The Tooth-Pulling Preacher

from Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present, by John Ross

book cover of Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present

A week after the earthquake I packed my bags and headed north to begin my trip through Taiwan. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about crowds, and I was actually safer up north than down in central Taiwan. From Taipei’s outer suburbs I took a bus along the northern coast. An hour later I was on a beach, walking along a lovely stretch of sand as a fresh breeze rolled in with large breakers off a blue-green sea. Clear sky shone overhead while cumulus clouds in the north kept time to a lone container ship skimming the horizon. Behind me green mountains squeezed rain from dark clouds rubbing against their upper slopes. The beach was deserted and quiet save for the sound of breaking waves. But being Taiwan it was the beauty of a despoiled nature; the area was littered with garbage, there were abandoned bunkers at the crest of the beach, and in the distance stood blocks of the concrete-box architecture that mars much of the island’s landscape.

The beach led me to a rocky headland where a stubby black and white lighthouse marks the northernmost point in Taiwan. There was a real sense of being at land’s end: wild sea-lashed vegetation, the smell of salt in the air, the creak of stunted trees swaying and flax bushes rustling in the wind — a good place to spend a few melancholy moments contemplating the trip that might have been. Even here the earthquake cast a pall, a Taiwanese flag flapping at half-mast as part of an official period of mourning for the earthquake victims.

A military compound, bristling with antennas and other intelligence-gathering equipment, blocked my intended path around the headland. I retraced my steps and took the long way around to the other side of the headland where there was a tiny fishing port. Don’t imagine some quaint little place; it was just your standard Taiwanese fishing port, in other words, ugly, which really takes some doing for something that is by nature so picturesque. It was all concrete and rows of cheap seafood restaurants. When I say “cheap,” I mean the buildings, not the seafood, which is very often surprisingly expensive. For Taiwanese the aesthetics of a restaurant aren’t very important and buildings are put up with the skill and cost you might normally expect employed on a farm shed. These restaurants were in that mould: corrugated iron top, back and sides, the front either large glass windows or left open. The classier places had a bit of painted plywood thrown in. Architectural beauty may not rate but freshness is important, and the seafood on display was very fresh indeed, still alive in plastic containers arranged in various levels from the restaurant fronts down to the roadside.

I decided to walk along the coastal highway to Danshui, thirty kilometres away. The quake had forced me to abandon my plan to walk from here to Kending in the extreme south of Taiwan, but I just wanted some exercise after the inertia of a week of riding out aftershocks. The road was not even close to scenic, the ocean unseen for all but a few stretches, yet I still enjoyed it. Walking is a very meditative activity, and some of my best ideas have come to me when I’ve been on a long march (ideas such as stopping and having a drink!). Walking makes you look at things differently and it hones your powers of reflection. My first observation was, “Shit, it’s hot!” It was mid-day and scorching, 33 degrees in the shade but much hotter out on the road.

While I was walking, several cars and a motorcycle stopped and asked me whether I wanted a ride, and each time saying no was harder, especially with the last one, a sexy young woman in a BMW. Luckily, I remembered my mother’s warning about taking rides from strangers, politely declined, and went on my way unharmed. There were some other female distractions along the road: scantily clad girls in glass-fronted boxes, the large windows designed to give the best view and entice customers to stop and buy their betel nut. I stopped at one of these betel nut girls who had a well-stocked fridge and bought some cold drinks.

Locals sometimes refer to betel nut as “Taiwanese chewing gum” but it is actually common throughout Southeast Asia. What is uniquely Taiwanese, however, are these “betel nut beauties” selling it by the roadside. The very first time I saw them was at night and I didn’t know what to make of it — little shops raised on blocks at the side of the road, encased in flashing neon, and through the glass windows in the brightly lit interior were women in tiny skirts, bikini tops, and slinky, tight-fitting dresses. Cars would pull up and the girls would come sauntering down the few steps on impossibly high heels and bend over to talk to the drivers. Prostitution? The truth was a little disappointing; all this glamour and sleaze was just for selling the revolting substance of betel nut to passing motorists.

