Battle of Tamsui @1884 Commemorated on the Danhai Light Rail

Qing Defenders

Just down the road from St. John’s University, in the northern part of Tamsui Town, there’s a new light rail, called the Danhai Light Rail Transit. It opened last December, kind of circuiting around Tamsui – it’s not very fast, but it’s comfortable and I use it often, for cutting off Tamsui when I’m coming back from Taipei City…

Light Rail Train with ‘1884’ on the front

This month one of the trains has been decorated to commemorate the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Tamsui, part of the Sino-French War. This is the first train on this line to be themed in this way; let’s hope there’s many more to come – cos Tamsui has a whole lot of history worth commemorating!

“The war arose from a dispute between the Qing and the French over control of Tonkin (northern Vietnam). France launched an attack on Keelung and Hobe (Tamsui) in a bid to capture northern Taiwan and extract concessions from the Qing Imperial Court. Though Keelung was captured by the French, Qing defenders managed to hold the Tamsui River mouth and prevent French warships from sailing directly into Taipei. The war started in August 1884 and ran until the French withdrawal in June 1885.”

The train is decorated on the outside, and inside at each end too, to let you imagine you’re really on one of the ships going into battle….

Completely unrelated to the Battle of Tamsui, there’s plenty of beautiful art work on each station, and a few months ago, we spent 2 whole afternoons getting off at every stop, taking photos and getting back on again. The trains run every 15 minutes, currently between Hongshulin and Kanding. The views are good too – these photos were taken this afternoon…

For a full account of the Battle of Tamsui, check out the Wikipedia entry here, there’s lots to learn!

Celebrating Taiwan’s Double Ninth / Chong-Yang Festival 重陽節!

Today is the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, known as Double Ninth Festival or Chong-Yang Festival 重陽節 and in Taiwan, it’s a special day for honoring all senior citizens. Yesterday I was in Taichung at St. James’ Church and the Rev. Lily Chang kindly invited me to stay on after the services for their Chong-Yang Festival lunch in a nearby restaurant. All those aged 65 and over were invited to join – and they had a few spare seats, which is how I got to be there too. The oldest there was 86, and the youngest had just turned 65 this year. Several were retired clergy and their wives, also one clergy widow. One of the main things to eat is long rice noodles – to wish for longevity. No wonder everyone lives to a great age in Taiwan!

On August 8, Double Eight, Taiwan celebrated Father’s Day (eight is pronounced ‘ba’, so 8/8 is ‘baba’, the word for ‘father’) but that was according to the Gregorian Calendar, not the lunar calendar. And this coming Thursday is Double Ten 10/10, Taiwan’s National Day, again according to the Gregorian Calendar. My neighbours assure me that this is the best kind of holiday for them, as Gregorian Calendar holidays do not require ‘bai-bai’ (ancestor or temple worship), so they’ll get a break. October 10 is a holiday, and we worked last Saturday in lieu of this coming Friday ~ so a four-day weekend is coming up, yes!

Remembering Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake 20 years on

Today is September 21, known in Taiwan simply by its date in numbers as ‘921’. Every year, on this day, we remember once again the huge 7.3 earthquake that hit Taiwan on September 21, 1999 at 1:47 am, exactly twenty years ago today. So immense was the tragedy that the event is forever engrained in the country’s consciousness, and remembered simply as ‘921’.

The facts speak for themselves, 2,415 deaths, 29 missing, 11,305 seriously injured, 51,711 buildings completely destroyed, 53,768 buildings severely damaged, widespread power and water outages, NT$300 billion (US$10 billion) worth of damage to infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, power stations, roads and bridges, and a total of 12,911 aftershocks in the month following the main tremor. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the town of Jiji, Nantou, up in the central mountains near Sun Moon Lake.

