Downtown building provides unlikely canvas for anti-China protest mural

Corvallis might seem an unlikely venue for an international political debate, but a mural going up on a downtown building may be about to change that with a bold statement in support of independence in Taiwan and human rights in Tibet.

Measuring 100 feet wide and 10 feet high, the intensely colorful painting runs the length of the old Corvallis Microtechnologies building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue.

One half of the mural represents a passionate denunciation of Chinese rule in Tibet, with shocking images of riot police beating demonstrators with truncheons and Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest their country’s occupation. A darkened monastery stands in the background, a grim reminder of Tibet’s leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama.

Balancing these scenes of conflict is a depiction of Taiwan’s natural beauty, with native people working peacefully in the shadow of a towering mountain range. The Taipei 101 skyscraper, until recently the world’s tallest building, stands like a bulwark in the middle, flanked by floating lanterns bearing slogans such as “independence” and a thicket of rainbow-hued fists raised in defiance.

Strong stuff for this normally sleepy Oregon college town.

But Taiwanese-American businessman David Lin, who is renovating the building for a restaurant, said he wanted to call attention to what he sees as China’s growing threat to his homeland’s sovereignty.

With its booming economy and lofty international ambitions, China is an emerging superpower whose influence could soon outstrip America’s in East Asia, Lin said.

China already dominates Taiwanese politics, and Lin’s concern is that Beijing could seize control of the island nation, which it considers a renegade province, just as it did in Tibet in 1950. If that happens, he believes, other Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea will shift their allegiances — both political and economic — from the United States to China.

“I wanted to wake up Americans. The China threat is real,” Lin said. “We need to stand up.”

Lin, who immigrated to this country in the early 1970s and has lived in Corvallis since 1980, went home to Taiwan in January as part of a delegation campaigning for the pro-independence party in the presidential election.

His candidate lost, but during the run-up to the vote, Lin met painter Chao Tsung-song, a dedicated independence activist known for his political art. The men became friends, and Lin told Chao about the building he owned in Corvallis — and his desire to make an artistic statement.

At Lin’s invitation, Chao volunteered his services and traveled to Corvallis. Working from a preliminary sketch he made in Taiwan, Chao adds a bit more to the mural each day. He expects to finish the job in a week or two.

With Lin acting as interpreter, Chao called the undertaking a major challenge. He’s never created anything so large, and having to paint from the platform of an electric lift means he can’t easily step back and assess how the work is progressing.

It’s also his first piece of public art, and although he’s addressed political themes before, his anguish over Tibet’s violent past and Taiwan’s uncertain future comes through powerfully in this painting.

Though his English is limited, Chao finds the words to express his feelings about the mural.

“Not beautiful,” he says. “But my heart is sorry.”

Chao’s work has provoked some strong reactions from passers-by, many of whom have stopped to offer their opinions.

“Most people, 90 percent of people, give me this,” Lin said, clapping his hands.

But others are not so supportive. A few people have told him the mural is too violent for a public space, he said, and a group of four Chinese college students cursed him for stirring up trouble.

He’s a little worried that the Chinese government might try to exert its influence to halt the project, or that Chao may face some form of retaliation when he returns home. But the project already has caught the attention of pro-independence newspapers in Taiwan, which have portrayed the mural as a way to build American support for their cause.

And in the end, that’s what really matters, Lin said.

“We’d like to mobilize the people to think the way we think,” he said. “This is important to us.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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