“We are the guerrilla heroes, with hot blood flowing in our veins; we are vanguards of the people.” In 1949, a few members of the Yunnan Anti-Communist Nationalist Salvation Army were transferred to Burma to seek an opportunity for a counterattack. In order to survive in the turbulent foreign land, 10-year-old MA Yu-fu and 15-year-old Zhao Quan-ying joined the National Salvation Army. They began to fight and run, while drifting from places to places. Until 1961, under international pressure, Taiwan was forced to retreat their troops for the second time, leaving these guerrillas the last group of the Yunnan Anti-Communists National Salvation Army.
After arriving in Taiwan, MA Yu-fu and Zhao Quan-ying were placed in Kaohsiung and Pingtung, where they lived in the “Anti-Communists Veterans’ Community.” Fifty years had gone by, inside the community, there still sits a statue of Chiang Kai-shek and signs that read “Recover Mainland China” and “Gourmet Food from the Golden Triangle.” The Yunnan-Burma culture still lives within their lifestyle and the anti-communist wartime atmosphere still remains. “Southland Soldiers” is the second film from Director LEE Li-shao’s “Yunnan-Burma Guerrilla Trilogy.” He introduces the story of two “little soldiers” to tell the tale of this lesser-known Yunnan-Burma guerrilla warfare. It’s been nearly fifty years since the two soldiers came to Taiwan and they’re both at an old age now. From wandering around in Yunnan-Burma in the early years to-staying in Taiwan for many years, how do they identify with their country and ethnicity under the living conditions from different times and places? The following is the summary of an interview with the director LEE Li-shao.
Q: Why did you choose to start off the film by telling two little soldiers’ experience as guerrillas?
Since I didn’t know much about guerrilla warfare, based on MA Yu-fu and ZHAO Quan-ying’s memory, I wanted to look at it from a child and from a woman’s perspective to recall the bitter days when people fought and ran without any government supply, while taking the military dependents with them, being all on their own and dealing with the local ethnic conflicts.
These little soldiers didn’t come to Taiwan until 1961, that’s 12 years after the KMT retreated to Taiwan. During that time, the anti-spy atmosphere has diminished, making their anti-communists consciousness really stood out. The strange thing is that they weren’t being treated as well as the orthodox old veterans from 1949, but instead were being treated more like a pawn. The government gave them resources, told them to stay at the border of Thailand and Burma, waiting for an opportunity to counterattack. However, the government later called these guerrillas insurrectionists and denied their nationality, claiming that they didn’t want to return.
There were two options for the little soldiers to come to Taiwan at that time. If they chose to stay in the military, they would join the special operation force; if they chose not to stay in the military, they would retire voluntarily and be put to land reclamation at farms in Cingjing, Kaohsiung and Pingtung. MA Yu-fu joined special operation force and later retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Women like ZHAO Quan-ying get three years of aid from the United States.
Q: Why did you choose to shoot in Meinong and Li-Gong? And why does the film shift from the story of guerillas to environmental issues at the last parts?
Most of the guerrillas actually live in Lung-Gang, Taoyuan. That’s where the first group of guerrillas retreated to Taiwan in 1953. Since then they’ve blended in and had the buildings reconstructed, so there’s no significant characteristic left now. Whereas in Li-Gong, it’s been more isolated, things and the way people interact with each other are kept closer to their earlier state. The first time I went there I thought that place was so deserted there were more trucks that won’t slow down than people. It was later that I found a gravel pit exists there.
In 1990, the Sale of Public Lands policy was implemented, they had the land ownership, but it was an uncultivable wasteland. They sold the land to the gravel industry, and some of them even worked there. There should be a limit to gravel mining because the gravel industry eventually dug up a “Grand Canyon” there. This is a typical land subsidence story in Taiwan, even though including this in the film may have side effects to my core theme. Nonetheless, I’m a documentary filmmaker and this is what MA Yu-fu concerns the most. He also feels angry and helpless towards it. I’d feel sorry if I haven’t included it. But now it feels kind of nice having it. This film is able to tell more than just a past story and it also draws viewers back to the present.
MA Yu-fu said, “Hope is to be found on every green mountains,” but a big hole has been dug on his mountain. He had nothing when he first arrived. Fifty years later, he’s back to square one. A cycle like this exists even in such a short lifespan. This is something difficult for us to truly understand. I also get a lot of vocabularies such as “existence” and “non-existence” that are Buddhism-related, and it really coincides with my topic, so I merged them together.
Q: Why are there so many images involving MA Yu-fu and ZHAO Quan-ying participating in religious activities?
