Monday, November 22, 2010

Beautiful Videos of Taipei City

These are two beautifully done videos shot around Taipei City. They take the hectic urban landscape and slow it down in order to enjoy all the colors and movements of the metropolis.

Please click on the following links to take you to the cinematographer's personal site:


Taipei: Day to Night

Education in Taiwan: Cram vs. Care

Yesterday I was walking around downtown Taipei. My head was beginning to spin from inhaling the car exhaust along the busy road, and I had to zip up my jacket to block out the cool evening air. I went to toss my coffee cup in the nearest garbage can but I stopped in my tracks before I even got close. There, stuffed into the top of the garbage can was a red and blue school backpack, unzipped and scuffed with dirt. The name of the school was printed across the front of the bag in gold, and the tiny size indicated a young student in the first or second grade of elementary school. I don’t know how the backpack got into the garbage, but this abandoned school bag seemed to me like an appropriate act of rebellion by a young, exhausted pupil against the school system. At ten o’clock at night, I have seen the subway crowded with worn out students going home from a fifteen-hour day in school and after-school classes, sleeping standing up on the train, or trying to get a start on their home work while they can still keep their eyes open. A few hours later I walked by the garbage can again and the backpack had been extracted from the trash, zipped up and carefully balanced on top. This intentional act seemed an attempt to place things back in order—the action of an adult to give the young one another chance to pick up their school bag and continue marching with all the others.

As in other Asian countries, there is enormous pressure on Taiwanese students to excel in the classroom. Taiwanese children can start kindergarten as early as two years old. There are six grades in elementary school, three in junior high school and three in high school. Once students complete junior high school, they can take exams to enter specialized vocational high schools. After three years in high school, Taiwanese students can enter universities in Taiwan through high recommendations from their high schools, or entrance exams. Through out a Taiwanese student’s schooling, there is the option for them to attend what are referred to as “cram schools”—academies that specialize in one subject such as English, math, computers, art, and offer evening classes after traditional school hours. Over 17 thousand such cram schools are currently in operation nation wide, serving over 4 million students. On one hand, these “cram schools” can allow a student to focus on one subject that they enjoy, to socialize with their peers and to spend less time at home alone. Yet they can also end up as a babysitting service for parents who work late, and don’t know what to do with their children. In addition, “cram schools” often becomes mandatory for students who have parents that push them academically, and believe that taking additional classes is the only way to scholastic success. Attending classes until ten at night leaves little time for students to enjoy recreational activities, or to relax during unstructured downtime. Not all parents require this of their children, but in such a competitive environment, children are also left feeling like they must take extra courses to keep up with their classmates.

It has been a challenge for me to find a teaching environment here in which I feel that the children’s creativity and unique personalities are being nurtured. The environment is often cutthroat, and the system offers little room for free and creative thinking. After teaching for two years in a very constraining academic environment in Turkmenistan, I am eager to teach in an institution that values originality and fosters imagination. Unfortunately, I am beginning to realize that my ideal teaching environment is atypical in many countries around the world. In a system where children have their identification number embroidered on their school uniforms and bags, there is often more importance placed on compliance, order and repetition than there is on individuality. In a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society in Washington D.C., professor Shen-Keng Yang of National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) wrote:

Serious educational problems [in Taiwan] are also caused by the imbalance between competition and social justice, between power of private sector, parents, school and government. Most of the teachers are in need of in-service training to adapt their teaching methods and attitudes so as to meet the challenges of educational reform.
(Dilemmas of Education Reform in Taiwan, pg15)

This is not to say that the education system here produces individuals who completely lack creativity. Taiwan prides itself for being on the forefront of technological design and production—a reputation that it has gained because of talented and ingenious individuals. In his Inaugural Address, former President Chen Shui-Bian stated, "We will seek a consensus among the ruling and opposite parties, academics and public to carry on with educational reforms and build a healthy, proactive, lively and innovative education system, which will allow Taiwan to cultivate first-class, outstanding talents amid the fierce international competition. We let Taiwan move gradually toward a "learning organization" and a " knowledge-based society.” The Humanistic Education Foundation, whose mission is to promote development of human-centered education in Taiwan, is a leader in the education reform movement in Taiwan; it has after school programs for at-risk children, and frequent meetings with the Ministry of Education about permissible punishments and practices in schools. There is a growing awareness of alternative educational methods, but the government is showing little sign of shifting away from its traditional methodologies. There are a few international schools, Montessori schools and alternative schools, but these are far outnumbered by the State run schools. The educational reform that is currently under debate is largely in response to the increase of globalization and internationalization. As the global economy becomes more competitive, Taiwan’s government feels the added pressure to produce students who are exposed to other languages and cultures in addition to a strong knowledge base about local traditions and social identity. On this small island, there is big pressure on the students currently sitting behind desks.

When I saw the little backpack crammed into the trash can, I couldn’t help imagining a little child stuffing it in there using all the strength in their eight year old arms. As global economic and social trends have strong impacts on educational development, the big wheels that turn this world are weighing down on the shoulders of those who are too young to understand the source of this immense pressure. While I believe that academic success should be encouraged, and achievements should be rewarded, there is much more to education than a 15-hour school day—a child’s education takes place both inside and outside the classroom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Justice! Not Guilty! Free Men: The Hsichih Trio

This morning I stood out in front of Taiwan’s High Court of Criminal Appeals along with over one hundred other anxious and eager people to hear the verdict for the long running and controversial Hsichih Trio case.

