The first time President Wang Hsu Hsueh, the Kaohsiung Taiwan Stake president, visited Brother Lin Chun Nan, Brother Lin hid from him. But President Wang didn’t give up—he came again, met Brother Lin, and invited him to come to church. It had been twenty-five years since the restauranteur had been in an LDS meetinghouse.
After meeting the missionaries in 1958, Brother Lin, then a nineteen-year-old noodle-restaurant manager, became one of the first two converts in Tainan, the southernmost city in Taiwan. Brother Lin stopped attending church four years later and did not return for a quarter of a century. During that time he served in the military, opened another restaurant, married, and reared five children. “Still,” he says, “I never forgot about the Church.”
While Brother Lin’s business was growing, the Church kept pace—growing from a few branches in the late 1950s to 17,500 members today. These members have seen the formation of three stakes: two in the north, centered around the nation’s capital city, Taipei, and one in the south, centered around Kaohsiung, a widespread, semitropical city of 1,300,000 people. And all this growth has come to a nation of nearly 20,000,000 people spread out on an island about the size of Switzerland.
From the first, the gospel appealed to people of all ages and backgrounds in Taiwan. Perhaps that is because of the rapid changes Taiwan has seen as a nation. For most of its history, Taiwan has been home for immigrants from the Chinese mainland, mostly from the southeast provinces. The original inhabitants, who now number about 1 percent of the population, were Indonesian. Japan ruled the country from 1895 to 1945, however, and left its stamp on the culture. When LDS missionaries first came to the island in 1955, homes were mostly one-story, wooden Japanese-style structures with sliding doors. The custom was to open a door without knocking and walk in—which made missionary work much more open.
Then, in 1949, when Taiwan became the seat of government for the Republic of China, two million immigrants from all over mainland China came to Taiwan in what Taiwanese call the Restoration movement. The sudden influx of displaced people of diverse education and skills still affects the nation today. Through the years, the country has moved from poverty to a level of education (90 percent literacy) and economic stability many other Asian nations look to as a model.
The Chinese culture has deeply affected the growth of the Church in this island nation. Since the Chinese look to the elderly for wisdom and leadership, in its early years the Church benefitted greatly from the conversion of quite a few members in their forties and fifties.
In Taipei, for example, Liang Jun-shen was called in 1959 as the first native branch president. Hu Wei I was his first counselor. Both were forty-five years old and had been members for only two years. Several years later, Brother Hu was called as branch president, with Brother Liang as his first counselor.
Brother Liang was well known in Taipei as a professor of zoology at the National University of Taipei and as a researcher at the Taiwan National Museum. Even now, despite two bouts with cancer, he continues to teach part-time.
Like Brother Liang, Brother Hu is familiar to many in Taiwan. From 1962 to 1964, he translated the Book of Mormon into Mandarin, the nation’s official language. He has also reviewed all editions since the book’s first publication in 1965. Brother Hu is also well known as a sprinter. He began to run seriously after his retirement and now holds the Taiwan records for the seventy- to seventy-five-year age group in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter events. At the 1985 World Masters Games in Canada, he won a silver and a bronze medal.
Even in their advancing years, the two men continue to serve as Church leaders. Brother Hu was called as the first patriarch in Taiwan, Brother Liang as the second.
Chen Shu-liang, affectionately known as the matriarch of the Relief Society in Taiwan, is also an excellent example of the maturity and leadership of early Church members. After she was baptized with her husband in 1957, Sister Chen was called as the first Relief Society president in the Taipei Branch. She served as a district and stake Relief Society president for twenty-five years. During that time, she was the Relief Society coordinator under the leadership of five mission presidents, traveling throughout the island to assist the branches.
Many members first became interested in the restored gospel because of its focus on the family. They say that the gospel appeals to them because it helps families change for the better. The conversion of Hsieh Yueh Chiao of the East Tainan Ward illustrates:
“My husband was interested in the gospel, and he joined in 1976. But I had no desire to join the Church. When the missionaries told me that they believed in eternal marriage, I became especially discouraged. I thought that my marriage wasn’t very good and felt that this life was enough for one marriage.”
Sister Hsieh stopped taking the discussions and even went so far as to leave when the missionaries stopped by. However, one day, with the help of Sister Hsieh’s husband, the missionaries tracked the young mother down. “I was touched enough to agree to continue the lessons,” she explains. During one discussion on the Apostle Paul, she felt the Spirit deeply and agreed to attend church. Eventually, she was baptized.
“I discovered after baptism that family members have to try hard to help each other,” she observes. “Only then can they realize the blessings of eternal marriage. I’m grateful now for my eternal blessings.”
Joining the Church in Taiwan has often been a family affair. Tai Chin Chih, for example, had two daughters under the age of eight and was expecting a third child when she joined the Church in 1959 in Kaohsiung. Though she has served diligently to help build up the Church in the city, she is most pleased with the contributions of her daughters, who were baptized as they came of age.
