Monthly Archives: February 2019
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Every so often a woman takes up arms to lead a spirited struggle against invaders and occupiers of her homeland. Such women usually wind up dead at an early age, but they capture the imagination. The most famous example in British history is Boudica, aka Boedicea; in French history, it is Joan of Arc.
The Taiwanese revolutionary Hsieh Hsüeh-hung （1901-1970）is such a figure, although like most aspects of Taiwan’s history her significance is contested. Born in Taiwan, buried in Beijing, Hsieh was a communist and also an advocate of Taiwanese self-determination. In the history of world communism she is noted for being one of the founders of the Taiwanese Communist Party, established in 1928.
In the annals of the Taiwan independence movement, Hsieh has emerged as a heroine of the 1947 uprising, now the subject of an annual commemoration held in Taiwan in 28 February. In 1948 she founded the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government Alliance.
Hsieh Hsüeh-hung’s fate – in life and in death – was determined by the shifts in attitude towards Taiwanese independence on the part of ruling powers, and by the status of its local left-wing movements. To some degree, she is not so much a woman hidden in history as one rendered visible by it.
Blood on the snow
Hsieh was a child of the Japanese empire. In 1894, seven years before her birth, Japan defeated China in a short war at sea, afterwards demanding Taiwan as part of the post-war settlement. It was to be the sovereign power in the island for the next half-century.
Hsieh’s parents were immigrants from Fujian province, the most common source of settlers in Taiwan. The family was poor. Hsieh was sent into service in a Japanese family at the age of eight. At 12, she was sold into a shopkeeper’s family to be raised as their daughter-in-law.
In an early show of feistiness, she ran away when in her teens, finding work initially in a Japanese sugar factory in Tainan and later, in her home-town of Chang-hua, as a representative for Singer sewing machines. As an extremely young person, she was exposed to the impact of international capitalism on her home turf, and to extremes of social inequality.
To these experiences, she added a growing political awareness. In Chang-hua she formed a relationship with a merchant named Chang Shu-min, to whom she was married for some years. The couple lived for around three years in Japan, where she began to acquire an education, learning to read and write in both Japanese and Chinese. Both there and back in Taiwan she came in contact with politically progressive organisations.
In April 1919, she paid her first visit to the Chinese mainland, staying in Qingdao, which at that time was about to be transferred from German to Japanese control under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, sparking the radicalising May Fourth Movement in China.
When she returned in 1925 it was to Shanghai, where she enrolled in Shanghai University – more like a cadre training school than an academy and dominated by Communist Party members. Together with fellow-Taiwanese Lin Mushu she was there recommended for acceptance at the Far Eastern Toilers’ University in Moscow, where they were groomed to set up the Taiwanese Communist Party.
The Taiwanese Communist Party was formally established on 5 April 1928. Its charter was the Taiwanese as a people or nation (minzu), and its slogan was “long live Taiwan independence.” The Chinese Communist Party early on took a similar view. In Mao’s stated opinion (circa 1936), Taiwan’s relationship to China was comparable to Korea’s. For Hsieh, there was no contradiction between the fight for socialism and the fight for Taiwan’s independence.
If being Taiwanese was one driving force in her political life, being a woman was another. At birth she was registered with the name A-nü, or “girlie,” not really a name at all.
From this assigned anonymity she became a vivid presence in history under the name “Hsüeh-hung”, meaning “the snow turns red”. She took the name, it is said, after seeing a worker’s blood spattered on the snow in Qingdao.
As a communist cadre, she was active in peasant and worker associations, but she took a rather independent view of the position of women in Taiwan. In 1930, she pointed to women’s emancipation movements in the Western bourgeoisie as worthy of emulation by Taiwanese women, with equal participation in political life among the goals. It is easy to see how in later years such views would land her in trouble with the Chinese Communist Party.