Taiwan has over 200 ongoing criminal cases that have lasted over 10 years. In Taiwan’s appeal process, trials for murder and other serious crimes can bounce between the High Court and the Supreme Court (the highest level of judiciary in the country) because any appeals to the Supreme Court can be handed down to the High Court for an unlimited amount of retrials. This results in judicial ping-pong, and a stalemate in very serious cases. The most infamous ongoing case is the murder trial involving three suspects known as the “Hsichih Trio,” named after the place of murder in northern Taiwan. The trio—Su, Liu Bing-lang and Chuang Lin-hsun—have been waiting for a final verdict for almost 20 years.

In August 1991 these three men were arrested on suspicion of murdering a husband and wife. They were convicted of murder, robbery, and rape, a combination of offences that hold a mandatory death sentence in Taiwan. All three claim to have been tortured and forced into confessing, and there has never been any direct or physical evidence to link them to the murder scene. In February 1992 the three men were found guilty on all accounts and sentenced to death. In the next three and a half years the case was twice sent to the lower courts for retrials, but again, despite any direct evidence or witnesses, inconsistencies in the confessions and the coroner’s testimony that there was no evidence that the female victim had been raped, the conviction was upheld in February 1995. Allegedly, during the district court trials, the judges had refused some of the defense witnesses, including people who had seen the three men elsewhere on the night of the murder. Taiwan’s Prosecutor General made several attempts to have the Supreme Court review the case, but each of his appeals was rejected.

Thus, Taiwan’s justice system condemned three men to death without any substantial evidence, and based the conviction almost entirely on their confessions. This violates Taiwan’s Criminal Procedure Law, revised in 2003, that prohibits confessions from being the primary source of evidence, and forbids the use of confessions extracted through methods of torture. “Torture was clearly recorded during police questioning and the officials involved were impeached by the Control Yuan, while officers involved in the torture were found guilty by the court and sentenced to death,” Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) executive director Lin Hsin-yi said.” “Yet the Court only deleted part of the confessions that were clearly the result of torture, while keeping other parts.”

In 2003, in yet another retrial, the courts overturned the previous rulings and after spending 12 years in prison awaiting death, the Hsichih Trio was briefly acquitted. Yet on June 30, 2007 the court overturned the verdict of not guilty and re-sentenced the three men to death. In the past three years the Trio has continued to fight for their lives while walking “free” on the street, trying to maintain some form of pedestrian life.

In a public statement from Amnesty International entitled “Taiwan: Miscarriage of Justice: Hsichih Trio re-sentenced to death,” the international human rights organization stated that they “express deep concern at the...2007 sentencing to death...Amnesty International considers the defendants to have suffered repeated miscarriages of justice over the 16 years that the case has been in the Taiwanese court system.” Amnesty International, along with other international organizations and Taiwanese organizations, that oppose the use of the death penalty have appealed to the President for clemency with no success. At the judicial level, there has been much hesitancy by the judges to overrule the verdicts of their predecessors even in the name of justice. “Experience shows that the longer a case runs, the less likely it is to be either truthful or just,” declares the Judicial Reform Foundation on their website.

On October 15, 2010 Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan passed the proposed “Fair and Speedy Criminal Trials Act,” which aims to stop long-running cases like that of the Hsichih Trio. It states that if a case lasts more than 10 years, the courts would be empowered to drop it or to commute the sentence; if a case lasts more than 6 years, and has been found innocent three times by the High Court, the non-guilty verdict would be final. This draft has yet to be put to a vote in the legislature, and continues to attract criticism from law experts, academics and local human rights groups. Critics argue that amnesty should be granted after a certain amount of years if lack of evidence prohibits the trial from moving forward. Even Myanmar, a country with a horrible history of human rights abuses has a law that prohibits defendants from being detained for more than 5 years without a final verdict.

Around the world there have been 129 countries, which have abolished the death penalty through law or practice. Today, what I saw on the steps of the courthouse is the core of one of the most active human rights movements in Taiwan. Busy bodied volunteers had strung hundreds of postcards written to the defendants, lawyers and judges between the trees along the street. Members from the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) were handing out bright yellow banners, which people wrapped around their arms or heads. Prior to the appeal, dedicated supporters had purchased “We Are Free Men” t-shirts that have silk-screened shadow images of the Trio along with the slogan “waiting for justice since 1991.” The court allowed 112 members of the public inside, and the rest waited on the steps to hear the outcome. There was palpable tension in the air around 10 a.m. when the verdict was being read inside. After a 30 second delay, a shriek of triumph flew out of the courthouse and the news that the 2007 guilty verdict had been overturned brought tears of joy to many of those holding yellow banners. The crowd chanted in support as the judges came outside to speak to the press, and there was loud applause as the three members of the Hsichih Trio emerged from the court as free men (again). Everyone bowed their head in one minute of silent prayer, and as the heads came up and the tears were wiped away, the Trio was escorted from the court, trailed by a long line of cameras and microphones. The news spread quickly that the prosecution plans to appeal within 20 days, but this took little away from the day’s victory, and the shared feeling of accomplishment amongst all the people present. As the crowd began to disperse, a few drops fell from the one rain cloud in the sky, as if to remind everyone that fate, like the weather, can change very quickly.

For more information on the Hsichih Trio Case visit:

Taipei Times Article

Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty

Taiwan Association for Human Rights