One of Taiwan’s best known and most loved expats was a Canadian man from Zorra Township in Oxford County, Canada, which is now known as the Province of Ontario.
His name was George Leslie Mackay and he was the first Presbyterian missionary to visit Formosa (Qing-era Taiwan). He arrived in Southern Taiwan on December 31, 1871 and began his life in Tamshui (Danshui) in northern Formosa in early 1872. He remained in Tamshui for 30 years until his death in 1901.
Mackay had the honor of being the first missionary to be dispatched by the Presbyterian Church of Canada. His mission was to bring the gospel to those who had not heard of Christ.
My commission is clear; I hold it from the King and Head of the church: …To get the gospel of the grace of God into the minds and hearts of the heathen, and when converted to build them up in their faith – that was my purpose in going to Formosa.” (Mackay p. 135)
Right from the very beginning, Mackay was known to avoid the small European community in the Tamshui area. The local European and Christian communities did not take well to his arrival. Moreover, the environment during that era was somewhat hostile for foreigners. Mackay was often labelled as a ‘foreign devil’ and a ‘black-bearded barbarian’, and the locals were reluctant to become involved with him.
Shortly after arriving he wrote:
“I am shut out from fellowship with Christian brethren, yet I am not lonely nor alone. I feel my weakness, my sinfulness, my unfaithfulness. I feel sad when I look around and see nothing but idolatry … I can as yet tell little about Jesus, and with stammering tongue. What can I do? Nothing; But, blessed thought, the Lord Jesus can do all things. .. Jehovah is my refuge and strength.” (Mackay p 18-19)
Since Mackay had no means to speak with his parish, he decided it was of the utmost importance that he learn the language. When he was not able to find a tutor, Mackay spend his time with local herds boys, and they agreed to teach him Taiwanese. He learned vernacular Taiwanese, the language that is spoken by the common people of Taiwan, and it was in this way that he was able to preach his basic gospel message.
Upon mastering Taiwanese, he helped to adapt the Taiwanese language to a written form by adapting the Latin alphabet to represent it phonetically. From then onwards, this style of writing was used by the Presbyterian missionaries and by the indigenous Presbyterian Church of Taiwan.
In addition to learning the local language, Mackay employed a number of different methods to find converts. He preached predominantly with aboriginals in mind, and his earliest converts were illiterate natives. He wasn’t a doctor of medicine, but he had sufficient skills in medicine to be able to provide aid to those who suffered from tropical diseases such as malaria. His most notable method at the time was an itinerant dentistry practice that he used to extract teeth, all while singing and preaching his message. He was eventually granted a honorary doctorate by Queen’s College in Kingston, Canada for his many achievements in Taiwan.
By 1888, he had 16 chapels and 500 converts among the native Taiwanese.
His marriage to a Taiwanese slave-woman named Tiu Chhang-miâ is also another example of Mackay’s success in going native to find converts. His marriage caused a considerable amount of controversy in Canada and in the foreign community in Formosa. However, his wife, known by the name of Minnie in the West, proved to be a formidable force in the mission. She helped to raise money in Oxford County for the construction of Oxford College in Tamshui, and she also acted as matron of the girls’ school. Their marriage was a happy one, and they had three children together.
In 1895, Dr. Mackay authored a missionary ethnography and memoir of his missionary experience in Taiwan in 1895. His book was called From Far Formosa: the island, its people and missions. It is is best known because of its defense of gender and racial equality, but it is also of importance to many historians and scholars because it lends an important anthropological understanding of Taiwan’s peoples and cultures during the nineteenth century in Taiwan.
Dr. Mackay is responsible for many incredible achievements in Taiwan, including the establishment of churches, schools, the first western medical hospital of its kind in Taiwan, and a dentistry practice for aboriginals. The churches that he founded eventually became part of the present Presbyterian Church in Taiwan.
Although Dr. Mackay achieved many incredible milestones during his lifetime in Taiwan, perhaps his most significant achievement was the building of the MacKay Memorial Hospital, which was established on December 26, 1912. It is one of the largest medical centers in Taiwan, and it is deeply rooted in the Presbyterian tradition.
The original Mackay Hospital was initially called Mackay Clinic, and it was built in Tamshui in 1880. The hospital was closed in 1901 at the time of Dr. Mackay’s death, but it reopened in 1905 and it was eventually relocated from Tamshui to Taipei in 1912. The hospital was renamed as the Mackay Memorial Hospital.
Mackay showed great love and pride for Taiwan and because of his achievements, he was eventually loved by Taiwanese and expats alike. Some families in Taiwan today, especially of lowland aboriginals of the Kavalan ancestry, can trace their surname to ‘偕’ (‘Kai’ or ‘Kay’), which not only demonstrates their love and respect for Dr. Mackay, but it also shows their family’s conversion to Christianity by Mackay.
Dr. Mackay was one of those rare individuals who allowed himself to be transformed by the people he served, and his life is truly something to be celebrated. Taiwan would not be what it is today without George Leslie Mackay’s significant contributions.
He dedicated his life to bringing medical, dental, and spiritual guidance to the people of Taiwan, and was directly responsible for establishing more than 60 local churches, Oxford College (Aletheia University), the first girls’ school (Tamsui Girls’ School on the east side of Oxford College in 1884), and Tamsui Middle School, which is now known as Tamkang Senior High School.
Mackay might be unknown to most Western scholars of religion, but in Taiwan he is revered as Taiwan’s most famous ‘native son’. His story and memoir provide valuable insight into his life, background, and legacy, as well as the Taiwanese cultural background in which he worked. His lifetime achievements are a true demonstration to his love for Taiwan and its people.
How dear is Formosa to my heart! On that island the best of my years have been spent.