Betel nut is the seed of the tall palm of the same name (also called an areca palm or Areca catechu) and it is sold with a lime paste and wrapped in a leaf. It’s very much an acquired taste but once acquired the chewer can become addicted to the mild high the nut gives. Two-and-a-half million Taiwanese can’t be wrong! Together they spend a whopping NT$3.45 billion on betel nut each year, making it the fourth most important farm product behind pigs, rice, and chickens. Betel nut causes excessive salivation, which means the chewers are constantly spitting and staining the roads with blood-red splotches. Chewing it also blackens teeth and greatly increases the likelihood of oral cancer. Betel-nut plantations — often planted illegally on high mountain slopes — are an environmental scourge because of the increased soil erosion that results from their shallow root systems.

The walk along the northern coast was long and hot but cooling rehydration was never far away. One of the great pleasures of living in Taiwan is ease with which you can buy beer and the freedom to drink it in public.

I took a short break in a roadside restaurant. Well, everything in Taiwan is “roadside” because the high population density means there’s simply not enough space to waste on the luxury of a gap between the road and shops or houses. I ordered a meal and sank a couple of ice-cold Taiwan Beers. Two young children stared at me until they got bored and then resumed the conversation my meal had interrupted, whining on like a scratched record, “Mum, you lied to me. You said we were going to McDonald’s.” A rainbow and curtains of grey hung on the mountains of Yangming Shan, promising rain — but none came.

Five hours after setting off I reached the outskirts of Danshui, an old port town at the mouth of the Danshui River, twenty kilometres northwest of Taipei. The place has a long and colourful history — it was once the haunt of Chinese and Japanese pirates, occupied by both the Spanish and Dutch in the 1600s, and was for a long time Taiwan’s major port. Competition with the port of Keelung saw it decline to little more than a fishing village. Today, there’s little maritime flavour left, and it’s basically a suburb of Taipei that is a popular weekend destination known for its seafood sunsets. Sadly, most of the history has been buried under an avalanche of development.

The streets were busy with schoolchildren going home. It was September 28, Teacher’s Day, a holiday that celebrates the great teacher and sage Confucius, but this year hadn’t been designated a public holiday. Anyway, with so many schools destroyed, and classrooms with the empty desks of dead and injured students, nobody was in the mood for celebration. People around the island were participating in a special day of religious mourning — worshippers praying and burning ghost money (wads of printed money-like paper for the spirits), while monks led mournful chants from the night through to the dawn. According to traditional beliefs the dead return on the seventh day after their death expecting to see ceremonies that will take them into a better next life. A ceremony is held every seven days for a total of seven times, and the funeral takes place at the end of this forty-nine-day period.

Rush-hour traffic was starting to clog the streets, and I found myself stuck in a solid stream of cars and scooters that were belching out so much noise and fumes that my head was starting to swim. The pollution was so thick the sun looked like a pink moon. As an early dusk settled over Danshui the city was even more crowded than normal and peculiarly gloomy. Power rationing was in effect throughout northern Taiwan because of earthquake damage to transmission lines, and people were spilling out of their homes and shops onto the sidewalks and street sides. Walking was an obstacle course and I was continually having to detour around shop merchandise and illegally parked scooters. One moment I’d be stepping between mechanics repairing scooters, the next over noisy electric generators, or squeezing around children at desks doing their homework, all the time ducking and weaving through the shuffling crowd, and when brought to a standstill, I would step out onto the road and walk along with the crawling scooters weaving their way around gridlocked cars.

I found a cheap hotel in a small side street called the “Enjoying Good Time Hotel.” The owner-receptionist looked surprised, either at the idea of someone wanting to stay at his hotel, or at seeing a foreigner, perhaps both. He pulled himself up out of a cane chair, took a couple of steps toward the street gutter, spat out some betel nut. With red juice still dribbling down his chin, he asked, “Rest (xiuxi) or night?” The two rates were written in Chinese on a board. Xiuxi literally means to rest or take a nap, but for hotels is a euphemism for checking in for a quick bout of fornication.

The power rationing meant trudging upstairs to the sixth floor with candles for lighting. I walked past a couple of sleazy-looking men dressed in clothes straight out of 1970s Las Vegas. Behind them followed two women, who to give the benefit of the doubt I’ll call “hostesses.” From their high heels to their fur handbags to their layers of makeup, the hostesses were the living embodiment of the phrase, “mutton dressed as lamb.” Even candlelight couldn’t hide the fact they’d clocked up enough mileage for frequent flier points for first-class seats to Mars and back. There was a time when I would have thought them too unattractive to be in the trade, but years of observing the comings and goings of a brothel masquerading as a barber’s shop just a couple of doors from where I lived had taught me otherwise. (Though having said that, the brothel did later close down due to a lack of customers.)

