Sun, Aug 18, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Lord of the straits

Former actor Wang Han swam across 12 straits all over the world from 1986 to 1998, but he never achieved his dream of traversing the Taiwan Strait

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A 55-year-old Wang Han announces in 2007 his intention to swim across the Taiwan Strait with a relay team.

Photo: CNA

Aug. 19 to Aug. 25

After swimming for 8.5 hours and subsisting on just bread and ginger soup, an exhausted Wang Han (王瀚) reached the shores of Morocco.

The former actor’s feat made the headlines on Aug. 24, 1986, with the United Daily News (聯合報) calling it a “risky journey across the demonic strait.”

Some praised him as the “first Chinese person to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar,” while others noted that he was the “first in the East.” This was a time when everyone in Taiwan was still taught to identify as Chinese, and Wang claimed that he did it for the “spirit of the Chinese people.”

Wang would end up traversing, whether alone or in a relay team, 11 more major world straits over the following 12 years. However, there was one challenge left, one that was closest to home: The Taiwan Strait, which was off-limits for political reasons.

ACROSS THE DEMON STRAIT

While most reports note the Strait of Gibraltar exploit as the beginning of Wang’s legendary run, he made his maiden long-distance voyage here in Taiwan in late 1985. A January 1986 report in Television Weekly (電視週刊) details his swim from Pingtung’s Donggang Township (東港) to Siaoliouciou island (小琉球).

This attempt was sponsored by the actor’s guild Wang belonged to, and was meant to “demonstrate the resilient and adventurous spirit of the Chinese people and to boost the image of entertainers and performers.”

Wang was never formally trained as a swimmer. Born in 1954 in rural Hsinchu, he honed his aquatic skills in the Toucian River (頭前溪) before he became acquainted with the ocean during college. At the age of 31, he walked away from acting and modeling to focus on swimming.

After making it to Siaoliouciou in just over six hours, Wang told the press that he would tackle the English Channel next. It isn’t clear why he ended up crossing the Strait of Gibraltar first, but there he was on the shores of Tarifa, Spain on Aug. 22, 1986. He warmed up for about an hour, and plunged in.

Despite his leg cramping up just an hour into the ordeal and strong currents pushing against him, Wang made it. The water was quite cold; fortunately the supply boat was stocked with ginger tea that kept him warm. He collapsed on the beach for a moment before pushing himself up to greet the crowd running toward him.

During the ensuing celebration, the Spanish host noted that only three people had completed the feat in modern history before Wang: two Europeans and a South Asian, making him the first East Asian to make the list.

“What’s inspiring is that Wang is not a professionally-trained swimmer,” the Minsheng Daily (民生報) reported. “Experts have criticized his form as less than ideal, and there are many people who have better stamina and skills,” it stated before praising his determination and perseverance that “embodied the spirit of the Chinese race.”

ULTIMATE GOAL

Huang swam the English Channel next in 1988, followed by the Bosphorus in 1989 and a channel around Maui, Hawaii in 1990, consistently completing one challenge per year until 1998. Three of these were solo trips while nine were done with a relay team. News footage of his team crossing the US-Canadian Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1993 and Australia’s Cleveland Bay in 1996 can be found on YouTube. Due to the prevalence of sharks in the Australian waters, the team had to swim in shark-proof cages, a first for Wang.

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