I don’t know what it is about black and white photos or film that triggers nostalgia for me: even images of a most brutal sort – Civil War dead stacked by a trench – are easily turned in a sentimental direction, perhaps by the use of dramatizing, History Channel narrative technique: “When the Allies came to the camp, they could hardly have been prepared for the sight that greeted them: the dead seemed to be walking.” Perhaps it is the sentimentalizing and dramatizing techniques – fiddle music and the crackle of a campfire overlaid with Ken Burns’ voice – that makes us believe the world was less brutal before color. Or at least, their brutality was somehow more picturesque, or it “made more sense” in their ways of thinking, fighting for logical things like bread, nation, or religion.
There are a few exceptions. There are old photos here and there that are so stark one cannot help feeling sure they were taken a week ago in Iraq, such as the photo of a skeletalizing corpse from the Battle of the Somme which appeared in a book on WWI I read in my youth. It is in my memory to this day, like those bones in mud. But such photos do not fit easily into story lines. They disrupt; zombie corpses won’t be kept down. Their edges are sharp, cutting into the coherency of the story told, seizing the eyes of audiences at the expense of logic and plot. Thus such photos tend to be let go, drifting away into archives and buried there.
My view of the Taiwanese colonial era is fraught with these mixed feelings. Accounts of Japanese planes bombing aboriginal resistance fighters jostle with sepia longings borrowed from group photos of the women’s league or army recruits, posing at the train station in kimonos, or drilling in a field, all beautiful youth from times long before my own. It is amazing how easily I can try to wriggle into such photos: me a 34 year old American, gazing at photos of 1934 Taiwan. There is no passport for the eyes, however, no immigration checkpoint for identification, no language barrier for fantasy or desire. And I desire.
I read a book a few years ago called “Servants of the Empire: Hsinchu Men, Japanese Soldiers.” The entire book was a distilled recounting, in Chinese, of old men’s memories of war. They were sent, some eagerly and others not, to China, Korea, the Dutch Indies, the Phillipines, and New Guinea: anywhere the Japanese army fought these Taiwanese men fought too. Alongside these diamond-sharp stories were sepia toned photos and mementoes that attested to the youthful sense of excitement and honor in being sent to fight for the empire. Their photos were prestigious souvenirs: posing bare-chested in drill formation, standing for the camera, sword at one’s side, in exotic Hainan Island.
The ordeals which are the focus of their stories scarcely come through at all in these illustrations, with the exception of a sketch or two one had made, of a lean-to constructed in a prison camp. In the photos I see pride, a pride then evident even now in their preservation and inclusion in the book. It is a pride little mentioned in the stories, probably because the nation to which loyalty was owed changed after the war, when they became officially “Chinese.” Their silent pride sneaks into the book through their photos, though. Even with all the awful tales – the officer shooting a civilian islander and ordering his men to eat – these photos still stand, offering mute rebuttal in their sunny scenes of manhood so glorious in sense of mission, all stilled at the sunny moment when the shutter clicked shut long ago.
It is odd to me that the usual roles of image and story, as with the war in Iraq now, are reversed when I think of those times before color. No number of journalistic accounts of Abu Ghraib’s or other prisons’ cruelties – of which there are many – made any dent in the collective news psyche of the United States. Only when photos began circulating of naked men in hoods did condemnation pour in. All those poor words were so easily ignored. All those pitiful words regarding Bush’s contempt for international law were like a vain moaning of wind in trees. But when I think back to old Taiwan, the photos that form my surrogate memory are records of formal events, events the powers that were wanted memorialized in film. It is through stories that the shock of violence transmits itself, leaping decades.
Yesterday an old voice shattered my colonial era nostalgia. For Mother’s Day, my girlfriend went back to her parents’ place, and I went with her. Her crotchety grandmother was there. Sara has told me often of how she locked her and her siblings inside when she was little, beating them for disobedience, surgically implanting in her a fear of strange situations, amputating bravery.
All that seemed far away in the genial merriment of relaxing around the table after lunch. Sara’s father, who had spent hours repairing a leaky faucet upstairs, came down just as the cake was brought out. Clapping his hands in time, he led us in a rousing song called “Mother.” “I love you, Mother I love you, you are so heroic!” was the chorus, and I smiled to see the old woman clapping her hands as her little appreciated, much burdened son, wife and kids sang this song.
She told stories that were strings of sound. I cannot speak Chinese, and she only speaks bits of Chinese. School was not for girls then. the old woman talked in forceful syllables, broken chunks of stone opaque and strange to me. Suddenly she burst out with a rhythmic “boom boom BOOM, boom boom BOOM!” Sara laughed.
“When she was a little girl,” she said, “She always followed her elders around, wherever they went. Sometimes her Dad would pass the house of a man fought against the aborigines. The Japanese attacked them, and this guy joined the army. But when he came back he had some mental problems. He grew a –“ she reached to the back of her head, “A braid, like in Qing Dynasty times.”
Grandma laughed, repeating the sound that had so frightened her, “boom boom BOOM, boom boom BOOM!” Native war drums, I thought.
“And those braids went around and around his head like this,” and she coiled the braids around her head up to the top, “tied with ribbons.”
“I’ve never heard of that,” I said.
“And when they went by that man’s house in the fields, she was scared. . .he always sat outside his house making that sound,” she pointed at the old woman.
“The drums?” I asked.
“The guns,” she said. Grandma laughed. I could not picture her as a girl. She was the tough old woman who easily wept, she was a paradox. At the funeral of Sara’s brother she had been the picture of resignation, weeping but not sobbing, no protest or cry of grief. No matter how she had locked him in the house he had out grown her control. He had been the thoughtful grandchild, taking her on walks, visiting her and looking after her. The day she moved into her own place, intolerable to her sons, it was he who bought her towels and soap while her own sons played mah-jong. He was dead. Something bad had got him.
It is impossible not to make picturesque the violent past. Even those wars of genocide called the “Indian Wars” (similar to the Japanese wars against the aborigines) mist up in a pathos of lost glory and useless heroism, to the extent that even a hot air movie like “The Last Samurai” can blow it aside. The early scenes depict Tom Cruise’s memories of slaughtering native peoples; the immediacy of the illusory images – even puffed up with slow motion and mournful music – spurs the mind back to the fact that real events occurred, scenes so real they cannot be imagined, lifelike and in color. Viewing such cinematic scenes, in color, convinces one of the impossibility of deploying such visual power, as strong as the original experience.
Grandma’s story was different, chilling me with its dryness, its stark modernity. The man’s behavior sounded like the sufferings of American men who killed in Vietnam, the percussive bangs still resonating thirty years after. She chuckled at her younger self. The man who signed on with the Japanese army went for the money, or the adventure. He got more than he imagined up in the mountains. Was he part of the expedition in which the Japanese studied the art of aerial bombardment? Or where the Japanese herded the survivors of one camp and loosed an enemy tribe on them for beheading? What booms were the ones that would not leave him? And why did the winds of madness blow him back to the Qing Dynasty, which had ended 30 years before?
The story is skeletally spare. At its heart, this story is empty. Within its empty rib cage lingers a man’s memories not known then and never knowable now; a fist not seen but in its bloody imprint. A mystery. The other mystery is how grandma’s sparse-told tale was able, for a moment, to disperse the longing I feel for Old Formosa – a longing that wells up each time I look at black and white photographs taken by missionaries and diplomats.