Growing Up in Taiwan
I was born on the island of Taiwan, also know as the Republic of China. My parents were from mainland China and they escaped to Taiwan when the Communist under Mao took over the mainland in 1949. The Nationalist under Chiang Kai-Chek, took control of Taiwan with the protection of America post World War II. The Nationalist were the minority in population with approximately 10% of the people. The Taiwanese islanders were the majority with 90% but they lack political power.
updated: Dec. 2016
A few years ago, I decided to create a Family Tree online at TribalPages. I won't go into details of our family history and some of which is covered there already. I will summary my own family tree.
My father is Si Peng Lee and my mother is Ju Ping Shangkuan. My older brother who is two years older is named Hsin Sheng Lee now known as (Henry H. Lee). In Chinese, it is customary to pick a name that have some significance. In my brother's case, Hsin is named after the city he was born on Taiwan, Hsin Chu which is south of the Capital city of Taipei and Sheng is the Chinese character for "birth". My Chinese name is Chun Sheng Lee. In Chinese, Chun is the character for "a group or a flock" and the idea I was told by my parents was their hope for many more siblings to follow. Unfortunately, that did not come to be.
My Grade School in Taipei
I attended public school from grades 1 to 4 before immigrating to America. I remember walking to school which was about half an hour away. There were no public school buses. We all had uniforms which was mandatory. What I remember was the strict discipline expected in the classroom. The teachers were respected and the parents are on the side of the teachers almost 100%. Corporal punishment was part of the structure. If you did not perform well on tests, you were punished usually with slaps on the hand with bamboo sticks. They may seem harsh by today's standards and I did not enjoy those experiences. However, I must admit that those tactics worked. The children learned and were coerced to do well. In fact, not only did we attend school six days a week, we also had to attend remedial private after school sessions. Almost all students were expected to sign up if they want to do well and move ahead. There was no automatic advancement to the next grade. If you did not do well, you must repeat the grade.
As you will see, this helped me get ahead when I immigrated to America. My advanced math skills were a plus and compensated for my lack of English skills in the beginning. This experience lead me to believe that early child education is crucial to the success of an individual. A moderate amount of coercion is beneficial in the long run.
I would estimate that our family are like most average family at the time. We lived in a house with no indoor plumbing. There was a well to draw water. We had electricity but no gas stove. Our stove was a coal stove. We had an ice box to preserve food. There was an out house. The most memorable events were the annual monsoon season. Our house was situated at the side and below the roadway. The top of our roof are just level with the road. This means we would get flooding on a regular basis. When a typhoon hits, we would gather all our stuff and place them on top of our dinner table. The water will rise on average about three feet high above ground level.This was an annual ritual and once in a while, we would also experience a mild earthquake. The weather on Taiwan is tropical. It is hot and humid during the summer months and cool and comfortable the rest of the year.
Our main form of entertainment was going to an outdoor theater to watch a western movie. There was no TV or radio. Once in a while, my mother would take us downtown to shop and see a live theater of Chinese Opera. It was equivalent to our modern day soap opera. We would either ride on a bus or take the tricycle Taxi. This was how we lived in the 1960's in Taipei. As primitive as it seems to me now, we had no complaints. We lived better than some poor farmers who had much less and worked much harder. School and work was six days a week. Sunday was our only day of rest.
One of my fond memory is the wonderful cheese and butter that was donated periodically by America. I think it was one of those programs that was worldwide which distributes the surplus foods from America to the rest of the world during that period of time. It shows the generosity and wealth of Americans and we were grateful to be on the receiving end. The flavor of true butter and cheese is something to remember. This was before we knew about the cholesterol and fats that is bad for us. I have not had butter and cheese like that in 40 years. It is funny how a little thing like that can stay with us over a lifetime.
Growing up in Taiwan, we did not have many toys to speak of. Yet, we had fun. A few of my favorite pass time were playing marbles and round paper cards. I was quite skilled at both of them and we would play against our neighbors and schoolmates after school. Thinking about it now, it's a great environment to grow up in. We played outdoors among our peers and there was no concerns for safety or social interactions. It was a natural environment and we had exercise and fun without play dates. Life was so simple then.
Memories of Some of My Relatives...
Here are memories of some of my close relatives. There is so much more to their life stories. I am just giving a glimpse of them from my perspective.
My uncle on my maternal side - Yi Jong Shangkuan. He was my mother's younger brother. I remember he lived with us when he graduated from college till he immigrated to Okinawa. He earned a civil engineering degree. On one occasion, I had to do a project for school. He helped me to build a model sailboat from scratch. I was about 9 years old and knew nothing about sailboats. He fashioned the hulk from a piece of wood and added the mast and sail. When we first tried it out on a local pond, it didn't work. He then added a keel made out of metal and it worked like a charm. I was so impressed. His passion in life was to live by the beach. After years of moving around, he did end up living in Long Beach, CA. He has a wife and a son and was lucky to visit him a few times before he past away.