A born oppositionist
The 1920s were the decade of Hsieh’s political formation. Thereafter till her death in 1970 she was in conflict with three different regimes. To her cost, she was a born oppositionist.
The first of these regimes was the Japanese colonial government in Taiwan, the target of all political opposition movements in the island. In the context of a rising fascism in the Japanese home islands, the authorities conducted a sweep of Taiwan’s communist activists in 1931. This destroyed the Taiwanese party. Arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently sentenced on charges of threats to public security, Hsieh spent the next nine years in jail.
The Japanese were replaced in 1945 by China’s Nationalist Party, which established a heavy-handed administration on the island, thoroughly alienating the locals. On 27 February 1947 a conflict between tax agents and a cigarette dealer met with protests. A brutal crackdown on 28 February led to an island-wide uprising that was eventually suppressed with great violence.
The insurgency unfolded in various ways across the island. In Taichung, near to her hometown on the central west coat, Hsieh, a known activist and political organiser, chaired a protest rally calling for self-government and played a key role in dismantling Nationalist Party authority in the city.
Taichung’s few days of independence are associated with three principles set down by her: protect mainlanders; protect public property; place weapons “in the hands of the people”.
Her name is also connected with the formation of the Twenty-Seventh Militia Corps, an armed force of 4,000 men meant to provide organised defence against the Nationalist forces. Between the things she actually did and the things she was blamed for doing, a legend grew up around her. With the collapse of the resistance on 9 May, a price was put on her head, and she fled the island.
The last part of Hsieh’s life, a period of more than 20 years, was passed entirely on the mainland, where unaccountably she found herself in conflict with yet a third regime, the Chinese Communist Party. Present with other communist leaders at the declaration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, she was appointed to a number of official positions in the early 1950s, including chair of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government Alliance.
The honeymoon was short-lived. She modified her position on Taiwanese independence to accommodate new political realities in the region, but never quite to the Party’s satisfaction. In 1952 she was attacked for lack of humility before the Party and for murky political thinking in relation to Taiwan.
In 1957 she was attacked again, and declared a “rightist”, losing her positions and her party membership. In the Cultural Revolution, she was attacked once more, this time physically. A photo provided to her biographer, now widely published on the internet, shows her in the hands of Red Guards in 1968. She died in Beijing in 1970, of lung cancer.
Emotionally, Hsieh shared most of her life and her mission with fellow-Taiwanese Yang K’o-huang, who was imprisoned with her in 1931, worked with her in a small business during the war years, and accompanied her to the mainland. The couple were never legally married: Yang had another family. But in the People’s Republic of China they lived together through the few good years and the many bad until her death. Her final words to him were that he should maintain the struggle: “the final victory will go to the people of Taiwan.”
In 1986, the Party decided to rehabilitate Hsieh. A short biographical statement written for the rehabilitation formalities included mention of her “deviations and errors” but conceded that she had “opposed invasion by outsiders” and had shown a spirit of struggle for “the realisation of the unification of the ancestral land.”
Left unchallenged, the rehabilitation statement might have defined her legacy. In 1991, however, a biography of her appeared in Taiwan. The author, long-time political dissident Chen Fang-ming, offered readers a portrait of Hsieh as a life-long champion of Taiwanese self-determination, whose tenacity and courage in face of political persecution put male political actors of her generation to shame. Widely read and influential, this biography effectively reclaimed Hsieh for Taiwan.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
When we think of Australians who made history in 1915, the rugged Anzac is the figure who first springs to mind. A century after the Gallipoli campaign, that year has become near synonymous with the mythologised soldiers who fought and died in the Dardanelles.
But months before Australia’s so-called “baptism by fire” began at Anzac Cove, a more joyful baptism drew crowds to Sydney’s northern beaches. There, in January 1915, local 15-year-old Isabel Letham was inducted into the mysteries of surfing, becoming one of the first Australians to ride the waves.
