Sun, Jun 12, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Tracking a turbulent life

In his book `Sand in the Waves,' Tongfang Po follows Taiwan's first female medical doctor through her tribulations during almost the entire 20th century

By Meredith Dodge  /  STAFF REPORTER

Tongfang Po, author of Taiwanese epic Sand in the Waves.

PHOTO: MEREDITH DODGE, TAIPEI TIMES

It's hard to tell if Tongfang Po (東方白) is joking when he says he almost died writing Sand in the Waves (浪淘沙), his three-volume novel based on the story of Taiwan's first female doctor that's now been made into a 30-part TV series.

But when you talk to him, it's not hard to tell that Po is the sort of person that invests his whole life into his work.

The Canada-based Taiwanese author spent 12 years researching and writing the 1.5-million-character epic that spans a century and tells the story of three families in Taiwan.

The central story is based on the life of Dr Cai A-xin (蔡阿信, 1899 to 1990) a female medical doctor who faced many obstacles during her life in Taiwan, Japan and North America.

Po was inspired to write Sand in the Waves when he read Cai's 80-page autobiography in English. A visiting Taiwanese professor at Canada's University of Edmonton, where Po still teaches, first introduced him to Cai's story.

"He wanted to know if anybody would translate [Cai's] biography into Chinese. Many people offered, but in the end they all said they didn't have time," Po said.

So Po offered to translate the small book into Chinese. (Cai was a Taiwan native, but she received her education in Japanese and English and was not fluent in written Chinese). Little did Po know that this project would take up 12 years of his life.

But he has no regrets.

"The fullest years of my life were the 12 years when I was writing Sand in the Waves. A writer doesn't plan what to write, but rather stumbles upon it."

The calling of writer is also something Po stumbled upon. Like the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun (魯迅), who studied medicine in Japan, Po left Taiwan to study something "useful."

Despite his PhD in engineering, Po is the first to champion the importance of literature -- especially in the context of Taiwan. Disgusted by a political climate rife with conflict and chaos, Po sees Taiwanese fiction as a means of national salvation.

"Who is president?" he asked. "If you write well, you are

president."

His distaste for politics is a factor in his writing.

Some people make it a point to get involved in politics, but Po feels that those who find politics butting its way uninvited into their lives are the people worth writing about.

"Hers is a very colorful story, and full of irony," Po said of Cai (her name changed to Qiu Ya-xin in his book).

As if being a Taiwanese woman doctor in an era when feminism had scarcely been invented wasn't difficult enough, Cai suffered from the harsh slings and arrows that plagued Taiwan and its people before, during and after World War II.

A Japanese saying about women says, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Cai, who was educated in Japan, completely ignored these words of conventional wisdom.

Born in 1895 in Taipei, Cai's father died when she was five and her mother, unable to support her, sent her to be raised by another family. That family, however, gave up on the homesick youngster after she kept running back to her mother's house.

Cai's mother remarried, and her new husband doted on the child. He paid for Cai to attend elementary school (in Japanese) and then high school (in English) at the Christian Danshui Girls School, founded by Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay.

Cai excelled in physics, math and English, and after graduation headed for Tokyo Women's Medical University on the recommendation of her Canadian teachers (but against the wishes of her mother, who was afraid people would talk).

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