It was their examples and love, Sister Tai feels, that were the key to her husband’s decision to join the Church ten years after she joined. The oldest daughter, Tai Shu Chyuan, graduated from a university in Taiwan and served as a missionary. The second, Shu Huan, attended Brigham Young University, where she married.
The third, Shu Hen, has a somewhat different experience. Six months after birth, she contracted polio. “With faith and the help of members and missionaries, she learned not only to walk, but also to ride a bicycle,” Sister Tai explains. “She, too, served a mission in Taiwan. I was taught the gospel thirty years ago and my children grew up in the Church. Now my grandchildren are serving missions in Taiwan.”
Another example of how the gospel crosses age boundaries is Bishop Shiung Tung Wen of the Taipei Third Ward. Some fourteen years ago, the missionaries first contacted his family. “I wasn’t very interested, but my nine-year-old son, Kuan Ping, was,” he recalls. “He dragged me to church and even tried to teach me what he was learning. I joined because of his influence. My wife and another son were baptized about half a year later. My third son had to wait until he was eight. I’m especially thrilled that my oldest, the one who taught me the gospel, has been able to serve as a missionary, returning home last year.”
Taiwanese youth in the Church have some particularly demanding challenges, but they appear to be the stronger for them. They must pass rigid entrance examinations to enter high school, and seniors must take a comprehensive exam in order to graduate. All students attend school for five and one-half days a week, and high school students typically take thirteen courses a term.
Unfortunately, many of the exams and exam preparatory classes are held on Sunday. Thus, Sunday church attendance during certain times of the year is difficult for the youth. School and studying is so time-consuming that little time is left for any other activities. Because of these difficulties, seminary and institute classes are held weekly.
Perhaps these challenges are why Taiwanese teens relish attending Church meetings and activities whenever they can. More than forty high school students attended one baptismal service in the Taipei stake center, for example, even though many did not know the soon-to-be members.
Ever since the Taipei Taiwan Temple was dedicated in 1984, it has had a great impact on the nation. One of the main reasons for that influence is the importance the Chinese place on families. Brother Liu Chun Hua, temple recorder and regional representative over the Kaohsiung and Taipei Taiwan regions, relates that family files (names of ancestors for whom their living descendants have applied to do temple work) are quite active. “There is a proportion of one family file to every four or five temple files,” he says, “which I understand is exceptional. Every Saint was thrilled at the announcement that we would have a temple. Even the members from Hong Kong attended the dedication, and one session was held in Cantonese for them. That enthusiasm, I think, still continues. Records show that monthly temple attendance is more than the number of temple-recommend holders.”
The Church enjoys a favorable reputation in Taiwan, and relations with the government are good, in large measure because of the emphasis on family and family history. The temple fits into the overall pattern of Chinese veneration for family history.
Recently, the two stakes in Taipei cooperated to hold a five-day family history exhibit and seminar, with each ward signing up to prepare certain displays and to man specific shifts. The National Central Library provided the facilities and books, and the government’s cultural affairs office and its education department assisted in the seminar.
The gospel has effected profound changes in the lives of many Church members in Taiwan. These blessings are both universal and individual. The Tsai family feels, for example, that though their story of conversion is quite different from most, their lives are an example of what the gospel does for all members.
“In Tai Tung, when Mei Jung and I were first married, we both ran a shop that sold hamburgers and drinks, and I did interior decorating on the side while I was also studying in school,” relates Brother Tsai Wen Fang. “The missionaries lived close by and often came by for breakfast. They gave us a copy of the Book of Mormon, and we became close friends. If a missionary was sick, I would take him to the doctor. Once, a missionary needed some dental work, and I traded some interior decorating with a dentist so he wouldn’t charge the missionary.
“We were moved by their sacrifice. They didn’t have much—one Japanese elder’s father had passed away, and his mother was retired. His shoes wore out, and he couldn’t afford new ones, so we bought him a pair. They also helped us a lot. When business was very busy, they pitched in.”
The Tsai family studied the gospel for a long time, struggling with the idea of closing their shop on Sunday and paying tithing. Eventually, the missionaries were transferred.
“For the next eight months our lives were miserable,” Sister Tsai remembers. “I ran the store, and my husband did interior decoration. We had no family life—we worked from early morning to late at night. So we decided to sell the restaurant.”
The Tsais moved to Taipei, and Brother Tsai began working full-time as an interior decorator. One day they found a note and some flowers at the main entrance of the building where they lived. Somehow one of the elders whom they had known in Tai Tung, but who was now back in the United States, had tracked them down. Two lady missionaries had delivered a note he had written to them, adding the flowers themselves.
“We were greatly moved,” recalls Sister Tsai. “We felt that the Lord had sent the missionaries to us, but we had passed up our first chance. Now he was generously giving us a second one.”
The family took advantage of their second chance.
“We felt strongly that this was the true church,” explains Brother Tsai. “We knew the teaching of tithing was true, and we began to understand why members make sacrifices. Three months after receiving the note, we were baptized. Truly, the gospel is a life-style of joy. I’m grateful it came to my country and to my family.”