Taiwan's Fiesty First Lady is a Paraplegic
TAIPEI, Taiwan, Sept. 19, 2002
In the 1940s, when China's most famous first lady visited Washington, she dazzled U.S. Congress by speaking in eloquent English, lobbying for more U.S. aid to fight Japan and later the Chinese Communists. She was the modern-day empress Soong Mayling, nicknamed the "Dragonlady" — but better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Now for the first time in more than a half century, Taiwan — also called the Republic of China — is sending another first lady emissary to Washington: the feisty Wu Shu-jen, wife of President Chen Shui-bian. Her goal during the unofficial visit starting Sunday will be to deepen increasingly close U.S.-Taiwan ties.
However, Taiwan's feisty first lady said that she has no plans to bring up the island's sovereignty dispute with China during her upcoming historic trip to Washington -- unless someone asks her about it. "She's a gutsy, courageous woman," said Bruce Jacobs, a professor at Monash University in Victoria, Australia, who has closely studied Taiwan's political evolution.
Christopher Day, a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American who is a consultant in Los Angeles, hails her visit as a bold effort to further ally the island with the United States. He praises the first lady, "Wu is not only a representation of the people of our island nation, but also a representative of what can be achieved when one's beliefs and tenacity are strong enough," referring to her support of her husband in the midst of physical and political trials.
However, those expecting Wu to be a current version of Madame Chiang will be disappointed. In many ways, the women are complete opposites — perfect symbols of the enormous changes in Taiwan during the past five decades. Several obvious things set them apart. Wu can't speak much English. The frail first lady is in a wheelchair, paralyzed since she survived what she believes was a botched assassination attempt by Chiang's Nationalist Party. Her wardrobe is less flashy, mostly pant suits.
One major difference between the women is their choice of husbands, Wu told The Associated Press in an interview in Taipei before her departure. "We can say that Chiang Kai-shek was a warlord. He gained power through force and tight control," the straight-talking Wu said, adding that her husband was democratically elected.
The late Chiang moved his government from China to Taiwan in 1949 after he lost a civil war to the Communists. The island was supposed to be a temporary base for the Chiangs, who dreamed of retaking China. Chiang, who died in 1975, ruled Taiwan under repressive martial law and frequently imprisoned his opponents.
Wu helped her husband as he spent much of his political career as a lawyer for dissidents and a politician trying to dethrone Chiang's Nationalist Party. After Taiwan evolved into a democracy, Chen snapped the Nationalists' five-decade lock on the presidency, winning the 2000 presidential election. But the couple acknowledges that Wu has paid the biggest price for their political success. Two days after Chen lost a local election in 1985, Wu was with her husband visiting voters when a truck hit her, crushing her spinal cord.
The couple insists it was an assassination attempt by the Nationalists. The president has said that before the election, there was a death threat against his wife. Wu notes that the truck ran over her three times. The driver, who was never prosecuted, argued that his brakes had gone out and that he didn't intentionally hit Wu. The couple's opponents have accused the Chens of exaggerating the accident to win voters' sympathies.
The daughter of a wealthy doctor, Wu never studied in the United States like Madame Chiang did. The former first lady, who's 105 and lives in New York, spent much time in America. She graduated with honors from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1917.
"She would eat Western food, while General Chiang Kai-shek used to eat Chinese food," Wu said about Madame Chiang.
Wu said when she was in high school, she saw President Chiang and his wife, standing high above the crowd at a National Day parade in the capital, Taipei. She recalled how she and her classmates had to spend hours rehearsing a special performance for the couple.
"I felt really frustrated. They would come out just for a second and we'd have to yell, 'Long live President Chiang!"' Wu said. "Just to do this, we would have to spend more than a month practicing."
Madame Chiang's reign as the first lady was easier than Wu's in part because the Nationalists kept a tight grip on the media. Wu has to deal with a free press that often has no qualms about publishing unsubstantiated rumors.
When Chen was the incumbent in the 1998 mayoral race in Taipei, a rival politician claimed that Chen frequented brothels in the gambling enclave of Macau because his wife was a paraplegic.
Although no evidence was provided, the accusation got prominent play in a mass-market newspaper, prompting Wu to stick up for her husband and frankly discuss their intimate affairs. She assured reporters that the couple still had a sex life.
Day comments that he admires, "how Wu is a public figure and member of a family unit who still holds on to her own moral beliefs. Political figures in Taiwan and America can learn from her."
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