Religion is a very important force to them. Back in the days, USAID provided their resources through the church system. The church was also responsible for fundamental education. ZHAO Quan-ying is a very faithful Christian. Religion takes up a very large proportion of her life. The Buddhists in Li-Gong are also very faithful. MA Yu-fu is a Buddhist and many of his friends are as well. Master Hsin Tao of the Ling Jiou Mountain was one of his classmates. I think they need religious salvation because they’ve experienced too may horrible things and were shadowed during the guerrilla warfare. I wasn’t afraid that religion might have shaped up the form of their consciousness. This is a part of their lives. I should instead go deep in on how religions have richened their lives.
Q: How did you come to the forgotten Thai-Burma guerrillas and to make a trilogy about them?
When I went to work in Thailand in the year 2000, Jong-Jen middle school invited us to participate in the Teachers’ Day ceremony. There was a Confucius statue inside the school campus. The ceremony started off by us singing the national anthem of Thailand, the national Anthem of Taiwan, and then the Age of Great Harmony. The ceremony is somewhat similar to the ceremony in Taiwan, and somewhat similar to the ceremony in Thailand. Time, space and musical notes were all interlaced and became something really interesting. That’s when I had the idea of this film topic. I started doing in-depth research in 2008 and 2009 and started shooting in 2010.
We might know a few things about the border of Thailand and Burma, but never knew these ceremonies existed till now. I was quite shocked when I found out. I felt intimacy and familiarity towards these people, but realized our distance and the great differences between us after we got deeper into conversation. I wanted to discuss the history of that period, but it was too complicated that I began to move towards the point of no return.
Q: “Identity” plays a big part in the Yunnan-Burma Trilogy, why is that a subject you want to talk about? People in Taiwan have a hard time dealing with identity, what you want to talk about through your trilogy?
The purpose of making this trilogy about the guerrillas is to clarify “identity.” You can see how things change between countries, families and ethnicities. Take the Yunnan-Burma guerrillas for example, they identify their nationality as the Republic of China, but their ethnicity identity is Yunnan. They often say that they feel like a group of people who got married to Thai. In order to live a good life, they must do what they’re told. These old veterans just got out of war not long ago, a lot of their wounds haven’t been fully healed. In addition, Taiwan actually does have contribution towards the infrastructure in Burma. They’re able to acknowledge Taiwan and the Republic of China without a doubt, but the law classifies them as Thai-Chinese. Their next generation is much like the second generation of Chinese Mainlanders, the difference is that they know how to speak Thai. As for the third generation, they’re pretty much like the local Thais.
Apparently, the identification towards country, ethnicity, self and land can all be changed. Their identification may even be interlaced. Take the second-generation guerrillas from Cingjing Farm for example, they identify with the Yunnan culture, but the second-generation guerrillas of Northern Thailand identify very much with the culture of ROC. Even though they came from the same troop, but their identification is different. I think this is something that people in Taiwan will continue to face. In the end, I’m not actually discussing Thailand, but instead discussing Taiwan.
Even though the identification issue in Taiwan seems confusing, but I don’t think there has to be a definite answer because it really has to do with individual’s background and other factors. Through studying anthropology, we’d know that identity has always been a process of ongoing transformation. We can’t say one must identify with something. Neither should we force what we identify with onto someone else.
Q: Were there any challenges during the making of the Yunnan-Burma Trilogy?
Towards the end of shooting the Yunnan-Burma Trilogy, I started to discover a lot of contradictions within the decisions they make, and it would make me wonder whether I should include them in my film. For instance, a descendant of a guerrilla came to Taiwan to study at a university and then later learned to make coffee. His goal was to inherit the coffee industry in Doi Pa Tang and he had the ambition to turn Doi Pa Tang into the next Blue Mountain. In order to obtain dual nationality for the convenience of doing business in the future, he later come to Taiwan and apply for an identity card. His decisions were pragmatic, but instead of identifying as Taiwanese, it would make one wonder that he made his decisions out of economic considerations.
A lot of contradictions would occur on whether to include something in the film if the intensity of on-screen chemistry cannot be presented through the subject’s behavior, or sometimes even weakens the audience’s recognition with the characters. Some filmmakers would choose to not include this, leaving it with a singular dimension. Nevertheless, since this is their current state, I think it should be included. Even if it means that this film wouldn’t be as strong and powerful as the first of my trilogy, Boundary Revelation.
For more in formation about Southland Soldiers: please click here.
(Translated by Jim-bo LEE)