Dispatches from the desk of John MacMillan

Archive for the ‘Taiwan’ Category

The other notable wedding

Mrs and Mr Sidney Chang, at the wedding on Easter Sunday

Well today, apparently, a coupla’ kids are getting hitched at Westminister Abbey. That pales in comparison to last week’s events here in Taiwan.

Last Sunday was a ‘three-fer’: Easter Sunday, for sure, but also my new BFF, Rev. Sidney Chang’s 69th birthday – AND he also decided to get married! Sidney’s first wife died many years ago and he has raised his two boys solo, in Canada as well as here in Taiwan. Of late, he has become smitten with a certain “Sherry” who works at the offices of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. Easter Sunday was the big day, and I was one of the privileged guests.

The venue was the Lee Chhun-Seng Memorial Presbyterian Church, located near the Tamsui River in central Taipei. The church founder was a tea merchant, one of several wealthy entrepreneurs who lived and ran their businesses in this area. As I walked into the church it was the usual busy Sunday morning, with lots of people milling, arranging and getting ready for the service. This day featured the preparation of a special banquet in honour of Easter Sunday and the Chang nuptials.

As I was sitting in the pews waiting for the service to begin, I looked at the very simple cross standing behind the pulpit. It was draped in the usual dark shroud that symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the older members of the congregation introduced himself to me as a former pupil of my grandfather, Hugh MacMillan, but as he talked with me he looked more and more agitated. “Excuse of me, please,” he said and tottered down the aisle toward the Cross. He reached up and yanked off the shroud, rolled it up in a ball and tossed it into one of the pews. Apparently he was ticked that the shroud hadn’t been removed from Good Friday (even though my limited liturgical knowledge says that it’s okay to leave up the shroud until after Easter Sunday). One of the church’s Elders looked like he wanted to admonish the old man, but decided better. So, no shroud. And no big church imbroglio on Easter Sunday.

The service proceeded as usual with plenty of prayer, preaching and singing. Then, as the pastor gave his benediction, the choir processed down the aisle with a garland of toile and flowers that they installed into the ends of the pews. The message was simple – church is over; time to start the wedding! Sidney moved up to the front, looking reserved and maybe a bit nervous, bedecked in a dark suit and a tie festooned with red maple leaves. The choir began to sing Mozart’s “Panis Angelicus” and we all rose as the bride processed toward the altar. It was a relatively short but merry ceremony, and there were many smiles amid the lightning storm of camera flashes.Then, it was time for post-wedding photos, where everyone in attendance gets their pic taken with the happy couple (a Chinese tradition, I’m told).

The buffet lunch that followed featured many delicacies, including egg salad sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off (because, after all, it’s a church lunch). My other new BFF, Rev. Jen Li Tsai, gave the blessing and toast to the bride and groom. All in all it was a happy occasion, and I’m glad I was able to be part of it.


Still more random notes…

More random notes from my Taiwanese trip:

“Wherefore art’ thou?”: some of the students spent their English class rehearsing Romeo and Juliet today in the courtyard opposite the old Women’s School (the latter was part of Rev. George Leslie Mackay’s innovative and somewhat daring missionary vision for Taiwan a century ago). I asked one of the kids which role he was playing. “The minister,” he said. “The Friar?” I asked. “No. The guy who marries them,” he said, “Not the cook.”

English is such a tricky language.

Gordon’s friends: Well you can’t keep a good thing quiet. It appears that Gordon the Gecko-lizard has invited some friends to the Tam-Kang School guesthouse. This afternoon I came home to find two geckos (geckii?) embracing on my bedroom floor. I write “embracing” because one seemed to have his/her foot over the other and appeared to be giving the latter a smooch. My footfall seemed to dampen their romantic spirits and they dashed under my bed for some privacy. They’re still there as I write this….

C’mon, who can hate the Dalai Lama?: Outside the Yuanshan MRT station today I noticed two big banners stretched across a neighbouring building. Each was in Chinese, but with clear English text underneath. “Tibetan Buddhism is definitely not Buddhism. The lamas are not Buddhist monks and nuns,” said the first banner. The other one, posted three stories higher, read “To avoid religious sexual abuse stay away from the lamas of Tibetan Buddhism.”

In an unrelated story (?) in last weekend’s Taipei Times, the Agence France Press reported that Chinese authorities have sealed off the Kirti Tibetan monestery in Sichuan Province and have ordered a “re-education program” there following unrest that had been triggered when a young monk set himself on fire and died in an apparent anti-government protest. The Aba district and neighbouring Ganzi prefecture have also been closed to foreign tourists.

