It was the same day fifty-six years ago.
A tragic day before the festive Chinese New Year's Eve in 1949.
The sun was slowly setting on the Huangpu River. Dusk fell on Shanghai. News about the Red Army's victory and Nationalist troops' retreat were flying around town. As the night loomed closer, thousands of passengers swarmed the dock and elbowed their way up toward the Taiping Steamer, the last ship bound for Taiwan before the Lunar New Year. All 508 tickets were sold out, with most tickets snapped up by the rich and important. But the ship nonetheless loaded 1,500 passengers on board, and the Taiping Steamer finally weighed anchor and sailed for Keelung Harbor at 4:17pm.
Like 2 million other Mainlanders who fled the Communist forces in China, these emigrants crossed the Taiwan Strait in search of a safer life, not knowing when they would be able to go back to their war-torn homeland. Nor could they have imagined that the steamer they had waited so long to board would herald the end of their lives, rather than a the beginning of a new life.
Tragedy struck at 11:25pm. With its lights switched off and sailing quietly at a speed of 8 nautical miles per hour, the Taiping Steamer nudged through the sea in hushed night. The ship successfully escaped attack by the Communists, but the safety measures also prevented other boats from seeing it. A smaller boat, the Chienyuan Steamer, struck the giant 2,500-tonne Taiping Steamer in the darkness near the Zhoushan Archipelago.
Only 37 of the 1,500 passengers survived. Of the 74 crew members of the Chienyuan Steamer, only two were saved by a passing US ship, according to reports in the Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News and the Shun Pao, a daily newspaper in Shanghai at the time.
According to the survivors and the bereaved families, the victims included military officials, a former provincial chairman, representatives of the National Assembly, bankers and jewelry merchants.
Many names of shipwreck victims were lost during the political upheaval and social chaos prevailing in 1949. Five decades on, the tragedy, comparable to the Titanic disaster, has been obscured by the passage of time. The sad tale is mostly passed down in stray fragments in individual memoirs, or lingers in the dimmest corner of some people's memory.
A 92-year-old survivor surnamed Yang recalls how he went out on a small boat to look for his wife's body.
"It was stormy and dark. The waves were high. We saw oil bubbling and bubbling on the sea. We knew it was right here. But we couldn't see anything but the oil," Yang said, his face reddened by a sudden rush of emotions.
According to Yang, he and other bereaved families continued searching for three days, but all efforts were in vain.
"I really don't know where my courage came from. It was a big turning point in my life. You know, I prefer not to talk about it anymore," Yang said.
For some who lost loved ones in the shipwreck, the unspeakable pain of the past is dulled only by the passage of time. Not many are willing to relive the unpleasant memories by recounting their stories.
Yuan Chia-chi (