Date: Fri, 11 Jun 1999 22:58:49 -0400
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
From: Leibo, Steven A. <>
Subject: H-ASIA: Taiwan Diary # 2

Date: Fri, 11 Jun 1999 00:28:03 -0700 (PDT)
From: Scott Simon <>
Subject: Re: Taiwan Diary 2

Taiwan Diary #2: 25 Virgins

By Scott Simon, 11 June 1999

The Siraya, early inhabitants of what is now Kaohsiung, called their settlement Tankoya, which meantbamboo forest in their language. Chinese settlers transliterated that name into Chinese characters as Dagou (literally beating a dog) because it sounded to them like the Minnan word Ta-kau. The Japanese, rulers of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, called it Takao, writing it with the characters for tall and hero. That name remained, now pronounced in Mandarin as Kaohsiung.

Kaohsiung is best known as an industrial city, the Pittsburgh of Taiwan. The beauty of its natural setting, however, is often overlooked. Shoushan (Mountain of Long Life), once home to a large Shinto shrine, can be seen from all over the city. It is still a popular destination for day hikers or young couples who climb its slopes at night to watch the lights of the city, port, and industrial complexes below. Love River, site of the annual dragon boat races, snakes its way through the city on the way to Kaohsiung harbor and also attracts young lovers who walk hand-in-hand along its banks. Older residents remember fondly the days when they could swim in Love River, but due to high levels of pollution that is no longer possible.

Kaohsiung, of course, is best known for its harbor. Until the last century, it was a sleepy fishing port. In 1863, the Qing government opened up Kaohsiung and Keelung ports to international trade. The British government set up a consulate, built a customs office, and started using the port for international trade. It was the Japanese, however, who in 1908 first dredged the harbor and laid the foundation for construction of Kaohsiung as a truly international port city.

Chichin, a small island in Kaohsiung harbor, is the oldest Chinese settlement in the area. With its Matzu Temple, abundant seafood restaurants, and cliffs overlooking the Formosan Strait, it is a popular destination with Kaohsiung residents. The ferry trip from Kaohsiung to Chichin is itself part of the experience. One can stand at the bow of the ferry, looking across the waters to the Changrong and Yangming shipping yards, as well as the spires of China Steel on the horizon. I sit there often to watch the ships and think. I imagine those ships going out to sea with containers of Acer computers and stainless steel bars, coming back with cases of French wine, Belgian chocolates, and Japanese Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

I first went to Chichin on early Christmas morning, 1996. It had been a 1990s style Taiwanese Christmas, exchanging gifts with friends, dancing to techno-pop versions of Silent Night, and even watching Santa Claus dance with a cohort of drag queens. Do you know whose birthday Christmas celebrates? I asked Arthur, a graduate student at Sun Yatsen University who prefers to be called by his English name. No, he replied. Then why do you celebrate Christmas? I asked. Because foreigners do, he said.

As dawn approached, a group of us—in three cars—drove out through the underground tunnel to Chichin. We planned to eat breakfast and watch the sun rise over the Kaohsiung skyline. Our first stop, however, introduced me to a rite of masculinity for young Kaohsiung men. There is a collective grave on Chichin, dedicated to 25 virgin women who died in a boat accident on September 3, 1973.

Back in those days, explained Arthur, they didn't have the underground tunnel, so people had to go from Chichin to Kaohsiung by boat to go to work. It was mostly unmarried women who worked in the factories. Once, a ferry sank on its way to Kaohsiung and the 25 women workers on board all died. They were all unmarried women, so there was no one to look after their graves. The government set up this collective grave for them.

The women stayed in the car, while the men cautiously approached the graves. Are you afraid? someone asked. They died as virgins, explained Arthur. They never fulfilled their fate of marriage when they were alive, so they might snatch the spirit of a young man and take him to the grave. When we reached the gate, no one dared step through its portals. We halted in our steps, lining up to bow in solemn prayer. We have to ask respectfully before entering, said Arthur. That way we will be safe.

We stepped inside and carefully examined the graves. Each one was marked with a name and a photograph of a woman worker. Each one was meticulously maintained, and traces of incense offerings were still visible. On the horizon, Kaohsiung's steel refineries and petro-chemical complexes stand tall and heroic as monuments to industry and productivity. Yet the victims of Kaohsiung's industrialization, and they number more than 25, sometimes seem as helpless as beaten dogs. Arthur and his friends may be right, I thought. If we don't remember them, we may be drawn to similar fates.

We turned to leave. The seas behind us were still dark, but the first signs of daylight were appearing in the East over China Steel.