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A Scion's Story Full of Twists

Taiwanese lawmaker John Chang, who seeks warm ties with Beijing, learned as a teen that his grandfather was the communists' nemesis.

June 20, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It was 1963 and John Chang was a skinny young cadet completing basic training at a military academy on the west coast of Taiwan. As Chang stood stiffly at attention, Chiang Kai-shek strolled by, inspecting the troops.

Their eyes met for a second, and it seemed to Chang that a smile passed across the lips of the older man. But there was no way of knowing for sure if the legendary figure, who led the nationalist camp in the Chinese civil war and who was now Taiwan's president, recognized his 21-year-old grandson standing there nervously, barely an arm's length away.

"I had this kind of urge in my heart to run up to him. But it was unthinkable. He was the Generalissimo," Chang said of the only time he saw his famous ancestor.

It would have been a terrible scandal if Chang had spoken up. Along with a twin brother, he was born out of wedlock to a young woman who had an affair with Chiang's son Chiang Ching-kuo, who later became president of Taiwan. Chang had no more of a relationship with his father than he did his grandfather.

It was only six months ago that the Taiwanese government amended Chang's birth documents and officially recognized him as a scion of the political dynasty.

The story of John Chang and his family is one of love and revolution, of deceit and possibly murder. It is a story that also has implications for the 21st century because Chang, now a member of parliament, is one of the most prominent voices calling for Taiwan to end its historical enmity with China.

Whereas his grandfather spearheaded the fight against communism in the 1940s and his father later ruled the breakaway island of Taiwan almost until the end of the Cold War, the illegitimate offspring of the family is now seeking rapprochement.

"It all started when my grandfather was on the mainland fighting the communists. That was five decades ago," Chang said. "Now the entire world has changed."

The relationship between Taiwan and the mainland remains largely undefined, as China deems Taiwan a renegade province. But there is a free exchange of phone calls, letters and e-mails, and of trade and people, albeit through indirect routes.

Chang scored a coup this year when he organized Taiwan's first flights to the mainland since 1949, the year Chiang Kai-shek's forces retreated to the island and established a government. The charter flights took place over two weeks around Chinese New Year and carried 2,462 passengers. Chang is now pushing for direct cargo flights to the mainland.

Chang today bears scant resemblance to the tentative young man who was too scared to introduce himself to his grandfather. At 61, he is a bespectacled politician who wears impeccably tailored suits and switches flawlessly among six languages.

Gallery of Memorabilia

His office near the National Assembly building in downtown Taipei is crammed with paintings and photographs of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Indeed, there is so much family memorabilia that one would hardly sense anything unusual -- if not for the fact that Chang is conspicuously absent from the pictures.

Chang and his twin brother, Winston, (who died in 1996), were born Chang Hsiao-yen and Chang Hsiao-tzu in Guilin, China, in 1942. They took the family name of their mother, Chang Ya-jo, and as adults adopted the English names of their political idols, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill.

Their mother was an attractive young woman who worked at a training camp for youth enlisting in the fight against Japan. The camp was run by Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang army and headed by Chiang Ching-kuo.

When the brothers were 6 months old, their mother went to dinner at a friend's house and came home complaining of stomach cramps. She went to the hospital and was dead by the next day. Her family suspected that she was killed by Kuomintang loyalists who feared she might hurt the Chiangs, who were in the throes of a power struggle with the communists. Three years ago, Chang visited the hospital in Guilin seeking the records of his mother's death. He was told that all files had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

"The rumor is that my mother didn't die of natural causes, but nobody knows for sure and probably will never know," Chang said.

In 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People's Republic of China and Chiang Kai-shek fled with about 2 million followers across the Taiwan Strait. The orphaned Chang twins were among them.

The boys settled in the town of Hsinchu, 40 miles southwest of Taipei, the capital, living with their maternal grandmother and an uncle in a sparsely furnished room behind a tiny storefront, where the family eked out a living selling cigarettes and groceries. The twins lived as poor refugees and were told that their parents had been left behind on the mainland in the chaos of civil war.

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