This Taiwanese Family Is Fighting for Their Lost Ancestral Tomb

This Taiwanese Family Is Fighting for Their Lost Ancestral Tomb
Photo Credit: Provided by Erin Chen
What you need to know

Across Taiwan, burial grounds are being demolished to make way for developers. One family is putting up a fight.

A duo of cousins, Jonus and Erin Chen, have been engaged in a protracted struggle to save the tomb of their great-grandfather, Lord Chen Xia-lin (1834-1891), a prominent Qing Dynasty official who lived in northern Taiwan.  

Lord Chen’s tomb somehow slipped out of the family’s possession during the 20th century. The land now belongs to New Taipei City. The tomb structure that sits on the land is in the hands of a family unknown to the cousins. 

Their case isn’t a mere family drama. It belongs to the land management history and development orientations of Taiwan's contemporary periods.

The Chen estate

Jonus and Erin’s preservation efforts began with their memories of their ancestral mansion. Their ancestor, Lord Chen, had lived there as an influential figure in Taipei’s past. They had grown up in the same home: A two-story compound in the heart of Datong District, one of Taipei’s oldest settlements. It had a courtyard so large they recall being able to play basketball at one end and baseball at the other. 

While they were still children in the 1970s, the Kuomintang government demolished the family compound to enlarge an elementary school.

Taiwan in the 1970s was in the throes of development, converting the island from a garrison rump-state with a siege mentality into one of the four Asian Tigers. With the triumph of developmental policy, the population became rich, and the state liberalized and democratized beginning in the late 1980s. Few in Taiwan would deny the advances the country has made. Yet there also exist stories, like the Chens’, of those who felt cast aside.

“We did not get a lot of money,” said Erin about the government’s payout when the Chen property was confiscated by the KMT. 

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Photo Credit: Provided by Erin Chen
The entrance to the Chen family compound in Datong District.

The house was only a third of the original family compound. “It used to stretch all the way to the river,” Jonus said. The Japanese colonial government demolished two thirds of it during its occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. What remained was used as a backdrop for movies and television shows in the mid-20th century. The remnants of the house were in place until the whole manor was demolished. 

The family wants to avoid a similar fate for the tomb.

A mysterious lineage

Erin wonders whether the tomb is in the hands of a descendent of Lord Chen’s first wife, though the cousins cannot find any information on this. Marrying multiple wives was common in the imperial era. But regardless of whether the family who now owns the tomb is related to the first wife, the Chen family has lost the right to protect the tomb.

When discussing Lord Chen, the family recalls three major accomplishments: his raising of funds to form a local civilian militia during the 1884 Sino-French War, a role for which Qing Emperor Guangxu awarded him with a title; his role in negotiating reparations with Canadian missionary George Mackay for the burning down of 11 Christian churches in Taiwan, a result of local hostility against westerners due to the French invasion; and his role in funding one of the still extant gates for the new capital city of Taipei in 1887. 

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Photo Credit: Provided by Erin Chen
Lord Chen Xia-lin, an influential figure in northern Taiwan in the late Qing period.

The tomb of such a figure deserves a place on tourist maps, the family contends. “We know the contribution of my great-grandfather to Taiwan,” Erin stated. 

But local politics and a career cut short left him out of the local history; he is only briefly mentioned in a late Qing report. 

Taiwan’s fraught history of development and conservation

The story of how Chen’s tomb came to be located on government property is connected to the power of real estate developers. In the 1980s and ‘90s many historical farm houses and compounds which had remained in the Taipei basin were torn down by families looking to cash-in on the north’s rapid urbanization. A desire for quick cash overrode other concerns at the time. 

There are stories of families deliberately damaging or selling off historical elements of their homes in order to reduce the likelihood of their inclusion on the historic register. The calculus was simple: land on which a historically protected house sat could never be developed, but the land of a demolished house could.

It’s not just private individuals and families destroying historical property. Sometimes government reclamation projects are the direct culprit. When Tamshui was incorporated into the newly-formed New Taipei City in 2010, zoning changes placed many public trust lands into the hands of city interests favorable to real estate development. All public cemeteries, for example, were placed in the hands of the Economic Development Department rather than being transferred to the city's Cultural or Mortuary Departments.

Neither of the above applies to Chen's tomb as it does not sit in a public cemetery, nor was it destroyed by a private family looking to develop the land for profit. 

There may be a much earlier precedent for the current ownership question. Between November 1949 and January 1959, the provincial government issued a two-month window for the re-registration of lands from the Japanese register. Any unclaimed lands would be seized. 

1949 was a chaotic year for Taiwan. Over 1 million Chinese arrived with the KMT as retreating soldiers and war refugees. It was also the year martial law was imposed and the white terror began.

It seems the family was unaware of the registration requirement and still treated the land as their own. 

Rediscovery

As the older generations passed away, the location of the tomb became forgotten to some. It was only last year that Chen’s descendants rediscovered its location thanks to a blog post

In many respects, the mansion and tomb of the Chen descendants are a parallel drama for Taiwan’s heritage crisis. “We will fight for it,” said Jonus, “not for the Chens, but for the next generation of Taiwanese. [They] ought to know this part of their history.”

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Photo Credit: James X. Morris
 Jonus and Erin Chen approach the tomb of their ancestor Chen Xia-lin in June 2020. Despite his importance to Taiwan's history, his tomb is unprotected.

In late June of this year, Erin brought representatives from the New Taipei City’s Cultural Department for a tour of her ancestor’s tomb. The current owners of the tomb were also invited to attend but did not show. The Chen family had hope nevertheless. It was a well-known tomb to the department, petitions had been made for its historic status before.

But in recent years, even the most historic burial grounds are not given due consideration for preservation. All across Taiwan they are being demolished, and several civil groups have been stepping in to try to preserve what little early heritage Taiwan has left. Each group has met with the same problems: stonewalling by culture departments and disregard by development interests.

On August 24, Erin presented the facts of her great-grandfather’s tomb case before the Culture Department of New Taipei City. Going in, she felt she had a strong case, yet left disappointed. Other claims-makers at the meeting had presented inaccurate information, lowballing the value of the tomb. 

“The government bureaucracy has destroyed one of the most beautiful and complete ancient mansion[s] in Taipei City,” said Jonus, referring to what has already been stolen from his family. “After 50 years, they still don’t learn.” 


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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