Friday, March 18, 2011

Book: Far Eastern Journey

This book, which describes a journey made in 1960, has long been out of print. I found my copy in a secondhand bookshop in the south of England more than a decade ago. The author, Bernard Newman (1897-1968), was very prolific, writing at least 20 travel books and around 80 other volumes. Unlike his contemporaries, Eric Newby and Norman Lewis, his body of work has mostly sunk without trace.

This book describes a trip from Pakistan to Taiwan, via India, Hong Kong and Singapore. Nine of the 26 chapters deal with Taiwan, where he was clearly regarded as an important visitor, meeting both Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.

On the second page of his account, he makes an observation that will cause anyone familiar with the crowded, chaotic streets of 21st-century Taiwan to chuckle:

"The great peril of Formosa was soon apparent: Not the people, who are very friendly and cheerful, but bicycles. They and their relatives, the pedicabs, bore down on me from all directions – from either side of the street, making their own rule of the road as they went along."

While in Taipei, Newman sees water buffalo pulling carts into the city, taking wood and farm produce to market. (I've never seen a buffalo in a city, but I've spotted more than a few in the countryside.) Visiting Wanhua's Longshan Temple, he sees effigies that strike him as “quite grotesque.” The Confucius Temple, however, is “much more dignified.”

His trip to Kinmen sounds exciting. The plane he travelled in, "flew very low... to avoid being caught on Chicom radar." These days, the Tourism Bureau suggests visitors go to Pingxi and release lanterns; Newman sent off a bunch of propaganda balloons in the direction of China's coast. In addition, he went to Sun Moon Lake and other places in the mountains; took in a Beijing opera performance; and witnessed a traditional funeral.

Politically, he's as naive as most short-term visitors. He pins all the blame for the February 28 Incident on Chen Yi, implying that Chiang Kai-shek did not plan or approve of the massacring of Taiwan's civic leadership. And he swallows the idea that while there weren't any proper opposition parties, the KMT regime wasn't really authoritarian.

"There have been a series of rumours...which suggest Chiang Kai-shek intends to found a dynasty, and has decided that his son, Lt. Gen. Chiang Ching-kuo, should be his successor. But actual events suggest that this is absurd. Chiang Kai-shek cannot defy the constitution."

Well, when the elder Chiang died in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo was already premier (prime minister) and in day-to-day control of the government. Vice President Yen Chia-kan served out the remainder of Chiang Kai-shek's term, and no one was surprised when Chiang Ching-kuo became ROC president in 1978. Newman writes that at the time of his visit, there was talk of a new party being formed, the China Democratic Party. That party was crushed soon after it launched, and its leader Lei Chen was jailed for ten years.

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