I walked over to the Presidential Office today after work. Tomorrow is the Big Event, the presidential inauguration of Tsai Ying-wen, so today was the full rehearsal, minus Tsai herself. Or maybe she was there in disguise, watching everything from the safety of a giant gecko costume or something. That’s what I would do, anyway.
They’re really pulling out all the stops. Huge Macy-esque balloon figures floated around the square, including an aborigine, a Han Chinese complete with a rather puffy conical hat, and George MacKay, complete with a giant inflatable tooth he presumably just pulled from the giant balloon aborigine. The military was on hand with actual cannons that actually fired, military jets flew overhead smoking red white and blue smoke, and a host of bands, including my friends Lin Sheng-xiang and Toru Hayakawa, played Charge Forward, the theme to Rookie’s Journal, and of course Island Sunrise, which gave me goosebumps. The Sunflowers got their own float, portraying a large, headband-wearing student vaulting over little barbed-wire barriers. Even the Wild Lily Protest was commemorated with a large flower, though not quite as large as the original. “Those are two famous protests that were significant in Taiwan’s history,” an elderly man who said he was from Kaohsiung told me as the parade rehearsal proceeded past us. We’d been chatting a bit as we watched the spectacle.
“I know, I was at both of them,” I said. He gaped, then recovered. “Do you know what Tsai is going to say in her speech tomorrow?” This was a strange question. How could I possibly know that? And, were I in the position to know, how could I be so careless as to blab it to a total stranger?
“And, you know, China is threatening to attack if they don’t like what Tsai says tomorrow,” he continued when I didn’t answer. Now I was beginning to wonder if he was really from Kaohsiung.
“Yes, and they threatened to attack if Lee Teng-hui was elected in 1996,” I said. “I remember because I was in boot camp at the time.”
His subsequent gaping was interrupted by the approach of another elderly man, one who spoke a mixture of Mandarin, Minnan and Japanese. The first elderly man retreated, and I walked around taking photos. It was all very surreal, not just the exchange but the entire scene. I tried to gather my thoughts while I had a bite to eat at the Restricted Mos Burger up the street. I call it that because it’s the only Mos Burger in the restricted section around the Presidential Office, and I had lunch there often during the Sunflower Protests, on my way to or from the Legislature when the military police had blocked the streets off.
This inauguration is not only different from all those before it by its very nature, being the first DPP president who has also won the Legislature…it will be fundamentally different from all of those before it in its content as well. For one thing, never have I seen such a diverse representation of Taiwan’s various cultures. But that won’t be the only difference: At one point, in the distance, I saw what looked to be performers dressed up as Chinese soldiers. “Those…those aren’t old PLA uniforms, are they?” I squinted as I asked a squat policeman who was lazily waving his hands in an attempt to direct imaginary traffic.
“No, those are old Nationalist uniforms!” he said, chuckling.
“Ah,” I said, watching as the people dressed as Chinese soldiers went through the motions of executing a line of civilians, shooting them dead while images of 2/28 flashed across the massive screen in front of the stage. The performers writhed on the asphalt.
This is different, I thought. Only two years ago students took over the Legislature. Over a quarter century ago we camped out at CKS Hall. Tomorrow…
San Taizi figures strode around waving their arms alongside barefoot Bunun aborigines. Arabian horses were being led down trailer ramps by men dressed in Ming Dynasty regalia and sunglasses. The dual-language announcers seemed to take a particular glee in reading the words “President Tsai” and “Ex-president Ma” when going through the exchange ceremony script.
If the rehearsal is anything to go by, the main event should be amazing, moving, memorable. As it should be. I couldn’t help but feel a little overcome by all the references I saw, not only to Taiwan’s history but also to my life up to this point, all in the same place for once. It will be historic. Of course, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if the hard part is just beginning, but I suppose we’ll just have to find out.
For now, we celebrate.