Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:57 AM CST – China

History

China’s Titanic

THE FORGOTTEN WRECK

On Chinese New Year’s Eve 1949, a steamship packed with refugees fleeing the mainland for Taiwan collided with another ship, leaving almost no survivors. NewsChina revisits one of China’s worst ever maritime disasters

The Taiping sets sail for Keelung, traveling down the Whampoa River in early 1949 Photo by Carl Mydans

A porter guards gold bullion, Shanghai, 1949 Photo by Carl Mydans

Chau Ch’ing-yün, a shareholder of Shanghai Chunglien Courtesy of Chau Ch’i-hsiu

Poster art for The Crossing

The Taiping, a large steamship dubbed the “Titanic of the East” which sank in 1949, has returned to the public consciousness after the release of the first installment of Hong Kong director John Woo’s The Crossing, set against the background of the disaster.

Audiences were left cold by Woo’s use of grandiose Chinese Civil War battle scenes and romantic subplots, instead focusing on the sinking of the Taiping itself, a disaster few on the mainland are aware of.

According to contemporary records, the Taiping left Shanghai bound for Keelung, a Taiwanese port city, on January 27, 1949, one day before Chinese New Year’s Eve. At the time, forces controlled by the Kuomintang were rapidly losing ground to the communist onslaught, leading to an exodus of politicians, businesspeople, civil servants, military officers and wealthy families to Taiwan, widely expected to become the last stronghold of the Nationalist government, and a refuge.

At 11:45 PM on January 27, the Taiping, sailing without lights to avoid curfew, collided with a cargo ship, the Chienyuen, and sank less than half an hour later. Only around 40 passengers and seamen were rescued by passing ships, with the remainder either drowning or freezing to death in the frigid waters of the North Pacific.

The ship’s manifest included many celebrities, including musician Wu Po-ch’ao, the governors of Shanxi and Liaoning provinces, the grandson of China’s first Republican president Yuan Shikai, and many other wealthy and influential individuals hoping to start a new life in Taiwan.

Until today, the high death toll and the ship’s rapid demise have remained subject to speculation. The number of passengers on board is disputed – while the ship was rated to carry under 600 souls, some estimates put the total number of passengers at over 1,000. The bloody Chinese Civil War eclipsed the Taiping in the news cycle and the disaster, particularly on the mainland, faded for all but a handful of historians and the families of those lost.

The Wreck

The US-built Taiping entered service as a cargo steamer, when being leased to shipping firm Shanghai Chunglien, which had provided maritime resources to the Kuomintang military since 1947. As demand for an escape route from the war-torn mainland grew, the Taiping, like many cargo ships, was converted to carry passengers.

Refugee numbers rocketed in 1948 as major cities were encircled and captured by Communist forces. On her final voyage, the Taiping’s decks were crowded with people who had bought their ticket with gold bullion or had bribed crewmen. Most historians believe over 1,000 passengers and crew were aboard when she left Shanghai.

In the Taiping’s hold were 18 crates containing records from China’s central bank, an entire printing press, a number of Kuomintang archives and the personal fortunes of a number of wealthy businesspeople. The ship even reportedly took on 600 tons of steel girders immediately prior to sailing, a cargo which, according to maritime researchers, should have been loaded first to prevent the weight from overbalancing the ship.

“There were people and goods as far as you could see, and I saw the ship sink fast,” Keh K’o, a Kuomintang military officer and a survivor of the sinking later told an inquest. He blamed the speed with which the Taiping sank on overloading.

Keh’s views were echoed by his fellow survivor Chau Ch’i-hsiu, the daughter of Shanghai Chunglien shareholder Chau Ch’ing-yün. “The deck was packed solid with people when I boarded. I had to tiptoe around the crowds,” she told NewsChina.

In his testimony to the inquest following the disaster, Loo Ch’ao, uncle of one of those lost in the sinking, revealed that when he waved his relatives off at the docks in Shanghai, he saw that the Taiping lay so low in the water that one could step directly from the wharf onto the deck without the need for a stepladder.

However, Chen Huancheng, a ship investigator from the Association of International Chemical Manufacturers, denied the claims the Taiping was overloaded. In a documentary about the wreck made by the Shanghai Television Station (STS), he told an interviewer that it is possible for a floating dock to draw level with the deck of a ship, as the removal of goods from the dock onto the ship would cause their surfaces to align. Ma Ssu-ts’ai, deputy manager of Shanghai Chunglien, told the court that the Taiping’s cargo on January 27 fell below the ship’s maximum load of 2,050 tons.

A contributing factor in the crash were accounts that the Taiping was sailing with no lights, due to the blackout enforced by the Shanghai municipal government at the time of the sinking. Crew negligence was also cited – many crew members were participating in Chinese New Year celebrations – survivor Wong Chao-lan, for example, testified that she saw seamen, including the ship’s First Officer, drinking and gambling on deck.

Ship’s cook Chang Shun-lai, who also survived the disaster, revealed in his testimony that he found the Third Officer had left the bridge early on the night of January 27, without waiting for his relief. He later recanted his claims, which led some media outlets to speculate that Chang had been paid hush money by the ship’s operators.

