Most souvenirs are garbage. Cheap carvings made around the globe from the place supposedly being commemorated. Decorative spoons. Useless stuff.
So it’s noteworthy when you have a keepsake that’s actually practical, like the 11-inch cleaver I’m looking at now, produced by Maestro Wu. A single piece of metal, lightweight and balanced. Flick your fingernail against the blade, and it rings for five full seconds. Sharp as a razor.
I got it on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, 2,000 yards off the coast of China. I had flown to Taiwan to interview Annette Lu, then vice president, whose route to what she called “soft power” took her through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Chicago, putting her on the Sun-Times’ radar. She admired how freely people could protest here.
My accommodating Taiwanese hosts asked, while I was in the neighborhood, if there was anywhere else in the country I’d like to visit beyond the capital of Taipei. I rather boldly asked to visit the island of Kinmen. As a fan of history, I knew that part of the Kennedy-Nixon debates centered on whether the United States would go to war with China over the fate of Quemoy and Matsu — “Quemoy” being what Westerners called Kinmen then.
I bring it up because the nation is in the news, after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped by to visit on her Asian tour. When news of the trip was leaked, there was a disappointing outcry that it shouldn’t happen, that we need to be nice to Communist China so they don’t bully us even more than they already do.
Some background, for readers unfamiliar: Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, is a democratic nation of 23 million perched in uncomfortable proximity to the People’s Republic of China and its 1.4 billion population. The communists increasingly insist they own Taiwan because ... well, they want it.
As to why China, a nation of 3.7 million square miles, needs to absorb Taiwan, not half of 1% the size, well, it’s the same reason Russia needs Ukraine. They don’t. They simply feel entitled, the way any bully feels entitled to your lunch money. Because they think they can take it.
Here is where America comes in. Putin invaded Ukraine because he thought the West would do nothing. We should have made it clear before.
That’s what makes Pelosi’s trip valuable, even though it set off another flurry of Chinese saber-rattling and missile firing. There should be no ambiguity. Without American might, Taiwan will suffer the fate of Hong Kong or Tibet, and 23 million more people in the world will trade liberty for chains.
Would that matter to us?
Given that half of Americans just had their bodily autonomy taken away, I can see arguing that we should tend to our own garden. But it’s all the same fight: To oppose oppression here is to oppose it everywhere. Because bullies are the same: never satisfied with taking today’s lunch money, they’ll be back for more tomorrow.
Just as we see American religious fundamentalists taking aim at the next win — one Supreme Court ruling, and we’re suddenly a Christian nation — so the Chinese, fresh from consuming Taiwan, will proceed to their next prey.
This is nothing new. There is an aspect to my Maestro Wu cleaver I didn’t mention. The knives are forged from steel recovered from Chinese shells. In the fall of 1958, China began lobbing shells at Kinmen — 400,000 over two weeks.
The Americans kept the Chinese on the mainland by supplying Taiwan with advanced military equipment — our Sidewinder air-to-air missiles were particularly persuasive. The Chinese shelled Kinmen for the next 20 years, though only on odd-numbered days.
The knifemakers at Maestro Wu gather the shells and harvest their steel. You can buy such “bombshell steel choppers” on Amazon. The Taiwanese are known for that quality: resourcefulness, making the best of a bad situation.
In that way, I view the Taiwanese as being similar to the Jews, forced into ingenuity as a survival strategy in the face of a hostile world. As the great Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Americans are on Taiwan’s side because we are both nations that prize the ability to concentrate our minds, to think — many of us, anyway. We’re both trying to keep that freedom.