R.I.P. – the typewriter: My cousin Dave Lewis in Vancouver alerted me to the story of the closing of the world’s last typewriter factory (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2384314,00.asp). This reminds me of a moment during my lecture last week to history grad students at National Tsing Hua University. I was explaining the sources I have consulted to date, including both handwritten and typewritten diaries. They looked confused. “What is typewritten?” one of them asked the Professor/translator. She and I then tried to explain what a typewriter is and how it works.They still didn’t quite get it, and I moved on.

Man, did I feel old!

A day in Cingcyuan

The day before my lecture at National Tsing Hua University my friend Professor Hsiao Yen Yen introduced me to Mr. Li over a cup of Oolong tea at the Socrates Café that he owns. It is a splendid place, filled with great food, well loved books and about six live-in cats. Mr Li is a slim 40-year old who sports a soul patch below his lower lip. He exudes an intoxicating inner peace; I was fighting a bad cold at the time, but just meeting him made me feel better. As we were leaving to have dinner Mr. Li pulled Yen Yen aside and they chatted excitedly. “After your lecture tomorrow Mr. Li would like to drive us up to the mountains to visit an aboriginal village. Would you like to go?” Needless to say I changed my return ticket to Taipei and arranged to stay an extra night in the university’s guesthouse.

Mr. Li dips his feet into the near boiling hot spring in the mountain village of Cingcyuan.

The ride through Hsinchu was the usual spate of near calamities that I’ve come to expect from the back seat of any Taiwanese vehicle, but soon we began to leave urbanity and settle into the mountains. We passed through a large Hakka town (Hakka is a Chinese language, one of the three official languages in Taiwan; more on that in later posts) and then began to pitch and roll through a series of white-knuckling switchbacks up Hsinchu County Road 22. About an hour later we landed (which is really the only appropriate verb) in the village of Cingcyuan, an Atayal aboriginal community.

The Atayal are one of the more numerous aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. They are a mountain people, once infamous as head-hunters. The Atayal were also among the thousands of aborigines who suffered under Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century. Many were victims of poison gas (in what’s known as the Wushe Incident); others were forced to ditch their tribal culture and embrace the Japanese language and Shinto Buddhism. I’m told the current Taiwanese government ignores rather than mistreats Taiwan’s aborigines people, but the results are comparable to Canada’s aboriginal communities: alcoholism, poverty and limited opportunity.

Cingcyuan in the mountains east of Hsinchu is an Atayal village. The woman in this picture sold me some of her delicious homemade grilled sausages.

That being said, the Atayal of Cingcyuan are among the friendliest people I have met. I wandered through the village market and bought a homemade spicy sausage from a woman tending a barbecue. “What do you eat to be so tall?” she asked through Mr. Li. “Everything,” I replied. “Well you need some more then,” and she fed me another sausage, this one for free. I also bought a bag of what can best be described as Atayal couscous from another vendor. She made sure that I knew the directions to give my wife when she prepares it. “But I do the cooking!” I said. “No,” she said, “No. You better tell your wife how to make it,” and she gave me a hug.

After we toured the village’s hot springs (both Mr Li and I dipped our feet into the softest near-boiling water I’ve ever felt) I saw a cross peeking out from the trees across the valley. “Is that a Presbyterian church,” I asked Mr. Li, knowing that the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has a big aboriginal presence. “No,” said Mr. Li. “We’ll drive there and you can see.”

Father Barry Martinson, a Jesuit from San Diego, has been the parish priest in the Atayal community of Cingcyuan for 35 years.

Cingcyuan is entirely Atayal, but it’s famous for a non-aboriginal resident. In the 1980s, San Mao, one of Taiwan’s most famous writers, rented a small brick house above the hot springs where she often came to write. She also translated from English to Chinese many books written by Father Barry Martinson, the Roman Catholic priest of the church that I’d spied across the valley.

Compared to Father Barry, Mr. Li seemed almost excitable; Barry is the most gentle, peaceful man I have ever met. He’s originally from San Diego and has been a Jesuit priest in Cingcyuan for 35 years. Barry introduced us to the Atayal kids who were busily tapping and mousing in the church’s “computer room” (which, I think, was once the Sacristy). Above the computers I saw a wall hung with Barry’s portraits of local Atayal people, each glowing like Paul Gaugin’s Tahitian paintings. He’s also painted the church’s wainscoting with sketches of aboriginal hunters; unusual but surprisingly in tune with the church’s more traditional stained glass windows.

