Interview: Symin Chan

Symin Chan is a philosophy student at National Taiwan University and one of the founding members of New Bloom. The following interview was conducted on September 11th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  So what I want to ask is first is, how did you become involved in social movements? What causes did you participate in and how did you get involved?

Symin Chan:  The first movement I participated in was the anti-media monopoly movement after I entered college and joined student group, the Yangming Meaningful Society. I came to know the students in the Department of Philosophy of Mind. And they asked if I wanted to go with them, although I didn’t know what kind of event we were going to. But people asked me if I wanted to go and I went with them.

Brian Hioe:  So you began to participate in movements like the anti-media monopoly and other movements that way as well?

Symin Chan:  Yes. Because the first one or two times I went, it might have been during finals. So there weren’t as much students in attendance. And because during a certain press conference, because there weren’t a lot of people, when we charged the Legislative Yuan, we were surrounded by police.

It was very easy for police to drag us away. It left a deep impression. I don’t remember on what date it took place, but the male students were dragged away. Because they hadn’t prepared, there weren’t any female officers on hand. If they were going to pull away female students, we would shout, “Call the female police officers! Call the female police officers!” It was a delaying tactic. At that time, there were about a dozen female students left in the area where the police had kettled us and only one or two had participated in social movements before.

We were quite panicked. I remember some girls were there crying. Female police officers gradually arrived and dragged us away. It left a deep impression, it was the first time that I hadn’t felt that the police weren’t there to protect people. I think that afterwards, during struggles in social movements or sudden outbreaks of action, it grew out of the seeds that were planted then. It was a beginning. So it naturally became something. And because I gradually got to make friends, I would go with friends to events about issues they were concerned with.

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing during 318? You were there on the first day, of course.

Symin Chan:  Yes. I’ve organized what happened that day in my memories into a story, you could say. Because it left a deep impression. I remember what I was wearing that day quite distinctly. I was wearing a pair of shorts and running shoes. Why do I remember so I clearly? It’s because I was going to the hospital that day for observation, since I was studying medicine then. You have to take some classes at the hospital.

And I remember that the hospital I seem to have been assigned to was in Xinzhuang. It was a bit far. I remembered that the supervising doctor told me not to wear shorts next time, because when we wore medical wear, it looked like I wasn’t wearing any pants underneath, and it wasn’t very professional. That left a deep impression.

Why was I wearing running shoes that day? I don’t normally wear running shoes. Because I seemed to have a feeling that because I was planning on going and checking out the planned event at the Legislative Yuan and night, something might happen, and that because I didn’t know what might happen, it might be better to wear exercise shoes.

The activity originally planned was supposed to run through the week.

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  120 hours.

Symin Chan:  Yes. And they had already begin the activity for one or two days. That day, I decided that I might go take a look. So I wore shoes to prepare.

I remember I went there around 5 or 6. I remember that Wang Xiaoli and another of the film directors who were a part of the 5-6 Movement were there everyday and I wandered around a bit then went over.

Because I knew people who were participants in other movements, and we trusted and had faith in each other from working together, two or three walked over and said hello. And they said, “Later. Meeting. Qingdao East Road.” They said that it was that we were going to discuss things for awhile. And I had no idea what was going on, I had been outside the entire day, and I was thinking of going home to rest later.

I knew that everybody was probably planning something. Afterwards, at night, there was a demonstration and I wasn’t involved in the planning, but they suddenly came over and said, “Hey! Could you go up as a student representative?” Sandy and I were standing there, so they saw us and recognized us and were like, “Hey! Aren’t you from the Yangming Meaningful Society? Then, later on, go up and talk.” And we went with the flow and as we were waiting to go on stage, wondered what we should say.

They didn’t care about what we talked about, but I remember very clearly, they said, “At eight. The microphone MUST be returned to us.”  So it seemed like that after we gave our speech, we had to return the microphone to them. We had no idea and didn’t know what was going on. We were busy thinking about what we should talk about. Because our bags and stuff were with the 5-6 Movement people, I went on stage. And when we finished our speech at 8 PM, and Wei Yang was there, and suddenly it was noisy and people seemed like they were about to move somewhere.

