How a Student Movement Gave Birth to Postcards of Taiwan’s Past

How a Student Movement Gave Birth to Postcards of Taiwan’s Past
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chin Cheng-te

What you need to know

The postcards of Little Grass Art Academy, on the surface tributes to an older, colonial, or authoritarian Taiwan, can be traced to a radical student movement.

My first postcards from Little Grass Art Academy (小草藝術學院) depicted vintage Taiwanese maps. One was a faded map from the U.S. military, addressed as “The Island of Formosa;” the other was from the Japanese era, with colorful mountains and railroads. They felt right at home in Eslite Bookstore, whose retro nostalgia is a key aesthetic of Taiwan’s wen chuang — cultural and creative industries.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chin Cheng-te
Vintage map of Taiwan from the Perry Expedition.

Besides maps, there were other vintage memorabilia: ads of HeySong Soda, Taiwan Beer, and Taiwan Coffee. A black and white portrait of Che Guevara. A poster of Bruce Lee posing with the words “Young people’s idol, Chinese people’s hero.” Old Time Magazine covers of Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling. On the back of the postcards are bibliographies and poetic musings, leaving scarce room to actually pen a postcard. 

The man behind the postcards is Chin Cheng-te. At 50 years old, he’s still nursing a project — a company if you must — that he started in his twenties. Just don’t call him the CEO of Little Grass Art Academy. He’s not a businessman, he was quick to emphasize, and prefers the title of chief volunteer to a humble vision. And calling his products wen chuang would be inaccurate and slightly insulting. He started Little Grass over 20 years ago, long before wen chuang, with a sincere intention: to share Taiwan’s images and history. 

Little Grass has indeed been full of images and history. It has lived multiple lives; prior to that of a postcard company, which started in 1998, Little Grass was a teach-in at the 1994 Chinese Culture University (CCU) student movement in Yangmingshan, which Chin was the face of. The aesthetic postcards, which he called “unprofitable, unfashionable, little things,” belie a deeper history.

The movement 

In the spring of 1994, just a few credits shy of graduating with an arts degree at the CCU, Chin was expelled. His crime was being one of the masterminds behind Fascist Art, a satirically named private graduation show organized with friends. When the chair of the arts department, Hsu Kun-cheng, caught wind of the show, Chin was summarily expelled. 

FascistArt
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chin Cheng-te
Block print poster for the Fascist Art exhibition, which led to Chin’s expulsion in 1994. The letters for “fascism” are reversed, suggesting dissent.

This was seven years after marital law was lifted in Taiwan, but Chin described the academic atmosphere on campus “as if it were White Terror.” Hsu had an unyielding insistence on Post-Impressionism, a tendency to ramble in class — detailing a weekend golf session with then-president Lee Teng-hui or advising that the faster students drew, the more money they could make — and a foul mouth. After 25 years, Chin still remembers Hsu insulting a female student: “Your child will be born without an anus.” Students who didn’t fit his fancy were penalized with docked grades; across the department, faculty were replaced by his loyalists. 

Chin’s expulsion was the tipping point for years of reserved frustration in the arts department. On April 28, students led a sit-in, which eventually involved over 200 students over 34 days, demanding for creative freedom and Hsu’s removal. Students designed the learning they couldn’t get in the classroom by organizing teach-ins, inviting art professors outside of CCU to give lectures. The teach-in was named Little Grass Art Academy, in reference to the old name of Yangmingshan, Grass Mountain, and the “little” but strong power of the students. 

Beyond the campus, the spirit of protest was in the air. Just weeks earlier was the 410 Demonstration for Education Reforms, whose demands included modernization in education. Just four years prior was the Wild Lily Student Movement in 1990, a six-day protest drawing over 22,000 young people demanding democracy. The period between the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the first democratic election of a president in 1996 was filled with desire and demands for Taiwanization and democracy. Chin was a high school student in the late 80s, and remembers walking home after school among throngs from this or that protest.

Chin credits the success of the 1994 movement in part to CCU veterans of the Wild Lily Student Movement, who created an underground organization on campus. Early on, Chin’s demand was simply to remove Hsu, the department chair. The organizing veterans encouraged a bigger, and more universal vision: creative freedom. The legacy is evident in the Little Grass logo today, featuring a block print of a hand holding a wild lily.

The movement succeeded. The chair was removed, and Chin resumed his studies and graduated with a degree. 

RedLeaves
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chin Cheng-te
Iconic photo of the Red Leaves Youth Baseball Team, Little Grass’s first postcard print.
The postcards

In 1998, Chin had fallen into a spell of aimlessness. After two years of military service, he felt almost nothing but a nagging sense to “huan yuan” — to give back to his alma mater. The 1994 CCU student movement fought for creative freedom. Now, he wanted that creative freedom to be informed by history and a sense of place. 

