Nearly 70 years after the death of Lai Ho (賴和) — a doctor, anti-colonial activist and writer dubbed “the Father of Modern Taiwanese Literature” — his native Changhua County rediscovered the famed figure and celebrated his birthday, which falls on May 28, with a series of events.
Aside from holding discussion panels and a concert on Saturday evening to celebrate Lai’s 118th birthday, the Lai Ho Foundation also organized a tour around Changhua City, featuring places related to Lai’s life, including the Chungshan Elementary School — formerly known as Changhua First Public School — that Lai attended as well as a hike up Baguashan (八卦山) on a trail that Lai often took.
The tour also included a visit to the Takahinkaku Club building where many intellectuals, including Lai and his friends, met to discuss social issues; the Changhua County Police Department headquarters where Lai was twice detained; the Nanshan Temple (南山寺), where Lai received his education in classical Chinese as a child and other sites important in Lai’s life or that appeared in his literary works.
Born in Changhua City in 1894, Lai, of Hakka origin, began his education first in traditional private institutions that taught Chinese classics, and later in the modern school system established by the then-Japanese colonial government.
Inspired by a literary movement in China calling for changing the writing style from classical to modern Chinese, Lai joined the “new literature” campaign in Taiwan.
Although Lai did not produce a great amount of works in modern literature, he was dubbed “the Father of Modern Taiwanese Literature” for his zealous advocacy of modern literature and sponsoring of Taiwanese contemporaries.
He was also very active in the peaceful resistance movement against Japanese colonial rule, and was twice detained by police for his involvement in the anti-colonial movement. He passed away in 1943 shortly after he was released from prison for the second time.
However, Lai was relatively unknown outside a select circle of literature lovers and locals for a long time throughout the period of martial law in Taiwan when the focus of literary education was on Chinese literature.
“Education was a major reason [why Lai was unknown to the public for a long time], because the schools back then would not teach about key cultural and historical local figures, including Lai and other writers of his time,” the foundation’s executive director Chou Fu-yi (周馥儀) said. “Local Changhua residents don’t know too much about him either.”
As if to illustrate this, when the tour’s volunteer guide asked participants what comes to mind when they think of Changhua, many answered: “Changhua meatballs,” “stewed pork belly with rice” or “the giant Buddha on Baguashan.”
Chou said the foundation recruited locals, mostly students, as guides in the tour.
“We recruited young locals and put them through a six-month training program to make them guides for the tour,” she said. “We wanted the local young people to learn about their history and culture that they were not taught in school, and tell the stories of the place where they grew up to visitors.”
A tour participant surnamed Tsai (蔡) who grew up in Changhua City and teaches at a local junior high school said she learned a lot and felt “ashamed” after the tour.
“This is the place where I grew up, I walk my dog around the area every day after work, but I never knew the history behind it all,” she said. “I feel so ashamed — please don’t write my full name in the newspaper.”