My hotel room was on the sixth floor — a “Chinese” sixth floor. Because the words for “death” and “four” sound alike, the number is considered unlucky and the floors were numbered 1, 2, 3, and then jumped to 5 and 6. “Six,” although an improvement on “death,” isn’t that lucky a number either; in Taiwanese it sounds like “to lose something.”

When the power came on I had a quick look around the walls of my room for suspicious holes, and checked the light fittings and other equipment for “unusual” apparatus. Xiuxi hotels and motels are not infrequently fitted out with Peeping Tom cameras. All I needed was some gorgeous nymphomaniac banging on my door at midnight, begging me to give her a good ravaging, and a week later I’d be making a guest appearance in a porn video, peddled out the back of a van in some sleazy night market. There have been a few funny cases of couples buying these “candid camera” porn videos and seeing themselves featured, one such case involving a guy who bought a video and saw his wife having sex with someone else in a hotel room.

I was up early the next morning to avoid the heat. The city was stirring to life in the narrow street below my window. While listening to the radio for the latest earthquake news — the on-going search for fifteen Taipei climbers who’d been on a hiking trip when the quake struck — I watched the street transform into a food market. Householders rolled up the metal doors of their four-storey shop-houses and started setting up small tables out front. A few street vendors wheeled their mobile food stands into position. Little blue Isuzu trucks parked alongside and started selling produce from the back of their vehicles. One of these was a butcher’s complete with geese — feet in the air and necks hanging limp over the side — and a pig’s head proudly displayed.

Apart from the market activity there wasn’t much to look at. The view was one of ugly concrete block architecture and, rising up in the mid-distance, writhing multi-coloured dragons on the roof of a Taoist temple. As if to compensate for the drabness of the surrounding buildings it was overly decorative — all the ornamentation and colour of an entire block piled into a single building, a single roof.

I had an easy morning looking around the Danshui waterfront. There wasn’t much happening: a row of coffee shops and restaurants not yet open for business, and the single little ferry boat that shuttles passengers across the river lying at anchor. A few women were strolling with parasols, and clusters of senior citizens were sitting on tree-shaded benches. It was a beautiful day and the view across the wide river mouth to the opposite shore was lovely, the skyline dominated by a huge pyramid-shaped landmark, the 616-metre Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) Mountain.

Danshui means “fresh water,” which is rather funny considering the state of the water. I was reminded of a publicity stunt carried out by the Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou that went badly wrong. He was out on the Danshui River with TV cameras and photographers to sing the praises of a clean-up campaign, holding up a glass of river water to show how clean it was, when a dead body floated by.

If you had been down by the river on March 9, 1872, you would have heard the distant whistle of a small steamship announcing its arrival outside the dangerous bar at the confluence of river and sea. It was high tide and a fine day so the steamship passed safely and came chugging into port. Fishermen looked up from their baskets and nets. Townsfolk and villagers, who had come in from the neighbouring countryside to sell their produce, gathered around. The first steamship had visited about a decade before, but these fire-breathing ships were still rare and exciting enough to draw a crowd. This small ship, the Hailoong (the Sea Dragon), was one of the first steamships in Taiwan’s waters, and had started a fortnightly run between Taiwan and the mainland the year before. Standing at the railings was a young man of small build, bearded, and with an intense stare that scanned the beautiful setting of river, hills and mountains. There was a fiery look in his eyes as he heard a reassuring inner-voice, “This is the land.” The man was George MacKay, a zealous twenty-seven-year-old missionary from Canada, and the first missionary to preach in northern Taiwan since the brief colonial period of the Dutch and Spanish centuries before. He was undaunted by the challenge and actually thankful for “the glorious privilege to lay the foundation of Christ’s church in unbroken heathenism!” He would spend the rest of his life in Danshui, and today lies buried in a shady cemetery on a hill overlooking the town.

