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Chinguashi, Now and Then

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by Walter Giersbach

 

My travel guide described Chinguashi, Taiwan, as a small former gold mining town a few hours northeast of the capital of Taipei. Scouting possible day trips, I asked my host if it was of interest. Ming-tse agreed it was and suggested we visit while looking up an old friend of ours in nearby Keelung, a bustling deep-water port city.

Visitors are rightly confused trying to find Chinguashi because its name is variously transliterated Jinguashi or Jin Jiao Hsi. I was further confused because Ming’s daughter kept referring to Jiu Fen, the neighboring town.

We set off the next morning in Ming’s too-tiny Honda Civic, with his wife Ah-kiao, daughter Nancy, and my wife Judy — known in her homeland as Hsiu-yen — packed in tightly for the ascent into the hills. At each turn, the road grew narrower and the fifteen percent grades steeper. Large convex mirrors on blind curves warn drivers of oncoming cars.

At the entrance of the Gold Ecological Park and Museum, the ticket seller challenged Judy for trying to obtain the senior citizen discount. Proudly, she pulled out her Connecticut drivers license and the amazed clerk let her in at the cheaper rate. The guard didn’t question my age.

The museum offered a fascinating insight into what had once been a rich copper and gold mining operation under the Japanese. They had occupied the island from 1895 until the end of World War II before the Nationalist Chinese government reclaimed what had been once part of Cathay. Photos, tools and descriptions of the mines brought to mine to life. What may be the largest nugget in the world, weighing in at one hundred pounds and 99.9 percent pure gold was most astounding. Go figure the value now at over US$1,300 to the troy ounce!

Then: The Gold Ecological Park and Museum also displays an exhibit of gold ants — 523 of them — created by a Taiwanese artist. Purposefully, this is exactly the number of British and Australian prisoners that comprised the first shipment of slave laborers brought to work the mines. The prisoners worked in a nearby copper mine — not the gold mine — in some of the worst conditions ever recorded in the War.

Now: The home of the Japanese mine director is a lovely shoji-paneled architectural gem set in a traditional garden overlooking the sea several miles away. It was built to welcome the Crown Prince of Japan, who paid a visit in the 1920s. Undoubtedly the dignitaries also enjoyed playing the nine-hole miniature golf course the mine director had built behind the home. Below, the hills descend like green bowling balls to the rough seaside some miles to the northeast. Red temple roofs peek out from the trees and bamboo in the distance. Chinguashi could be a model for a Shangri-la.

Then: Another group of visitors came to Chinguashi in 2002, as reported by the Asia Times. Jack Edwards, Les Davis, Harry Brown and Bill Kingate had been swept up when Singapore fell in 1942. They were ferried to what the Japanese called Kinkaseki, the richest copper resource commanded by the Empire. The Bridge on the River Kwai presented a sanitized Hollywood-version of a prison camp. At Kinkaseki, one out of every four Allied prisoners died from starvation, beatings, exhaustion or illness. This compared badly to the 3 percent death rate at German POW camps. Michael Hoare wrote for the European Association of Taiwan Studies, “An idea of their suffering can be gained from the fact that every day sick and starving men were forced to descend 1,186 steps from the camp to the mine head followed by a further 2,000 and more steps to the working level — and the reverse uphill when totally exhausted in the evening.”

Conditions there were worse than at any of the 14 other POW camps in Taiwan, Jack Edwards wrote in his memoir Banzai, You Bastards. (When the book was published in Japan, where it sold well, but was retitled Drop Dead, Jap Bastards.) Working in the mineshaft 800 feet deep, prisoners had to meet quotas or be beaten. Their skin was stained yellow by the hot sulphurous water in the mine. Air temperatures soared as high as 130 degrees.

The copper began to run out in 1944, Edwards wrote, and work ceased. The prisoners were transported to the "jungle camp” called Kikutsu near Hsintien. The Taiwanese and Japanese “honchos,” who had been unspeakably brutal, were conscripted into the Japanese army preparing for the final attack on the island that never came. Only two senior Japanese officers were ever prosecuted by a war crimes court.

Now: In a bucolic, park-like setting nearby, we sat at tables, relaxed and ordered lunch from a restaurant there. The Japanese-style bento were metal boxes wrapped in large cloth napkins with chopsticks and filled with a seasoned pork chop, rice, vegetables and pickles. Our lunch — without the meat — might have been a week’s rations for the Allied prisoners, but I didn’t know it at the time.

By evening, we were back in our hosts’ home in Yung Ho City, across the Tansui River from Taipei. We had fresh meat for dinner, with stir-fried vegetables, tofu, and exotic star fruit and dragon fire fruit for dessert. Ming and I sipped martinis and cognac. It had been a memorable day-trip.

Little attention has been paid to the past represented by Kinkaseki. There is a memorial on one of the few level sites among the hills, one I was unaware of at the time. Local Taiwanese believe the field is haunted, and well it might have a few ghosts unwilling to leave a place so paradoxically beautiful and filled with pain. Taiwanese, and certainly the Japanese, are reluctant to dwell on the past in which many were complicit in slavery and torture. I’m only beginning to assimilate it now as advancing age allows for a sorting out of new data and old memories.

And I begin to see history as an aquifer. It flows underfoot, hidden below the visitor’s footsteps, able to nourish but acting at times like quicksand when it is ignored.

 

I still have the metal bento boxes and chopsticks, labeled with the museum name. We pack lunches and used them recently when we picnicked at another cave, Howe’s Caverns, in New York State last fall. No ghosts there.

(above) Ming-tse, Hsiu-yen, Ah-kiao and Nancy at Chinguashi. 

(above) The view from Kinkaseki POW camp. (photo © Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society)

 

published 16 August 2014