Interview: Chen Zhi-hao (Lao Dan)

Chen Zhi-Hao (Lao Dan) is the owner of Match Cafe in Taichung and a noted designer whose designs are frequently seen in social movements. The following interview was conducted on October 21st, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  The first question I want to ask is, how did you begin participating in social movements? You’re known for your design work regarding a number of issues, including regarding the Dapu, Miaoli incident, as well as Taiwanese independence stickers.

Che Zhi-hao (Lao Dan):  The earliest I began participating in social movements was here in Taichung. Working on issues to do with old houses. Preventing old houses from being demolished. After that, I participated in the movement opposed to nuclear reactor #4 and later with regards to Dapu, Miaoli. Following that was the Sunflower Movement.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  How did you begin design work with regards to social issues?

Lao Dan: This was what I was originally doing. I’m a graphic designer. So what I used what I was already an expert in as a means of participation. Before, when attempting to prevent demolitions of old houses, we organized a lot of events. I made some images to try and attract people.

Because within the movement, making things look good only seems to have been something people noticed was important in these couple few years. When I first began participating in social movements, for example, in 2012, during the anti-nuclear movement, I found that the people handling design were lacking. It didn’t really pull in people. For example, the signs in street protests were quite ugly.

In 2011 and 2012, I mostly just went there and looked around and found that there were these issues, and I began helping out in 2013, because I gradually became more familiar with social movement participants. So I told them, “Why don’t I join?” And I helped them make a banner. In 2013, there were a lot of people. So I made the banner for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 anti-nuclear demonstrations. I started participating from this onwards. I found it was quite effective.

Making stickers started from the Dapu, Miaoli incident in 2013. “Today, the government demolishes Dapu. Tomorrow, we demolish the government.” That sticker. That was also an experiment. Only after making it, did we find that it was quite effective. But it’s effectiveness comes from that people were paying attention to this issue.

The “Today, the government demolishes Dapu. Tomorrow, we demolish the government” sticker produced during the Dapu, Miaoli incident. Photo credit: Lao Dan

There wasn’t a way to participate for many people, because they were quite far geographically from the Chang family pharmacy. They couldn’t rush to the front lines like I could. The reason why I could rush to the front lines is because there was less of a need for me to manage my coffee shop at that point, we had employees, and it was more stable. I didn’t need to spend a lot of energy on this. So I was more free. When we needed people, I could rush over and participate.

I discovered that a lot of people would look at the sticker I made and feel quite moved. I thought that if made this, at least in terms of moving people, this was something that could be done. They could stick it on things. Sort of like pressing “Like” on Facebook for posts related to a certain issue. When you press “Like,” that increases the reach of that post.

I had my own coffee shop, so I knew the owners of stores from northern, central, and southern Taiwan. Our store opened in 2006. It had been open a while. We had some exchanges with other store owners and to establish a network was not very difficult.

It was me working on it alone. And I could print them myself, so it wasn’t a problem. I made them myself and sent them to larger stores in northern, central, and southern Taiwan. And it spread from there, sort of starting a network. This was quite fast. A few incidents just happened to connect together.

The first significant reason for this was that I had free time.  The second is that I didn’t need anyone’s help for this. Because if you need help from other people, it might drag on for a long time. [Laughs] You can’t take care of it right away. And third, because I had a store, I could establish a network. This just happened to take place. After discovering that this was effective, I would try this during social movements every time. Or to find new ways.

Stickers designed by Lao Dan. Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing at the time of 318? I myself was someone who got called over and charged that night.

Lao Dan:  On 318, I remember we went to protest very early. We were sitting by…where was it? Jinan Road? We were sitting there, and there weren’t many people there. We were demonstrating and it was quite boring.

By noon, we went to go eat. Yang Zhongli brought us to nearby to eat lunch, and after we were done eating, he brought us to the office of what was called “Citizens United” (公民組合) to chat. We ran into them holding a meeting regarding what they were planning at night.

Everyone was gradually familiar with each other from social movements. For example, I knew Chen Wei-Ting and them from the Dapu, Miaoli incident because they also participated in that. Everyone had a certain sense of trust. They invited us to also participate in the meeting and to express our opinions. But we originally didn’t have any idea that we would have any action.