I arrived in Taiwan in January 1999, based at St. James’ Episcopal Church and Kindergarten, Taichung City. In September 1999, I started teaching. Our first classes of the new school year had only just opened. A group of us teachers lived on the 4th floor above the church, and that is where we were when the earthquake struck. In the darkness of that night, at 1:47 am, we were all woken by the prolonged shaking and by the noise of bookcases, ceiling boards, pictures and ornaments crashing to the ground around us.

Taichung is about 45 km (30 miles) from the epicentre of the earthquake, so we did not experience the total devastation that the town of Jiji suffered. At St. James’ Church, none of our buildings fell down, and nobody was killed or even injured. We all survived, though shaken mentally and physically. Soon, however, the number of large aftershocks became more frightening than the original earthquake; and fear of going back inside the buildings led us to sleep outside in the park for several nights, and then on the ground floor in one of the kindergarten classrooms for several weeks. We were joined by colleagues and friends who were too scared to sleep in their own homes, often located in high-rise buildings. When electricity was restored we could access the computers in the church office, but that was on the 6th floor. We had no laptops or mobile phones, everything had to be done in the church office, and we didn’t dare use the lift, so we walked up the stairs. Responding to messages from around the world, we were constantly on edge lest another aftershock should hit at any moment – and hiding under the desk when another one did. Eventually, it was felt safer to tell international friends not to contact us for a few weeks, rather than risk our lives going up to the 6th floor to answer them.

Seeing leaning high-rises or collapsed buildings, listening to people’s stories, and hearing reports of the devastation and loss of life in areas of Taiwan not far from us, it became impossible to comprehend the immensity of it all. It was easy to get angry with incompetent, corrupt builders for shoddy construction work or with the government for a lack of response, but underneath were deeper questions. Why should one high-rise building collapse when all the others on the estate of the same size and design were left standing? Why should one person die in the earthquake and another survive? Where was God in all this turmoil? Or was everything just down to fate or luck?

Looking back now, we know that God was with us – in our shock, in our doubts and in our questions; even when it seemed that God had forsaken us – or, if he hadn’t forsaken us and our community, he had clearly forsaken many others. God was there too in the quiet moments, in the silence of disrupted lives, in the unanswered questions, in the desire to ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible.

T. S. Eliot, in his book of poems, Four Quartets, talks about the ‘still point of the turning world’.

Could there really be any meaning in such tragedy, or any calmness in the storm?

One of our beloved members and my good friend here at Advent Church, Janet Tan, sadly died recently; and at her funeral last month, her family chose the theme of ‘Turn, turn, turn’ based on the 1960’s song by the Seekers, reminding them of their childhood. The words are taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” They made T-shirts at their family company with those words on the front. I wear mine often. It’s a fitting tribute to Janet; she gave witness that in this ‘turning world’, the still point is found in Christ.

Last month we also observed the tenth anniversary of Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan’s deadliest typhoon in recorded history. In August 2009, the typhoon brought many days of torrential rain to southern Taiwan causing catastrophic flooding, mudflows and landslides that left 673 people dead and 26 missing. Some of us from northern Taiwan went down to help in the relief effort. Ironically, today, September 21, as we remember the 20th anniversary of the 921 earthquake, here in northern Taiwan we have heavy rains and winds brought by another passing typhoon; even the annual kite festival held just up the coast has had to be postponed until tomorrow.

This past week, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have both announced that they are switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Taiwan is left with only 15 allies in ever-increasing political isolation. Over 200 students from those countries who are studying here in Taiwan, mostly on Taiwan government scholarships, are left facing an uncertain future. The ambassadors from those 2 countries visited St. John’s University (SJU) in April to take part in our 52nd anniversary celebrations, with a view to possible technological partnerships with SJU in the future. The exciting start that we had with those partnerships will now not progress any further. This week too, I had only just finished editing the next issue of the diocesan Friendship Magazine (containing a report of those SJU anniversary celebrations) when the news came through, and now I’ve had to add a ‘Stop Press’ to explain. Politics aside, there’s no doubt that this is very sad news for those personally affected.