But I saw the 5-6 Movement people with my bag calling out, “Symin! Symin! Good work!” And I saw that they had bought coffee for us to drink. And they were across the street. I forget which side of the Legislative Yuan we were on. They were on the other side of the road with my stuff and I walked over and reached out to take the coffee, but at that time, I had a friend in the 5-6 Movement, called Tuzi. She’s a very thin and small girl. She walked up next to me and said, “Symin! Symin! You know we’re going to charge later, right?”  I said, “I don’t know. I guess that door, probably.” And I turned around to go get my stuff.

Then, in the middle of this, they said, “We’re charging now!” I saw Tuzi go with them, squeezing in with everybody. And I looked back and turned around and, not knowing what exactly was going around except that we were all charging the Legislative Yuan. And I also felt at that time that because Tuzi is a very small person, I was very worried that she’d be hurt, that she’d be squeezed to death by the police. So I charged with her. I didn’t think about my bag and didn’t have anything on me.

After squeezing in, because the police were stationed by the entrance, we went through the entrance one by one. When we charged in, the police chased us from behind.

I remember that scene very clearly that I saw that the people behind us had been dragged away by the police. After Tuzi and I looked back, we dare to look back and just kept running forward and running forward. Because there was an office outside the Legislative Yuan chambers, we didn’t know where to run to, or what there aim of the action was. We didn’t hear from anyone either.

So we just ran. We ran in a circle on the second floor, where there were offices, and opened every window. Because a lot of legislators would receive flowers, we felt angry, and felt, “You people, getting gifts from everyone, but what are you doing, anyhow?” We would pull out the flowers, and tear down the signs from flowers, and draw write things randomly. But we were still running while we did all this.

After running in a circle and heading down, we heard, “We need more people here! We need more people here!” I think it was Fei-Fan and Wei-Ting. So went over and sat down. Later, they were like, “We need more people there! We need more people there!” So we went over there. I think it was Fei-Fan. At that point, it was dark in the Legislative Yuan. No lights were on. What they meant by “We need more people here!” or “We need people there!” was that there was police, but only a few people there.

Sandy was in front of me. It’s like as usual during a protest when it’s panicky. I remember Sandy had a bag. And she had just gotten off of work, so she was dressed for the office. She was wearing a narrow skirt because of that. That was a very agitated situation. They said, “Women! Stand back! Women! Stand back!” Because sometimes in protests in Taiwan, I don’t know why, but men feel that it’s better if women aren’t in the front. They want to protect them. So people were trying to pull me back and I couldn’t tell if it was the police or our own people dragging me back. I saw Sandy running on front of me and that her clothes had nearly teared and someone kept pulling me back and I was angry because of that.

So I put down my bag and kept running. I felt angry because my friends were being abused, and charged forward. I don’t know if it’s because we broke through, but when we got to the entrance, we found that it had been forced open, with the glass having been shattered. It looks like as though someone ahead of us had forced open the door to get in. And we were like, “How did this happen?”.

A few of us went in ahead. It was completely dark then inside. We went in. Because the glass had been shattered, there was still some glass that was on the door, and some people’s hands and feet were cut by the glass as they went in. And some people charged in, running around.

Someone shouted, “Occupy the podium! Occupy the podium!” And we ran up to the podium. It was still dark and there were no lights. I think some of the early pictures may show this. We jumped onto the podium, and used our cell phones for light. And I remember very clearly. Because some people had been injured, and people asked, “Are there any doctors? Or people with a medical background?”

I raised my hand hesitantly and said, “Uh? I’m a medical student.” It was kind of awkward, because I hadn’t taken any classes on emergency aid. So as I was wondering whether I could help, someone who could help came up, a nurse or a doctor or someone. I remember I also ran up to the podium, the boy who jumped up ahead of me was waving a flag and shouting, and I stranded behind him. I saw blood was running down his shins, because he had been scraped by glass running in, so I tied a piece of cloth around his leg to stop the bleeding.