MacKay was a first-generation Canadian of Scottish blood and had inherited the tough stubborn character and the stern Calvinist morality of his ancestral homeland. Though he had come to Taiwan as a colonizer of souls he had no love of imperialism. His parents had been forced from the land during the “clearances” — a time when tenant farmers were moved off the land to make way for sheep — and had sailed to Canada to start a new life. From an early age MacKay had felt the calling to be a missionary. He studied in Toronto and Princeton, was ordained, and sent by the Canadian Presbyterian Church to China. In 1871 MacKay set sail from San Francisco not knowing if he would ever see his home or loved ones again. A snow-clad Mount Fuji was a welcome sight after a rough twenty-six day voyage across the Pacific to Yokohama. From Japan he went to Hong Kong, then to Amoy (Xiamen) and finally, on what proved to be the worst part of the entire journey, took passage on a schooner across the channel to Kaohsiung.

For the previous seven years the English Presbyterians had been working in the southern area around Tainan, at that time both the island’s capital and largest city, but MacKay chose to head into the unknown rather than follow their advice to work in a tamer area. He settled in Danshui and stayed there for thirty years, using it as his base from which to spread the gospel throughout the north.

The early days must have been hard. He was alone in a place that was hostile to foreigners, he couldn’t speak the language, and he didn’t have an interpreter. His first task was to learn Taiwanese and the Chinese written script. He overcame the handicaps of not having a teacher or any suitable books by hard work and persistence. First he had his servant teach him the basics and then he went wandering out into the countryside to meet and converse with farmers. In the evening he would come back and practise with his reluctant servant. Teaching the crazy foreigner quickly proved too stressful and MacKay later recalled how, “After a few weeks in my service he collapsed, and left me to march up and down the room reciting and rehearsing by myself. I never saw him again.”

On one of his walks MacKay saw a dozen boys herding buffaloes. As the missionary approached them they yelled, “Foreign devil, foreign devil!” and hid behind some boulders. The next day he came again, but this time the boys looked at him in silence, and although scared did not run away. On the third day MacKay spoke to them, curiosity overcame fear, and the boys gathered around to feel his skin, clothes, and beard. “The herdboys and I became friends that day, and ever after they would wait my coming with eager interest.” He spent four or five hours every day with the boys, talking, listening, and writing down new words and expressions. This was how MacKay learnt most of his Taiwanese, and made the first of many lasting friendships. Several of the boys later converted and one became a preacher.

MacKay kept away from the few foreign trading agents and English-speaking Chinese in town, and was able to preach his first sermon after just five months. He went on to study Chinese culture, philosophy, religion, and the classics of literature in order to be able to debate religion with the local literati.

He preached all over northern Taiwan, as far afield as the East Coast — not yet under Chinese control — and among headhunting tribes in the mountains. He possessed an explorer’s passion for places untrodden, felt the tiring marches over rough trails were more than compensated for by “scenery of extraordinary beauty,” and relished the challenge of missionary work. He was untroubled by any doubts about the inferiority of the local religions in Taiwan, which he thought were “of the same kind and quality as the heathenism of China. It is the same poisonous mixture, the same dark, damning nightmare.”

In the nineteenth century Taiwan was still very much a wild frontier area with weak state control and notoriously corrupt, lazy, and incompetent officials. This state of unrest was encapsulated in a common saying: “A minor revolt every three years and a major one every five years.” Violence was endemic, not only between the Aborigines and Chinese, but between the different Aboriginal tribes, Chinese of different provinces, different towns, and different clans. Banditry was rife, and the justice system was often little better than legalized robbery.

MacKay looked upon most Chinese officials with contempt. They were mercenary and the common people tried to have as few dealings with them as possible. Government consisted of a pyramid of people squeezing those under them, and never more so than in matters of justice. In the courthouse — “the scene of unmitigated lying, scheming, and oppression” — the mandarin (high official) had supreme power, and the justice he meted out was often determined by the bribes he received. Trials were shams where often the “witness whose evidence is not pleasing to the mandarin is immediately beaten.”

Fines and strokes of the bamboo were the most common punishments for minor offenses. Then there was the “cangue,” a heavy wooden collar worn in public. Prisons were filthy death traps where money was extorted from relatives by torture of the inmates. Criminals found guilty of serious crimes such as murder, treason, or even lesser ones like theft and arson, were beheaded. The swiftness of the executioner’s sword blow was subject to bribery. MacKay personally witnessed the execution of four soldiers condemned for burglary.