Such is our ‘turning world’ of earthquakes, typhoons and political crises. Finding the ‘still point’ is a challenge. T. S. Eliot’s words have been adapted by David Peace and Sally Scott (1989) and engraved on the glass door of St. Catherine’s Chapel in Norwich Cathedral: “Reach out to the silence at the still point of the turning world / Except for the still point, there would be no dance / Love is itself unmoving / only the cause and end of movement / timeless”. It also illustrates the lines, “Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis / Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray / Clutch and cling”, the illustration showing how the sunflower and clematis grow towards the light, that is ‘at the still point of the turning world’. I visited Norwich Cathedral last year, and loved that engraving on the door.

Today I looked at the readings given for my next sermon in a few weeks’ time. It includes Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” He is the ‘still point of the turning world’. That’s my challenge today on this 20th anniversary of the 921 earthquake, and every day. To ‘be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him’. My challenge – and yours.

Taiwan’s Culture and Stinky Tofu ~ with our friends from Latin America and the Caribbean!😊😊😊

Yes, 3 more busy days out in the last 2 weeks visiting some wonderful places around northern Taiwan with our 18 lovely friends from Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who are here at St. John’s University as part of the “2019 Latin American and Caribbean Countries Vocational Training Project: Electrical and Electronic Engineering 拉丁美洲及加勒比海地區友邦技職訓練計畫-電機工程實務技術英語班”, in association with ‘TaiwanICDF‘.

Last Saturday off we went through the Xueshan Tunnel, Taiwan’s longest at 12.9 km ~ it runs through the mountains from Taipei to the east coast at Yilan. Since opening in 2006, it’s really changed Taiwan’s east coast, with lots of development, tourism and business opportunities opening up. There’s lots of traffic too, especially on a Saturday when everyone is in that tunnel trying to get out of the big city, escaping for the day or weekend to breathe in some fresh sea air and relax….

And so we joined them, but it took us 3 hours (yes, 3 whole hours!) from St. John’s University to get to our first main stop at Lanyang Museum 蘭陽博物館. The museum has really good displays about the local area, and gave us distant views through the haze over towards Guishan Island. Guishan Island (Turtle Island) is actually the protruding top of Taiwan’s only active volcano. Our friends from Latin America and Caribbean have plenty of active volcanoes in their own countries, so it’s good that Taiwan has one to show to visitors too! This is us at the museum…

Lanyang Museum building was “designed by a team led by Kris Yao those design was inspired by the ‘cuestas’ commonly seen along Beiguan Coast. The museum adopts the geometric shapes of the cuestas where the roof protrudes from the ground at an angle of 20 degrees meeting a wall which rises from the ground at an angle of 70 degrees.” Really impressive. I liked it. Not sure about that big apartment building right behind it, but hey, at least the residents must have a good view!

We spent the day driving around Yilan, enjoying local foods and restaurants and seeing the countryside. At lunchtime, the rain started – and poured down for the next 3 hours, so we spent the afternoon visiting the famous Kavalan Whisky Distillery ~ which also houses Mr. Brown coffee. A little secret ~ the Kavalan Sweet Coffee Liqueur is really delicious, and there was plenty of it to sample ~ but shhh, don’t tell anyone. Ah, but it was a fun day!

Then last Monday, we went to the National Palace Museum, Taipei – it is Taipei’s ‘must-go, must-see’ museum on every visitor’s itinerary, but it’s impossible to see it all on one trip. We had 2 hours and saw but a fraction of the displays, though we did have a detailed tour in English about the bronzes in the museum…

In the afternoon we paid a quick visit to Xiaoyoukeng in Yangmingshan National Park to see the smoking – and very smelly – fumaroles in the mist. Not, apparently, as magnificent or as smelly (thank goodness!) as the ones in St. Lucia, but hey, these ones are smelly enough!