My father had three siblings. He was the oldest and had two sisters and a younger brother. Chieh Ying Lee, Si Ying Lee and Dr. Chieh Lee were their names.
Dr. Chieh Lee was a famous surgeon in Taiwan. Among all my relatives, he is the smartest and one that had the greatest curiosity and zeal. He loved life and loved to learn about all topics. Growing up in Taiwan, he was working as a resident physician at the Veteran General Hospital. Our family would visit him periodically at his dorm and he would always teach us kids something new. After we immigrated to the US, he came and visited us for a few month while training at Bellevue Hospital. This was also during the 1964 Worlds Fair. I remember he was so exited about the new exhibits at the Fair. He was acting like a kid in a candy store. He was very interested in western classical music. He got me into appreciating Chopin and Strauss. After returning to Taiwan, his career as a surgeon took off. He became the head of the surgery department and later opened his own clinic. He treated many famous and powerful people in Taiwan. After taking early retirement, he moved his whole family to the US. He wanted a better life for his three kids. Unfortunately, he past away before his time at age 60.
Chieh Ying Lee, my aunt was one of the kindest and thoughtful person I know. She was like a second mom to me and my brother. In fact, when I was growing up in Queens, we lived in the same house. Her family lived on the 2nd floor and our family lived on the 3rd floor. We would share meals together. We stayed very close all the years of her life. She was very frugal and lived a simple life. However, she was always generous to all of us, her children and grand kids. When my kids graduated from college, she gave each one of them a pure gold coin. I always enjoyed playing mahjong with her towards her later years. Her mind was sharp towards the very end.
Si Bing Lee, another uncle who is a cousin of my father, was very close to us. While growing up, he was very helpful to our family. Since my father immigrated to the US, we were left on Taiwan for 4 years waiting to immigrate. He was working as a customs officer at the airport. After we came to the US, he also immigrated to Canada and went back to school to study. Unfortunately, he passed away at a young age. His death was a mystery. They never found the exact cause. Apparently, he past away in his sleep. I remember one day, my father received a call and he had to travel to Toronto to identify the body. We were his closest relative and his body was cremated. He is buried at the same cemetery as my parents. Whenever we visit, we would stop by his grave to pay our respects.
A Family History as Told by My Grand Uncle
My grand uncle on my father's side is Si Yu Lee. Before he past away in 2004 he wrote down our family's history in a two pages summary.
The Lee Family History as told by Si Yu Lee (translated with the help of Martha Lee) Feb. 23, 2007.
1. The Lee family originated in Shanxi province, Hong Tung County in China.
2. During the Hong Yang uprising (Taiping Rebellion), the family moved to Hu Bei province and later to Shang Tung province.
3. Our Grandfather ? Ching Chao Lee can trace his family back to 7th generation.
4. He settled in a village named Nan Wong (South Looking) near the Yellow River meeting the ocean in a county named Zang Hua approx. 90 miles away and 30 miles from, Li Jun County.
5. This is a remote area away from any government offices and any official business must be conducted 90 miles away via foot or horses.
6. In the year 1923, the Yellow River closed (?) and because of local bandits, grandfather relocated to Li Jun County. And after several years, the whole family moved to Beijing and later to Chi Nan.
7. During the revolution period, the family moved to Hu Nan province and moved to several other places.
8. After the victory over Japan, the family was spread all over and was unable to reunite again.
9. While at Nan Wong village, the community is mostly farming. Grandfather was very smart and hard working. He accumulated over 500 acres of land, 5 houses, and 200,000 silver dollars (?)
10. He instructed all family members to ?study hard and do good deeds?. He never attended formal school and was mostly self taught and with private tutor. He became very knowledgeable and well read and has the natural talent to teach others. There was only one school in the whole county at that time.
11. Our great grandfather named Fu An Lee had a brother who moved to Siberia and lost contact.
12. Great grandfather past away and was buried on the South side of the family property where the location was supposedly to have good ?feng shui?. The family enjoyed prosperity and a blessed life.
13. A renowned visitor to the village recommended to grandfather to relocate the ancestral grave to a better location. Doing so will improve the ranking of our family for posterity.
14. A ceremony was performed to relocate the grave and apparently during this process ?heaven and earth? moved during this process. When the coffin was opened, two snakes were present and 2 jars of water were found. This is a good sign meaning the 2 ?dragon? was protecting him and the water represented wealth. The jars were carefully moved to the new location without spilling a drop.
