The voyage from Hong Kong to Taiwan took a couple of nights. After leaving Hong Kong, we could see the lights of fishing villages off to our left. That was Red China. We were headed for Free China, on the beautiful island of Taiwan. (Formosa is the name the Portuguese sailors gave the island long before the West knew it was Taiwan, a province of China.) It was the first week in May 1957.
The Free China’s Nationalist government on Taiwan was recognized and supported by the American government. Missionaries from everywhere were welcome. Red China was controlled by Mao’s communists and did not allow American visitors, especially missionaries.
On board our coastal steamer were 30 or 40 former Nationalist Chinese soldiers who had fought the Reds and were on their way to a new, free life on Taiwan. They waved the nationalist flag and sported fancy tennis shoes. All the soldiers I ever met there wore tennis shoes. It was the same way in 1982 when we visited the China mainland. Both Chinas have come a long way the last 50 years.
To show how the world has changed in our lifetime, I re-print what Michael Cunningham wrote (and shared with me by Perry Flippin): “All over China, parents tell their children to stop complaining and to finish their quadratic equations and trigonometric functions because there are 65 million American kids going to bed with no math at all.”
Taiwan is 90 to 100 miles from the China mainland and the stretch of water between them is called the Taiwan Straits. Since the area was claimed by both sides, only certain ships could use it. Our British tramp steamer, named after a Chinese province, ran a regular route from the northern port of Keelung to Hong Kong each week. Looking for a cool shower on board I got my first salt water bath. Try and get comfortable after one of those showers.
The captain of the Ssuchuan was not allowed off the ship in Taiwan. It was a cat-and-mouse game between him and the Taiwan dock authority. He was not considered pure of all communist thinking. Taiwan would strike out at their enemy any way they could.
Entering the port of Keelung, the first thing you see are the large characters written on the warehouses. The phrases were to remind everyone of their return to the mainland. That was what they lived for — to retake the homeland that Chairman Mao stole from Chiang Kai-shek and his government. And the local Taiwanese wanted them to go more than anyone.
The customs building was plain vanilla. Not a tourist stop. Our trunks were opened and clothes and things scattered around on the floor. I scampered along behind the officials stuffing our things back in the trunks. We were finally released (not our things — that took weeks) and off to the capital of Taipei (Sometimes spelled Taipeh and pronounced Taibei in Chinese, which means “northern terrace.”)
For the first week neither my wife nor I wanted to stay on this primitive mess of an island. One day I would be all for staying and she would not. Next day I would be for leaving and she thought we should stay. Fortunately we never felt the same about leaving on the same day and stayed 10 years, transferring to Hong Kong in 1966. But that’s another story.
Britt Towery is a former missionary, freelance writer and published author. He welcomes reader feedback at email@example.com.