A plaque from Taiwan’s former embassy in Wellington that disappeared more than 40 years ago has been recovered by Representative to New Zealand Elliot Charng (常以立).
The plaque had been missing since the Republic of China (ROC) and New Zealand broke off diplomatic relations in 1972.
After the severance of official ties, the plaque was removed from the ROC embassy building in Wellington and was not seen for decades until a Taiwanese man discovered it at a flea market in Motueka on New Zealand’s South Island in 1997.
Chen Chia-chuan (陳家全) taught at National Taiwan University for more than 10 years before moving to New Zealand in 1996. He operates a bed-and-breakfast farmhouse in Motueka and a stall selling paper-made handicrafts at the flea market.
Chen said a friend told him about a plaque bearing Chinese characters being sold at another stall in the market, sparking his curiosity. After visiting the stall, he found that it was the missing embassy plaque.
The seller asked for NZ$20 (US$6.60, based on the exchange rate at the time).
Chen said that although he could have bargained, he felt embarrassed to do so given the intangible value of the object.
After buying the plaque, Chen had it installed at the bed-and-breakfast. The farmhouse became known among overseas Chinese visitors as the “ROC embassy,” and Chen was referred to as “Ambassador Chen.”
Many people offered to buy the tablet, while others suggested that Chen put it up for sale online, but he decided to hold on to it.
After Charng assumed his post as the director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Wellington in 2011, he heard about the plaque during a business trip to Christchurch, but could not find out where it was or who owned it.
He filed the information away in his mind, and it was not until he met Chen during a visit to the town of Nelson near Motueka that he entertained the idea of recovering the plaque.
Two weeks after the encounter, Charng asked Chen if he could give up the plaque so that it could be returned to Taiwan.
“I thought about it for a long time,” Chen said. “If it was just going to be stored in a warehouse, then it would be better off here with me. However, Charng told me it was his duty and responsibility to take back the plaque.”
Chen relented and turned the item over to Charng.
After reporting the situation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Charng visited Chen again and assured Chen and his wife that the ministry would treasure the “diplomatic relic” and keep it safe as an asset of his office.