Island Pursuit – Anxiety unfulfilled

By Wong How Man, Kee Lung, Taiwan


I stand close to the boat’s chimney on the aft deck. It is warming to both body and heart, evoking a nostalgic feeling buried deep inside, which I have totally forgotten for over half a century. I am on a large ferry boat, the Taima Star (Tai for Taiwan and Ma for Matsu), with vehicles underdeck, out of Keelung, the northernmost port in Taiwan. It is late in the evening near midnight when we sail out toward the open sea. The four-year-old boat is 5000 tons with a length of over 100 meters. But my heart goes back to another Star, the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, barely 160 tons and one-third the length. Suddenly my teenage years come back to mind.

For six years, from 1961 to 1967 when I was twelve to eighteen years of age, I sat many times close to a chimney on the under deck of the ferry boat in Hong Kong during the winter months, riding across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon where I attended high school. Occasionally I would bring my ten-speed BSA bicycle along, an eye-catching luxury in Hong Kong during the 60s. In that case however, I would have to take the rival and less posh Yaumati Ferry from Wan Chai to Jordan Road, as the Star Ferry catered to a classier set and did not allow cargo, let alone a bicycle.

The exhaust flowing through the chimney provided heat from the engine room below. The lower deck had no windows to shield passengers from the cold northerly wind, and the wind was made more penetrating, as my young body was thin in those days. Those were the days before down jackets became affordable and popular, and a school uniform could barely provide enough warmth.

Upper deck charged HK twenty cents and lower deck half that. A proposal for a price hike precipitated a major riot in 1966, year before my School Certificate Examination. The cheaper fare and lower deck came with a much-welcomed amenity for us kids - peddlers selling eateries in baskets they carried onto the boat. Upper deck w filled with gentlemen in suit and tie, whereas ladies would be in mode western dress or elegant “cheong-sam”, the soon-to-be-eclipsed traditional Chinese dress.

My family lived on Tai Hang Road, mid-level Hong Kong above Causeway Bay. My school, a Jesuit high school, was on the Kowloon side on the peninsula across Victoria Harbor, thus the ferry boat ride each day, five days a week during summer and six days during winter. My boat ride and bike ride during those days quenched my earliest thirst for exploration.

Now I pace the deck of the Taima Star and sit at times on the picnic tables. This is my third attempt to reach Dongyin Island off the northern coast of Taiwan. Both times before my attempt to reach Dongyin were futile due first to a change in the boat schedule and later to an approaching typhoon.

Dongyin includes three small islands connected by dike-like bridges. The island is barely 4.5 square kilometer, about twice the size of the fishing island of Cheung Chou in Hong Kong. It is considered the northernmost point of Taiwan. The islands were once a heavily fortified citadel that the army of Taiwan held as highly strategic in defense of the main island from the threat of the People’s Republic. Cruise missiles were said to be deployed there, though at the time of my visit I only saw from a distance old style anti-aircraft guns.

On May 1, 1965 some fifty-five years ago, a sea battle erupted out off Dongyin between the Nationalists in Taiwan and the Navy of the PRC. During the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the Mainland Chinese media gave little coverage of this skirmish, which involved only one Taiwanese destroyer and several Mainland gunboats. Had it been given more media attention, it would nonetheless be considered communist propaganda, given the style of reporting in China during those days. However, on the Taiwan side, it became a big news event and was quickly picked up by other western media.

At the time, the destroyer “Dongjiang” (East River) had just finished a major refurbishment and was being deployed north to guard the uppermost Dongyin Island. After the battle, the Nationalists subsequently admitted malfunctioning of its radar equipment and negligent navigation by a sailor led the destroyer to misread certain guiding signal lights, thus straying north into the Communist-controlled sea off Dongyin.

The PRC Navy dispatched eight Type 62 gunboats resulting in engagement at sea. The entire battle lasted 45 minutes. The destroyer was heavily damaged with seven deaths including its vice-Captain, and the commanding officer was seriously injured, along with over 40 sailors who sustained injury. The destroyer was towed back to port by other supporting warships that rushed to the scene. By then, the PRC gunboats had returned to their bases with two gunboats sustaining some damage. All this happened off the coast of Dongyin and thus it has been called the “Dongyin Sea Battle” ever since.

What’s most surprising, or perhaps for seasoned political journalists not so surprising, is how Taiwan’s Nationalist Navy as well as its media portrayed the battle at sea as a major victory, a tremendous feat in defeating a superior communist force. When they saw hardly any report from the Mainland media providing details of the encounter, the Nationalists found an opportunity to offer their own interpretation of the event to be used as a hype to booster morale, something of utmost political importance during those heady days. They claimed that four gunboats were sunk and two heavily damaged in the sea battle.

Despite the navigation error and an obvious defeat, the Captain was decorated and promoted, likewise many of the boat’s officers and sailors, who were featured as national heroes. Later, a major event with over two thousand spectators was organized to cheer the return of the warship to the south. A film online today shows the victory celebration with bouquets of flowers offered to the officers and crew. For me, it offers food for thought, of how political or military reports are often subject to manipulation rather than providing fact and transparency, be it from the communist or nationalist.