This was the early days of Australia’s beach culture, as public bathing had only been legalised a few years before. Surf boards were almost unknown, and beachgoers instead entertained themselves with body surfing—then known as “surf shooting”.
Into this scene arrived Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer and famed surfer from Hawai’i, the home of modern surf culture. Kahanamoku had been visiting Australia to test himself against local swimming talent, but was convinced to add a surfing demonstration to his itinerary. Sydneysiders were keen to see the handsome Polynesian show off the unfamiliar sport, and punters lined the sand of Freshwater beach.
Once in the waves, Kahanamoku decided to enhance the show with a tandem demonstration, and invited Letham to join him on the board. They made a striking couple: Kahanamoku was tall and muscled, while Letham was lithe and vivacious, her skin bronzed from long days at the beach. The duo were a local sensation, and Letham was hailed as the “Freshwater mermaid”. Thanks to the visiting Hawai’ian, both surfing and Letham were now big news.
Emboldened by this Australian celebrity, Letham decided to try her luck on the silver screen. The US film industry was taking the world by storm, and Hollywood was the place to be. Leaving school at 16, Letham found employment as a sports mistress at elite girls’ school Kambala, and also worked as a private swimming instructor.
By August 1918, she’d saved enough for a fare to California. The war was still raging but that was not enough to deter her. Still only in her teens, Letham set sail on the SS Niagara, the “Queen of the Pacific”. She travelled alone and with only the vaguest outline of a plan.
‘A young Diana of the waves’
Letham had no luck in Hollywood, but nonetheless revelled in the freedom of life abroad. She tackled the waves at Waikiki, partied with Russian aristocrats in New York, and lived a bachelorette lifestyle in Los Angeles, hairdressing to pay the bills. In California she continued to turn heads with her surfing skills, known as “a young Diana of the waves”.
Although she returned to Sydney in 1921 to nurse her ailing father, Letham was lured back to California soon after his death in 1923. This time, she settled in San Francisco, where she became a celebrated swimming instructor. At first, Letham worked at the University of California, Berkeley, where she developed expertise in modern approaches to swimming pedagogy, which stressed the technical mastery of each stroke.
Later she taught children at San Francisco’s public baths, and in 1926 was appointed swimming instructor at the luxurious City Women’s Club, an institution which boasted “the most beautiful indoor pool on the Pacific coast”. Having decided that “opportunities in the States were high for women”, Letham had adopted US citizenship in 1925. She was, by this point, a modern woman par excellence: economically independent, physically daring and unapologetically ambitious.
One of her ambitions was to introduce Australian-style beach safety patrols to California, where swimmers drowned at an alarming rate. In 1925, she had reached out to the Sydney lifesaving community to get them on board.
To her dismay, this idea was scuttled when Sydney’s surf clubs refused to grant Letham membership. “We do not teach ladies the work”, decreed the president of the national Surf Life Saving Association. Without any formal affiliation to the lifesaving movement, Letham found it nigh impossible to carry its message overseas, and her plan to export Australian expertise and reduce Californian fatalities came to naught.
A champion of women
In 1929, disaster struck. Letham fell down a manhole and suffered a serious back injury that required months of rehabilitation. Unable to work, she retreated to her family home in Sydney. Soon after, Wall Street crashed and her mother became seriously ill. Faced with financial strain and family responsibilities, Letham had little choice but to remain in Australia – a twist of fate she would long regret.
Back in Sydney, Letham derided the primitive state of local swimming education, and began teaching at pools throughout the northern suburbs. She was also an early proponent of synchronised swimming, and in the 1950s organised a “water ballet” at the Freshwater Ladies’ Swimming Club – an event inspired by the “rhythm swimming” she had observed at Berkeley several decades earlier. No longer a resident of the United States, her American citizenship was revoked in 1944.
In 1961, Isabel Letham retired as a swim coach. Over the previous three decades, she had become an icon of Sydney’s northern beaches, known and beloved for introducing generations of children to the water. Still living in the family home near South Curl Curl, she swam daily in the sea.
