CHAPTER VI

THE STORY OF THE PESCADORES

 

 

The Pescadores are a group of bleak, low, wind-swept islands about forty miles west of Taiwan, and the seas between develop fast and dangerous currents. Mako is the chief of the villages which dot the Islands. Farming and fishing are the main pursuits. Farming is carried on with difficulty, the chief crops being peanuts and sweet potatoes, and all cultivation has to be protected from the salt spray which the strong winds carry over the islands. In many cases the protection is obtained from stone walls built from rocks, of which there is a plentiful supply.

In pre-war years (i.e. pre World War II) the fishing industry was a thriving one. For instance, in 1930 there were over 6,000 people engaged in obtaining a total catch of 2,200 tons for the year. The fish was shipped to the main island of Formosa and to Japan, for which purpose the Japanese had established every modern facility, including a large factory for the manufacture of ice in which to store the fish.

During the war, however, the Japanese commandeered many of the fishing vessels and later many of those that were left were destroyed by aerial attack. This had two effects on the people in the Pescadores. It reduced almost to starvation point the available supply of fish, a staple article of diet, and also created distress due to unemployment.

Another cause of unemployment was the closing of the large naval base which the Japanese established near Mako. This base was to support the southward drive of Japan. However, probably due to Japan's shipping shortage and difficulty of maintaining supplies during the war, it was abandoned in favour of one north of Takao which had recently been built. This threw three thousand more people out of employment in the Pescadores and added much to their post-war difficulties.

Apart from American Army personnel, only one Westerner was known to have visited the Pescadores since the war. He was an UNRRA Inspector from the United States, and while returning, barely escaped drowning by shipwreck. CNRRA had already undertaken some civil engineering work there and was sending further personnel and supplies. This was considered a favourable opportunity for an UNRRA officer to visit the Islands and I received instructions to proceed from Keelung with my interpreter by the boat which was taking supplies. We were also warned to take our own rations, owing to the shortage of food, and we considered a case of the American Army "10-in-1" rations would be sufficient. On arriving at the boat at the appointed time early one morning, we found the semi-diesel engines already running, but only just. After tinkering round for four hours, the expert from the manufacturer's works decided that he would not be able to get them into satisfactory running condition that day; so we returned back to the office at Taipei with instructions to return at ten o'clock the next day. But next day, although the engines were improved, they were still in an unsatisfactory condition. However as the weather was calm and was likely to continue so, it did not appear as though there was much danger involved. So behold us at mid-day, after an extraordinary amount of crackers had been set off to scare away the evil spirits, proceeding down the harbour. After a run of about four hundred yards we pulled into the dock-side and the Captain went off to receive his clearance papers. Shortly afterwards he returned with the story that the official who usually issued the papers was absent and nobody knew where he was. After the Captain had made several fruitless visits, hoping that the official had returned, I began to be annoyed at what appeared to me to be a bit a bureaucratic nonsense. As I was in uniform the Captain suggested through my interpreter that perhaps if I accompanied him and "wore an official look" some good might result. Acting on the cue given, it is only necessary to record that twenty minutes afterwards, in spite of the fact that our watchful eyes had not seen any other Customs official return, we had possession of all the necessary papers together with the profuse regrets of the officials concerned.

Nevertheless our troubles were not over for the Diesel expert, who was nursing the engines, decided that they were not in a fit condition to put out to sea and we returned to our original berthing place. It was decided to make a complete overhaul of the engines and the boat would be ready the following Monday.

Monday saw us on the boat again and again the boat was not ready but would be ready "tomorrow". Tuesday brought me important work which had to be attended to immediately. But on the Wednesday we found that the boat really had gone - and gone without us. We learned later that it had only proceeded a few miles down the coast when the engines again broke down and it was beached on a sand-bar at the mouth of the Tansui River; and the next time that I went to bathe on the beach at the mouth of the river I saw it drawn up high and dry and undergoing repairs.

