The Deng Ta (Lighthouse) Keeper
by David Bell
Ong Ching Ying
How about this for something unique on our family tree? We have a man who was a deng ta; a lighthouse keeper. His name is Ong Ching Ying, the husband of Ang Hui Ying, eldest daughter of Ang Chiu Shui and Que Him, these being the grandparents of Winnie Ming Ling Bell. Ong Ching Ying is therefore Winnie's uncle by marriage to her Aunt.
The following is a translated article from the Geelong city newspaper, Saigai Yahtbou. Saigai means 'the world' and yahtbou translates as 'daily paper'. In English we would probably call it the Daily World. The article is dated Friday, June 28, 2002.
ONG CHING YING, over a period of forty seven years, was the keeper in a total of twenty seven lighthouses throughout Taiwan. He has recently retired but he has kept himself in touch with his forty seven year career through his website entitled, King of Lighthouses. It keeps him busy in retirement by writing, recording and researching about his old job. He has also taken up the hobby of building lifelike models of the lighthouses he has served in. He also enjoys creating other ornamental replicas which he gives as gifts to friends and relatives. Each of his children have one of their father's hand-crafted lighthouses to represent his guiding light watching over them.
Ong Ching Ying still enjoys everything about lighthouses and his home resembles a gallery with models of both old and modern Taiwan lighthouses displayed on tables and shelves. Framed pictures adorn the walls. His children have encouraged him to do this as a means to always remember his long and loyal service to his family and country.
Ong Ying Ching and wife Hui Ying in their home,
2002. Note the lighthouse models and pictures behind
Ong Ying Ching said that the main reason he was able to succeed as a lighthouse keeper was because of his wife, Ang Hui Ying, who took such excellent care of the family's domestic duties. Her sacrifice and dedication made his demanding job so much easier and allowed him to concentrate on his responsibilities until all the children had grown up.
He first became involved with lighthouses as a young man when he responded to a recruitment program from the Department of Customs in Xiamen. As a new recruit his training involved jobs at lighthouses on the islands of Saiyeung and Daidaam. Since then he went on to be a Lighthouse Keeper in different stations all over Taiwan, an occupation that gave him the opportunity to experience living in most parts of the country. Once, because of his experience and knowledge, he was sent on a maintenance tour-of-inspection to all the established lighthouses in Taiwan, giving him the opportunity to visit lighthouses and islands he had never seen before. He took many photographs and probably now has a picture of every lighthouse that existed in Taiwan. These pictures were used to craft his many models.
Ong Ching Ying has served in more lighthouses than any other Keeper in his profession.
This next article is a translation of a more lengthy and detailed essay on Ong Ching Ying's years as a lighthouse keeper entitled, The Man who Has Kept the Most Lighthouses. In some places additional relevant information has been inserted.
There were thirty four lighthouses under China's jurisdiction along the Xiamen-Taiwan coastlines, thirty of which were operated by lighthouse keepers. Because the function of lighthouses is to assist ships navigate safely along the coasts, they were built along the coastlines on hilltops, promontories or small islands. There were many lighthouses around Xiamen and Taiwan due to the rocky nature of the coasts and dangerous underwater reefs, all of which were hazardous to shipping and the cause of many wrecks over time. Lighthouses, therefore, were invariably isolated with difficult access and being a keeper was a demanding task requiring a special type of person who could cope with living in isolation for anything up to a year or more with a twenty-four hour seven days a week work schedule. Normal men were unlikely to take it on as a career.
The Light of Hope
Lighthouses in those times were not automated as today; each one required a human operator. The light was to be punctually illuminated at dusk every day and extinguished after sunrise. If the operator deemed it necessary, he could light it up on days that were particularly gloomy, the light flashing its bright, angular beam across the sea giving any ship in the area hope and security.
Ong Ching Ying was born in the province of Fujian in 1928 at Xiamen. He grew up on Gulangyu - Drum Wave Island, so named because of the drumming sound of the waves along its shore - just outside the city. As a young boy he was fascinated by the sudden appearance every dusk of three lights from different points far out at sea which continued to shine like bright stars into the night. This fascination excited his curiosity and he determined to learn more about lighthouses. In school he found a book about an old keeper and his granddaughter and their life together in an isolated lighthouse. The story told of their daily routine of inspecting the lighthouse using a lamp to access the darker spots, how they operated the big light, and many more things about life in a lighthouse. The story triggered a strong desire in Ong Ching Ying to learn all he could about lighthouses and one day, should the opportunity arise, make it his profession.
One of the things that stuck in his mind was the noble purpose of lighthouses; to guide ships safety through all the perils of storms, rough seas, killer reefs, and nights that could be as black as pitch. The lighthouse keeper saved ships, but more importantly, saved lives. He saw it as an honorable service to society and his fellow beings.
In 1946 the main Xiamen newspaper carried an advertisement for trainee lighthouse keepers. The Xiamen Customs Department were in need of sixteen new lighthouse staff and were taking applications. Ong saw this as his big opportunity and notified his parents of his desire. His parents were shocked and voiced their opposition. But he was determined and disregarded their opposition. Ong and over three hundred others applied and he was delighted that he was one of the sixteen to be selected, no doubt due in part to his extensive interest and knowledge of lighthouses accumulated over the years.
The Thin Line Between Life and Death
Soon after his successful application the Customs Department began his training and later posted him to five different lighthouses on islands around Xiamen to learn the ropes. These islands were named Dung-gwan, Siyang, Chingyu, Dongxing and Lanpeng. After a year he was granted a four week holiday. Then, in August, 1949, he received his first full-time posting to the remote island of Lanpeng.
