by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: James X. Morris
New Bloom editor Brian Hioe interviewed James X. Morris, who is currently crowdfunding to write a book on historical preservation for the Xindian Cemetery on Indiegogo, entitled Grassroots Heritage. Morris is a Ph.D. candidate residing in Taipei, and a freelance writer and anthropologist with a background in politics, government, and cross-Taiwan Strait trade.
Brian Hioe: How did you become involved in preservation efforts for the Xindian Cemetery? Who else is involved?
James X. Morris: Preservation of the cemetery became a personal issue for me. I had been doing data collection at the site for the ThakBong database since early 2015, and when demolition began in early 2016, I wasn’t finished collecting the information. ThakBong means “reading stones” in Taiwanese and is a project operated by Oliver Streiter of National Kaohsiung University. With a team of academics including David Blundell at National Chengchi University and Linda Arrigo at Taipei Medical University, we started to reach out to the city and newspapers to say, “Hey, you have 300-year-old pieces of art in this cemetery, and you’re just allowing it to be pulverized?”
Preservationists hold a rally outside of New Taipei City Hall on March 26, 2018. At their feet is a tombstone dating to the Jiaqing Emperor period (1796-1820) from a demolished grave in the cemetery. Photo credit: James X. Morris
Once we realized the city wasn’t really interested in saving its heritage, the issue became more of a cause. The more we tried to protect the artwork and historical information, the more determined we became in trying to preserve the site. We reached out to the local Xindian Historical Society, and some local historians and clan leaders joined us. More recently, progressive-issue politicians have become more involved.
BH: What are the arguments made for the preservation of the cemetery?
JXM: Xindian doesn’t have much else in terms of its oldest heritage other than tombs. It has old temples, sure, but these have constantly been modified. In the early 20th Century there was a devastating flood which wiped out a lot of the old structures. Whatever was left was leveled in the 70s and 80s to make way for apartment buildings.
These tombs contain historical data which may have been destroyed in other forms by the Japanese in 1895 or the KMT in the 1940s and 1950s. Taiwan’s history of being invaded means the winners write the history books. A lot of understanding about the true folk life of Taiwan from the time gone. Within a single tomb, you can find ethnic, migration, genealogical, biographical, economic, political, and religious information. But you have to do a survey, which is what we were trying to get the city to do with us before everything was lost forever. They had no interest. We collected a lot of data, but there was still a lot more hidden that we’ve lost forever.
In Taiwan, everybody is focused on the new, the modern, or the big. Taiwan’s historical record is very short compared to elsewhere in Asia. Written language only arrived here 500 years ago. The tombstones in Taiwan reflect the oldest written words on the island. When you see a 300-year-old tombstone in Xindian, it’s some of the oldest historical writing you’ll ever find here. It’s incredibly important. What were the area’s first settlers trying to tell future generations? Apparently, the economic forces in Taiwan don’t think it’s important.
A lot of people will say, “Oh, we have plenty of old things. Look at the temples.” But the temples here aren’t special compared to temples in China or even in Penghu, which are much, much older. The tombs are what makes Taiwan special.
BH: What have responses from the government been? From local residents? In particular, it seems self-evident that the cemetery has historical value and they also involved historic dead, but why does the government seem to be set on going ahead with the demolitions? What is to be done with the bodies?
JXM: There are so many black box meetings and delaying tactics. It’s incredible how insincere the city has been in their approach to the cemetery. The development interests want that land and they’ve pulled every trick in the book. They began the final demolition process on 2/28. There was a lot of criticism about that.
A tombstone with intricately carved dragons from the late Japanese period in Taiwan lays in the mud at Xindian First public cemetery. The ribbon indicates preservationists requested it be saved for historical and artistic reasons. Photo credit: James X. Morris
We’ve met many wonderful people who encourage this type of work, of pushing for preservation and creating awareness. But I have to say that honestly, I’m disappointed. Only a handful of people are willing to actually go to the cemetery to help. Worse yet is that the government has been completely captured by development interests. The departments who are in a position to help have very little options. But this is the case throughout Taiwan. On September 1, I was at the 2018 National Cultural Heritage Congress in Taipei, and the Ministry of Culture was bemoaning the lack of funds they’re given.
Local residents are also divided. Most of those who want the cemetery gone have no ancestors in the cemetery. They chose to move there twenty or thirty years ago, knowing there was a cemetery, and are happy to get rid of it. There are some people who work for real estate and development companies who claim to be local residents and will pack meetings to complain that it’s too scary. The local people whose ancestors are buried there naturally didn’t want the city to disturb their tombs.
The bodies have all been dug up prior to demolition and moved to a bone-ash tower somewhere out in New Taipei’s mountains from what I have been told. They weren’t treated in a very respectful or traditional way. We visited the cemetery one weekend when the workers weren’t there and found a tomb in the process of semi-exhumation. Human bones were scattered around the hole in the ground, just lying there exposed. How long were the bones going to be exposed? Had animals already gotten to them the night before? It’s a shame.
The people who support this kind of work are always quiet, and those who want it gone are always loud. Reading some of the articles online about this topic, I always see the same responses: “Let the foreigners take it then! We don’t need it!” or “If they want it for their museums, we can sell it to them!”
The hope is to slowly change everyone’s minds. Taboo isn’t a liability. It’s an asset. Taiwan can make a lot of tourist money from cemetery tours. Everywhere else does it.