And today (part of the 3-day Mid-Autumn Moon Festival), we spent the day south-west of Taipei. Our first stop was the Yingge Ceramics Museum – which may look kind of grim and brutalist on the outside, but inside the museum, the displays are really creatively presented, reflecting its past as Taiwan’s ceramic town – due to its special clay.

We had a short guided tour in English and then I rushed around taking some photos. Even the luggage lockers are ceramic…

We also visited Sanxia Old Street, built in the Japanese era in baroque style and restored a few years ago. We tried all the local delicacies, including pig’s blood cake and stinky tofu – some of which, well, let’s put it this way, didn’t go down too well with some of us! The croissants and ice-cream though were delicious!

After lunch, we went to Daxi Old Tea Factory…..

And then to Cihu Mausoleum 慈湖陵寢 , “the temporary resting place of President Chiang Kai-shek. When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, he was not buried in the traditional Chinese fashion but entombed in a black marble sarcophagus since he expressed the wish to be eventually buried in his native Fenghua in Zhejiang province once the Kuomintang (KMT) recovered mainland China from the Communists.” We went to see the changing of the guard ceremony that takes place every hour on the hour ~ we were there for the one at 3:00 pm. Wow, it was so hot, bees were buzzing around and we were directly facing into the afternoon sun. But then the honor guard must have been even hotter, after standing for an hour in their heavy uniforms without moving….

There’s also the Cihu Lake and the surrounding sculpture park where all the ‘removed’ statues of Chiang Kai-Shek are on display….

Our Latin America and Caribbean group of students are so lively and fun, and we’re making the most of their time in Taiwan to take them out and about, showing them the sights and introducing them to Taiwan’s rich culture and history. We enjoy all the delicious (and let’s face it, some not so delicious!) foods on offer at each place, and of course we take a few photos too ~ and I’m grateful that they all think really creatively when I request a pose!

Thanks to St. John’s University for planning all these great trips. Already looking forward to the next one ~ coming soon!

From Latin America and the Caribbean to St. John’s University, Taiwan ~ Welcome!

Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines ~ all countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and all countries that have sent some of their very lovely people to participate in the “2019 Latin American and Caribbean Countries Vocational Training Project: Electrical and Electronic Engineering 拉丁美洲及加勒比海地區友邦技職訓練計畫-電機工程實務技術英語班”, hosted by St. John’s University (SJU). Welcome! The official opening ceremony was on Friday August 16, when everyone was welcomed by SJU vice-president, Dr. Wang, on behalf of President Ay (see photo above) and the different groups posed with their flags….

The whole project is organized by the ‘TaiwanICDF‘ ( Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund) a government-funded organization: ‘In its pursuit of international cooperation, and to advance the Republic of China’s diplomatic interests, the founding principles of the TaiwanICDF require the organization to pursue a mission of “working for humanity, sustainable development, and economic progress.”’

Their visit lasts 11 weeks, and the 18 participants (16 men, 2 women) have signed up for the English-language program, while a further group are coming next month for the French-language program, mostly from Haiti. They are mature students, some are teachers of electrical and / or electronic engineering in vocational institutes, others are in private enterprise; all hope to upgrade their skills to better serve their people back home ~ and to make the most of the visit to broaden their horizons and expand their knowledge of Taiwan. They are very committed, seriously keen and very enthusiastic about making the most of their time in Taiwan. So far, they’ve had introductory language classes and calligraphy, and have already started on the formal (but very practical) engineering classes ~ hydro-power, indoor wiring, plumbing, industrial control power distribution, electronic technology and solar photo-voltaic systems, plus visiting companies and institutions related to their training. So far, so good, and they are all very positive about everything!

I offered to help on some of their outings ~ on their first full day it included health check-ups and a visit to the local supermarket, Carrefour for stocking up with supplies. On Saturday August 17, we all went on a sightseeing tour of the local town of Tamsui, visiting the Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort San Domingo, Aletheia Univeristy and Tamsui Old Street to discover the history, and get to know the area. It was very hot ~ but breezy, yeah!

