Sun, Jan 21, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The Titanic of the East

More than 1,000 people died in the Taiping steamer incident near the end of the Chinese Civil War, but the exact events of the collision of two boats remain a mystery

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A photo of the monument of the Taiping steamer incident in Keelung.

Photo: Yu Chao-fu, Taipei Times

Jan. 22 to Jan. 28

A nine-year-old Henry Lee (李昌鈺) was excited to be spending the Lunar New Year with his father, who would be arriving in Taiwan from China on a ship. Two days before the festivities, on Jan. 27. 1949, the future famous forensic scientist noticed that the adults were acting strangely. They did not tell him until two days later that his father had perished in the Taiping steamer (太平輪) tragedy.

More than 1,000 people died that night as the Taiping, which was headed from Shanghai to Keelung, collided with the Chienyuan (建元輪), a cargo ship from Taiwan. The Chienyuan immediately sank, while the Taiping went down 45 minutes later. About 50 people survived.

The common version of events state that the crash occurred for several reasons, one being that the Taiping had exceeded its capacity with Chinese refugees escaping the Chinese Civil War, which had turned in favor of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It’s also said that it did not have its lights turned on because it was sailing during a nighttime curfew due to a delayed start. Some accounts also state that the captain had tried to take a shortcut.

Ting Wen-ching (丁雯靜) writes in the book, Taiping Steamer: Legend in Troubled Times (太平輪: 亂世傳奇真相), that through the making of a documentary on the incident, she began feeling that the official explanation was a bit fishy.

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS

Ting writes that the ship was flawed from the beginning. The Taiping was originally designed to traverse rivers and was only supposed to carry a maximum of 508 people. The boat also had too much cargo and likely more unregistered passengers who snuck on board. Lee’s father was one of them, making it onto the ship because he knew the captain. So was Chang Sheng (張生), one of the few Taiwanese on board who was returning home from a business trip.

The goods included official documents, bonds from the national treasury, rare antiques and the entire printing press of the Southeastern Daily (東南日報).

The passengers on the Taiping started rescuing the Chienyuan crew members until they realized that they too were sinking. Another ship had earlier passed the Taiping and asked them if they needed help. Not realizing the gravity of the situation, the Taiping replied, “All Okay.”

The Taiping crew attempted to steer the ship toward a nearby island — but it capsized 500 meters before landing. Survivor Lee Shu-wen (李述文) says that everyone fell into the water at once as the boat tipped over.

“I saw a sea of heads leaning on planks, tables and luggage,” he says. “Everyone was screaming... It was horrific to see and horrific to hear.”

It was around dawn when an Australian ship, the HMAS Warramunga, picked up 34 survivors from the wreckage. Almost all of them had at least one family member who didn’t make it.

John Simmons of the Warramunga still remembers the frightened expressions of the survivors, who were completely covered in oil that had leaked from the ship. “Besides their eyes and teeth, they were completely black,” he says.

DISPROVING THEORIES

Ting lists the various conspiracy theories that surround the incident: there was gold on board, a fight broke between Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and CCP spies, the ship was bombed and the captain of the ship was a Communist.

Since the wreckage has not yet been recovered, Ting writes that it’s hard to come up with a definite answer to quell the rumors. But she found many conflicting reports while interviewing eyewitnesses.

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