‘I Don't Like to be Defined as Female’
Although Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu is one of Taiwan’s brightest female political stars, she does not the like the fuss over female politicians. She says she has never been discriminated against or treated differently during her entire career for being a woman.
‘I Don't Like to be Defined as Female’By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 593 )
When a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck southern Taiwan shortly before the Lunar New Year holiday, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu was on a long-distance flight on her way to a long-overdue vacation.
She was looking forward to taking a break from her mayoral duties to join friends for a trip across sunny New Zealand.
Chen was just about to change planes in Brisbane, Australia, when she received a phone call from Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Hsu Li-ming informing her of the earthquake. “When I heard the word ‘earthquake’ my mind was made up,” Chen recalls.
Without further ado, she grabbed her baggage and boarded the next flight back to Taiwan. She had not even set foot outside the airport, not to speak of getting a glimpse of New Zealand. All in all, the 65-year-old Chen spent 36 hours in the air on a journey that would be physically exhausting and emotionally draining even for younger people.
“I wanted to take a rest, but I couldn't," notes Chen in describing her emotional dilemma. “Kaohsiung was very lucky, but in Tainan the fate of more than hundred people remained unknown. How could I have gone on a vacation?”
“I told her there is no disaster in Kaohsiung, but she insisted on coming back,” remarks Hsu.
Chen’s return to Kaohsiung calmed the shaken city, which hadn’t completely recovered from the shock of a series of devastating gas explosions claimed dozens of lives and injured hundreds less than two years before.
An Older Sister with Curly Hair
Chen's trademark is a short poodle perm bob that frames her face. Few people know that this hairdo, which never changes, was born during her imprisonment in her early thirties.
Chen was one of the eight prominent political dissidents who were arrested and jailed after a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1979, known as the Kaohsiung Incident. Fellow dissident Annette Lu, who was Chen’s cellmate, wanted to get her hair permed, but the hairstylist was only willing to come to the prison if at least two women were going to have their hair done. So Lu talked Chen into playing along. Subsequently she discovered that the perm was easy to maintain and style so she stuck with it up to the present day, for more than four decades.
Kaohsiung residents like to call Chen “Mother Flower” after Ms. Tachibana, the lead character of a Japanese comedy manga who also sports a round face with curly hair. However, in the political sphere most address her as “jie”, the respectful honorific for an older sister or women older than oneself. Even President Lee Teng-hui, at the advanced age of 93 years, calls her “jie.” Chen has an explanation for her older sister role pointing out that in terms of time spent in politics she might actually have seniority.
Before Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in January, Chen was most likely Taiwan’s most powerful female leader. Yet she does not like being defined as “female.” “All along we have never been treated differently from others because we are female,” she points out.
It is striking that she habitually uses the team-oriented “we” and not the subjective “I” when talking about her actions.
“She has been very ‘unfeminine’ in her way of conducting politics. What she did back then in terms of involvement and actions was not what the average woman would have done,” concludes Shih Che, the director-general of the city’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs. “She is not the traditional female politician,” he adds.
Chen was born in Yilan on the northeastern coast. But no matter where she went during her career, her destiny eventually always brought her back to Kaohsiung.
During her youth, at the age of 19, Chen served as secretary to Kuo Yu-hsin, the pioneer of the Dang-Wai Movement who served as Provincial Assembly member at the time. That’s how Chen, who needed money to pay for her college tuition, got involved with Taiwan's democracy movement.
She was one of the few female “political dissidents” who were arrested after the Kaohsiung Incident, and was subsequently jailed for more than six years during the martial law era. In 1990, when she returned to the city, the place that triggered her arrest, she participated in elections for the National Assembly and won. That election win marked the beginning of her new political career.
In 2006, Chen narrowly won the Kaohsiung mayoral election for the DPP with just some 1,100 votes more than her major rival from the Kuomintang (KMT). But in 2014, when running for mayor of the Greater Kaohsiung area, she won in a landslide. With a lead of 990,000 votes over her major challenger and a vote share of 68.09 percent, Chen became the top vote-getter in municipal elections, proving again that she has staying power and is a force to be reckoned with.
Many of Chen's male comrades-in-arms from the Kaohsiung Incident era – Yao Chia-wen, Chang Chun-hsiung, Chen Shui-bian, Frank Hsieh and Su Tseng-chang - have meanwhile vanished or moved to the back of the political stage. Chen, however, is still going strong and a likely candidate for even higher political office. After Tsai was elected president, rumors were rife that Chen would become premier.
But getting to that point was an arduous path. “I have always been Oshin, not a star,” she notes, referring to the lead character in the Japanese TV drama Oshin who perseveres through a life of hardship during the Meiji Period.
