Bloodied Artist, Warrior of Life —Chen Cheng-po’s Former Residence and Museum


2017 / March

Kuo Han-chen /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Katje Chen and Darryl Sterk

A casual passerby of the bustling shop at the intersection of Lan­jing Street and Guo­hua Street in ­Chiayi City might lift his head and see a sign proclaiming the site to be the former residence of Chen ­Cheng-po. Although he was acclaimed as the father of Taiwanese modernism, Chen’s untimely death in his prime led him to be forgotten by many. That has changed, however, as in the past decade or so his paintings have auctioned for ever-rising prices and there has been a cultural shift towards appreciating Taiwanese artists.

Hopes of becoming Taiwan’s Van Gogh

Born in 1895, the year the First Sino-Japanese War ended and Taiwan was ceded to Japan, it seems as if Chen ­Cheng-po’s life was destined to be circumscribed by the major conflicts of the era.

Although his father was a scholar who had passed the local-level imperial exams, Chen’s mother had to peddle peanut oil on the streets because his father died shortly after his birth. Chen ­Cheng-po entered the Taiwan Governor-General’s National Language School. During college, he became a student of famed Japanese water­colorist Ki­ni­chiro Ishi­kawa, and with his teacher’s encouragement eventually went on to enroll at Tokyo Fine Arts School (now Tokyo University of the Arts).

In 1926 his painting Outside ­Chiayi Street was chosen for the 7th Imperial Fine Arts Academy Exhibition (the “Tei­ten”) in Japan, making him the first Taiwanese painter to have an oil painting exhibited at the Tei­ten. From there, his star began to rise.

Sketches of home

Chen ­Cheng-po moved to Shanghai and taught at Xin­hua Art College and Chang­ming Art School from 1929 to 1933. He was chosen as one of 12 artists to represent the Republic of China at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. After he returned to Taiwan the same year, most of his works were of the scenery of his hometown and portrayed both the local culture of ­Chiayi and his deep love for his home.

The ­Chiayi City 228 Commemorative Cultural Foundation established the Chen ­Cheng-Po & 228 Cultural Museum at 228-12 Guo­hua Street, near Chen’s former residence. Many of his paintings are displayed there, featuring scenes of ­Chiayi streets, parks, and temple plazas.

Chen ­Cheng-po painted Summer Street Scene in 1927. In this painting, he uses space to separate the ­Chiayi street scene into three half-circular or circular sections, each an independent vignette. The sunbaked streets of the small southern town come to life on the canvas. One can almost feel the shade thrown by the trees and the inexpressible anxiety of a hot summer afternoon. ­Chiayi Park (1), painted in 1937, is one of Chen’s larger pieces, standing 162 centimeters tall. Red-crowned cranes and white geese frolic in the shade of a magnificent flame tree, creating an idyllic scene straight from the artist’s deepest longings.

Tamsui sunset

Chen ­Cheng-po truly hit his stride after he returned to Taiwan. He would wander, his easel on his back, painting whenever and wherever inspiration struck.

Nine reproductions of Chen’s paintings are on display in ­Chiayi’s Zhong­zheng Park in front of the Chen ­Cheng-Po & 228 Cultural Museum. The replicas are showcased in metal frames set on metal easels. The most famous of these works is Sunset in Tam­sui, painted in 1935, depicting Hokkien-style houses clustered together beside the Dan­shui River. It gives the viewer a sense of immersion within the scene.

The “Tam­sui” series, including Tam­sui and Tam­sui Middle School, are iconic examples of Chen’s style of painting. In 2007, Sunset in Tam­sui set a record for the highest price paid for an oil painting by a Taiwanese painter at a Hong Kong auction.

The works in Zhong­zheng Park also include ­Chiayi Street Scene, painted in 1934. The perspective of this painting is lowered to eye level, allowing the viewer a point of view similar to what a person would see if they were to stand on a street in Chiayi.

Fifty-eight of these “Chen ­Cheng-po easels” are placed throughout ­Chiayi City, showcasing two main focal points: the eponymous “­Chiayi” series, the easels placed where Chen originally painted the works, and the “Taiwan” series, with pictures of Tam­sui, Mt. Ba­gua, and Yu­shan (Mt. Jade). The reproductions also each bear a plaque with a brief introduction of the piece and an audio guide. These 58 displays form the Chen ­Cheng-po Art Trail.

Walking into history

Warm-hearted and generous, Chen ­Cheng-po was elected to the ­Chiayi City Council in 1946. When the February 28 Incident occurred in 1947, because he spoke Mandarin he was chosen as part of a locally organized “February 28 Incident Settlement Committee.” The committee was called upon to mediate between Kuo­min­tang forces and civilians when there was a standoff at ­Chiayi’s Shui­shang Airfield. People urged Chen not to go, saying it was too dangerous, but he insisted. However, at the airfield the group was seized by the military. Later, bound with wire, they were taken to ­Chiayi Train Station and summarily executed.

Xu Yong­sen, who runs the ice shop out of Chen ­Cheng-po’s former residence, says that he used to hear his grandmother speak of the artist: “Mr. Chen was such a kind man. Not only was he passionate about his duties as a city councilman, but he would also sometimes come over to mediate when I argued with your grandfather. Such a good man, yet his life ended in such tragedy.”

Xu adds, “His family even had to risk their lives to bring his corpse home.” Chen’s heartbroken family put his cold body on a door panel and took a picture, proof that he had died an unjust death. His bullet-torn shirt, which hangs in the museum, is like a white flag fluttering over Taiwan, calling his soul home.

The changing fortunes of Chen’s former residence

Seven decades later, Chen ­Cheng-po’s former residence at 249 Lan­jing Street has become an ice shop named “We Taiwanese Folk’s Ice Dessert.” At this ice shop, one can see how bustling excitement and serenity co-exist.

Serenity, because the ice shop doesn’t open until past noon, and in those hours before it opens for business, one can almost imagine how it was back in the days when Chen was in residence, quietly working at his art. Xu Yong­sen remembers that when he was young, he could see how the first floor was filled with Chen’s paintings. He’d always wanted to go in and take a closer look, but never had the chance.

The other aspect, that of bustling excitement, is because the ice shop sells flavored ices in summer and hot grass jelly and rice dumpling soup in winter. Hence the shop is very popular and often has a line out the door.

Xu Yong­sen says that he rents the storefront from Chen ­Cheng-po’s family. Chen’s family moved away after the February 28th Incident. In 1983, they started renting the place to Xu’s family, who were in the business of making candied yams. The next generation changed to selling flavored ice instead, and has been doing so for the last 20-odd years. Often, customers will see the sign saying that the place is Chen ­Cheng-po’s former residence and they will ask about what sort of person the artist used to be.

After finishing our ice and taking leave of Chen’s residence, walking along the busy street we can see one of his easels displayed beside a nearby temple courtyard. Temple of Wen­ling Sea Goddess (Ma­tsu) was painted in 1927. Although he is long gone, one can still almost see the artist’s solitary figure walking through the bustling market­place with a smile on his lips and his easel on his back, continuing on his journey to paint throughout Taiwan.         

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