15. After the opening of China in the 1970?s, our 4th uncle went back to visit our old family plot and found the cemetery was leveled by the Cultural Revolution. The local administrator agreed to repair and replace the headstone but it was not done.
16. The headstone was made from a rare white jade with all the names of our ancestry engraved.
17. Our grandfather?s family included four sons and 2 daughters. The four brothers were named Hsing-Trin, Lan-Trin, Mei-Trin and Yu-Trin.
18. A friend of grandfather introduced Hsing-Trin to officer Academy 6th class and from that point on, the Lee family entered government service.
19. I, Si-Yu, entered Bo Ding officer academy and after graduation was assigned to Shan Si province and was promoted to Commander during the Northern Campaign.
20. My second uncle, Lan-Trin, does not have very good health. He regretted not being able to perform civil service. Instead he remained at home and took care of business. He was very keen and kept the family finances in good order.
21. Our 3rd uncle Mei-Trin, enrolled in the military and reached the level of ?middle General?.
22. Our 4th uncle, Yu-Trin, studied to be a civil engineer and graduated from Wu Hang University. He became the public transportation officer in Taiwan and was stationed in Hwa Lian and was responsible for the construction of the cross island highway in Taiwan.
23. I, Si Yu, was accepted to Chun Fa University and majored in Physics. However, during the Japanese invasion of China, and occupied Beijing, I joined the military academy 12th (?) class, and I participated in many war campaigns.
24. After graduation, I was assigned to the 3rd district wear zone, 32nd division. Later, General Chen Chen (later became Vice President), took me to join the 1st war zone and transferred me to Military Administration of Policy (?).
25. Eight years later, in 1947, I was transferred to the 32nd Consul General?s office.
26. In the spring of 1948, after the battle of Shang Tung province, I realized that the war with the Communist was lost.
27. I helped our family members evacuate to the island of Taiwan in 1949 just prior to the fall of China. END
My Godfather Moment
My grandfather's older brother, Hsing Trin Lee is someone I grew up respecting as the senior elder of our clan. He was a war lord back in Mainland China and an excellent strategist. He led a small army to fight the Communists during the revolution. After retiring, he lived in Taiwan with his second wife. My family would visit them regularly and he taught me how to play Chinese Chess. I was only 8 or 9 years old but I was able to grasp some of the tactics he taught me. I can still play the game today. He never talk about his war experiences with us but I did learn some small piece of his military mind from my uncle.
My 3rd uncle, Dr. Chieh Lee, who I wrote about previously, told me this story when I was about 15 years old. I just remembered it recently. It reminded me of the Godfather movie when Michael was telling his friend Kate about what his father did "making an offer he couldn't refuse..." The story goes that he was put in charge of a local basketball team. The regular coach had taken ill and he was asked to help out. He knew nothing about the game of basketball. They had a big game coming up against a much better team. My grand grand uncle, asked the team captain about the rules of the game. He learned about the basics such as dribbling and passing and foul shots... After thinking a while, he came up with the winning strategy. He decided to take the two worst plays on the team and have them take down the two best players on the opposing team at the start of the game. After that, they went on to win the game by a comfortable margin. I was taken aback by this story but it does show how a strategist's mind work. If winning is the goal, he would do whatever is necessary to accomplish it, even if it means breaking the spirit of the rules and sacrificing honor.
Just a few words on politics in Taiwan. I was only ten years old when I left but I could remember the nationalism that was promoted by the government. There was definitely a certain amount of brain washing going on. Basically, Communism is bad and Nationalist Party is the rightful representation of all of China. The yearly celebration of Oct. 10th (Double Ten) is the national liberation day full of parades and show of unity and the armed forces. Elections was pretty one sided. The ruling party would win by overwhelming majority.
Growing up in Taiwan, I was always a curious child. I could remember when I was six or seven years old and I received a wind up toy as a present. I took it apart to see what makes it work. Needless to say, I broke it in the process. I felt bad but I was not sorry. I found out how it worked and it meant something to me. I guess the seed for my engineering career was planted in an early age.
I don't want to give a false impression of growing up in Taiwan. Even though our family was poor by today's standards, for that time and period, we were middle class. I have many fond memories growing up there. I always felt my experiences there have given me a perspective on live in the US. Having grown up outside the US, I can appreciate what is taken for granted here.
Taiwan is a modern country today and with a standard of living second only to Japan in the far east. I've had several opportunity to return to Taipei and witness for myself the advances. They have done well to raise the standard of living of the population. They have also normalized their relations with Mainland China. Their trade and commerce with China and the rest of the world have brought tremendous wealth. It is a shining example of what hard work and capitalism can do for its people.
In 2016, I took my family on a vacation to Taiwan. We had a great experience and I wrote about it in a new hub - our family trip to Taiwan.