Last Friday, I went with the group to visit the 2019 ‘Taipei International Industrial Automaton Exhibition’ at the Nangang Exhibition Centre on the other side of Taipei. It was really high-tech stuff, full of robots and machines that could do all sorts of amazing things, and in the afternoon, we met up with one of our alumni for a tour of the Siemens exhibition.

Tropical Storm Bailu was due to cross Taiwan on Saturday, and on Friday afternoon, it was typical pre-typhoon weather, alternating rain and sun ~ and it so happened that after the Expo at Nangang we went with the group to visit Taiwan’s highest building, Taipei 101. What views ~ and what rainbows! It was incredible.

Actually, we were standing right in the centre of the rainbow, which went round in almost a whole circle – but my camera couldn’t get it all in one photo. This photo below was taken at the same time and posted on the official Taipei 101 facebook page, so you can see what we were really looking at – a real wow moment!

Yesterday, Monday, we had a sightseeing trip to Taiwan’s NE coast, up above Keelung, to the old mining towns of Jinguashi, Jiufen, Shifen and Jingtong. A real luxury to go everywhere by coach for the day rather than on and off public transport, as it was hot, hot hot! We had a wonderful day with a very professional guide, and we saw and did everything. The trip was originally planned for a Saturday, but due to the crowds, it was changed to a Monday, and still there were lots of people around ~ with a really good atmosphere… fun!

So a very big ‘Welcome to Taiwan’ to all our visitors. We’re all really looking forward to more trips out and about, and discovering all the wonderful delights that Taiwan has to offer – YES!

R.I.P. Janet Tan 譚瑾姊妹追思禮拜 Funeral Service @ Advent Church, Taipei

Well over 200 people gathered at 2:00 pm today, Sunday, at Advent Church to give thanks to God for the life and witness of our close friend and beloved church member, Janet Tan 譚瑾姊妹, who sadly died on June 25. Hers was a life lived to the full, she never wasted one single moment, and all of us who knew her were touched by her kindness, love, self-effacing charm, endless optimism and interest in everything and everyone. All the photos used in this post below bring back many memories, but the top photo above shows Janet with Bishop Lai in 2014 at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Taiwan Episcopal Church, and that’s how I remember her, always with a smile on her face!

The Tan family have long been the party-family of Advent Church, and until Tan Mama and Tan Baba both passed away last year (see my report of Tan Mama’s funeral here), we regularly gathered at their home to celebrate and enjoy delicious food and great company, whether it was birthdays, Christmas or other festivals, the returning home of one of the grandchildren or welcoming visitors coming – whatever and whenever, it was the Tan family who always knew how to host a great party. Tan Mama was in charge, but somehow it was Janet who made it all happen!

Janet went to high school in Taipei, and after leaving Christ’s College, Guandu, she traveled the world with Cathay Pacific for 10 years or so – she used to tell so many stories of her backpacking adventures! Later she worked in the USA, then at the family T-shirt company in Taipei City, and finally moved with all the Tan family to the coast at Baishawan, just north of Advent Church, where she and her parents took care of the Tan family pets: 7 horses, about 15 famously noisy dogs, a host of cats and a whole gaggle of geese. In their Taipei days, Janet had had a whole pack of Dalmatian dogs, all white with black spots, and she had clothes to match ~ plus the car and the family factory were all painted in white with black spots too ~ ah, she was just so special!

In the countryside at Baishawan, Janet learned how to renovate derelict houses, grow vegetables and live off the land, while also taking care of her beloved parents, and all the pets. Visitors were always welcome! And thus it was that I’ve been to the family home many times for early morning breakfast, other times for lunch, and even more times for late evening parties. Tan Mama was always just getting warmed up at 9:00 pm when most 90-year-olds were well gone to bed!