In the next few hours, there was no water and no electricity, as well as nowhere to go to the bathroom, so we made a bathroom in a side room, divided between a men’s bathroom and a women’s bathroom. The first few days were like this. The first two days were uncertain as to whether we would continue occupying. We had no idea when the police would break in. We had no idea what was going on outside. The Internet was cut off and there was no way to shower. It was very tiring.

Brian Hioe:  So you were in the legislature the entire time.

Symin Chan:  The beginning was like that. But after three days, I found that there were some decisions that made to be made. Some responses which needed to be made to the media. And whether we should continue to occupy. There needed to some way to lead the people in the Legislative Yuan, or something like that. As a result, there needed to be something like an organization of the people within the Legislative Yuan. In the two days before, because I was often a MC in the 5-6 Movement, and we would sing songs and…

Brian Hioe:  I remember that.

Symin Chan:  There was mostly discussion in the Legislative Yuan, so it was quite uninteresting. And I would think, “Why don’t we sing songs?” Because some people brought instruments, they would play, and we would sing along, so I led everyone in singing. I remember I was recorded leading everyone singing.

Brian Hioe:  I seem to recall that.

Photo credit: tinru/Flickr/CC

Symin Chan:  Singing “Meilidao” and so forth. So some of my explanation I was only sure of after searching through my memory. At the time, I was also not very sure of the organization inside or the decisions being made, or what kind of role people were playing in the media spotlight. I didn’t really understand that. I was more emotionally participating, or going with the flow.

At the time, I felt that if I wanted to, because I knew them, I could also become part of the core leadership. Or act as a spokesperson when people needed to face the media or make a statement. I might have been allowed to take on those responsibilities. But as time went on, I deliberately did less and less. Or only went up to sing a few songs. And then they moved to the second floor. What is important is because the film directors of the 5-6 Movement also went in there.

Brian Hioe:  Ko I-Zheng, for example.

Symin Chan:  Yes. We call Director Ko, Ah-Bei. That said, “Ah-Bei is on the second floor.” After one or two days, he didn’t leave. He also didn’t sleep. Because we all participated in the 5-6 Movement back then, we were all collaborators that trusted each other. And we would think, “Wow, Ah-Bei has been there the entire time and hasn’t left. He’s already in his 60s or 70s, he could get sick.”

So we’d worry about him. I’d go with the other people up there to find him.

And in the one or two days before that, my bag was still outside. My friends still had it. So I had nothing, whether my phone, or anything else. I didn’t know where it was. So my friends came in and gave it to me.

I was worried about Director Ko. Likewise, on the other hand, I didn’t want to make decisions with everyone, I didn’t think I was suitable for that, so I hid on the second floor. That was a very special experience. And I felt that afterwards I became an observer. Because in that small room on the second floor, it probably was the room which controlled the sound and lighting for the assembly chamber. Or something like that.

Anyway, there were some large machines in that room. But there was a glass window which let you look over the entire assembly chamber. The reason why Director Ko chose that space was because he wanted to watch over everything. And we also sure that that the police wouldn’t dare to move him. He felt that he had to be the person who watched over everything to the end. He said that in the first few days, when nobody was sure that they’d be arrested, he decided to lock himself inside and be the last person who would get dragged away by the police.

In the three or five days after it began, I stayed on the second floor in that room. It was very special experience. Because the first floor and second floor were an entirely different space and experience. I could maintain a sense of space. I could interact with the people on the second floor if I wanted to, but could also return to small room when I didn’t want to interact with them. There were conflicts, seeing as it was student groups that began the movement. But outside the Legislative Yuan chambers, this also became another force, because a rally was held every night outside. There was a stage set up outside and materials were moved inside.

