Sunday, June 19, 2011

"May We Have a Word With You?" -- a Taiwanese Legend From the Cold War

This is a story I heard from my late friend Richard, a family friend and visitor from Taiwan. He told me this story as I drove him, his wife, my family and family friends from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the summer of 1982 or 1983.

This story has been in my mind all these years. It takes place during a less happier time, a time when residents of Taiwan and China were not allowed to communicate with each other or visit each other, a time of great political and military tensions.

"The Chinese secret intelligence service is second to none," I remember hearing Richard say as he began his story. Only one thing--he didn't specify whose intelligence service, China's or Taiwan's. What follows is his story to the best of my memory.

It seems that Mr. Tom H. (pseudonym), a government civil servant in some department, applied to the appropriate government agency for permission to visit Hong Kong. Permission was granted, so off he went.

There was a slight detail he did not bother to tell the government agent responsible for looking into his trip: Tom was not intending to make Hong Kong the focal point of his trip. No, instead he was planning to land in Hong Kong and then cross the border into the People's Republic of China, where he would travel up to his home province, let's say Anhui, a place he had left as a child with relatives who had fled to Taiwan. There, in his hometown, he planned to reunite with his mother, whom he hadn't seen since 1948, nearly thirty years before.

He landed in Hong Kong. The next day he arrived at the Lok Ma Chau border station to cross over into China. He did so, without incident, his passport left unstamped. From Guangdong Province, he traveled by bus or train to Anhui Province and then onto his hometown, the place of his birth. He was joyfully reunited with his mother and other relatives.

During his visit, he was paid a visit by PRC security agents, who politely asked Tom to visit their office. Tom, of course, went immediately. He was ushered into a room and was asked to sit in front of a desk behind which sat a high-ranking security officer. Offered tea, Tom was given a brief interview.

He was asked his impression of modern China. Did everything look fine? Did the local people appear well fed, happy, prosperous? Was he enjoying himself? and so on.

Tom responded affirmatively and positively to everything he was asked. Yes, he was very impressed by the People's Republic, and, yes, everything appeared modern. The citizens, too, looked content, happy and well-fed.

Fine. Tom was allowed to return back to his mother's apartment. He continued to visit for a few more days and then returned to Hong Kong. He might have spent a day or two in Hong Kong, for after all, the then-British Crown Colony had been his ostensible destination. He'd be expected to bring back souvenirs of his stay.

He returned to Taipei and then back to his apartment.

A few days later, as he was getting ready to go to work in the morning, he heard a knock at the door. Opening the door, he came face-to-face with two polite strangers in business suits. One of them smiled and flashed his I.D. at Tom: Agent X, the National Security Bureau of the Republic of China.

"May we have a word with you at our office regarding your recent trip to Hong Kong?" the NSB agent asked. "Our car is waiting downstairs."

A million things must have run through Tom's head as he sat in the backseat of the car headed to NSB headquarters. Did they know he had gone to the Mainland, which at that time would have been a huge crime? Had he been sloppy in keeping his tracks clean? He had been careful not to bring back any memento from Anhui. So did they know?

Tom and his government escorts arrived at their destination. Tom was led into an office. Behind the desk sat a senior agent. On the desk was a tape recorder or tape deck. With a wave of the hand, the senior agent dismissed the pair that had brought Tom in.

"Now, may I ask where you went on your recent overseas vacation?" the senior agent asked.

"Hong Kong."

"Just Hong Kong? Not, perhaps, Macao as well?"

"No. Just Hong Kong."

"I see."

The senior agent smiled. He turned on the recorder. The tape then repeated the exact conversation Tom had had with the security officer in Anhui--the exact words and the same voices. Tom heard once again the questions asked of him while in China, and again he heard the replies he himself had given.

He slumped into his chair. What could he say? There was nothing he could say . . .

Tom was punished. He was very fortunately not sent to Green Island. Back in those martial-law days, his punishment could have been very heavy. Instead, he was given five to ten years restricted travel, prohibited from leaving Taiwan. I don't recall how his legal problems impacted his job as civil servant. Difficulties such as his tended to have a negative effect on job promotion and tenure.


Nowadays Chinese from both sides of the Straits can visit each other. Many Mainland visitors have flocked to Taiwan, and thousands of citizens of Taiwan live and work on the Mainland. Indeed, Richard's ex-wife herself now lives in Shanghai. Thus, this story is a relic of a bygone era.

Green Island, now a popular resort off the southeast coast of Taiwan, was once a penal colony housing those convicted of political offenses.

This story has some of the hallmarks we associate with urban legends: the lack of a firmly identified protagonist; "Tom," to the best of my recollection, was explained away as a "friend of a friend"; and a "comeuppance" effect, poetic justice or an otherwise very negative result for involving oneself in deception.

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