One was on his knees, and in an instant the work was done. Three blows were required for the second. The third was slowly sawed off with a long knife. The fourth was taken a quarter of a mile farther, and amid shouts and screams and many protestations of innocence he was subjected to torture and finally beheaded. The difference in the bribe made the difference in the execution.

MacKay describes a bizarre system of punishing criminals by proxy. “If the guilty party cannot be found, or if he can bribe the magistrate, some careless fellow can easily be procured to suffer the punishment.” Once the missionary was called to the courthouse and told that the thief who had stolen from one of the chapels had been captured. When MacKay explained that this was not the right man the mandarin “confessed that it was a case of proxy, but argued that by punishing this man the real culprit would be so afraid that the moral influence would be quite as salutary.”

Although it’s often tempting when you’re stuck in a traffic jam and choking on pollution to think of pre-industrialized Taiwan as some kind of agrarian paradise, the reality was that there was no “Golden Age” and the country was a dangerous and unhealthy place: a malarial hell that took a very heavy toll on native Taiwanese, and even more so on foreigners. MacKay, who almost died from malaria, called it “the blackest foe that hangs longest over our beautiful island,” and that it was not an uncommon thing to find half the inhabitants of a town prostrated by malarial fever at once. The menace that this disease posed cannot be overestimated. I’ve had four bouts of malaria myself in Burma, and if it wasn’t for modern medicine I’d almost certainly be dead.

At that time Europeans had yet to discover the mosquito’s part in the spread of malaria and thought it came from the poisonous vapours of decaying vegetation. Chinese explanations were a little more colourful. They thought malaria was caused by stepping on mock-money put in the street or on the roadside by a priest or sorcerer. Another view held that two devils, one hot and one cold, were responsible. Treatment was equally eccentric. Taoist charms were made from peach-leaves, green bamboo, and yellow paper, or more simply just seven hairs plucked from a black dog, then tied around the patient’s hand. Buddhist priests had various medicines, or failing those the sufferer was sent to a temple and kept under the idol’s altar table for protection. Another method was to construct a man out of rice-straw, invite the evil spirits to enter it, then take the scarecrow away from the house and make food offerings to the spirit.

Once MacKay had established a church in Danshui and had some followers, he made regular trips further afield, setting up chapels and congregations elsewhere. Touring followed a familiar pattern; in places where he had already established congregations he would first visit the sick, find an open place to dispense medicine and extract teeth, discuss business matters concerning the running of the chapel, and then do some Bible study, singing, preaching, and baptism. In “heathen” places he often chose the steps of a temple, began by singing a hymn or two, set to extracting teeth, then followed up by preaching.

MacKay was sure that dentistry was the quickest way to a man’s soul. Recovery from an illness could be attributed to the gods as readily as medicine, “but the relief from toothache is too unmistakable, and because of this tooth-extracting has done more than anything else in breaking down prejudice and opposition.” Anyone who has suffered the torment of bad toothache will be able to appreciate his reasoning.

People’s teeth were generally in terrible condition because of so much betel-nut chewing. Local dentistry was “crude and cruel,” and something as simple as having a couple of teeth pulled could maim or kill you: “jaw-breaking, excessive hemorrhage, fainting, and even death frequently result from the barbarous treatment.” The missionary’s dentistry wasn’t too sophisticated either and, as he admitted, his first dental instruments were “very rude, having been hammered out by a native blacksmith” according to his instructions. And the “Doctor” in the name Dr MacKay was for Doctor of Theology, not for medicine or dentistry.

It must have been a strange sight: a foreign devil in a white suit and pith helmet outside a temple, and a hundred or so sufferers waiting in line. Teeth were extracted at a frightening pace — better than one a minute — so quickly in fact that there was no time for the patients to sit down, and teeth were pulled while they stood. MacKay calculated he had more than twenty-one thousand extractions to his credit.


