Ko Po-jung (柯柏榮), a language teacher at a Greater Tainan high school, has won numerous distinctions and awards for his writing in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) literature and poetry. It is a remarkable transformation for him, given his criminal past.
As a young man, Ko said he committed robbery and had to serve two prison terms.
“In my younger days, I was like a walking corpse. While in jail, counselors offered us music and religious service. I turned over a new leaf and got into native Taiwanese literature. It was like a rebirth, giving me a new life,” he said.
Now over the age of 50, he does not shy away talking about his past and of his years of incarceration.
“It’s like having walked through the [biblical] ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ and to emerge into a new colorful world. My experience has become a motivating force, encouraging me to shine on the stage of life,” Ko said.
Ko described himself at the age of 27 as rebellious, always loafing around seeking pleasure and thrills. Unable to earn enough money to keep up his overindulgence, Ko robbed a convenience store and was sentenced to 10 years in prison after his conviction.
Ko was paroled after five years and eight months, he said. He had difficulty readjusting to society and could not find any work. He said he thought that “maybe life in prison was better than freedom,” and robbed another store just three months after his release.
For this second felony conviction, he was sentenced to a nine-year sentence, which was added to the remaining term from his first conviction. Ko entered prison again in 1997, to be jailed until his second parole in May of 2009.
During his second stint at Tainan Prison, Ko joined the inmate choir, which was led by Huang Nan-hai (黃南海), who uses singing and interest in the arts to cultivate prisoners’ temperament and moral character.
Huang brought Hoklo literary journals and books as gifts for Ko, who showed an interest in literature. This opened a door, propelling Ko toward writing literature in native Taiwanese.
He began to write about human rights and culture, while expressing the inner feelings of inmates. He has won awards in competitions for the past dozen years.
Among his honors are five top prizes in national and regional competitions in modern poetry, prose and other categories, in competitions held by the Ministry of Education for Hoklo Taiwanese and Hakka Creative Writing and the Hai Ang Taiwanese Literature Education Association, as well as collecting the Nan-Ying Literature Prize of Greater Tainan and the Tainan Fu-Cheng Literature Prize.
Several collections of Ko’s poetry in Hoklo Taiwanese have been published, including Silkworm Chrysalis in the Springtime (娘仔豆的春天) and Firefly Inside the Garden Fence (內籬仔的火金姑).
Earlier this month, he won third place in the modern poetry category in a literature competition hosted by Chiayi City with his entry titled Chiayi’s Old Prison, a Place With Only Faint Sunshine (日頭較虛的所在─嘉義舊監). It was the only Hoklo poem to win an award in the competition.
“Most competitions do not have an independent category for Hoklo literature. When the judges cannot read Hoklo, our entries often get eliminated in the first round,” he said. “It was fortunate this Chiayi City competition has Lu Han-sie (路寒袖), a leading Taiwanese writer and music lyricist, who is an expert on Hoklo, and therefore I had the chance to win an award this time.”