Today, over fifty years after the episode, historians are allowed to scrutinize the military records of both Taiwan and the Mainland, and have come to admit the variance between reporting and fact. But this is more than half a century after the Dongjiang destroyer sustained 154 rounds of injury and was shot up to the front page of the news.

I had heard that Dongyin was a military fortress for Taiwan’s northern fringes and visitors were not allowed on it until only a couple years ago, when détente between the Mainland and Taiwan seemed to be established. More than once, I attempted to be one of the first outsiders to visit the island, but each time it was futile. Now I have pre-booked a home-stay hostel and even reserved a scooter for me to get around.

My anxiety was running high when the Taima ferry made a stop the following morning at Matsu Islands before heading onward to Dongyin. Were my hopes to be dashed once again? The purser on the boat knocked at my cabin door and introduced himself. My booking for the return journey in two days’ time had been canceled. They were expecting high wind and big waves at sea, thus the ferry would stop running for at least one week after arriving and would leave Dongyin before noon. I could stay and wait indefinitely for the ferry to start again or return to Keelung with the boat. One minor consolation prize - the purser told me that the ferry would stop at port for two hours so I might step ashore for a stroll. Stroll I did. As soon as we arrived at port at 6:20am, I called to cancel my room booking and scooter. Meanwhile I joined the passengers off, all locals with a few fishing enthusiasts with gear, followed by scooters and cars. We disembarked off the front end of the Taimar ferry, as the boat can open on both bow and stern like a landing craft. There was a quick travel document check and I was out on the harbor causeway street.

First came to sight inside the harbor was a huge sign in red advocating Unity and Loyalty, not unlike propaganda billboards visible on the Mainland a few decades ago, but today replaced by commercial advertising. An egret stood peacefully on a small fishing boat as I approached, a sign of how peaceful the island had become. Most fishing vessels had, as tradition dictated, two eyes painted under the bow, in order to bring luck and promote visibility at sea.

At such early hours, only one café was open, with the name of “Stamina Breakfast”. One young lady was behind the kitchen counter and I ordered my simple breakfast of egg with sausage and milk tea. Just as I was sitting down, five or six young guests came through the door, each with a dog on leash. They turned out to be a morning gathering of the deaf community. From the smiles and delight on their faces, such gathering of those with the same disability gave them joy and mutual encouragement. I ate my breakfast and observed quietly from a corner.

As I finished breakfast, I walked out and paced the causeway of the harbor. A small fishing boat sped in and docked next to me. On it was a middle-age man in waterproof long johns. Immediately, he got down to work, untying loads of fish from his net, separating them and putting them into several buckets. Soon these buckets were full of fish of various types. In about ten minutes his job was completed and he brought to shore four bucket loads of fish.

Momentarily, a young lady on a scooter arrived at the dock and the man attached two buckets full of fish, one on each side of the scooter. The lady turned around and drove off towards the market, as I learned when I began a conversation with the man. He was hurrying to finish his work as he hauled the two remaining buckets with seawater and live fish inside a large building adjacent to the dock. This turned out to have several seafood restaurants inside and he proceeded to pour the live fish into tanks. These would be served up later in the day as locals or visitors stopped for their lunch or dinner.

By now I had been on shore for well over an hour and passengers had started arriving to board the Taimar once again. I had a cup of latte at the Starbucks Café, by then open, before rushing back to walk up the plank into my now well-acquainted ferry boat. A line of military trucks parked by the Taima were obviously there to deliver supplies to troops on the island. A tug boat came to our side to push the Taimar off its docking. The Taimar left the port of Dongyin at 11am and the journey back would take around eight hours, arriving in time for me to have dinner at Keelung. As our ferry left port, I saw the many artillery installations and bunkers around the south and west side of the island silhouetting against the beautiful coastal rock formation. Despite such signs of danger, the ocean was calm and I again sat near the chimney to reminisce on my old school days.

I took a peek into the bridge where the captain was looking blankly into the ocean rather than mastering and steering the ferry. Later when I checked again, to my great surprise, no one was inside the bridge area as the Taimar was sailing the vast ocean as if on auto pilot. I could only hope that this momentary lapse of a sea captain, or his run for the toilet, would not trigger another unwanted sea battle if we were to mistakenly steer into dangerous ground.

Later evening set in, and I watched a most spectacular sunset as we crossed paths with gigantic container ships on the major sea lane off the coast of Taiwan. It was all dark when the lights of Keelung finally showing up in the distance as we sailed into Keelung harbor. It may seem unbecoming that I should write about Dongyin after only a two-hour stay. But when I think of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, who never showed up, or Peter Mattheissen’s book The Snow Leopard, which was never seen during two years of searching, then my two-hour visit after my endless pursuit seems to more than justify this short piece.