And when the party was over, often getting on for 11:00 pm, then somehow I had to get home, and that’s when the fun started ~ Janet would offer to drive me the 5 miles or so – only 5 miles but it would take absolutely ages! Tan Mama, fearing that Janet would fall asleep driving, would insist on coming too, and Tan Baba didn’t want to miss out on a car trip, so all 4 of us would then launch forth into the night, pile into the car and head down the hill and along the road in the darkness, going very slowly. The only way to keep Janet awake was to sing loudly and get her to join in too, and so that’s how we got home. Being a kindergarten teacher, I know endless children’s songs, and we sang them all, over and over again ~ ‘Jingle Bells, Happy Birthday, The Wheels on the Bus, Incy-Wincy Spider, If you’re happy and you know it’ every verse, over and over! By this time, Tan Mama and Tan Baba were both fast asleep themselves, and Janet and me were having a great singalong all the way home. It was hilarious. Visitors would join in too, ah such amazing memories!

Janet and her parents also came to every social event in Advent Church. They rarely came on time, and sometimes not even on the right day, but hey, they always came, often right at the end, just in time for the food. One time they called me and asked could they visit. When they arrived, they came with a huge plate of watermelon chunks, enough for about 20 people. The 4 of us munched our way through all that watermelon. It turned out they had thought it was a social evening at Advent Church, and had turned up very late – only to find the church closed. After a quick phone call, they discovered they were a week early, it was on the following week instead. So rather than go home, hey they just brought the watermelon to my house for a watermelon party instead!

When the then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori came to visit Advent Church many years ago, she also visited the Tan family and met the horses. Then when the Episcopal Church House of Bishops came to Taiwan in 2014, Janet was on hand to renew her friendship with Presiding Bishop Katharine and her husband, Richard – here they are having lunch!

And only Janet could have pulled off a group photo on the steps of Advent Church with her in the front row with all the bishops!

Today’s service was a fitting tribute to Janet’s life, and also to her witness of her deep and very real Christian faith. She always made the most of every opportunity to share her faith with others, particularly in the context of her simple rural lifestyle, depending on God to supply everything they needed – and over this past year of declining health, she has always remained grateful and appreciative of God’s grace, mercy and love. When Tan Baba died last July, Janet was not able to be at his funeral, she was already receiving treatment for cancer – however she kept as active as she could right to the end and in this last semester, she came along most weeks to my community English class, including the one only a week before she died. We loved having her, she was a real blessing to us all.

Today’s funeral service was led by our rector, Rev. Lennon Y. R. Chang, who was with Janet in the days and hours leading up to her death, and he also led her cremation service on July 1. Her death was a shock and the whole church has been in mourning for weeks; Janet was too young and died too soon, only a year after both her parents, and yet she would not have wanted us to be mournful – but to rejoice with her that she is now with her Lord in heaven, where there is no more suffering and pain, and where she is reunited with her beloved parents. The reading was from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-15, most appropriate. The funeral service in a packed Advent Church….

After the service, we had a tea party in the church center, which the family had decorated with flowers, and Dalmatian-style tablecloths! There were gifts of memorial books and T-shirts. On the T-shirts, designed and made by the family in their own factory, were the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1, headlined with the song, ‘Turn, turn, turn’: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” So beautiful.

Janet’s 3 older brothers shook hands and thanked everyone as the service finished. We offer them and all the Tan family our condolences and prayers. The brothers and their families are looking after all Janet’s horses and dogs, cats and geese, and also trying to complete some of her building projects, like the huge cross that she wanted to make on the flat roof of the horses’ stable, so that as the airplanes pass by overhead on their flight-path to the international airport, so they can look down and see the cross outline all lit up. Janet had so many ideas and so much vision, she was brimming with creativity and imagination for what was possible. You can see from her outfits she wore that she always dressed as creatively as she could. Janet really brightened up our lives, and was a great friend to so many of us. I thank God for the privilege of having known her.

Fondly remembered. May Janet rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

Yes to God, Yes to Mission, Yes to Taiwan!