Earlier in the year (before moving to Tokyo) I visited Taiwan for the third time and spent a very enjoyable week travelling down the east cost by train. Along the way I stopped off at Taitung (台東市) – a rather unremarkable small city but the gateway to my intended destination of Green Island (綠島).
Getting there is no mean feat as your choices are either a scary flight in a small plane or a stomach-churning ferry journey (cheaper). I choose the latter, and while I managed to hold on to the contents of my stomach over the 1-hour trip, many others didn’t fare so well (see the video above to know what to expect).
Upon arrival on dry land things rapidly improved, even if the weather wasn’t much to get excited about. While you would normally require a license to rent a scooter in Taiwan the rules are pretty much ignored on the island so after dumping my bags at a run-down holiday chalet I did just that and hit the road to see what I could find.
Bearing in mind that I knew practically nothing about the island at that time, halfway around the 6-square mile island I was surprised to come across what turned out to be an enormous derelict prison camp. Seeing as there didn’t seem to be anyone around I literally drove straight up to the enormous steel gates and wandered inside.
As it turned out there were actually two prisons built to accommodate political prisoners during the time of White Terror (白色恐怖) when martial law was declared by the Kuomitang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) regime between 1949-1987. During this period around 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned with many others losing their lives, property and freedom.
Separately titled the “New Life Correction Center” (1951 ~ 1965) and “Green Island Reform and Reeducation Prison” (1972 ~ 1987) today they are collectively known as “Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park”. There is a small and rather tatty museum area within the park commemorating the suffering of the people who were interred there but other than this the prisons have been left open to slowly rot.
Creepily known as “Oasis Villa”, the “Green Island Reform and Reeducation Prison” contained four cell blocks and a separate solitary confinement building as well as a visitation centre.
On the high prison walls, mottled political propaganda slogans from the time can still be seen saying things like “Be firm against communism and ready to win”.
Inmates were only allowed out for 20-30 minutes each day to exercise in the yard.
It was extremely eery to walk through an empty prison with all the cell doors hanging open as if their inhabitants had only recently fled.
More slogans on the external wall declare “Take back the mainland”.
Outside the gate of the older “New Life Correction Center” things looked even grimmer.
The warped palm trees outside the windowless concrete buildings made me feel as if I was in some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare as I slowly drove around the enormous compound.
Here up to 2000 prisoners at a time spent years doing hard labour with some being forced to show their “loyalty” by having themselves tattooed with the slogan “Oppose the Communists, Resist the Russians”.
Exposed to the elements the buildings are rapidly falling apart.
Nearby a vocational centre used to rehabilitate prisoners with new skills is also falling into disrepair.
Luckily the island isn’t all doom and gloom and after the sun finally came out the coast road made for a fantastic drive (I went circled the whole island twice!).
It’s also popular with local tourists and scuba divers during the summer. Since I was visiting off-season not many of the shops or restaurants were open so there wasn’t much choice in what to eat.
For some visitors, the main attraction of the island is a visit to one of only 3 saltwater hot springs in the world. I gave it a try and wasn’t sure it quite lived up to the hype but was quite relaxing all the same.
Back near the prison, I spotted another slogan carved directly into the cliff face – “Exterminate the Communists, Restore the Country”.
I’ve seen road signs warning of deer and other livestock before, but never crabs!
There’s a small lighthouse in the northwest corner of the island but it isn’t open to visitors.
It overlooks where you land if you decide on the flying option.
As far as beaten tracks are concerned Green Island is well and truly off it which is probably why it made such a great location to hide away all the people the KMT didn’t like. While this aspect of the island’s history is a bit grim it’s still a beautiful spot to visit if you can afford the time it takes to get here and don’t mind cutting yourself off from modern amenities for a couple of days.