By TERRY MCCARTHY
Chen Shui-bian came into the world in 1950, the Year of the Tiger. He was so weak and sickly that his parents in the impoverished southwestern village of Hsi-chuang weren't sure he would survive; they waited several months before registering his birth at a local temple. As a result, official biographies list Chen as being born in February 1951, the Year of the Rabbit.
But if Chen's gentle, smiling demeanor suggests a rabbit, underneath he has retained the nature of a tiger. As Taipei mayor from 1994 to '98, Chen earned a reputation as a fierce and determined leader able to push through reforms--including a crackdown on the city's sex trade--regardless of the obstacles. Before that, as a lawyer for the opposition, he confronted a gamut of dirty tricks from the ruling KMT but never veered from his goal of making Taiwan a more democratic and open society.
Chen's struggle began at school, where he worked hard to raise himself out of poverty. After repeatedly finishing at the top of his class, he studied law at Taipei's National Taiwan University on a scholarship and built a lucrative practice in maritime commercial law. But in 1980, as Taiwan's democracy movement began to stir, Chen was asked to defend one of the leaders of an anti-KMT protest who had been arrested in Kaohsiung. Chen agreed, and though the defense team lost, it saved its clients from the death penalty--and sowed the seeds for a challenge to KMT hegemony.
After the trial, Chen turned to politics, winning a seat on the Taipei City Council and, four years later, running for county chief in Tainan. He lost that race, and the following day his wife Wu Shu-chen was hit by a truck and paralyzed from the chest down. The driver did not stop, and the couple still believe the assault was politically motivated. Half a year later, Chen was jailed for eight months on charges of libeling a high-ranking KMT member. When he was released, he joined the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, won a seat in the legislature in 1989 and five years later captured the highly visible post of Taipei mayor.
Under his leadership, Taipei was transformed from the dirty, crowded city it had been for years. Chen pushed plans to build a subway, cleared run-down shanty communities and built small parks all over the city. He had a deft popular touch, introducing street parties and concerts for the city's youth--which he often attended himself in pantomime costumes--turning even the dullest civic holidays into lively festivals.
Chen lost a 1998 bid for re-election but picked himself up from defeat to run for the presidency. To prevail, he had to face down internal party dissent, the KMT machine and Beijing's wrath. Yet throughout the campaign, Chen never lost his smile--or his tiger-like determination.
With reporting by Michael Kitchen/Taipei