There four or five of us that had come from Taichung because we didn’t happen to have anything to do that day and we thought we would help out. We didn’t think that there would be anything beyond that. And when they were meeting, we found that they already had a plan for this to happen. We saw that there wasn’t a lot of manpower, so we went in to help. After a few meetings, we decided what to do, step-by-step, and that’s how we got involved. We were responsible for changing Qingdao East Road.

We decided that there would be a diversion on Jinan Road to attract the police, to distract from the first wave. The second wave was by the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan, in front. We were responsible for changing over the fence. I don’t remember too clearly, because I’m not from Taipei, and I’m not familiar with the roads very much. But we went to some NGO’s office on a sixth-floor office.

We split into three groups. I was responsible for the first group. Because everyone came from different backgrounds, some people were still studying. Before this, people would ask if anyone had any legal issues and if they would be able to hand it. For us, because we had graduated, we were freer, could do what we wanted to, and could take responsibility for ourselves.

Taiwan passport stickers from the Taiwan passport sticker campaign started by Lao Dan. Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

So I was responsible for the first group. We went from where the NGOs were and went to a gathering place. Probably around 9 or 10 people were in that group. And then we went there. When the time arrived, we charged, climbed over the wall, and went inside. It was like that.

Brian Hioe:  What did you do on the inside?

Lao Dan:  It was quite surprising. During that time, we had to rush. But on Qingdao East Road, in the alleyway there, there suddenly appeared a group of—it seems some old man’s car got stuck and couldn’t start. A lot of police went over to help him. We thought that we had been noticed by the police. So we went around and forward a bit to check it out. And when we found there was nothing, and the time arrived, we charged.

We climbed over the wall on Qingdao East Road. According to the numbers then, it might have #3 or #4. I sort of forget. So went in from the door on the east side and broke the glass. I took a large steel rod and broke it apart. And the glass all broke and we charged inside.

On the inside, we were surprised to discover that the door wasn’t locked. Once we pushed it, it opened. After we pushed it open, we went inside. Inside, there weren’t a lot of police. They came and tried to push their way in, so we closed the door. But they sent more people over, so they suddenly had more people and began pushing the door to try and get in.

Afterward, because they were pushing on the door and we were blocking it, the door broke. And in the middle of this, we brought over chairs to block the door. In the middle of this, one of the policemen collapsed or something like that, so we carried him out. Because their people were stuck on the inside, they were very afraid that we might do something to him. So we told them to back up, and said that we would carry him out. After we brought him out, we realized that the door had already broken, but because people were pushing on it inside and outside, and was squeezed between us, it hadn’t collapsed. Otherwise, the door would have already fallen. [Laughs]

Back then, we thought that we would get cleared out. Because we didn’t have enough manpower. We thought originally that we would wait until they were short on manpower, force our way inside, raise our protest signs, and get cleared out eventually. But after one door and another door, we ended up where we did. We almost were out of energy pushing back and forth, and we thought we would get cleared out soon. But people came over from Jinan Road and the assembly hall was full of people, people kept coming in. We thought that this was okay, so we charged onto the speaker’s podium, raising the banners we had planned to raise.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  What did you during the movement overall?

Lao Dan:  During the movement, I only stayed inside a short time. The morning of the second day, I left from there, because after forcing our way inside, I kept posting on Facebook, hoping that more people would notice this situation. The Internet could be used then. The morning of the second day, they shut down the electricity and Internet, so I thought I wouldn’t have much influence if I stayed inside.

And it looked as though the situation wouldn’t change. Because there were a lot of attempts to break in. I was in charge of the #5 and #6 doors, which were pushed up against many times. But it didn’t seem though they would be able to break in. I thought this situation seemed stable, that I would go outside to find somewhere with electricity to post on Facebook, and so I climbed over a wall and left.

Later on, I went back in again if they needed people to bring things inside. Or to hold meetings. Or to help out. Because the people at the #5 and #6 doors were people I was very familiar with. People I had called over on the first day to help out. If I left and left them there, I felt as though this wasn’t a good thing.

But some people were studying then. And some people were working. I told them that if they had to take care of their own affairs, they should do so. On the second day and on the third day, it wasn’t so hard to find more manpower to fill in gaps. But they weren’t willing to leave. So I often brought things inside for them.

Brian Hioe:  Did you have any views regarding the decision making body within the Legislative Yuan during the movement? Such as for big events as 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan.