The main organizers were NGOs. And ten or so days after, I forget when exactly, student groups and NGOs came into conflict. Like, why should we listen to you NGOs? Because I stayed with the directors and took care of them and played that kind of role, I could see how they looked at the situation. What I saw was that some of the directors keeping entering and exiting, to serve as mediators between the students and the NGOs. Of this group of directors, I feel that they did many things in the background.

I don’t know, in social movements, everyone tends to more look at things from the perspective of social movements or politics. But the directors could sense the mood, or how the wind was blowing, so to speak. Because many of them filmed commercials, so they probably knew how to influence the atmosphere. Including the rally when the decision was made to withdraw. The directors could sense the mood.

Brian Hioe:  Do you have any views regarding these decisions? Or did you mostly go with the flow? Whether regarding 324 or when the decision was made to withdraw.

Symin Chan:  Maybe I can talk about how I felt before the withdrawal first. I forget exactly why, but most of the important decisions made took place in a room on the second floor. I knew it was there, but I pretended not to know what was going on, and played games with Director Ko and some of the other directors.

I remember that there was one time in the last few days, I forget why, but I had to MC during the rally before the withdrawal. So I had the opportunity to enter. But I felt that everyone would be probing other people in the space with their gazes, sort of being like, “Oh? You haven’t participated before.” Seeing what you were doing.

Everyone was quite afraid that the information would leak. Or that you might have a different purpose for attending. That you might have been sent there by the police. This feels very uncomfortable for participants, but I can understand. When past decisions were made, I wasn’t there, so I can understand. I think the sense of exclusion was very strong from the core decision-making body, but I think I can understand that necessity. Because one needed to make sure that decisions were effective, or that there wouldn’t be mistakes made.

Regarding 324, with the Executive Yuan, I was in the Legislative Yuan then, so I didn’t know what was going on outside. In that small room, watching broadcasts of people being hit by the police, the atmosphere was very tense. We were already stuck in there for several days and we felt very tense, people would cry while watching the television and etc. But after I left the Legislative Yuan and discussed it with friends.

For example, I have a friend that studies in Pingtung, in the very south of Taiwan. They said they were already prepared to head home from the Legislative Yuan and get onto a train and head to Taipei Main Station. But they heard that the people next to her were saying that something had happened at the Executive Yuan and that people were needed, so in a panic, they decided to just drop taking the train back and rush back to the Executive Yuan. People said, “Go here! Go here!” and they went with them. And sat down when the police surrounded them and watched people in front of her being dragged away, row by row, by police, or being beaten. I know the Executive Yuan, many people didn’t understand the circumstances and were called over.

Photo credit: Y.H. Kao

Brian Hioe:  That was the case with me.

Symin Chan:  There was no leader taking charge. There was no head. There was nobody taking responsibility and nobody knew where people were supposed to charge. People were called over from secondhand or thirdhand information. But I also heard that the NTU Department of Social Sciences

Brian Hioe:  I was there originally.

Symin Chan:  Or that people who had something to do with them were the original people that called people over.

Brian Hioe:  Maybe. Then it was Wang Szuyao that called us over. I was there with Kevin Huang and Wang Szuyao.

Symin Chan:  I remember that it was some people that knew Na Su-Phok. I also want to know, who it was that came up with this plan and publicized it, and whether this person has thought about taking responsibility for this, or explaining the circumstances to everybody. Up to now, I haven’t heard anything.

Brian Hioe:  Neither have I.

Symin Chan:  I haven’t heard up until now who was at the head of this. I believe quite strongly that as an activist, when you talk about civil disobedience, you have to understand that civil disobedience is breaking the law because the law is oppressing the people.

But you also have to understand the consequences of your actions. So I feel that the decision-making was more problematic. Was it effective? The police response was very violent, and this led to an escalation of the situation, leading to more public attention. So it also definitely had its effectiveness. However, I don’t feel that this form of decision making is correct.

