【Museums Link Asia-Pacific】Make the Spirit of Free Speech Spread Out: The Challenge and Practice of Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum

Author: Liu Ting-Yu (Freelance writer)

Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum is thought-provoking and further make visitors construct new cognition and identity through his self-immolation site. Besides, different from celebrities’ former residences and museums for dark tourism, the purpose of Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum is to preserve positive spirit of freedom rather than commemorate a particular person. Therefore, how to effectively participate in society is the main goal of the memorial museum. It is trying to make Nylon’s spirit spread out to the public.

Keywords: Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum, freedom of speech, hot interpretation, social justice, museum activism


The time challenge of Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum

Born in 1947, Cheng has founded the “Freedom Era Weekly” in the trembling white terror period. Cheng challenged the authoritarian rule of KMT, causing repeatedly prohibition and the cease of publication of the magazines. Nylon Cheng had gradually turned to be a street activist from a chief editor since 1986 and launched numerous actions such as “519 Green Movement",  “the 228 Peace Promotion Association" and “New Country Movement" etc. He also expressed an opening speech of Taiwan Independence. In 1988, Cheng committed suicide by self-immolation after 71 days of self-isolation in office. Nowadays, his name is still mentioned every now and then, becoming a symbol of freedom and democracy in Taiwan society. His name can arouse controversy between free speech and indiscreet remark from the incident of “The Night Night Show" or cause the uproar over the politics going deep into the campus when the performance review of teacher “Liu, Fang-Jun" was evaluated as Grade B after taking students to visit Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum. The influence of Nylon Cheng is still on the front, showing a state of chaos in identity of nationality and sovereignty. Under these circumstances, what’s the mission for the museum? How does it speak for the society in this issue? What’s the value of preserving cultural relics, and what contributions can it make to the public?


Make the spirit of Nylon spread out

With the appearance as an ordinary house, Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum actually was the headquarter of Tangwai magazine “Freedom Era Weekly" in 1980s and the self-immolation site at the same time. He pursues 100% freedom of speech in his whole life and is the core leader of democracy trend with his opening statement of Taiwan Independence. Along with this special background, it the memorial museum differs greatly from other historical museum filled with subjects of massacres, human rights violations or political persecution, Nylon Cheng memorial museum stands out with a vivid idea of revolutionary and resistance. Moreover, it’s also different from former residence and memorial museum of celebrities since it presents the daily life of Nylon Cheng with details, avoiding missing the point of subject and preventing from blind worship for individualistic heroism. In short, Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum is hard to define. It acts instead of showing; it speaks instead of defining. It presents the spirit of freedom instead of limiting your thoughts.

With the appearance as an ordinary house, Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum actually was the headquarter of Tangwai magazine “Freedom Era Weekly" in 1980s and the self-immolation site at the same time.


Managed by a private foundation, the operating expenses of Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum mainly come from donations, incapable of having more resources to maintain cultural relic and the site. However, with various way of holding lectures, film festival, publication, Art Freedom Era and mobile museum etc., Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum is more flexible, initiative and influential compared to larger scale organizations. Tu Chih-Yao, CEO of Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum, says “The position of Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum is indeed different from other museums, but we are uncertain how to enhance its characteristic…last year, the foundation had tried something new, it had people know Nylon Cheng with a more tender way through cultural and artistic activities. We will not interpret Cheng’s historical position as a hero, but as someone who accomplished greatness with numerous crowds standing behind his back. Therefore, we tend to describe him as an ordinary person with flesh and blood instead of a perfect saint without faults and wrongness. This will connect with the public and attract people from different ethnic groups to know Nylon.” While pursuing an ideal, the foundation will face more realistic difficulties: How to bring it into full play with limited budget, time and space? You can find out the profound strength from a small body with many crossover events and methodically arranged speech and responds online.

Tu Chih-Yao, CEO (first from the left) and the staffs of the museum show their publications.


“Is it real?” Respond from people seeing the self-immolation site

During the interview with CEO, we unexpectedly learn that people visiting the museum had known Nylon’s story and most of them still arranged the trip to museum despite its remote location. However, when looking at the burnt-black self-immolation site, many visitors are still shocked at first sight, doubting if the event really happened and asking “Is it real? Does it really happen?"

Nylon Cheng’s office, on April 7, 1989, when the police were forcibly attacked, Cheng used a lighter to ignite three barrels of gasoline under the desk. After 71 days of imprisonment, he burned to death. The museum still preserves the scene at that time.


British scholar David Uzzell (1989) reminds us that we can’t neglect the influence of emotions in hot interpretation applied in heritage sites: “A detached, objective and cool approach to the presentation and assessment of information is highly value…This is not to argue that decision-making can be divided into two types: cool and dispassionate, and hot and emotional. Rather, it is to suggest that because we are human and not automatons, issues which involve personal values, beliefs and interests will nevertheless excite a degree of emotional arousal, even though contemplated in a calm and level-headed way." From the intuitional reaction of visitors and the regular action of cigarette remembrances, we are aware that mood is contagious at the self-immolation site. Emotions including surprise, passion, madness, sadness and empathy complete the whole display of museum, making people feel the same and understand the history with hot interpretation. This is the uniqueness of space full of symbols and special logic rules. Besides, through the interaction of material and flesh, it builds up the sense of past, the awakening and identity for the present and future: “Having heritage relic is like possess form and time track for of history; in other words, with own identity, people have the power to live in the present and the future." (Julia Rose, 2016)

A row of cigarettes was placed outside the self-immolation site. Nylon loves smoking very much. Some visitors with smoking habit will leave their cigarettes to pay tribute to Nylon, which becomes a unique tacit understanding of visiting.


Ignite your bones in daily life

Why visit Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum? The CEO mentioned two main reasons: time and action. While Nylon undertook social movements in the beginning, it’s the end of 80s when the Taiwan democracy movement was furious. Nylon was in the essential turning point before and after democratization since he aggressively spoke out and planned movements in the dark era of martial law. It is the time period we focus on telling his stories in the museum. Furthermore, Nylon Cheng, self-titled as “Active thinker", is a very enthusiastic and positive person. When encountering some visitors who are nervous and anxious about the current situation of society, the staff will suggest them to read Cheng’s articles, mentioning we should not see the society with defeatism but thinking a new way of living. The future of Taiwanese only can be decided by themselves, and the prerequisite to the decision is “Freedom of Speech." Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum is still holding this Nylon spirit and continuously inspiring the younger generation. “Although the museum has been run for 20 years, but since it locates in the apartment, we will never know when it comes to an end. Only with Cheng’s words and thoughts, can we convey his true spirit.”

  • official website: Nylon Cheng Memorial Museum
  • David Uzzell (1989). The Hot Interpretation of War and Conflict. Heritage Interpretation (pp.33-47). London: Belhaven Press.
  • Julia Rose (2016). Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. London: Rowman & Littlefield.