Embedded With the Sunflowers

Hsiengo Huang’s ‘The 318 Mob Exhibit’ is an up-close and personal journey into the drama, the humor, and the artistry of an unprecedented event in Taiwan’s history
J. Michael Cole

I first met Hsiengo Huang (黃謙賢) on the streets of Taipei, during a protest outside the Legislative Yuan organized by the Alliance Against Media Monster, a movement that opposed the acquisition of Next Media’s Taiwan operations by a Beijing-friendly media mogul. This was sometime in the fall of 2012. Over time, we came to recognize each other; between shots of protesters, we’d say hello, shake hands briefly, and promise each other that we’d eventually grab a coffee. Hsiengo, who years earlier had studied in Toronto, Canada, was never without his “newsboy hat” — besides his great photography, that was his signature.

The following year, what with the series of protests, large and small, that hit the capital, gave us plenty of opportunities to get to know one another. From an after-midnight protest in front of the Presidential Office, where activists were dragged away and shoved onto police buses, to a farewell ceremony for the now-demolished Huaguang Community, we constantly ran into each other. For Hsiengo, who ran a small photo studio, this was a side activity. He, like many others, was documenting the events out of a sense of duty.

We never had that coffee, but Hsiengo was the photographer at my wedding earlier this year.

He probably knew, too, that the unrest throughout 2013 presaged something bigger. It did, and he was right there when it happened. The result is《三一八暴民展》(“The 318 Mob Exhibit”), a wonderful photography book that documents the events of March 18, 2014, when a group of Taiwanese took over the Legislative Yuan, and the 24-day “Sunflower” occupation, an event that shook Taiwanese politics, as well as cross-strait relations, at the foundations. The book is the first publication by五花鹽, or Bacon Press, an independent publisher that is run by a handful of young activists.

With forewords by theater director Ko I-chen (柯一正), screenwriter and author Neil Peng (馮光遠), and veteran photographer Hsieh San-tai (謝三泰), Huang’s book starts at 18:30 on March 18. Before us are several dozen protesters, most of them young, sitting outside the legislature. Most look pensive, unaware that a few hours hence, their world will be turned upside down. On the next page, it’s now 20:58, and the activists are storming the gates. Huang is right in the middle of it, and for many of us, his photography will be the first time we see — at least from this close — what it was like as the crowd overpowered the light police presence and barricaded itself inside the chambers of the legislature by stacking chairs and other furniture.

Over the next 150 pages, Huang takes us on a personal journey, both inside and outside parliament. We see the foot soldiers, those who made the whole occupation possible, as they try to cope with the complex situation they have gotten themselves into. There are very few pictures of the leaders of the movement, and one suspects that this was a conscious decision on Huang’s part, who as someone who was there for the entire duration of the occupation, understands that the Sunflowers were a whole lot more than a few charismatic figures. The movement was organic, and the great charisma of its leaders notwithstanding, it would quickly have collapsed had it not been for the ordinary men and women who assumed sundry responsibilities — health, communications, logistics, translation, security, cleaning up, to name a few.

We also see how the ordinarily bland legislature gradually blossoms into a rich flora of colorful visuals, much like the flower that came to symbolize the whole exercise. In Section Two, titled “Dreamers,” Huang offers us a wonderful tableau of the artwork that, little by little, took over the interior and exterior of the building. Years from now, the occupation will be remembered not only for its politics, but also for the extraordinary outburst of creativity that it engendered. (After the end of the occupation, more than 1,000 artifacts were removed and taken to safe places for preservation.)

Hsiengo Huang discusses his book during the official launch at Cafe Philo in Taipei on August 24. (Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT)

Huang’s style is up-close and free of the digital manipulation that far too often nowadays distorts reality by smoothing out the rough edges. Life is an accumulation of rough edges. The occupation certainly had many. He takes us to the very heart of the movement and gives us a chance to share in the drama, the frustration, but also the great humor that were part of this unprecedented event in the nation’s history.

The book, which is now available at various bookstores nationwide, was launched at Café Philo on Aug. 24. If you missed it, don’t despair, other events are planned:


鏡頭下的結構與暴力 ── 黃謙賢《三一八暴民展》新書座談()
時間 / 2014.08.30 (六) 14:00-16:00
地點 / 臺北光圈展示廳(臺北市博愛路25號一樓)
與談人 / 黃謙賢、柯一正、謝三泰

KEN channel x 臺灣國 ── 黃謙賢《三一八暴民展》新書座談()
時間 / 2014.09.05 (五) 19:30-21:30
地點 / DeRoot休閒空間(臺北市新生南路一段60號地下一樓)
主持人 / 阿肯(KEN)
與談人 / 黃謙賢、魏揚、曾柏瑜
報名頁面 / http://wp.me/P4efna-gq

鐵皮屋沙龍 x 臺灣國── 黃謙賢《三一八暴民展》新書座談()
時間 / 2014.09.14 (日) 19:00-21:00
地點 / 暖暖蛇咖啡(臺南市中西區普濟街53號)
與談人 / 黃謙賢、黃建龍

哲學星期五@臺中 x 臺灣國 ──黃謙賢《三一八暴民展》新書座談()
時間 / 2014.09.19 (五) 19:00-21:00


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.