Barry also showed us the “Fountain of Youth Hostel” that he set up in 1991 to accommodate mountain visitors (bookings are available at www.chingchuanhostel.com in case you’re intrigued). A couple of the kids followed us; one little boy asked me (through Barry) if I played basketball, which is a massive sport in Taiwan, even a thousand metres up in the mountains. I said I didn’t. “You look very big and strong,” said the little boy, “And you have a hairy face.” I agreed with the latter but not the former. “Is he God?” the kid asked Father Barry. “No, he’s Mac,” said Barry.

I bought several of Father Barry’s books, and we headed back down the mountain road. “They are very innocent people,” said Yen Yen “And very generous.” I agreed, wondering when I could come back to Cingcyuan.

Happy Mount

Dozens of my grandparents’ photos and drawings feature Guanyinshan, the dormant volcano that, from the eastern shore of Tamsui, looks like a reclining Buddha.  At the northern foot of the mountain sits the Happy Mount Colony.

Angela Yao, Director of the Happy Mount Colony, shows me around the residents’ garden. Hugh MacMillan helped to administer and fund this former leper colony in the 1950s.

In 1935 Newfoundland-born Dr. George Gushue-Taylor built a home and clinic for men, women and children afflicted with Leprosy. As in other (all?) cultures, lepers were feared and shunned; the most untouchable of untouchables. Gushue-Taylor, in true Christian form, chose to fund, build and treat–to his exhaustion–hundreds of leprous individuals, even to the point of designing tools and utensils that could be used by someone who had lost their fingers. Gushue-Taylor became one of Hugh MacMillan’s best friends and, after Gushue-Taylor died, Hugh took over the administration of the colony. He also set up the Taiwanese Leprosy Relief Agency in 1953 which still raises funds to operate the facility; this was one of many innovative and inspired Taiwanese legacies left by the MacMillans.

After the discovery and eradication of the Leprosy bacillus, the numbers of Happy Mount patients and residents dwindled. But then the revamped and restructured colony became home to a different group of social outcasts – mentally disabled children and adults. While I eschew sentimentality,  I do embrace emotion and I found myself in tears as I toured this remarkable, beautiful home for dozens of equally remarkable and beautiful people. Not surprisingly my grandparents philanthropy was much on my mind, along with memories of my mentally disabled brother, Peter.

My guide was Angela Yao, who earned her Masters of Social Work at Columbia University and worked for a long time for the City of New York’s social services department. She subsequently took a big management job with Microsoft in her native Taiwan, but about a year ago gave it up to become Director of Happy Mount (Note: Angela’s father is a dissident Taiwanese assemblyman jailed by the KMT in the 1980s for proclaiming the government’s human rights abuses). Angela has, by all accounts, put this place back on track after a few years of financial and administrative woe, including esoteric things like a smart human resources strategy. Her love for the place and especially for its residents shone in her eyes as she walked me around the colony. So too did her admiration for the work and foresight of my grandfather, Hugh, whose photo is featured in their publications as a founder and benefactor.

The residents were heading to dinner as I was leaving, and wanted to get a picture with the big, weepy, white-bearded Caucasian guy. I think I know how celebrities feel when they visit with vulnerable people. Suffice it to say, I know where the proceeds of my next show will go.

[note: this article was updated in December, 2013]

At University

A few years ago at the Joyce symposium in Hungary, I attended a lecture by Hsiao Yen Yen, a literature professor from Taiwan. Afterwards I introduced myself, using a phrase taught to me by my Taiwanese-born father: “Gwah shi Taiwan-GUINah” (I am a Taiwanese child). Yen Yen was surprised to hear a foreigner uttering such an old form of Taiwanese (today it would translate roughly as “I am thy Taiwanese child”), and we became friends. When I emailed her about my Taiwan visit, Yen Yen invited me to give a lecture at her campus, National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) in the city of Hsinchu about 80 km south of Taipei. I think she expected I would talk about something Joycean, which normally I would. Given my recent research interests, however, plus the fact that my grandparents Hugh and Donalda MacMillan played a role in the development of today’s Taiwan, I suggested that maybe I could speak to that topic. Yen Yen arranged for me to give a talk to some graduate students in the History department.

My friend Professor Hsiao Yen Yen showed me around the verdant campus of National Tsing Hua University

NTHU is Taiwan’s MIT or University of Waterloo – renowned as a technical and science research university, but also known for its social science and humanities schools. When I arrived in Hsinchu I expected to see a sparkling new campus set up outside the city, but quickly realized that NTHU is an established campus around which the city had grown; hundreds of hectares of laboratories, classrooms, gardens, hills and forests surrounded by frenetic urban life. It’s one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen, though as Yen Yen noted while we walked to my classroom,  “You are here during our centenary celebrations. Many visitors, this week. All nice and neat.” I wish I looked the same, but several weeks of living out of suitcases had left me rumpled and tatty. Still, in some obtuse way, I supposed I was dressed appropriately for playing an academic.

