Over the last few days, Philadelphians have debated the legacy of the once much-loved musician Kate Smith, whose likeness — until recently — stood outside of the Flyers’ arenas for decades. After it resurfaced that she sang two racist songs, Flyers management covered up the statue. Then, they removed the statue from public view and stopped playing her famous rendition of “God Bless America.”
Americans are no strangers to statue controversies, with the ongoing debate about what to do with monuments honoring Confederate figures. Some cities and states, such as Baltimore and Tennessee, have removed statues. A statue of Johnny Cash is even slated to replace a Confederate figure on Capitol Hill. One county in Georgia recently voted to add a plaque providing greater context about the racist legacies evoked by a statue. But hundreds still remain. In Philadelphia, we have debated what to do with the statue of late Mayor Frank Rizzo, which remains located across the street from City Hall and has drawn criticism over his legacy on race.
As these debates continue, it is instructive to look to how another country is dealing with a similar problem. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected in 2016 as the country’s first female president, launched a transitional justice initiative that is tasked with investigating atrocities that occurred during the period of authoritarian rule from 1945 to 1992, particularly actions during the rule of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who died in 1975.
Part of the Transitional Justice Commission’s mandate is to determine what to do with hundreds of statues of Chiang Kai-shek found throughout the country. The law that established the commission states, “Symbols appearing in public buildings or places that commemorate or express nostalgia for authoritarian rulers shall be removed, renamed, or dealt with in some other way.” The government is still reviewing the best solutions to deal with the statues, but one option already exists. And it must be noted that not everyone in Taiwan supports this endeavor as Chiang’s political party, the Kuomintang, still regularly wins elections.
One solution that predates the commission is the “donation” of such statues to a park near Chiang’s resting place, which institutions, schools, and companies can do without fear of retribution. I learned on a site visit that presently more than 220 statues of Chiang are there. It is an innovative solution to a controversial issue: The statues are available for viewing if people so wish to visit the park. Some statues have plaques identifying their source and reason behind the donation, but many stand without markers.
To demonstrate how divisive this issue in Taiwan, the minister of culture was recently slapped in the face by a pro-Chiang protester for the minister’s ongoing discussions of how to properly deal with the statues and Chiang’s overall legacy.
Now, Kate Smith is not Chiang Kai-shek. But Taiwan shows how people, governments, and society change and build compromise. What was once acceptable and accepted no longer is, and does not have to be. The government of Taiwan is holding its past leaders accountable for their actions without erasing or whitewashing the prominence those leaders once had. The government acknowledges Chiang’s place as a “founding father” of Taiwan, but such a status does not forbid criticism of his actions.
Such steps are a reflection — and statement — that we as a society have grown up and will not honor the past simply because it has already happened. Why should Philadelphia be any different with its icons?
Thomas J. Shattuck is an Asia Program research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He also is a member of the 2019 class of scholars at the Global Taiwan Institute.