Sunday, August 12, 2012

From Far Formosa

From Far Formosa
by George MacKay
Published in 1896
Published by Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier
ISBN (SMC Publishing reprint): 957-638-072-3

George MacKay was a Canadian Presbyterian missionary who arrived in Formosa at the end of 1871 and lived in Tamsui for the next several decades. He became known among the locals for his proselytizing and for his skill at extracting teeth -- and grateful locals who had been suffering the pain of a horribly rotten tooth would naturally be ready to give MacKay's religious teachings a chance once the tooth was out!

MacKay is still well-remembered in these parts. He never managed to turn Formosa into a piously Protestant land, but MacKay Memorial Hospital is one of the better-regarded hospitals in Taipei, and MacKay is probably the best-known Westerner to have lived in Formosa in the 1800s. He learned to speak Taiwanese quite fluently (it's not clear in the book if he ever learned much Mandarin, although it wouldn't have been terribly useful to him in 19th-century Formosa anyway) and locals generally came to respect him for all he did. Eventually.

He describes the city of Bang-Kah (modern-day Wanhua, Taipei) as a den of sin, and quite unwelcome to the missionary and his first few converts; through sheer bloody-minded persistence, he managed to get the locals accustomed to his bible-preaching presence, and as the years passed, the locals grew to actually like him, which he is rather proud of. (He does not say, however, that he has managed to clean up the city's sinfulness.)

His 1895 book From Far Formosa is a quite interesting vintage look at Formosa through Western eyes. (The name Taiwan didn't become common in English-speaking circles until long after MacKay's death; he does mention the word Taiwan, but as a 'this is what Chinese people call Formosa' factoid.) Everything is told through MacKay's idiosyncratic viewpoint. There's a lot of talk of God and how Jesus is greater than Buddha in this book, but one shouldn't expect anything different; after all, MacKay's reason for coming to Taiwan was to spread the Gospel, not to snack on fried tofu and oyster omelets.

For me, the most striking thing about MacKay's style is that, even as he writes lovingly and in detail of his first few converts to Christianity, he barely mentions the local woman he married, or the children he had with her. He lets his personal feelings shine through where religion is concerned, but his family is clearly considered irrelevant.

That said, although I'm no devout Christian myself, I was genuinely touched by MacKay's sense of service in the duty of Christendom. I can fully understand the attraction of doing one's duty in the service of a good cause, and that's something MacKay describes very well.

As an educated Victorian, MacKay spends a couple of chapters describing the flora, fauna, and geologic history of Formosa in some detail (and yes, he's perfectly capable of writing about science without mixing religion into it). I'm rather fond of his dry 19th-century writing style as he enumerates the local animals and plants. Of the cat, he writes, 'similar in appearance and nature to the Western house-cat', which is a decent description of our own Zhao Cai, who is entirely of Formosan feline descent.

Of mangoes, he writes, 'Nothing can be said in praise of this fruit as it is found in North Formosa. It has the taste of turpentine.' When in season, mangoes in present-day Taipei are quite good; presumably we're benefiting from the modern-day transportation infrastructure which brings us a supply of mangoes grown in better climates.

Overall, MacKay's book is a fascinating look at 19th-century Formosa. Even if you're not enthralled by Christianity, MacKay covers a lot of other ground which is of interest. He describes his experiences in the 1884-85 war with France (which included heavy French bombardment of Tamsui; most Westerners living here now probably have no idea the war ever took place). He speculates on the ethnicity and origin of Formosan aborigines, and although his conclusions do not match the modern consensus, his observations are still a fascinating glimpse of 19th-century anthropology. And as I said, the Victorian writing style agreed with me. I devoured the book in a few days.

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