To hear Yu-Chen Yueh-ying tell it, her introduction to Taiwanese politics more than three decades ago was neither expected not desired. But thrusting her into the public arena was an inspired decision by her father-in-law, the late Yu Teng-fa, then Taiwan's Kaohsiung county chief and a thorn in the side of the ruling Kuomintang. Not only did Mrs Yu-Chen continue the legacy he began in the 1940s, she also assumed the mantle of matriarch in a family whose members have repeatedly won election to high office at the local, provincial and national level for the past half-century. Their influential role in building Taiwan's largest opposition grouping, the Democratic Progressive Party, is virtually undisputed. But, like other prominent political families, Taiwan's version of the Kennedys are no strangers to both devotion and controversy. Mrs Yu-Chen, who at 70 years of age became one of only two opposition figures appointed as senior advisers to President Lee Teng-hui last year, was busy raising a family when her father-in-law suddenly drafted her to run for the Taiwan Provincial Assembly in 1963. 'The law required that at least one of Kaohsiung county's [assembly] seats must be occupied by a woman,' she recalls. 'He had another lady all ready to run, but she was persuaded, or perhaps pressured, to drop out at the last minute. I was ordered in to take her place.' Riding on Mr Yu's popularity and influence, she won the election easily, giving the family newfound leverage against KMT provincial governor Huang Chieh . According to Mr Yu's memoirs, Mr Huang decided soon afterwards to nip his rising influence in the bud, dismissing him from office as Kaohsiung county commissioner. Barred from seeking re-election himself, in 1964 Mr Yu enlisted Mrs Yu-Chen's husband and his only son, the late Yu Jui-yen , to run. But the KMT won that battle by mobilising tens of thousands of soldiers and their families and stuffing ballot boxes, contends Mrs Yu-Chen. 'Even today, in Kaohsiung county you still have to outdo the military's 60,000 votes,' she says. 'For us, getting 20,000 ballots is actually getting 80,000.' With one battle won and another lost, the Yu family jumped head-first into the fray of local politics, doing favours for almost anyone who asked. They have never looked back - and, as Taiwan's burgeoning democracy moves into a new, more mature stage following inaugural presidential elections in March last year, the Yus still see themselves as major players, although in a different role. Of Mrs Yu-Chen's seven children, three are now prominent political figures, including her eldest daughter, Yu Ling-ya, eldest son Yu Cheng-hsien (whose wife, Cheng Kuei-lien, is a National Assembly deputy) and Yu Cheng-tao, who goes by his English name, Wesley. Political science scholars at Kaohsiung's National Sun Yat-sen University say the formidable Yu family machine got off to a humble start even before Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek set foot in Taiwan. Then the island's residents were still colonial subjects of a declining Japanese Empire in the closing days of World War II. Assessing land claims in his capacity as a notary public, Yu Teng-fa found out who owned what parcels of land in Kaohsiung county, where he was born in 1903. As the war increasingly turned in the Allies' favour, American bombers were constantly pounding the Japanese military port at Tsoying, terrifying residents of what is now the bustling port metropolis of Kaohsiung. So, when many began selling off their increasingly worthless land, Mr Yu bought one plot after another. Following the Kuomintang government's assumption of sovereignty over Taiwan at war's end, much of Mr Yu's land was confiscated by the new government in the name of land reform. Still, all was not lost as many residents - grateful to Mr Yu for saving them from destitution by buying their land - showed their gratitude by electing him to various local posts. He became Chiaotou township chief in 1947, the same year he was elected to the National Assembly. Though he was then a member of the KMT, the affiliation was short-lived as he was soon convinced an opposition was needed to prevent the nation from collapsing under incompetence and corruption, according to Mrs Yu-Chen. In 1960 Mr Yu won the post of Kaohsiung county commissioner, a victory that infuriated the KMT and put Mr Yu and his family on thin ice. Mrs Yu-Chen's offspring say that fears of political revenge - ultimately culminating in an eight-year prison sentence in 1979 - prompted Mr Yu to enlist family members, the only people he could rely on not to sell out to the KMT. Mr Yu and his son Jui-yen were both arrested in 1979 and accused of plotting an anti-government riot in collusion with an alleged communist spy who had smuggled himself into Taiwan from Japan. Both were convicted on charges of failing to report a communist spy to authorities, rather than the heavier charge of treason. The sentencing prompted street demonstrations in Chiaotou. 'Going the road of democracy has been hard,' says Mrs Yu-Chen, who took the helm after Mr Yu died in 1989 at age 86. 