After learning that the boat had gone, my interpreter and I made enquiries at Tainan and Takao for suitable boats, but the best that we could do was to go aboard a boat leaving on Friday afternoon at four o'clock. Although the boat was reputed to be 120 tons it was already overloaded with passengers and cargo - nor was it clean. A place had been reserved for us below decks, but on putting our heads over the hatchway the stench that arose made us decide that anywhere on deck would be better. The cleanest past of the deck was the stern, and there we sat down with our luggage to survey our fellow passengers and their conditions. Along both sides of the boat were piled bundles of sugar cane which made it impossible for anybody to lean over the side, usually a very frequent and desirable action where Chinese sea voyagers are concerned. The passengers were so closely packed that walking along the decks had to be done very slowly and with caution. One relieving feature was that the engines were already running and running very smoothly. In due time we proceeded along the harbour and made no stops. In the outer harbour, which was dotted with the masts of sunken vessels, we noticed an appreciable swell which boded ill for our trip. There was in fact, quite a rough sea running and soon the passengers began to show its effects. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one's viewpoint, it was dark, and after some hours when sickness had become general, I began to think out a plan of campaign which had the stern of the boat as its final objective. Suddenly the boat gave a violent pitch and as planned I dived for the stern, only to find that somebody else sometime previously had the same urge and the same plan of campaign, but they had not quite reached the edge - with foul consequences for me. However, another pitch brought my face within six inches of the water and a moment later it seemed as though the sea was thirty or forty feet below me and I remembered that if I wanted to stay in the boat, I had to hang on. After that I have only confused recollections of frequently being violently sick and ultimately not having enough strength to move from my original position which I had somehow now regained. Finally it now being broad day, I saw a harbour head and the thought struck me that the Japanese seemed to have a standard design and shaping for their harbours. It took my confused brain several minutes before I realised that we were returning to the harbour at Takao. Our condition can only be left to the imagination, but we had to be helped off the boat, we were so weak, and the rickshaw boys did not want to carry us as we were so filthy. Ultimately we arrived at an hotel where the kind proprietor took pity on us, allowed us to change in a back room, gave us a bath, sent our clothes off to a laundry (24 hour service) and we spent those twenty-four hours in bed recuperating.

We learned later that the strong currents, of which I have already mentioned, were too severe and the Captain turned back to Takao; but before entering the harbour the sea suddenly went much calmer and he again turned round to attempt the crossing of the dangerous currents. This time however, the boat sprung a leak and the pumps had to be worked continuously to keep the level of the water in the boat in check, and we raced back to Takao with all speed, having been twenty hours on the trip.

And the Pescadores were as far off as ever. We received a visit from some officials representing the Pescadores Government in Takao and, more as a joke, told them that they would have to supply us with a naval vessel which had good engines and wouldn't spring a leak, before we would attempt the crossing again. In the meantime, I received a telegram to return to Taipei, and as I acted upon it, it must have looked to the officials that we had abandoned the Islands in their plight. Nevertheless, on the following Thursday the Pescadores Government telegraphed to me, "Naval vessel sailing Saturday morning. Can you join it?" So again we set out for Takao and the Pescadores, but with an augmented party comprising two C.N.R.R.A. engineers who had been on our ill-fated ship which had been wrecked at the mouth of the Tamsui River. They had been rescued by a Customs patrol boat.