Regarding the withdrawal, I feel that one can’t blame the decision making group, whether this was Lin Fei-Fan or Chen Wei-Ting, or other members, with accusations like, “Why did you decide to withdraw? Did you get paid off?” You can’t blame them for this. Because they didn’t decide to become the leaders. Anyone who wanted to stay, could stay, why blame them? This was sort of like…I think in a social movement everyone is equal. If you don’t like things, you can go off and do your own thing, in your own way to continue to protest an issue.

And when people blame Lin Fei-Fan or Chen Wei-Ting, there’s also an element of looking for someone to blame, or making Lin Fei-Fan or Chen Wei-Ting even more important, as though they have agency but that you, as a single person, did not. I don’t feel that is very fair. I think it was necessary to leave and staying there inside the Legislative Yuan would not be the most effective means of continuing the movement.

Brian Hioe:  To change direction, do you feel that your participation in the Sunflower Movement or other Taiwanese social movements has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identity? Whether your own or everybody’s.

Symin Chan:  It definitely is related. I’m not sure what you mean when you speak of Taiwanese identity, but this has to do with myself and the environment I grew up in, including culture and society, what is custom in these habits, and what occurs within this society. And how can I say? I grew up in Changhua, That’s the countryside. Many of my relatives are still farmers and still work in agriculture-related industries.

What made a deep impression me was that after I came to Taipei, I found that because they want to because a science park in central Taiwan, so they have to use the water used for farming for factories instead, and that was a very early protest in Taiwan, with many young people traveling to central Taiwan to protest. This was much, much earlier than the anti-media monopoly movement in Taiwan by many years. That’s right next to my grandfather’s house. And our house was also close.

But I only learned about this after I came to Taipei. That was very big surprise. So I discovered that I didn’t know what happened next door to me at all. It was only through participating in social movements that I came to understand Taiwanese history, or even to become curious about my family history. My grandfather was sent to Nanyang in China to fight by the Japanese and my great-grandfather was a neighborhood head in Japan or something like that, opening up a road there.

These things which are closely related to you, I didn’t understand, but it was because of becoming concerned with social issues that I would start to want to ask about these things. To ask, “Who am I?” And that living on this piece of land, which direction should this go in? If this is Taiwanese identity, this is definitely related to protest.

Brian Hioe:  How do you understand the relation of the Sunflower Movement with China and the KMT? Do you feel that most people were opposed to the black box? Or the KMT? Or to China? Or to free trade? There are these different levels of opposition, of course.

Photo credit: Duke Lin/Flickr/CC

Symin Chan:  Most people were opposed to that the process was improper. You could say that before that, politics was quite far from many people. They didn’t realize that people are normally involved in political matters.

But the event revealed clearly that politics was in the hands of small group of people in Taiwan. It was revealed by a small event. Or you could say that pushing through a bill in thirty seconds had happened in the past, or that it might happen again in the future, but there were a lot of preconditions present, which caused everyone to be like, “God! How could this happen?”

So I think that people were primarily upset because the process was improper. I believe that some people actually secretly supported the KMT, but decided to support the movement. One some issues they may have more pan-Blue, such as opposing pension reform. What else was there?

Brian Hioe:  Concerning China.

Symin Chan:  I think even less people were opposed to China. There are some people who still feel that China is more advanced, which is not to say with regards to thought, but the view that they may be more economically advanced. You’ll also hear things like, “Look China’s infrastructure development in the past few years. Or it’s construction of high-speed rails. Or it’s economic development.” 

Because if the nation decides on something, it gets done in China, this is viewed as more efficient, and some view this as worth pursuing. Behind this, Taiwanese people might not have thought about this too deeply, such as issues as free trade or social welfare. I think many Taiwanese are fundamentally quite utilitarian. Very few people will actually demonstrate because of the China factor. Unless it’s people who were very pan-Green to begin or had a great deal of local consciousness.

Brian Hioe:  And even less people would oppose the CSSTA because of opposition to free trade?