As I set up my laptop, Professor Juliet Cheng introduced her class of about 20 students, including a couple of PhD students studying Taiwan’s religious history. I noted that this was more of a presentation than a paper, apologized for my voice (which bellowed, preacherly, due to incipient bronchitis), and began to speak to my 30+ slides. Professor Cheng interrupted to explain in Chinese whenever I brought up something too esoteric, and we took one short break, but I spoke for about three hours about the traditional and unique aspects of my grandparents’ lives as Canadian missionaries. I also took a shot at explaining the concept of Presbyterianism on a slide titled “The School of Hard Knox”; my friends at the Presbyterian Church of Canada will enjoy that vain effort at church history!

The students asked some very good questions, some in halting English and others translated, including one about my grandparents’ relations with Taiwan’s governors (since their period here straddled both the colonial Japanese and Nationalist Chinese administrations). The latter is a big issue for Taiwanese students as they come to terms with their country’s recent history. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, martial law dominated this island for some forty years after the Kuo Ming Tang (KMT) nationalists fled the Communist take over of China in 1949. The arrival of the “mainlanders” (as they are still known) was for many a period of military sabre rattling, stultifying censorship and frequent thuggish violence – especially on university campuses. Martial law was lifted finally in the late 1980s, and Taiwan became a much freer and more modern society. But the legacy of the KMT still fascinates many students; rather like finding something at once distressing and embarrassing in their grandparents’ attic. [I’ll say more about the KMT legacy in future posts.]

This lecture made me think critically about the context of “missionary” in the 21stCentury, as well as some of the areas I still need and want to research (including the aforesaid battles and negotiations with the Japanese and KMT rulers). It also serves as a detailed outline for this project, though, like the NTHU students, I am still figuring out what to make of the story.

More random thoughts

More random thoughts from Taiwan:

Mosquito Houses: I visited Tainan in southern Taiwan last weekend. My host, George Keh, offered many cultural insights. He’s a retired professor of agricultural science, and the son of a Taiwanese Presbyterian minister. As he dropped me off at the Tainan High Speed Rail (HSR) station for my return trip to the capital (Taipei), George noted that the Tainan airport authority completed renovations of its intercity domestic terminal just as the competing HSR opened a few years ago. “We call those airport buildings ‘mosquito houses’,” said George, “Because that’s all that’s in them now.” I noted that Canada has similar facilities for the care and feeding of white elephants.

Our ice cream is Taiwan’s garbage: One night in Tainan, around 9:00 p.m., I heard a series of jolly musical trills emanating from the street. I said to George Keh that it seemed late for the ice cream man to be driving around. He looked puzzled and said “No, that’s the garbage truck. It plays that music, and people know it’s time to bring their garbage out for pick up.” Interestingly I have now heard the same music in two other Taiwanese cities. And still no ice cream man…and speaking of ice cream…

It looked like strawberry: While touring the countryside around Tainan, we stopped for a popsicle to cool off during a hot day. To be adventurous I chose the pinkish one in the dairy case, full knowing that colour isn’t my strong suit. The flavour turned out to be “red bean” (a.k.a. adzuki bean). I may be “taste-blind” as well as “colour-blind”, but it was actually pretty good.

A minor conservation victory: After we walked around the Tainan Seminary, George suggested a tour of the estuary north of the city. Oyster beds and salt flats dominate the area along with thousands of aquaculture ponds spawning Tilapia and “Milk Fish” for export. The estuary is also the winter home of the rare Blackfaced Spoonbill. Once nearly extinct, spoonbill numbers recovered after the creation of a coastal wetland preserve. Through a telescope at an interpretive centre, I saw several dozen spoonbills feeding in the low tide. Later this month they’ll begin their migration to produce little spoonbills on the shores of North Korea. One hopes that Kim Jong-Il is as engaged in conservation as his southern counterparts.