We arrived at the approaches to the naval base at Takao and had some trouble getting through the sentries. One of the C.N.R.R.A. engineers spoke Mandarin and two other Chinese dialects and so we were able to get past two Chinese sentries, although with some difficulty. But on arriving at a third one who was guarding the dock-side where we saw the ship waiting for us, our engineer-interpreter had a lot of trouble. In the end the sentry called another sentry and the three went into a huddle trying to get their ideas across to each other, our man all the time tracing Chinese characters on the palm of his hand. Unfortunately for him, the sentries could not read. The incident was eventually closed by an officer from the ship coming over on a bicycle and apologizing profusely for the delay and the loss of face we had endured by being subjected to any suggestion at all that we were not fit and proper persons to go aboard the vessel. It was a 450 ton boat and the Captain and officers were drawn up to receive us. After the formalities were over, we soon realised that everything had been considered down to the minute detail to give us an enjoyable trip. Even the sea was almost like glass and the clear blue sky overhead made it a pleasure trip. When we disembarked at Mako, we found that the Governor, the Chief of Police, the Mayor and quite a number of other functionaries were there to welcome us. After saying goodbye to the Captain and taking leave of the ship, we were taken to our hotel and immediately began to discuss the general situation, which it was soon evident was very serious. So I immediately cabled Taipei for relief supplies.

The story of our attempts to ship relief food to the Pescadores is worth recording. Five hundred tons of rice were already available at Keelung and a British boat was about to proceed empty from Keelung to Amoy and could call at the Pescadores on the way. Arrangements were therefore made with the agents to ship the much needed food and deliver it to the Pescadores. However, the Chinese Central Government Executive Yuan forbade the shipment to be made because of Chinese maritime laws which prohibited the carriage of cargoes in foreign vessels between Chinese ports. It took several months before satisfactory supplies were able to be delivered to the Pescadores and undoubtedly people died of starvation in the meantime but the sovereignty of China was upheld.

The evening we arrived, the Governor entertained us at dinner, followed by a visit to the pictures which were rank nationalistic propaganda. There was so much dialogue that the audience at times lost all interest and the speeches could hardly be heard above the noise that the audience was making.

Next day, being Sunday, we all went in a sort of an official party to church in the morning where my interpreter gave the address; similarly I gave the address in the afternoon service. The church was founded by the English Presbyterian Missionary Society and was very closely interlocked in its activities with the Y.M.C.A.. Some buildings had been bombed, and as the church room was the only one in fairly good order, it was used for Sunday School and social activities. In the evening the Mayor gave us an official dinner.

On Monday we visited fishing villages, but although we were not shown the worst cases we noticed that in many instances the physical condition of the people was very poor. On arriving back at Mako we found posters displayed in many parts of the town among the Chinese characters of which I recognized those of my own name. By arrangement with us a meeting for youth was being held in the picture theatre. "Mr. Shu Lee Tong of New Zealand, Mr. 'Wu' from Shanghai and Mr. 'Yee' from America, will give a combined public address on the youth organisations of their respective countries". We had dinner with the Director of the Y.M.C.A. and before we had got fairly started word came that the theatre was already packed. We were enthusiastically welcomed at the theatre and each of our speeches received a very good hearing. It was apparently considered an excellent meeting in every way.

The next morning we inspected a dyke which was being constructed as a relief work and was designed to make what were previously sea mud flats into farming land. The dyke was about half a mile long and at the other end of it was a village which appeared to me to be more interesting than the dyke. So after we had finished with the dyke, at my request we went into the village although apparently against the wishes of the officials accompanying us.

There we found starvation. I looked into a courtyard which was alive with flies and had bits and pieces lying all around. Some children, very thin and very ragged, were near the entrance and in the house was a middle-aged couple preparing food, the time being about 10.30 A.M.. On enquiry we found that they combined breakfast and lunch owing to the extreme shortage of food. They considered that they were fortunate because they thought that they had enough food in hand to give them two meals a day for about a week. What about when the food was run out? They were hoping to get some more fish before that. Unfortunately the diet would be only potatoes flavoured with fish and they were all getting weak and found the ordinary routine too much for them. When the children cried too much from hunger they gave them another meal and went without themselves. The children could not go to school as they were too weak and hungry and had no clothes to go in. All their clothes were the scantiest of most ragged rags, patched, repatched and repatched. The woman did most of the talking for the man did not seem to have the strength. The woman's lips were extremely pale and her words came in gasps as though every word was an effort to form. Their case was typical of the village although some had peanuts instead of fish. It was a very thoughtful party that turned back home.

