Eyes on Motherland
Hong Kong Standard

The last place on earth you would expect to find a Chairman Mao Cafe would be Taiwan, the final foothold of the Chinese Nationalist state that Mao Zedong's communist revolution booted out back in 1949.

But there it is, right in the heart of Taipei, a cozy, smoky watering hole chock-a-block with Mao bric-a-brac and filled on weekend evenings with Taiwan's restless Generation X.

Taiwan's killer earthquake reopened old wounds in the bitter Taiwan-mainland  rivalry but did not unsettle a single Mao badge.

''Sure, some people are surprised by this, but not that many,'' says co-owner Lin Yu-chieh, who admits the Mao Zedong theme was more cheeky marketing gimmick than ideological statement.

The bar's very existence speaks volumes about Taiwan, its people and their ever more complicated view of the embattled island's half-century rivalry with the vast mainland.

Taiwan's success in fending off Mao and his successors comes into sharp focus when the 50th birthday of the People's Republic of China, a cause for gala festivities across the mainland, will pass as an officially ignored anti-anniversary for the island's largely unrecognised Nationalist government.

A central theme of Beijing's celebrations will be its desire finally to graft Taiwan back on to the ''motherland'', completing the national mosaic after centuries of bullying by outsiders.

Beijing's singlemindedness raises complex emotions in Taiwan, but - as the Mao Cafe shows - things are not so black and white as they were back in 1949 when it became the last redoubt of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Republic of China.

In those early decades, Taiwan was largely polarised between two million displaced mainlanders, who imposed martial law, and a far larger local populace, many of whom - fresh from 50 years of Japanese colonial rule - yearned for independence.

The enmity eased in the late 1980s when the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang's son and successor as president, spawned a democratic awakening that gave voice to all things Taiwanese and even made it legal to espouse independence.

Independence advocates thought the balance soon would tip, that one of Asia's most liberal and richest industrial societies finally would take its proper place as the Republic of Taiwan.

Yet the tug of the mainland has proved strong.

While the mainland's economic explosion has been a powerful lure to Taiwan investment, the island's newfound freedoms have shaken the old independence-versus-unification dichotomy.

Both sides have prospered through interdependence, even as Beijing pursues an unrelenting diplomatic embargo aimed at squeezing Taiwan's Republic of  China out of existence.

 At the Mao Cafe, young patrons say they cannot understand why Beijing  wants to spoil for a fight - but also do not see why Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui would want to rile Beijing by insisting it acknowledge his government's sovereignty.

''When he launched his two-state theory, he was only speaking fact. There are two Chinas. And I liked what he said,'' said army conscript Pei Jen-wei, in the final weeks of a two-year service that is mandatory for all young men.

If a recent sampling of weekend cafe-goers' views is a guide, some younger adults are questioning the anti-Beijing feelings and pro-independence leanings of their parents' generation.

Lin Hsiao-yun, a Taiwanese of many generations who, had she been born in the late '50s rather than the late '70s, might have chafed under the Nationalists' heavy-handed rule.

But Ms Lin says the 1987 lifting of martial law has not made her yearn for independence. Rather, she feels connected to the mainland's sheer magnitude, growing wealth and rich cultural heritage.

''Our big advantage as Taiwanese is our wealth,'' Ms Lin said in the Mandarin dialect common to both sides of the Taiwan Straits. ''But if Taiwan goes independent, what do we have left besides our wealth?''

Dino Chang said the ''motherland'' ideal clearly meant ''China'' in his mind, but this surely was not the communist People's Republic nor merely the Republic of China on Taiwan.

''I think we will see a peaceful resolution in our lifetime.''

 Across the table, army conscript Pei seemed to agree, saying he had no doubt he was Chinese, admired Chinese culture and saw but one obstacle to Taiwan-mainland harmony - the Communist Party's suppression of political liberties.

''The differences are only political,'' Mr Pei said.

Then again, he said, if push came to shove and Taiwan-Beijing hostilities erupted, he would not hesitate to take up arms to defend Taiwan's embattled Republic of China.

''We would fight,'' he said.