When we think of history, perhaps we think of hard, plastic seats and cutting board-sized desks from high school history class where we were taught the legacies of winners, bloody revolutions, and those who have wrangled fate and wrung out a future for a mass of land and its constituents. History affects what we take pride in (and what we don’t). And it tells us who we are and maybe even who we’ll be. At the end of the day, history is an undeniable part of our identity.
Well, what if one day we found out that the history we knew was flawed, wrong even?
It’s a question that has Hsin Hsiao, a New York City-based software engineer, sifting through federal documents four hours away from home in the depths of Washington D.C.’s National Archives Building. The building is a colossal, 757,000 square foot information vault and designated depository for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an independent agency created in 1935 with the task of preserving and publicizing formerly-classified federal documents and records. It’s the same white-marble edifice where Nicholas Cage once famously pocketed the Declaration of Independence in the 2004 Hollywood heist, National Treasure.
And coincidence or not, Hsiao is also here in search of a “National Treasure.” Literally.
He’s one of the leading minds behind Taiwan National Treasure (TNT), a non-profit with a mission to fill in the gaps missing from Taiwan’s told history. TNT has created a free database where people can access a wealth of federal documents from the American government relating to Taiwan. Foreign commentary on Taiwan, if you will.
With the help of a dedicated volunteer base and technology that Hsiao helped integrate called optical character recognition or OCR (think Pleco or Google’s augmented reality-like reader), TNT has amassed nearly 10,000 primary source documents from the National Archive Building.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Hsiao spent his entire childhood and much of his young adolescence there, where he sat in plastic seats with cutting board-sized desks, listening to teachers explain the island’s tumultuous history. It wasn’t until Hsiao immigrated to the States in his late teens that he realized those teachers explained everything except the tumultuous part. The revelation that his Taiwanese education omitted events like the 228 Massacre in 1947, a bloody suppression by the Chinese Nationalist government against a revolt in Taiwan, was a shocking one.
“Taiwanese people in America have this progression of increasing self awareness the longer they are in the US because they realize something is missing in their country,” Hsiao said.
“Although Taiwan is under the rule of the Republic of China, the rest of the world does not recognize it. Being away from Taiwan, [Taiwanese Americans] feel like the Republic of China is a nonexistent government,” Hsiao continued. “[Through TNT], we are trying to figure out what Taiwan is, what our history is, and what is the history that wasn’t taught to us when we were in school.”
The information Hsiao and his team of volunteers has amassed is both political and nonpolitical. It ranges from documents detailing Taiwan’s soil content to President Kennedy’s worries of an imminent Communist overtake in Taiwan. “We’re trying to unearth the truth, not to rewrite history,” said Hsiao. “Our intention is to expose history through primary source materials so that people can actually view and form their own opinions on what Taiwan’s history is.”
Hsiao’s identity as a “1.5 generation” (a term used to describe individuals who immigrated to the States as a child or adolescent) Taiwanese American solidifies his passion for TNT. It’s also a key advantage in drawing parallels between different histories and governments. According to Hsiao, his background made him the perfect candidate for the project because he knows enough about both Taiwan’s history and US history to piece together a coherent storyline. “So, whenever I find a document, say in 1945, I know exactly what was going on in both places because I’ve been educated in both countries,” he explained.
So when Hsiao or one of TNT’s volunteers go to the National Archives on their monthly trips, they go in search of themselves. That’s perhaps the beauty of TNT: the “National Treasure” is not a sole document or anything necessarily groundbreaking. It is up to the individual to define.
This is how TNT has drawn its core group of volunteers —dedicated Taiwanese nationals and Taiwanese Americans who donate their time and energy to the cause. TNT means something different to the Taiwanese national who has experienced censorship, the 1.5 generation Taiwanese American who has seen both sides of history, the second generation American-born Taiwanese who is struggling to understand what Taiwan even is, and so forth. Everyone is in search of their own Taiwanese national treasure, and everyone is committed to helping their peers uncover that discovery.
Moving forward, Hsiao hopes to continue his treasure hunt through other archives in the US like the United Nations Records Management Office in New York City, and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on the West Coast (which is known to have documents pertaining to Chiang Kai-Shek’s era). He also hopes to eventually access primary sources abroad in Japan and the Netherlands, countries under whom Taiwan has endured a complicated history of colonization.
(Feature photo of the US National Archive)
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