Dr. MacKay and students pulling teeth

One of the Canadian’s longer trips, as usual on foot and in the company of some of his students, took him over the rugged mountain ranges south of Keelung to the Yilan Plain where he hoped to convert the local “civilized” aborigines. MacKay and his party crossed paths with a Chinese man who was escaping from “savages” who had speared and beheaded four of his companions. Further on, the missionary party had to dodge spears thrown by three aborigines. Unscathed they continued until, lost and overtaken by night, they were forced to sleep under the stars. When the weary travellers finally reached a village they were greeted with shouts of “barbarian” and “foreign devil,” and “wolfish-looking dogs” were set upon them. Up and down the plain they received the same hostile response: curses, closed doors, and dogs, until some sympathetic men from a fishing village invited them to their home. The villagers were so impressed that they built a chapel. MacKay stayed on for nearly two months, converted many of the inhabitants, and then repeated that success in neighbouring villages.

As the first missionary in northern Taiwan, MacKay met with considerable curiosity and opposition, and some of his earliest Christian converts paid for their new-found faith with their lives. In a village near Bang-kah, the present-day Taipei neighbourhood of Wanhua, the missionary’s success drew the hostility of local leaders. Eight converts were framed and falsely accused of trying to assassinate a mandarin. (The perpetrators admitted years later that the charges had been fabricated and the Christians entirely innocent.) They were kept in stocks in a dungeon, tortured before, during and after mock trials, and then taken down to Tainan and imprisoned. Two converts, a teacher and his father, were dragged out and beheaded, the father forced to see his son’s head hacked off. The two heads were put in buckets, labelled “Heads of the Christians” and carried back to Bang-kah. Along the way villagers were summoned to see the fate of those who followed the “barbarian.” Once returned to Bang-kah the heads were put on the city gates. The remaining six men were imprisoned, where two died from torture and starvation.

Some of the darkest days for the first Christians occurred during a short war between France and China in 1884–1885. Although the conflict was over a territorial dispute in Indochina, the French decided to exert pressure on Peking by blockading and attacking ports around Taiwan. Into Danshui alone, upward of a thousand shells were fired, and with little accuracy. Every European house was hit, and a shell fragment weighing thirty pounds came crashing through MacKay’s roof and into a hall. Always ready with a bit of appropriate scripture he shot back with words of encouragement for his household: “Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night, not for the arrow that flieth by day.”

One of the tragedies of the bombardment was that as many Chinese were killed by tampering with the unexploded shells found on shore as were killed by the French shelling itself. Not far from MacKay’s house “one poor heathen” sat astride a shell and proceeded to attack it with a hammer and chisel to get to the gunpowder. His researches were answered with an explosion that carried his limbs into the tree above him, and, “for that last moment, with half his body blown away, his mind was still on the treasures of earth. Seeing the contents of his pocket on the ground, he said with his last breath, ‘Pick up that dollar.’ Poor, dark, hopeless heathenism.”

Not surprisingly the French blockade stirred anti-foreigner sentiment among the locals that spilled over into violence; seven chapels were destroyed, Chinese converts were assaulted and several murdered.

It would be unfair, however, to paint too black a picture of religious intolerance in those early times. MacKay and his followers were not entirely blameless; they would sing hymns and preach outside temples and burn the idols of the newly converted. Imagine the situation reversed, as the zealous MacKay failed to do. What kind of welcome would have awaited a “heathen Chinaman” in any Western country in the nineteenth century if he had stood outside a church, barefoot and wearing Buddhist robes, chanting mantras and preaching the true word?

Today Taiwan enjoys religious freedom that is second to none. There is no discrimination, overt or otherwise, and unlike in many Western countries religion is not an obstacle to high office or a source of conflict. Although the former President, Lee Teng-hui, was a devout Presbyterian, and liked to think of himself as a Moses-like figure leading his people to democracy, his faith was never an issue, and he became the first president of a Chinese nation to be popularly elected. His landslide win certainly wasn’t on the back of Christian voters, since they account for only 3 percent of the population.

Most Taoists and Buddhists feel comfortable going to Christian hospitals and many send their children to Christian schools. Foreign missionaries — of which there are more than a thousand — are free to spread their gospel, and many of the old hands have received awards from the government for their service to the community.

Camphor Press, which specializes in quality English-language e-books about Taiwan and China, has published a second edition (2014) of Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present. The Kindle edition is also available through Amazon.