What was 1950s Taipei like for an American youngster? After more than 65 years, Jonathan Lerner still has clear images: sights, smells, noises, and always opportunities for adventure. 

Some of these recollections feature in Lerner’s novel Lily Narcissus, which was published last fall. The novel tells the story of the Norrell family and their life in Taipei, after the father, Sid, is posted there as a foreign service official. Blending fact and fiction, the book incorporates elements from letters written by Lerner’s mother to friends and family back in the United States, as she adjusted to life in Taipei’s foreign service community. 

In 1957, the year of the family’s arrival, Taipei was “still a poor and grimy place,” in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Lauren. Yet, it was also filled with wonder for Lauren and her younger brother Jordy. “And we were habituated to enchantment,” Lauren recalls. “Nearly everything about Taipei was strange and marvelous to us. You don’t have time to construe subtexts when daily life is a parade of the curious, the grotesque, and the delightful.”

“She was a good writer and very observant,” says Lerner of his mother. “But my memories of Taipei were pretty vivid, anyway.” Describing the city as “a kind of a fantasy land for kids,” Lerner says he always felt safe and at ease, which contrasts with the contemporaneous social and military tensions in Taiwan during this period. 

Golden Memories

“There wasn’t the slightest hesitation,” he says. “I mean, I guess there were some concerns, but no one said, ‘you shouldn’t go.’ We would take our wads of New Taiwan currency, go out and hail a pedicab, and ride around town.” 

A favorite haunt was an area variously known as Haggler’s Row, Haggler’s Alley, or The China Bazaar, which began near Taipei’s North Gate (Beimen, 北門) and stretched down Zhonghua Rd to Ximending and the intersection at Aiguo West Rd. Accounts of this bargain hunter’s utopia, which was also known for its eateries, can be found on the blogs of former United States Armed Forces personnel. 

Between 1961 and 1992 – when it was demolished, partly due to construction of the MRT – a row of eight long buildings occupied the area, and it was officially known as Zhonghua Shopping Mall (中華商場). The buildings had not been erected when Lerner was there. His memory of the set-up is hazy, but he recalls “a lane lined on both sides with small shops – maybe 30 or 40 vendors.” Nowadays, a single wall with glass windows and commemorative plaque is all that remains of this formerly vibrant commercial hub. 

When they were looking for a more Boys Own-type experience, Lerner and his buddies jumped on their bicycles and pedaled to Songshan Airport. “My friend David and I would play in the airplanes parked on the tarmac, just as I described in the book” he recalls. “There was no fence – there was nothing. It was wide open and sleepy, so we just went straight in.”

Photo Courtesy of Johnathan Lerner

The accessibility of the airport at that time is remarkable considering Songshan’s dual function as a civilian terminal and military airbase. “I think the military part of it may have been cordoned off,” says Lerner. Still, the fact that these jaunts were possible during a period, when two ominous events threatened to throw Taiwan into turmoil, is surprising.

Bombs and riots

Having arrived in September 1957, when his father was posted to Taipei as an official with the International Cooperation Administration, the predecessor to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Lerner and his family narrowly avoided the first episode. The May 24 Incident was sparked when United States Army Sergeant Robert Reynolds was acquitted of killing Liu Tzu-jan, who in some accounts was a trainee Republic of China major, in others, a government-employed laborer.  During the ensuing riots, the U.S. Embassy was gutted, and several other buildings wrecked, including two properties belonging to the U.S. Information Services. 

Public resentment festered, but Lerner had but an inkling of this. “I’m sure my parents were aware of the May riots —I vaguely recall a general air of uneasiness among them and their friends as we were preparing to go,” he says. “But I was only nine at the time, so that news really went over my head.”

In contrast, he recalls the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in August 1958 more clearly. The bombardment of Taiwan’s outlying islands of Matsu and Kinmen and an amphibious landing on the latter by People’s Liberation Army forces was naturally a source of disquietude. However, among Taipei’s foreign community, it was depicted as more a test of US defense resolve than a genuine attempt at full-scale invasion. 

Carefree reaction

“At the time, it was just referred to among Americans as ‘the shelling of the offshore islands,’ and it was certainly something we were aware of,” says Lerner. “My mother refers to it several times in her letters, though rather breezily – perhaps to reassure her friends or perhaps to reassure herself.”

Lerner remembers bomb shelters being installed in the gardens of the Japanese colonial-era houses on the lane off Songjiang Rd in Taipei’s Zhongshan District where his family lived alongside other American personnel and their dependents. In a passage that Lerner say was lifted verbatim from one of his mother’s epistles, the novel’s eponymous protagonist Lily nonchalantly refers to a “little ol’ ruckus that the Communists are kicking up,” adding that the latest developments were “the unofficial topic of the day at all the parties.”

Although he later learned that evacuation plans had been put in place, Lerner says his mother’s letters seldom betrayed any genuine fear. “She doesn’t sound very worried,” he says. “I don’t know if that was because it seemed like an unreal threat, or because she was confident in the protection of the U.S. garrison, or naive, or trying to convince herself and friends, or what.”

Men of mystery 

The book’s most intriguing character is Rocky Pereira, who is officially a cultural attaché at the US embassy but eventually emerges as a covert operative. This Macau-born adventurer, who takes the expat children sailing upon Green Lake, as it was then known to foreign residents (Bitan, 碧潭), was based on a real person. While Lerner prefers not to reveal the identity of the individual, our online conversations and e-mail exchanges provide enough clues to suggest that it was Charles Maynard “Savvy” Cooke, Jr., a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral who served as an unofficial advisor to Chiang Kai-shek in the early ‘50s.  

“Eight or ten families decided to build these little boats, and then this guy taught us how to sail and we’d have these little regattas,” says Lerner. “In fact, the only athletic award I ever won was for winning a race called the junior scramble. There was a little silver cup, which is long lost.”

By the time he was assisting the foreign community with these leisure activities, Cooke, Jr. was head of the Ingalls Taiwan Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, which rented the dockyard of the Taiwan Shipbuilding Corporation in Keelung between 1957 and 1962, and is credited with helping advance naval engineering and capabilities in Taiwan. 

Reflecting on his father’s own role in Taiwan, Lerner is confident that he “was not a spook,” as he was “quite credulous to not even suspect there was another level of something going on that he wasn’t aware of.” However, with hindsight, Lerner is not quite so sure about some of his dad’s colleagues. 

“There were one or two people in my father’s agency who, now looking back on it, it just seems obvious that they weren’t really doing what they were supposed to be doing,” he says. “Unexplained coincidences or mysteries about a person – things just start to fit together, when you look with a jaundiced eye.”

Point of no return

After returning to the US, Lerner attended Antioch College before dropping out to become a radical activist with Students for a Democratic Society, which eventually evolved into the far-left Weathermen Underground movement. His time as an organizer with the organization – designated a domestic terrorist group by the FBI – is documented in a 2017 memoir, Swords in the Hands of Children

When the movement disintegrated in 1976, Lerner says, “it took a while to clear my head.” He then reinvented himself as an antiques dealer – “about the furthest possible thing from being a revolutionary.” The know-how he gained from this trade helped with his subsequent career as a magazine freelancer, focusing initially on “antiquing” before moving into the decorative arts, architecture, and urban design. “The built environment is mainly my specialty,” he says. “I also did a lot of travel writing.” 

Now aged 75, and semi-retired, Lerner lives in Hudson, upstate New York, where he still freelances part-time. In addition to Lily Narcissus and his memoir, he has published two other novels and co-edited an oral history of the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by the American Indian Movement – a native American activist group – in 1973. 

Having worked all over the U.S., and traveled throughout the country and abroad, Lerner has, surprisingly, never returned to Taiwan. 

“I always remembered those two years as golden, exciting, easy,” he says. “I think I was reluctant to challenge that by confronting the reality I might find if I returned.” 

He recalls “a sense of deep shock” at seeing TV images of Taipei in the 1980s. “Skyscrapers, rapid transit, modern infrastructure, and prosperity – where was this place?” 

When juxtaposed with the “soft-focus memories of unpaved streets and pedicabs; our placid, walled garden; lazy afternoons around the pool at the Grand Hotel,” the new reality of Taiwan was jarring. “I was reluctant to dislodge my recollection of Taipei and knew a return visit would make that inevitable.”

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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