Whatever the causes, the Taiping collided with the Chienyuen, itself loaded with around 2,700 tons of coal and wood, just off the island town of Baijieshan, Zhejiang Province, 70 nautical miles from Shanghai. The Chienyuen sank in minutes, followed soon after by the Taiping.

Captain Yang Chün-k’uei, according to STS, attempted to land at a nearby lighthouse once he discovered his ship was doomed. However, the ship was mortally breached, and seawater soon caused her boilers to explode.

“When I climbed into the lifeboat, the ship had already stopped,” survivor Lee Shu-wen wrote in his memoirs. “She was going down by the head and also listing heavily to port. Suddenly, there came a huge bang, and all the passengers, including my lifeboat, were pitched into the sea.”

The explosion awakened fishermen in Baijieshan, but they knew the Taiping was too far out for a rescue to be successful, and the dark conditions made any rescue attempt highly dangerous. “Through my spyglass I saw people running about on the deck like ants, screaming for help, kowtowing in prayer,” a fisherman Zhou Wenshan told NewsChina. “We launched our fishing boats at first light to save the people in the water, but I found nothing except three trunks of clothes.”

“My ears were filled with all kinds of sounds,” recalled Chau Ch’i-hsiu to STS. “People were hurled into the sea before they had a chance to react. The tragedy was exactly the same as that shown in [the movie] Titanic.”

Chau and the other passengers did not know that dry land was merely 500 meters away. Apparently overcome with guilt over his fatal error, Yang committed suicide by jumping from a floating barrel, according to Chang Shun-lai. His body was not recovered.

Struggle

According to records kept by the Baijieshan lighthouse keepers, in the four hours after the Taiping sent out her SOS signals, a total of five vessels, including one steamship, simply sailed past the disaster area. None stopped to attempt a rescue of survivors in the water.

“We waved and screamed for help when we would see a ship’s lights approaching, but they did not stop,” said Chau Ch’i-hsiu. “The yells would subside as the lights disappeared into the distance.”

“Many more people could have been saved if those ships had stopped,” she added, tearfully.

Survivor Yeh Lun-ming also told the media that the conditions in the water were pitiful, with people struggling with armfuls of valuables, attempting to barter for pieces of floating driftwood. Keh K’o claimed that he even saw one man wrest another’s life raft away from him at gunpoint. 

Chau Ch’i-hsiu watched as fellow passengers, including his cousin, succumbed to cold or simply sank below the waves. Only hours after the sinking did an Australian warship, the only major vessel to respond to the Taiping’s distress call, arrive to help. 36 survivors were rescued by the Australians, though one woman died of a heart attack brought on by exposure and cold shortly afterwards. Local fishermen accounted for the remaining survivors rescued, but most of the ship’s passengers and crew either drowned below decks or froze to death.

Memories

On January 30, the day the Taiping was scheduled to land in Keelung, the dock was crowded with relatives expecting to greet the passengers and crew. The news of the sinking did not appear in the newspapers until the following day. Many families lost their sole sources of support and all their possessions in the catastrophe.

“I did not realize what my father’s death truly meant until my family suddenly could no longer support my study,” detective Lee Ch’ang-Yu, whose father perished on the Taiping, told media decades after the tragedy. “To lighten my mother’s burden, I transferred to police school, which didn’t charge tuition.”

Hwang Shih-lan, who lost her mother in the disaster, found herself suddenly orphaned. She had to return alone to Canton, now Guangzhou, where her “capitalist” origins made her a target for communist hatred in the newly-founded People’s Republic of China.

Survivor Yeh Lun-ming was returned to the mainland, which soon fell entirely to the communists, causing all contact between Yeh and his wife to be cut off. When they finally reconnected 40 years later, he found that she had remarried the year after the shipwreck.

Keh K’o was much luckier. He met his future wife in the wake of the disaster, as she was the daughter of another victim.

The sinking of the Taiping also irrevocably changed the fate of its owner Tsai Tien-to, another of Shanghai Chunglien’s five shareholders. His son, Kevin Tsai, went on to become a popular TV anchor in Taiwan. According to Tsai’s article “My Family’s Titanic” in his childhood biography, the Taiping, unlike most commercial vessels in China at the time, was insured with a domestic rather than a foreign insurance company. The insurance company announced bankruptcy immediately after the sinking, ruining Tsai’s father.

Shanghai Chunglien had all its ships confiscated after the company filed for bankruptcy. According to Chau Ch’i-hsiu, her family had to sell all of their houses, gold and other properties to pay the compensation demanded by the families of the victims, but the huge loss of life meant most never received their dues. Chau’s parents resorted to selling their blood to commercial blood banks in order to cover their debts.

Given the chaotic situation in China at the time of the sinking, the Taiping quickly faded from public memory, though a monument was set up in Keelung two years later. However, no details of the sinking are included on the memorial – even the names of the victims are in dispute.

Only in the early 21st century did people begin to rediscover the Taiping tragedy. In May 2010, a group of survivors and the descendants of some victims held a memorial ceremony off Baijieshan, throwing flowers into the sea in the area where the Taiping went down.

“My father never talked about the Taiping,” Kevin Tsai remarked in his memoirs. “Our only relics were an armchair and a wireless set once used on the ship.”

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