Design for a new Taiwanese flag by Lao Dan. Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Lao Dan:  I thought it was okay. It would be very chaotic during the movement. Who could see the entirety of the situation very clearly and see the general direction we should move in? Everyone was trying out things, sometimes bumping into things. Maybe if we went down this road, it might be effective, and so we might turn around. I wasn’t too surprised by anything. If we had opinions, we would still raise it with them, but in the end, we handed it to them to decide.

Because we might feel that doing it a certain way was right, but we weren’t so sure either. I wasn’t too shocked. But I know some people were very dissatisfied with this. Including the view that during 330, that if people had pushed a bit more, everything would be resolved.

During 330, I was a member of the order maintenance team, but I didn’t think that if we had taken more drastic action, the situation would be resolved. In this large movement, within this 500,000 people, we were all just single individuals. It would be hard for the movement to be as you imagined, or to guide the movement in a certain direction.

It’s like the wind. Everyone is doing what they were doing. Through this process, everyone causes the wind to move in a certain direction. So everyone is participating. I wouldn’t think, “Tell so-and-so that this isn’t okay.” It wasn’t like that. I didn’t that was meaningful.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that your participation in the Sunflower Movement or in other Taiwanese social movements has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identification?

Lao Dan:  Of course. Because before 318, before we all went to participate, we were all very angry for the two weeks before. We often met outside the store and people involved in movements would come. And we’ll all be very angry. Smoking one cigarette after another without stopping.

You wouldn’t know what to do. You would want to do something. It was the feeling that the KMT doing this is because they want to sell off Taiwan. Could we still protest? You would even feel that the days you could protest were limited. So sometimes you would feel that 318 was the final battle with them, which is why you would charge. A lot of people were very tense then. That was the last straw. If you didn’t charge and break through, you would feel that there would be no more hope.  You had to settle things decisively with the KMT or China, otherwise it would be very hard to stand up again.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  How would you understand this movement then? Because many people may have only understood this in terms of opposing the black box.

Lao Dan:  For me, it was opposing Chinese power. For me, anyway.

Brian Hioe:  What about the relation of China and the KMT?

Lao Dan:  They’re people of the same country, tied together. They’re all Chinese. [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there’s any political orientation to social movements in Taiwan? Because most people will say that they’re left-wing or left-leaning. And I think that social movement participants are progressive on many issues, including opposing the death penalty or supporting gay marriage.

Lao Dan:  For social movement participants, there might be detailed differences in what people leads people to make decisions. I think more people should participate in shared issues and discuss them more and express their views. Sometimes I post my views on Facebook, not really hoping for anything, but to allow this to be seen, and discussed. I don’t dare to say that my views are always right, but when everybody is discussing an issue, it’s only when it has been sufficiently discussed that something mutually beneficial to everybody will be arrived at.

I feel that I don’t want to make a lot of divisions or classifications. A lot of classifications are because when there are many people working on this thing, expressing their views, you try to classify people as being of this category or that category. For Taiwan, I think that collective participation is still quite low. For each issue to be expressed, there isn’t very high interest.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

But making divisions so early isn’t very meaningful. For example, those who are pro-Taiwan or pro-independence, will sometimes make distinctions regarding what sort of independence you are. Are you “natural independence”? Are you “ROC independence”? Are you “Taiwanese independence”? I think any form of independence is fine, but you divide on this issue too early, without finding a shared consensus regarding where we all want to go, as a goal. If that is agreed on, then you can divide as you proceed towards that goal. If people have different aims, they’ll naturally divide, we don’t need to divide people ourselves so early, labeling people as standing for different views than us at an early stage, and giving them a bad name.

Brian Hioe:  What kind of influence do you think that this movement has had on Taiwanese politics, three years later? Many people will raise Tsai Ing-wen being elected or Ko Wen-Je being elected, or perhaps the emergence of the Third Force.

Lao Dan:  The movement may have been most influential for the DPP. They gained much benefit from this movement. Otherwise, in 2014 and 2016 elections, they wouldn’t have been able to overturn the KMT. I feel that there’s nothing wrong with this.

But I think the largest influence of the Sunflower Movement is that it is very hard to have such a large event take place in one or two months and allow everyone in Taiwan—everyone on this island—to look at something together. To discuss an issue. This is something very difficult to achieve.