In our interview this time she probably comes closest to letting her “female” side shine through. Without interrupting, Chen talks in great detail about her political career from her time as Kuo’s assistant to her joining the cabinet as minister without portfolio, how all her life she has stumped for others on the campaign trail, working doggedly without ever complaining.
After Chen was elected Kaohsiung mayor for the first time in 2006, the DPP’s popularity hit rock bottom when her KMT challenger Huang Jun-ying contested the narrow election result and filed for an annulment of the election on the grounds of election fraud. Eventually the High Court validated Chen’s victory. But her popularity ratings remained lackluster for a long time.
Yet in hindsight, people saw that she did not only turn the city around but also her destiny. Still, Chen is quick to point out that “all these construction projects were a very hard job.” Her voice hoarse from speaking, Chen takes a powdered throat remedy, gradually regaining her firm, resounding voice. “I can take a lot of hardship. When ordinary people feel they can’t take it anymore, I am still able to persevere. That’s what you call endurance,” she says.
In what is probably a legacy from imprisonment, Chen still often talks to herself when she needs to find strength.
Because all along her life has not been a bed of roses but a difficult road strewn with obstacles. Therefore, her favorite color is purple, the “color of the downtrodden.” “Let’s says this is a typical trait of women, but then you can only be that way if you ran the gauntlet without dying,” Chen says.
It is probably because she tasted hardship so often that the words “thank you” come from her mouth so often and so easily. She thanks the photographer after he takes her photo. In August of 2014 when the gas explosions occurred, she kept expressing her gratitude over and over again when speaking to staff and helpers at the emergency response center.
When she does not know whom to thank, Chen pays a visit to Kaohsiung’s famous Sunfong Temple in the early morning all by herself to burn incense and thank the gods and heaven.
Chen’s life seems to mirror the oil painting that hangs on the wall outside her office. The painting shows a mountain slope covered with blooming silver grass swaying in the wind. The harder the wind blows, the further down the grass bends, only to swing back up again. Silver grass is Chen’s favorite flower because of its abundant vitality and staying power in an adverse environment.
Barring any “surprises”, Chen will become Kaohsiung’s longest-serving mayor when her term ends in 2018, and the second longest-serving local head of government in Taiwan right behind former Taichung City Mayor Jason Hu. However, she differs from the jovial, eloquent Oxford University Ph. D Hu in her approach to recruiting people.
Keeping Everyone Together
Chen hires people from all walks of life, covering a vast area of expertise. There is Hsu, the deputy mayor, and cultural affairs boss Shih, whom Chen knows from the Wild Lily student movement in 1990. Chen made Ting Yun-kung, a political columnist, her spokesman after he had proven his mettle in the mayoral elections. Tseng wen-sheng, the director of the city's Economic Development Bureau, was originally Chen’s adversary when she headed the Council of Labor Affairs and participated in egg-throwing labor movement protests. And then there is Lee Yi-der, director of the city’s Urban Development Bureau, whom Chen recruited for his expertise although she hardly knew him.
Chen has also recruited a large number of young people. As labor minister she boldly hired mathematician Shih, then only 35, to serve as president of the Bureau of Labor Insurance, a move that surprised many.
This team of close aides has helped Chen win election after election, boosting her vote count higher and higher thanks to the city government’s track record.
“The mayor differs from other politicians in that she does not claim to be the smartest in the world,” says Hsu, who has been Chen’s most competent aide in all past elections. “She is willing to give young people a chance, and moreover give them room to make decisions. She gives us a general direction and builds a vision together with everyone. The concrete content will be defined gradually in subsequent repeated discussions,” he says.
Chen likens herself to a truss hoop because she holds people together to form a well-rounded team, just as a truss hoop holds staves in place to form a barrel.
Although she does not like to be defined as female, she promotes gender equality in staffing. “If, within the civil service, conditions are equivalent, I will choose the woman because they do not get opportunities that easily. That’s why I will give them one,” Chen notes in explaining her recruitment philosophy.
In her 65 years, Chen has always held one firm belief: “Democracy and human rights.” Her life epitomizes the DPP. From the Dang-Wai movement and the founding of the DPP to the latest development – the DPP’s landslide victory in the presidential and legislative elections – Chen has been a loyal follower. For more than 40 years, she has single-mindedly devoted everything to the DPP so that she does not even have friends from the KMT.
“My life hasn’t been rich, it’s simple and a bit stupid,” she concludes.
Chen seldom socializes or entertains guests. What does she do at home in the evening? “When I'm alone, I read. Being alone is not necessarily a bad thing, humans are all very solitary, aren’t they?”
That’s when the silver grass comes to mind again. Although it grows in big clumps, it emits a feeling of loneliness and sadness in the open countryside.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz