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Cultural Center Becomes a Symbol of Political Debate : Asia: Some see $3-million facility in El Monte as a haven for overseas Chinese. But pro-independence Taiwanese loyalists see it as an insult.

May 19, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's in a name?

Plenty when it comes to the Chinese Cultural Center in El Monte.

Many say the $3-million facility built by the Taiwanese government is a haven where overseas Chinese can rekindle ties with their historic culture.

But others, who believe Taiwan should be independent of China, see the center as a slap in the face. They want it renamed the Taiwanese Cultural Center to reflect who funded the facility, with its 900-seat theater, classrooms and a library.

They also accuse center officials of discriminating against them because of their political views. As evidence, they claim that center officials have not made rooms available when they call to schedule meetings.

"They intentionally discourage (pro-independence) Taiwanese Americans from using the center; a lot of us don't want to do any activities under that flag," said Jack Liu of Palos Verdes, president of the Collegiate Alumni Assn. of Taiwan, referring to the Taiwanese flag that adorns the center's lobby.

To draw attention to their concerns, Liu and other pro-independence Taiwanese Americans planned a press conference today at a San Gabriel restaurant. Some said they will boycott the center until the name is changed.

Daniel Liao, director of the center, denied Liu's claim and said the center welcomes all overseas Chinese organizations. He said thousands of Chinese Americans use the center each week to take out books, hold conferences or learn calligraphy.

"We're willing to serve people, welcome people, regardless of their political associations, Liao said. "I have no grudge with them. I respect their opinions. But there is a current reality existing. What will happen in the future we can't tell."

The debate offers a rare public peek at the complex political crosscurrents battering Taiwan today that have blown across the Pacific to pit many of the 500,000 to 600,000 overseas Chinese in Southern California against each other.

On one side stand pro-independence Taiwanese Americans such as Liu who think that Taiwan's 21 million people should forget about negotiating a reunification with the People's Republic of China and declare themselves a free and separate nation.

On the other side are Taiwanese Americans such as Marina Tse, president of the Chinese American Educator's Assn. Tse, whose father was a senator in Taiwan, supports the government, which seeks an eventual reunification with mainland China under a non-communist government.

"It's a very sensitive issue," Tse said. But, referring to those favoring a free and separate Taiwan, she said: "Their ancestors moved from mainland China, so when they claim they're not Chinese and they want to be independent, I don't feel they're justified."

Caught in the middle are people such as Louis Kuan of Alhambra, who is president of the Chinese Americans Voter Education Foundation. Kuan's parents were born in mainland China. He was born in Taiwan. He sees himself as both Taiwanese \o7 and \f7 Chinese, comparing it to being an American and a Texan.

"I feel perplexed and very ambivalent; it's a touchy situation," he said. "But whatever happens to the destiny of Taiwan, it should be in the voters' hands. It's not up to us in America or overseas to determine what they should be called."

Kuan said the center provides a valuable service by giving people of Chinese origin in the San Gabriel Valley a place to meet and sponsor events, functioning as an unofficial town square.

Bao-Tyan Wang, a professor in clinical sciences at Cal State Dominguez Hills, used the facility last month to hold a symposium on high-tech products. Wang said the debate has not affected his willingness to use the center because his interests lie more in academia than politics.

But Liu claims that when his group held a conference there last year, the lights and the air conditioning went out suddenly, leading him to suspect that the center was trying to sabotage him, a charge that center officials deny.

The 26,500-square-foot center, located in an industrial park, opened in December, 1992, and is one of two run by the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, Taiwan's unofficial consulate in the United States. There is a second center in Chinatown.

Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China. Mainland China, under its communist government, is the People's Republic of China. The feud between the two dates back 50 years, to when Mao Tse Tung's communists fought Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang party for control of the mainland.

By 1949, Mao had won and the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, where they established a government in exile with the aim of eventually returning to the mainland once communism had been vanquished. They are still waiting.

Despite the political differences, strong ties remain between the two nations separated by just 90 miles of water. More than 1.5 million Taiwanese visited mainland China last year and spent $600 million. Taiwan is China's biggest investor, with $11 billion in joint ventures.

Although some Taiwanese Americans here have entrenched themselves in the conflict, others believe the debate is being blown out of proportion.

"A lot of people here are too busy for politics," Tse said. "They're just struggling to survive."

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