Best bathroom device since the bidet: The renovated bathroom at the Tamkang High School guesthouse features an unusual mirror. It’s the dimension of a medium-sized flat screen TV, and about as deep. On the left side of the “screen” I see a frosted stripe about one centimetre wide. There’s also a little holographic sticker at the top of the mirror that says “Anti-frost mirror” and “HCG – the touch of love”. Okay, so now I was really interested. As I inspected the mirror, I wondered if it was just a big-screen medicine cabinet, but saw that it lacked hinges and wasn’t deep enough to hold even a box of Band-Aids. But on the right edge I felt a cubbyhole that could hold, maybe an iPod, and spied a male headphone jack plugged inside. “It can’t be,” I said to the bearded man with the toothbrush. But, yes, it was – get ready – an iMirror! I flicked a switch on the bottom edge and the frosted bit started pulsing a blue dot up and down the mirror, like police cruiser (or, for Battlestar Gallactica fans, like a sideways Cylon helmet). I fiddled with the jack, plugged it into my laptop, and the mirror began to play with the blue strip pulsing to the beat. “Un-freakin’ believable,” I murmured as I switched off the overhead light and dance-brushed my teeth to Led Zepplin’s “Dancin’ Days”.

A sumptuous Shanghai-style dinner with the Taiwan Bible Society honchos. Rev Jen-Li Tsai (white shirt), and next to him, Rev. Andrew Tsai (no relation)

The only food that stinks more when you eat it than when you…: At a lovely Shanghai-style dinner the other night (courtesy of the fine folks at the Taiwan Bible Society), they decided to order a special dish. My other new best friend, Rev. Jen-Li Tsai, said “We ordered this especially for you.” He brazenly uncovered a dish and spun the giant lazy-Tsan (because we’re in Taiwan, after all) around until it landed in front of me, like “Bankrupt” on “Wheel of Fortune”. I thrust in my chopsticks, tugged out a healthy piece of the food and ingested it quickly. A wave of nausea swamped over me, but also a certain gustatory pleasure, like that felt when swallowing a nice chunk of Gorgonzola. And then more nausea. “That’s ‘stinky Tofu’,” chortled Jen-Li. “You like it?” “It’s not bad,” I said, lying, while I chugged a pitcher of whatever was handy. The whole table laughed like the schoolboys who had tricked the new kid. But they did it in a gentle way, that speaks to the legendary hospitality of the Taiwanese people.

At school…

It is dusk at the guesthouse of the Tam-kang School (TS), in Tamsui, the beautiful coastal city near the northwest tip of Taiwan. The guesthouse takes up the entire second floor of a “cottage” built some 50 years ago through the good graces of the Presbyterian Women’s Mission Society of Canada. [When I describe it as a “cottage”, I mean it in terms of the humble vacation homes on Lake Joseph, north of Toronto….] The downstairs, which is now a busy coffee shop for the TS students and staff, once served as the dormitory for women missionary teachers; upstairs was home to the indomitable Isabel Taylor, who was a guiding presence on this campus for several decades.

I have been given the entire second floor of this "cottage" on the campus of the Tam-Kang School in Tamsui, Taiwan.

This campus was also the arrival point for my grandparents Hugh and Donalda MacMillan when they began their missionary service in 1924. I have to believe that the air and noises mimic the day the MacMillan’s arrived some 87 years ago: a damp sea breeze rustling the Palm and Camphor trees, the cooks cackling in the kitchen below, and young men and women giggling as they head to their dormitory.

It feels at once comfortable and strange to arrive here on a Sunday evening in April 2011. As the TS Principal, Albert Yao, says “Canadians who come here feel at home”. After all as far back as 1872, George Leslie Mackay, born in Zorra, Ontario, founded his medical and educational missions in this part of Taiwan. As well, this campus with its boys’ and girls’ schools was first named “Oxford College” thanks to contributions from congregations in Mackay’s native Oxford County. Mackay’s son, George William, in turn founded this particular school in 1915 and served as its principal until the 1930s; his bespectacled bronze bust stands guard over the historical park just below my bedroom window. My grandfather, Hugh MacMillan, also served as this school’s principal for a brief time, though mainly he is known for leading the adjacent Theological Seminary from his arrival in the 1924 into the early 1930s.

Louise Gamble drops by. She is a twice-retired missionary teacher from Ontario who lives on campus and spends her days transcribing the elder Rev. Mackay’s letters. Louise advises that I am the inaugural ‘honoured guest’ in this renovated guesthouse; this explains the gleaming but vacant kitchen (as well as the vacant t.p. holder in the very modern bathroom…). She kindly rustles up a kettle, some instant coffee and a very welcome slice of banana bread for the next morning’s breakfast. As Louise arranges the kitchen through the window I can see a trio of TS students looking at me, furtively, wondering what this tall white Canadian stranger is up to, just as their great-grandparents likely did some 87 years ago.

Now the kids have retired to their beds, the cooks have locked up and the wind has dwindled to a gentle snore. An occasional scooter passing the school gates breaks the silence, but otherwise this empty house echoes with nothing but memories.

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