After lunch we visited the power station and the ice factory where the proceedings were mainly of technical interest. The ice factory was capable of making fifteen tons of ice a day but as the fishing industry was practically non-existent, it was making only one and a half tons a day.

We next visited another distressed village where the conditions were similar to those we had already seen. Some of the people were down to one meal a day on peanuts and potatoes. In this village of over 1,700 inhabitants, we were being followed by an ever-increasing number of people, when suddenly out of the crowd stepped a man who showed us a terribly mutilated right arm which, although healed, was very much deformed. The village had been bombed and he apparently had his arm hit with a splinter, causing a fracture of both bones and they had never been set in a proper splint. We went to the end of the village and returned down the same road again, now followed by a big mob that did not seem to be too friendly. Striding towards us came a middle-aged woman, care-worn, thin and frail, but there was no mistaking the determination in her stride and the look on her face. She addressed herself to my interpreter and when I asked him what it was all about he could not stop her flow of words to tell me. I could see that something was badly wrong for her eyes began to fill with tears and a catch came in her voice. Finally she stopped because she could go no further on account of her weeping. My interpreter then told me that the village had been bombed by Americans and her husband, who was not a soldier, had been killed and she was left with seven children to bring up. She said, "That would be difficult enough in ordinary times and now even women with husbands are finding it very difficult to care for their families. I am worn out with trying to get food and my children are all starving and I miss my husband very much to help me". The hard time that the woman was having was only too plainly evident, but I was dismayed to think that it was even found necessary to bomb apparently harmless and peaceful villages like this. There was probably some justification for it, but what was hard was that this woman and her family had to pay the price for it. But the episode was not closed. When the woman finished, Babel was let loose. My interpreter said that there were several other women commencing to tell the same sort of tale and he thought we had better get out of the place as soon as we could. So, after expressing our sympathy and promising to do what we could to help, we went. That evening in the hotel I realised something. Calling my interpreter by name I said, "Did that woman in the village whose husband was killed by a bomb think I was an American?"

"Yes", he said.

"And", I carried on, "that I was in some way responsible for her troubles and sorrows"?

"Yes", he said.

I decided to have the 10-in-1 rations, when they arrived, handed over to the woman as a gesture of sympathy. And to round off the story, several months later I received a grateful letter of thanks from her, together with the leather carrying straps which were round the case, and a receipt. I quote this as an example of the honesty which I found in many parts of the Islands.

That evening we had dinner in the Church which was serving its function as a social hall. It was given to us by the Y.W.C.A., the Church and school friends of my interpreter. They all wanted to give us a dinner, but as this was the last night they combined together. A very pleasant feature of the dinner was that the wife of the Mayor had specially cooked a western type of dinner. It consisted of fried eggs and pork chop, sweet potatoes (but unlike the New Zealand kumeras), cauliflower, white turnip that had no flavour, and white sauce. It was a very welcome change and I appreciated it very much. We ended up with a few speeches. There are no women guests, by the way, at Chinese dinners and the hostess is only present to assist with the serving and superintend matters. So after the dinner we adjourned to the Manse to meet the parson's wife.

There the parson made a speech to the effect that Christians had found life very difficult during the Japanese regime and even now, from a different cause, they were becoming disheartened. But we, and what we had said, had given them new outlook and inspiration. It took us a long time to say goodbye because we were off in the early morning for Takao and I doubted whether I would ever be in the Pescadores again. In the short time that I was there I came to like them very much and I think they liked us too.

Next morning the Governor called personally to take us to the boat, which was the same naval vessel which we came over in and which had been waiting until we were ready to go back. When we arrived at the quay there were several hundred people waiting there to see us off and we spent fully five minutes shaking hands and saying goodbye. Thinking of the events of the night before while we were still making our farewells, I found myself considerably affected by the friendliness and good wishes of the people.

Now that UNRRA has closed down, and knowing how little chance the people of the Pescadores have of obtaining relief from the Government, I wonder how they are faring.