Symin Chan:  Even less people. Because I feel that to understand the fundamentals of free trade, it returns to the fact that Taiwanese people don’t study philosophy and critical thinking, or what is actually ideologically behind different economic theories.  So I think layer by layer, it’s less and less people.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think there’s any political slant to social movement activists in Taiwan? I often feel that social movement participants are much more left-leaning or are more progressive, whether with regard gay marriage or opposition to the death penalty.

Symin Chan:  I also think this is something which has accumulated over time. In the beginning, the amount of people who are politically radical were not many. But I feel everyone is more liberal. That they’re more open and more receptive to new ideas and a bit more left.

For example, I often wonder why so many social movement participants in Taiwan say that they are left. Why did this come to be? Very few people would say that they are right-wing.

Social movements can sometimes be like, you want to say what sounds good. What will let social movement activists approve of you. But saying you’re left doesn’t actually mean you’re left-wing.

Or maybe some people support some individual causes. I think this is also worth examining. Some people might take a stand to support gay marriage or LGBTQ issues, claiming that these are fundamental rights. But regarding land struggles, or pension reform, or labor issues, they won’t think that workers’ rights are human rights. They’ll say that, “I don’t understand too well.” If you talk about human rights with regards to LGBTQ issues or other issues, that should mean that you have a more complete view regarding human rights.

Brian Hioe:  So you mean it lacks comprehensiveness.

Symin Chan:  Yes. Or consistency. Sometimes people are a lazy with regards to issues. They just pick the issues that they are interested in to participate in. So sometimes when people say that they are left, I don’t really think that they have said very clearly on what issues they are politically left on.

Brian Hioe:  What kind of influence do you think the movement had, regarding its influence on Taiwanese politics or Taiwanese identification?

Symin Chan:  To give an example, today I met with a group of artists making artwork out of Taiwanese mythology. Originally, they began as a sort of gathering for shared interests, because they were people that liked to write stories involving ghosts or gods or monsters. They said that after 318, they realized that what they were writing about was Taiwan. But did they understand Taiwan? Were they using Taiwan’s mythology to create works of art? Did they know Taiwanese indigenous mythology?

They realized that they didn’t know anything about this, so they began to contemplate where this had come from.  At the time I was thinking, it’s probably just not this group of people who began thinking about Taiwanese identity after 318.  You asked about the different reasons for opposing the CSSTA earlier. I think that maybe everyone began from opposing the improper process in the beginning. But I also feel that this entire process caused people to think about how China had no real relation to them, and questions like, “Should we advocate free trade?”, or “What’s with the KMT’s actions in Taiwan?” I think that people working in variety of fields went through this.

Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  In the future, do you think that there could be a movement like the Sunflower Movement again?

Symin Chan:  It’s very difficult. Because now, the DPP has taken power.

Brian Hioe:  So you think it’s unlikely. Because, for example, this already happened once, during the Chen Shui-Bian period. 

Symin Chan:  Maybe more because the older generation of demonstrators is actually a large force driving behind protests, they have closer relations to the DPP. They are not pan-Green or pan-Blue and they think independently, but as we see in old churches or anti-nuclear groups, they originally stood with the DPP. So it’s harder to…

Brian Hioe:  Separate yourself from the DPP?

Symin Chan:  To stand up and criticize the DPP. For there to be another movement on the scale of the Sunflower Movement requires not having a political party controlling things in the background. It’s very difficult.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China will react to this generation of Taiwanese young people are like this? After the Sunflower Movement, that is.

Symin Chan:  They’ll continue to try use the economy as a way to establish control. But I don’t have too much thoughts on how China views us, because I don’t know too much about Chinese internal politics. But I am sure that they will continue to try to restrict free speech, as we see with the Lee Ming-Che case. This will only grow in strength. But I don’t think they’ll have the opportunity to gain a foothold, because Taiwanese identity will probably grow stronger.

Brian Hioe:  The last question I have is, do you think the Sunflower Movement could influence international social movements?

Symin Chan:  I think so. I think influence on Hong Kong is quite strong, as well as with other countries in Asia, such as Malaysia, or Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. I think all of these problems have issues with free speech, liberties, and people who are dissatisfied with government.