That year happened to be the 30th anniversary of the Taitung Red Leaves Youth Baseball Team’s historic victory against a Japanese all-star team in 1968. Their tenacity against all odds was immortalized in a photo of a child practicing barefoot using a stick as a baseball bat, with rolling mountains behind him. Already iconic and widely-circulated — or as Chin put it, “deified,” partially through propaganda under authoritarian rule — Chin wanted to reprint the photo as a postcard with the proper credits. At the encouragement of his friends and professors, one postcard became a limited series of six, evolving to over 500 unique prints today.

CoffeeDescription
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chin Cheng-te
The back of a postcard featuring a can of Taiwan Coffee. On the top right corner is Little Grass’s block print logo.

By printing these old images of Taiwan, Chin wants to “not let creative work be rootless.” “I had a standard party-state education,” Chin said, until high school. This meant little to no education on Taiwan and its history. He wanted to “reacquaint with the land,” to know Taiwan for himself, but also for “the next generation to see these images as nourishment, not detached from the land.” When curating postcards, he looks for historical significance and artistic value, and will often scour the internet for original artifacts to make prints of.

But what kind of root and history is Chin curating? It might be tempting to accuse Little Grass of colonial or authoritarian nostalgia based on the numerous images of Japanese colonial maps and Chiang Kai-shek. Chin, ever the artist, wants the images to “speak for themselves.” Yet, he also pointed to the accompanying text on the back of the postcards to explain his curation. His poetic musings, however, do little to clarify his values. 

“The next part of the journey is always decided at a random intersection,” reads the text behind a Japanese-era map. “Who secretly opened the bottle cap that hides light and shadow?” ponders a postcard of a HeySong ad. “Brewing a cup of island coffee, drip by drip, seeped with the charred black of soil, bitter on the taste buds, heavy with a subtropical depression,” refers to a can of Taiwan Coffee.

The same way that the legend of the Red Leaves team was deified and reproduced in his postcards, I asked Chin if he was concerned about his postcards deifying or glorifying figures or parts of history that don’t deserve deification. “Instead of fearing the potential of being deified, I’m more afraid of it being forgotten.” Regarding history, “I want people to make their own judgements,” Chin said. Instead of being prescriptive, his art is suggestive — created to evoke inklings of emotion, memory, reaction, that may amass into a more coherent collective memory.

The fear that the postcards are being consumed for their aesthetics and nostalgia, rather than history, isn’t a great one for Chin.“Retro nostalgia is ok if it allows more people to approach history.” Behind the “ineffable attraction” of nostalgia, he knows his commitment is to history. Over a decade ago, he wrote, “retro nostalgia may be a temporary fashion, but the value of history is eternal.”

The future

Judging Little Grass by its vision to be a database for Taiwan’s images, the 551 editions over 20 years — averaging 25 new prints a year – is laughably inadequate, and the medium used — postcards — is analog and outdated. Behind a sincere, if quixotic, vision is a more modest mission. He is an artist who wants to create. Little Grass is his own private study, documenting his research and learning of Taiwanese history through old images. It serves to root and inspire his other art, such as installing steles in Yangmingshan commemorating Che Guevara, or a recent exhibit on Taiwan during the Cold War. Little Grass also generates income to support his other creative work.

Business has suffered under the pandemic, since half his customers are tourists. Even before that, business declined because the partnership with Eslite — which had been the primary distribution channel, and where I’d first seen Little Grass — ended in the mid-2010s. It’s telling that Chin doesn’t remember the year, brushing off questions on the topic with nonchalance.

When Chin first started working with Eslite — which he called “Eslite 1.0” for its still- independent spirit — his postcards took up a whole postcard stand. Later, Eslite grew and Chin’s postcards only took up part of a display shelf, with revenue shrinking to five to ten percent of its height. Chin saw Eslite grow domestically and abroad, to Hong Kong and China. When a sample of new postcards included the old slogan fan gong kang e (反共抗俄) — anti-communism, anti-Russia — his contact at the store was less eager to place an order. His yuan fen — serendipity — with Eslite was up, Chin graciously explained. He parted ways with Eslite soon after. 

For someone whose mission for Little Grass is humble, and whose core identity is that of an artist, not an activist or postcard businessman, I asked if he was sick of people like myself asking him about Little Grass and the student movement, all these years later. 

“As long as Little Grass Art Academy still exists, the influence of the student movement remains.” Chin is honored and humbled. “My imagination for life was perhaps becoming a middle school art teacher.” The legacy has woven through his life. “The student movement has been the most important event in my life.”


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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