'You see us in power now, but don't see the horrible way we suffered during the 'white terror' era of persecution.' The 'white terror' period of the 1960s and early 1970s - when Taiwan was under martial law - is a blanket term used by the opposition to describe the KMT government's arrest and detention of dissenters, who were usually accused of colluding with Chinese communists or advocating Taiwan's independence. As more family members won election to the Provincial Assembly and the National Legislature, the Yus used all means at their disposal - sometimes at the expense of Teng-fa's personal fortune - to build a network of support by calling in the debts of gratitude that helped the patriarch win his first election in Chiaotou. At a time when most oppositionists were either in jail, hiding or taking refuge overseas, the Yus emerged as Taiwan's First Family of the tangwai, a martial-law era term referring to those 'outside the party', the party being the KMT. In a career spanning four terms as Provincial Assembly deputy, one term as a national legislator and two terms as Kaohsiung county commissioner, Mrs Yu-Chen has mastered the intricate details of grassroots politics and passed these skills on to her offspring. In 1982 Yu Ling-ya won her mother's Provincial Assembly seat. Ms Yu, now 47 kept that seat until 1993, when she won the first of two legislative terms in the National Assembly, where she now serves. The same year, her brother Yu Cheng-hsien, now 38, replaced his mother at the helm of Kaohsiung county. That very day, his younger brother Cheng-tao, now 34, won election to the Provincial Assembly, following in his elder sister's footsteps. While the Yu family is not Taiwan's only political dynasty - others including the Hsu clan of Chiayi city and the Wang clan of Kaohsiung city - members preside over the island's largest clan-based political machine. And although every member of the Yu clan operates differently, local residents - even those who despise the Yus - say family members share one common trait: a willingness to offer help or advice to anyone who seeks them out. 'I'll never forget one man who came in my office and knelt down on the floor in front of me,' Mrs Yu-Chen says. 'He was devastated because he was being forced to sell his land to the government at far below the fair market prices. It would have meant the financial ruin of his entire family.' While she was powerless to challenge the central Government on the man's behalf, Mrs Yu-Chen took advantage of a Kaohsiung county stopover by President Lee to bring the issue to his attention. After several days, Mrs Yu-Chen says she received a letter from the president's office notifying her of a new cabinet decree raising the level of compensation for citizens whose land was acquired for public works. Her knack for dealing with problems extends to quietening rowdy protesters. Because several large industrial plants are situated in Kaohsiung county, home to 1.1 million people, she says public demonstrations over alleged factory pollution were common. 'Instead of confronting angry demonstrators, I would first order food to be brought to them. You'd be surprised how much people can calm down after having a lunch box or a meat dumpling first. Then it's time to sit down and talk so something acceptable can get worked out,' she said. Although some constituents credit the Yus with reaching out to people at the grassroots level, opponents have accused them of dominating Kaohsiung county politics by building a formidable 'benefit machine' from a spider web of patron-client relationships criss-crossing the Government and private sector. As Kaohsiung county gears up for the December county commissioner's election, KMT nominee Huang Hung-tu acknowledges he is fighting an uphill battle to overturn incumbent commissioner Yu Cheng-hsien. Not surprisingly, he accuses the Yus of sitting on top of a political empire bolstered by favours they have extended indiscriminately. 'The Yus that the people see are the Yus who appear at weddings and funerals, handing out envelopes and shedding crocodile tears,' he says, referring to the traditional Chinese practice of giving a red envelope stuffed with money at weddings. (White envelopes are passed out at funerals.) 'At the county government, they have two powers: personnel appointments and construction projects. School principals can hardly hire a janitor without his [Commissioner Yu's] permission.' Small-scale building projects have proved to be a useful tool for the Yu family, he contends. 'We have a law in Taiwan that says no public bidding is needed for construction projects worth less than NT$1.5 million (HK$4.09 million) he said. 'So one gutter that should cost NT$4 million to build can be broken up into four gutters with a price tag of NT$1.5 million each. Lots of roads here are built one section at a time.' The Yus' response to allegations of impropriety is uniform: if we did anything wrong, they would have put us in jail by now. A Kaohsiung county resident, who declined to be named, sees something in both points: 'They built some crummy roads but at least the roads got built. Many people's lives were improved with help from the mother. That's more than most other counties can say.' Wesley Yu has several awesome reputations, and generations, to live up to. He feels the weight of family responsibility on his shoulders but is a fierce defender of that heritage. Whatever others say about the Yus, he can affirm in matter-of-fact manner: 'We have staying power.'