue showing a smiling Chiang in a traditional Chinese gown seated comfortably on a large chair.
The tourists - men in dark business suits and women with permed hair and bright jackets - appeared subdued as they posed quietly for photos with their digital cameras.
"We came here to get a touch of history," said a mainlander who identified himself only by his surname Zheng.
"Chiang was a man of a bygone age and my impression of him is neither good nor bad," he added.
Those sentiments are a far cry from the widespread Communist condemnations in the days following Chiang's ignominious retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Contemporary writings depicted him as a "bandit," and accompanying Nationalist troops as looters and thieves.
After retreating to Taiwan, Chiang built the island into an anti-communist bastion dedicated to re-conquering the mainland. That goal was shunted aside only in the early 1990s and over the past seven years, since President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) DPP ended 50 years of Nationalist rule, the independence-leaning government has constantly attacked Chiang's legacy.
Recent DPP moves include removing hundreds of Chiang statues from military bases and erasing Chiang's name from Taiwan's main international airport.
Those initiatives provoked only faint outcries from Chiang's Nationalist Party successors, who are keenly focused on regaining power in 2008 presidential elections.
But here in Tashi, at least one elderly Taiwanese openly resents the changes.
Standing amid a group of mainland visitors, retiree Ting Lai-pin fondly recalled how people rushed to set up Chiang statues in past decades to honor him for strengthening Taiwan's economy and building up its armed forces to confront a possible Communist attack.
But that is all in the past, he lamented.
"All the efforts to belittle Chiang are but a struggle against the Nationalists to bar them from returning to power," he said. "How can we attract the mainland tourists if we annihilate all traces of history?"