Many of the soldiers and civilians who fled to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dreamed of returning home.
Kao Ping-han (高秉涵), a 78-year-old former lawyer, is one such person, but Kao’s dream is no longer about himself and his own family because he has taken it upon himself to repatriate the remains of those who died in Taiwan before getting to go home.
“Brother, I am here to take you home, don’t worry, I’ll get you home safely when I visit our hometown in September. Before that, you can stay with me for a while at my place, but don’t worry, everything is going to be fine,” Kao says before removing an urn containing the ashes of former soldier Yang Chin-wu (楊金五) from a rack in a room filled with urns at the veterans’ cemetery in Shulin District (樹林), New Taipei City (新北市).
Kao carefully carries the urn into another room with an altar where religious rites are performed to inform Yang that his ashes will be returned to his hometown in China.
“I’ve been in touch with your younger brother back home, he is waiting for you to go home,” Kao said.
He also speaks to the ashes of other soldiers, telling them that Yang is leaving and thanking them for being such good company.
“He is a kind-hearted man, he comes here quite often to pick up urns that contain the ashes of people from his hometown and takes them back to their relatives for free,” a clerk surnamed Liu (劉) at the cemetery said as Kao filled out paperwork in the office.
“This is something I feel obligated to do because these are the people who held my hand and brought me to Taiwan during the war. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be alive today, because I was a 13-year-old child who had just graduated from elementary school in 1948 when I fled home to escape the war,” Kao said. “This is the least I can do for them.”
“Yang came from my hometown, he was a solider in a military division [with the KMT army] that defended my hometown of Heze in Shandong Province,” Kao said.
“We didn’t know each other back home, but we met on the way when everyone was fleeing to the south [of China]. Yang was 12 years older than me, but he treated me as a little brother and looked after me,” he added.
Kao’s parents were loyal KMT members and his maternal grandfather, Sung Shao-tang (宋紹唐), was one of the party’s founding members and an official in Shandong -Province when the Republic of China (ROC) was founded in 1912.
As the war between the KMT and the CCP intensified, Kao’s mother thought it would be safer for him if he attended school in Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China at the time, especially as Kao’s father had been executed by the communists in 1947 for being a KMT member.
Kao recalled that on the morning when he left home in 1948, his grandmother gave him a few pomegranates. As he jumped on the back of a cart and started eating the fruit, a classmate told him his mother was waving at him.
“I quickly raised my head and looked in the direction my classmate pointed,” Kao said. “But it was too late, the cart turned a corner and I didn’t see my mother waving goodbye. I never saw her again — or ate pomegranate.”
When Kao arrived in Nanjing a few days later, he found there was no school and the city had descended into chaos.