BH: What actions are being taken to try and preserve the cemetery? Have these been successful?
JXM: We’ve been able to secure around 100 tombstones out of the 5,000 that were originally at the site spanning the Qing, Japanese, and Republic eras. The problem is finding a place to display them. They’re large and heavy, so they’d need to be relatively permanent. We want to keep them all together, though.
A statue of the laughing Buddha was placed at the tomb of a woman who died young in the 1980s. Additions such as this indicate more than a human touch. They show the cemetery as a dynamic heritage site, one where the living interact with the dead year after year. Monuments may be considered permanent, but practices change. Photo credit: James X. Morris
We’ve also been able to save smaller artifacts. Some painted tiles and bone jar lids, and bone jars survived. Other than that, everything is gone. The best way to recreate the cemetery is in photographs at this point.
BH: Why did you decide to write a book on the matter?
JXM: I got to understand the importance of the cemetery because I spent so much time in it. Now it’s been destroyed, but that won’t stop the cemetery from being important. In the future people are going to wonder what it was like, and what was there. I want the book to talk to people in the future, to say “this is what was here at one point. It was important. People tried to save it.”
This island is still going through a period of transitional justice, and the destruction of the cemetery is an example of how the authoritarian-developmental model hasn’t been addressed. It’s destruction. Development for development’s sake.
BH: What does your timeline for writing the book look like?
JXM: I have an Indiegogo campaign set to end at the beginning of October. This campaign is to help me cover the cost of writing, research, and conducting interviews. I hope to have the first draft ready by early December. I’m working with SMC Publishing in Taipei to put the book out. It’s a bit of an ambitious timeline, but I have all the data and information…I just need to put it to paper.
BH: What have responses to the crowdfunding project been so far? What do you hope to accomplish through writing the book?
JXM: Responses have been positive. I did a soft launch which gained a good bump at the beginning of the campaign, so now I have to do a blitz for the next two weeks. It’s my first crowdfunding project, so I’m still navigating the bumps. Some people are waiting until they get paid this month to make a donation, so I hope to see a jump in the next few days. I’ve added some easy tiers. For a pledge of US $10, I’ll send you a nice little certificate in the mail with a note expressing my appreciation for donating. For $25, your name will be in the book. I’ve set the book at $100, but it will also include another booklet of writings I’ve done on this topic already, including articles and conference papers. There are others, and I’m working with my publisher to offer some other fun little goodies that aren’t listed.
Xindian First Public Cemetery was more than a graveyard. It was a dynamic shallow mountain ecosystem, with its own unique hydrology. Here, preservationists collect water samples from a marsh which hosted dozens of white cranes in 2018. Photo Credit James X. Morris
BH: What’s next for you and others in terms of efforts to preserve the tombs?
JXM: That requires a two-pronged approach. Considering we have hundred tombstones that are already removed and in storage, we need to figure out what to do with these. They can’t stay stacked up forever, it would do no good. We’re reaching out to museums and universities, but I hope we can hand this off to the Taiwanese, the local historical society, and the Ministry of Culture. Most of the academics working on this effort are foreigners. Although we’ve adopted this heritage, it’s not really ours to dictate what to do with it. I hope they can all stay together somewhere.
The other approach is working with other historical societies throughout Taiwan to advocate for the preservation of their heritage cemeteries, and to get them listed and protected. The book may help. There are other cases to learn from, such as the Bukit Brown Cemetery in Singapore, which was saved due to the hard work of its preservationists and their advocacy of it as a heritage natural green space. Perhaps if we can get the local governments to list the cemeteries as cultivated preserves it could help. I’m sure there are some endangered species living in some of them.
BH: Is there anything you would have to say in closing to both Taiwanese readers and international readers?
JXM: When you get down to it, tombs are world heritage. They’re historical artifacts, express ethnic and religious aesthetics, and are works of art by their own right. Today nobody is carving stone like this anymore. In Taiwan, we estimate all tombs will be demolished or lost to natural disasters within a decade. Here in Taiwan, everyone thinks that there are plenty in other counties and that they can destroy the ones in their community. What they don’t realize is this is happening everywhere around Taiwan all at the same time. Even on the smallest islands in Penghu, people are destroying their tombs.
Author James X. Morris makes final recordings of tombs in Xindian First Public Cemetery in March 2018, before the final demolition. The last glimpses of the 300-year-old stones were taken with smartphones as last-minute opportunities became rarer and rarer. Photo credit: Katherine Chong
I call my book Grassroots Heritage because these tombs are the last existing artifacts of local folk culture. I’ll leave you by starting a small controversy here: In Taipei, the National Palace Museum is held up as the authoritative museum on Chinese history. All of the artifacts were taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing in the 1940s and moved here for safekeeping during the Chinese Civil War. It’s the emperor’s personal collection. It’s a beautiful museum, but I’m going to make a claim that the information in one cemetery can tell you more about Taiwan’s local heritage than the National Palace Museum can. People think that “folk” isn’t “official.” I believe the opposite. Folk styles, which are what we can find everywhere in the cemeteries in Taiwan, reflect the true history and the true heritage of a community. It’s at the grassroots and this has escaped censorship for more than 300 years.
That’s what made this cemetery in Xindian District so special. And yet it’s more than a local cemetery. It’s world heritage.