How dear is Formosa to my heart! A lifetime of joy is centered here.
I love to look up to its lofty peaks, down into its yawning chasms, and away out on its surging seas.
How willing I am to gaze upon these forever!
My heart’s ties to Taiwan cannot be severed! To that island I devote my life.
My heart’s ties to Taiwan cannot be severed! There I find my joy.
I should like to find a final resting place within sound of its surf and under the shade of its waving bamboo.
-“My Final Resting Place” by George Mackay
We are looking for friends to join us in our monthly maintenance event at Danshui Foreign Cemetery in Taipei.
The Cemetery is located near TamKang High School in Danshui.
Please consider volunteering some of your time to help the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taipei keep up with regular maintenance of the cemetery. Help us to preserve this beautiful historic site in Taipei.
Please join us for our next cemetery maintenance event. We host family-friendly events throughout the year. Visit our Events Page on the CCCT website or subscribe to our events on Facebook for up-t0-date information.
The Danshui Foreign Cemetery was established in 1870, and it is a symbol of Canadian heritage in Taiwan.
The cemetery has been cared for by the Canadian Society (now the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taipei) since 1984. There are more than 70 graves in the cemetery, many of which belong to Canadians.
Members and friends of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce join together at the cemetery to clean up the tombstones and clear away the grass and debris that collects there throughout the year.
This is a great way to take in some of Taiwan’s traditional culture while becoming familiar with the history of Canadians in Taiwan.
There are plenty of historical sites in the area that can be visited if you plan on spending the day with us, such as the Customs Building, the “White House”, the first high school in Taiwan, the Red Fort, Danshui Old Street, and the Fisherman’s wharf, to name a few.
The TamKang High School grounds are open for parking. You just have to find your way up the hill in the narrow streets!
The History of Danshui Foreign Cemetery
The cemetery grounds were consecrated in the early 1870s after a foreign event passed away in the Danshui area. She was buried on the top of the hill behind the Harbor. Soon after her, a second child passed away and was buried in the cemetery.
After the arrival of Dr. MacKay, the first Presbyterian missionary to northern Formosa, all foreigners were buried in the same area under the management of the British consulate, which was located in the Red Fort.
Dr. Mackay served with the Canadian Presbyterian Mission, and he is one of the best known Westerners to have lived in Taiwan. His grave lies in the eastern corner of the Tamkang Middle School campus.
His son is buried next to him.
The Japanese authorities in the early 1900s classified the lot as a cemetery, and it was given for perpetuity to the Consulate for the burial of foreigners.
The British Consulate was managing and maintaining the cemetery until the recognition of the PRC government in 1971, when the management was transferred to the Americans.
Following the closure of the American Embassy in the late 70s, the cemetery files were transferred to AIT, and the cemetery was abandoned.
Eventually, the wall was taken down, stones were stolen, and the graves became covered in tall grass.
In the early 80s, two Presbyterians missionaries, Jack Geddes and Georgine Caldwell, tried to do something about the miserable state of the cemetery, where many Canadian expats are buried.
They began by cutting the grass and cleaning the graves, and it eventually passed it into the hands of the Canadian Society in Taiwan for safe keeping in 1984.
And so began our tradition of paying our respects to those who are buried there by keeping their final resting place clean and beautiful.
Among the dead who rest here are Canadians, British, Americans, Germans, French, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Chinese. Some were missionaries, others were sailors, harbor masters, merchants, engineers and many infants.
Each year, on Tomb Sweeping Day, we visit the cemetery to clean up the grounds and to pay our respects.
In 2014, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan decided to visit the cemetery more regularly as many of the tombstones and walls were deteriorating quickly.
Some of the tasks involved with our clean-up are: cutting the grass, fixing and repainting the stones, and removing garbage and other debris that accumulates there. In 2016, the CCCT, thanks to its generous benefactors, was able to rebuild the entrance gate to the cemetery. We have also started contribution drives among the foreign community to rebuild the surrounding walls.
To stop the city government from destroying the cemetery to widen roads, the CCCT lobbied to declare the Danshui Foreign Cemetery a historical site in Taipei.
This happened officially in 1998, and the cemetery has been in our safekeeping ever since. Since then, money and raffle sales from our small business events has been allocated to the cemetery to help with its annual upkeep.
As the cemetery is adjacent to Dr. George Mackay and his family graves inside the TamKang High School, the school has also shown interest in helping with maintenance.
The wall between the two cemeteries was lowered to its original height, merging the two sites, giving them the view you have today.
Directions to Danshui Foreign Cemetery
1. On Foot, Taxi
- Get off at the MRT Danshui Station 淡水站
- Take Zhongsan Road 中山路 and turn right on Xinsheng Street 新生街
- Walk up Xinsheng Street 新生街 and turn left on Xinmin Street 新民街
- Walk up Xinmin Street 新民街 and turn left on Zhenli Street Lane 3 真理街3巷
- You’ll see the entrance of the cemetery on the right. Note: Total distance 1.5km, about 30 minutes’ walk. Taxi is about $120.
2. By Bus
- There’s a bus stop across from MRT Danshui Station 淡水站
- Take Red-26 and get off at Aletheia University 真理大學.(it’s the 4th stop)
- Walk up the hill, pass Aletheia University真理大學 and you’ll see Tamkang High School 私立淡江高中.
- The cemetery is inside the high school on the north east corner of the campus.
- Take Zhongsan Road 中山路 to Wenhua Road 文化路.
- Take Wenhua Road 文化路 to Zhenli Street 真理街 and turn right on Zhenli Street, Lane 3 真理街3巷 to Danshui TamKang High School 私立淡江高中.
- Please park inside the high School. The cemetery is inside the high school on the north east corner of the campus. Note: About 15 minutes’ walk.
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