When people begin to pay attention, to discuss, or to evaluate an issue, I think what occurs in the mind is more important than us clashing on the streets. For everyone to think about something, the strength to resolve naturally appears. Because when you discuss what you believe in, solutions appear.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Like I said, collective participation should be something that occurs naturally, it isn’t something that depends on charging. It doesn’t need to be like this. But if nobody all participates and we all charge, we get hit, and protest, and this allows people to consider and think about issues, I think this is quite good. I think this was what was most meaningful about the Sunflower Movement.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think participants in the movement are doing now? Because many people may have gone back to doing what they were doing before, or they may have entered the political system.

Lao Dan:  Of the people that I know, maybe half or so have entered the DPP to work. Or entered the Third Force. Outside of this—those outside of the system—are quite few now.

But I think that after the Sunflower Movement, many new organizations appeared, and this is quite good. They just have to fill in their gaps. Whether this is in terms of learning what their last generation of seniors was doing, or whatever.

Our participation was more from the sidelines, because we entered society quite a long time ago. Participating from the outside. Wanting to help. Sometimes was hard to figure out where we could help. And we didn’t always think it was possible for us to help very long. We didn’t have any interest in climbing up to any political position either. So we wouldn’t walk very close with them. We would just hope that the island we all lived on would be a good place. It’s just that

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China looks at the current political circumstances in Taiwan?

Lao Dan:  I imagine they hate us very much! [Laughs] Like afterward, I made the Taiwan passport stickers. They all went after me. Although they didn’t attack me personally, they would all go on about the passport stickers. I think that they’re very stupid sometimes because if they scold us like this is useless, it just makes us like them less. And it pushes us further away. But they claim that we all are drops from the same river, that we’re all family, but they keep pushing us away. It seems very stupid to me. I don’t really understand why it’s so stupid.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there could be another social movement in Taiwan like the Sunflower Movement?

Lao Dan:  In the short-term, I think it’s unlikely. In the short-term, it would be very difficult to build up to that scale. Because this is the first social movement that many people in Taiwan saw. There were many social movements before the Sunflower Movement, but the public didn’t notice this.

For example, the occupation of the Ministry of Interior in 2013 was very large, but nobody noticed. But we participated in this and felt quite good about it. Before 318, it seems as though a lot of power was being stored up for the movement. And it was all released at the right time.

Yet during the occupation of the Ministry of the Interior in 2013, many people that participated were the same people that participated in the Sunflower Movement. Because what’s most difficult about movements is that when you prepare to clash, it has to be secretive. You can’t say this aloud. You can’t call anyone. Those people you call are people you trust.

Like how you got called up on 318 by your friends. People would say, “This person is okay. They won’t leak information.” There’s not a lot of these people. Because when you are doing something secretly, the number of people you can call up is already very low.

So it’s through building up trust through a number of different incidents. Then you know who to call over. Before the Sunflower Movement, from 2013 onwards, I participated in some larger-scale movements. We felt they were large-scale, but other people have no idea what we were doing.

Photo credit: Lao Dan/Facebook

I think that after the Sunflower Movement, after Tsai Ing-Wen’s inauguration in 2016, there hasn’t been much similar accumulation of energy. It’s very rare for street protests with clashes in which people can get to know each other and start to build trust. Up to now, this seems to be lacking. So before a bigger event, there needs to be more time. But if it’s a larger-scale movement, I think it probably would still be triggered by opposing China.

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements?  Or the international world?

Lao Dan:  I think everyone is looking at each other. The whole world in these past few years is looking at each other, no matter whether it’s some country seeking independence, or some issue, such as regarding unification. I think this occurs in each country.

Oftentimes, it’s an inspiration. You think, “Hey! They’re doing this too! What we care about, people in other countries also care about!” That we’re all close and that we’re all pursuing a better, more ideal world. So I think everyone is pushing forward. It returns to how in collective participation, it builds from the grassroots upwards.

After the Sunflower Movement, with us working on the recall movement, I think it is us all being in the same place. Through everyone considering this after the Sunflower Movement, we return to a dialectic with a deeper discussion of the same issue. So I don’t know if we’re right, but I hope everyone can discuss together and think about it. If we can do this, this is good for Taiwan.