Later in life, Letham emerged as an enthusiastic champion of women’s incursion into the masculinist culture of Australian surfing.
“There’s no reason why girls should not be as good on surfboards as the boys. I’m all for them,” she proclaimed in 1963. In 1978, she became a life member and patron of the Australian Women Board Riders Association, and in 1993 was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. She was an inspiration to a later generation of female surfers.
Although it was a man who first made her famous back in 1915, Isabel remained fiercely independent and never married. She lived until the ripe old age of 95, passing away on 11 March 1995. A true water baby until the end, her ashes were scattered off Manly and Freshwater beaches.
Many commentators have compared Labor’s support for the Medevac legislation with the Tampa incident in late August 2001. The implication is that Labor lost the 2001 election due to Tampa, and could lose this year’s election due to Medevac.
Political commentator Katharine Murphy has said she was certain at the time Labor leader Kim Beazley “had just lost the election” after announcing Labor would vote against retrospective legislation giving the Coalition government the power to forcibly remove the Tampa from Australian territorial waters.
But are the claims that Labor lost the 2001 election due to the Tampa true? The Poll Bludger, William Bowe, kindly sent me the polling data for the 1998-2001 term, on which the historical BludgerTrack is based. BludgerTrack is a bias-adjusted poll aggregate.
I have used this data to create the graph below of the Coalition vs Labor two party preferred vote during 2001. The election was on November 10.
The graph shows that Labor had a massive lead in March 2001 of about 57-43, but it gradually narrowed to about 52-48 by the time Australian government involvement in the Tampa incident began on August 26. The Tampa was denied permission to dock at Christmas Island and deliver asylum seekers who had been rescued.
The Coalition received about a two-point boost from the Tampa affair to draw level with Labor. However, it had a much bigger lift from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which lifted the Coalition’s vote five points to about a 55-45 lead. As the shock of the attacks wore off, the Coalition’s vote fell back to a 51.0-49.0 victory on election day (November 10).
If the Tampa had occurred in 2001, but not September 11, other issues, such as the economy, health and education, would probably have appealed to people in the lead-up to the election more than boats. Labor could have recovered to an election-winning position. September 11 made national security a huge asset for the Coalition government at the 2001 election.
If not for September 11, Labor may have won the 2001 election. The Tampa put the Coalition into a tie with Labor, not a lead.
Analyst Peter Brent in Inside Story thinks that, given economic factors, the Coalition would probably have won the election by 51-49 without either the Tampa or September 11. You can achieve this result by drawing a line from the Coalition’s nadir in March to the election, with the assumption that the slow improvement in the polls had continued.
However, the graph shows the Coalition’s recovery had stalled for over a month before the Tampa. Even though the September 11 shock had faded by the election, the boost it gave to the importance of the Coalition strength of national security assisted the Coalition at the election.
Labor did not lose the 2001 election because of the Tampa, and they are unlikely to lose the 2019 election because of their support for the Medevac bill. I believe the shock factor of terrorist incidents has been reduced by their frequency. There were two terrorist atrocities shortly before the 2017 UK general election, yet UK Labour performed much better than expected at that election.
Eight UK Labour and three Conservatives MPs form new Independent Group
While other causes, such as alleged antisemitism within Labour, have been cited, the reason these defections have happened now is Brexit. The defecting MPs are strongly opposed to their former party’s handling of Brexit, and all want a second referendum on Brexit – currently opposed by both major parties.
The Independent Group MPs have consistently voted in favour of proposals to avoid a “no deal” Brexit when the UK leaves the European Union on March 29. However, these MPs votes will not change. To avoid a no deal, either other MPs votes must change, or the major parties need to reach a compromise. The next important Brexit votes will be on February 27. The article I wrote on my personal website in January about why a no deal Brexit is a plausible scenario is still relevant.