The sea around Lanpeng Island was renowned for its abundance of squid and from spring to autumn it was crowded with squid boats. During the quid season there was plenty of human contact and opportunities to supplement the two months supply of food left at the lighthouse when he and fellow worker, Lee Ah-fong, were dropped off, but around October the heavy winter winds from the north-east blew in ending the squid fishing. Overnight all the boats simply disappeared leaving the two men alone and isolated.
To make matters worse, in 1949 China was embroiled in the civil war between the communists and nationalists and amidst all the turmoil Ong and Lee were either forgotten or couldn't be reached. They found themselves stranded for over four months without food, their situation becoming so dire they were reduced to eating wild grass for greens and subsisting off crabs and shellfish scoured from the rocks whenever the weather allowed it.
Ong and his companion became so thin they could place their hands around their waists until their fingers met. These conditions inevitably caused collateral health problems and Ong became seriously ill. Fortunately, a ship from Taiwan finally came to their rescue and dropped off a six month supply of food and goods. However, it was obvious Ong needed some medical care and he requested to go with the ship back to Taiwan for treatment. His request fell on deaf ears and was flatly denied by the Chinese officer. Thankfully, the ship's engineer was more compassionate and took his case to the British Captain who agreed to take Ong back with them.
Ong said that even though they were starving and often ill, he and Lee kept the lighthouse operational at all times and punctually did their rounds and maintenance work on the building and its surrounds. It is likely that keeping focused and busy greatly helped them through that life-threatening period. Other men might have deteriorated a lot sooner under such physical and psychological strains. Ong's consuming sense of purpose regarding the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper would have been an invaluable driving force in maintaining focus and bearing up to the hardships.
Pirates were common around the coasts in those days, preying mostly on shipping but occasionally turning their attentions to the lighthouses. The booty they pirated from the ships was far more profitable than anything a lighthouse could offer as the keepers were a poor lot with no cash or valuables. The only commodity of any value to them was fuel - coal or oil. While there was often violence on the ships they attacked, Ong knew of no harm ever coming to lighthouse keepers, probably because they never resisted.
They were hard times on Lanpeng Island right from the start. He had, as yet, received no wages or special clothing and equipment for life in such isolation. The food he and Lee Ah-fong were given was basic and enough to last only two months. They were more-or-less just dumped there and when the food ran out and there was no sign of any supply ship they soon became destitute. It was a great relief when the ship from Taiwan arrived to restock their food supply but by then Ong's health had been compromised by four months of starvation. Thankfully, he was taken back on the supply ship to Taiwan for medical attention, but he was penniless and in rags. In desperation he asked the Taiwan Customs officials if he could borrow some emergency money to see him through his recovery in Keelung (基隆). The Customs Department looked at his request then informed him that he was actually an employee of the Xiamen Customs Department and as such not the responsibility of Taiwan. Furthermore, according to the Xiamen Department, he had left his post without official authorization and would be getting no money from them. It was clear to him that he was now cast off and unwanted. It was a severe blow and left him feeling rejected and bitter.
Seeing his career slipping away, he was suddenly thrown a lifeline. A Taiwan Customs official informed him of an opening as a technician in a lighthouse in Keelung. He could take that job and ask the Keelung Lighthouse authorities for his emergency loan. However, he needed to accept the job post-haste and if his recovery was not quick enough the deal would be void. Even though it was a big demotion Ong had no choice but accept and begin work recovered or not.
Before he left the official told him in no uncertain terms words to this effect, "You and I don't know each other. We have had no dealings whatsoever. As far as I'm concerned I am an officer of the government and you are an underling. You are not to bother me again!" Ong was left with mixed feelings; grateful for the official's help but deflated by his unfriendly brushoff. I leave it to the reader to determine the official's motivations. Nevertheless, Ong decided to make the most of this lifeline and saw it as the opportunity to gain further experience and at the same time get to visit lighthouses and places in Taiwan and slowly work his way back up.
Promotion to Assistant Lighthouse Keeper
Even though the title of lighthouse technician sounded important, the job consisted mostly of cleaning, maintenance and odd jobs. Nonetheless, Ong faithfully carried out his duties and in the process learned valuable new things and as part of his job occasionally worked at other lighthouses around the area. As a result, instead of diminishing his enthusiasm for his chosen vocation it actually increased, despite his recent experiences. He came to the conclusion that in this world no matter how hard you work no-one will give you a free lunch, but Heaven will always reward your efforts. He also remembered the proverb: 'If you wish to better your worldly wealth and status, observe those above you. But for daily life and survival look to those beneath you'.
In time Ong's skills and efforts were finally recognized and his superiors arranged for him to do bigger and better duties by running lighthouses when other keepers went on leave. This was valuable experience and exposure and in 1954 he was promoted to Assistant Executive at So-O lighthouse. The title was grander than the actual job but he was glad to be back to doing what he loved. As it turned out, the assistant executive had sole charge of two lighthouses along the Keelung coast, the number-one executive sitting in an office somewhere in town. It was a two hour walk between the lighthouses. Each house had two lights, one specifically for fishing boats and the other bigger, brighter beam for larger ocean-going ships. Both lamps required the care of a skilled operator. Ong would have had to illuminate the lights on the home lighthouse then walk for two hours to do the same at the second one, arriving just before dusk. Then he would either walk another two hours home or stay the night there and return in the morning after turning the lights off. This routine would be repeated every day of the week. Along with this he was required to keep the lighthouses in a good state of repair and their surrounds neat and tidy. True to his character, Ong carried out his duties to the letter and kept the lights burning every night without fail.
One day a keeper and his family from another lighthouse dropped in for a visit. Ong and Hui Ying were delighted to see them and invited them to dinner and stay for the night. They had obviously walked a long way and it would have been unthinkable to let them walk all the way back in the dark. Hui Ying prepared the best dinner she could with what they had and provided comfortable lodging for the night. It was a pleasant and happy visit and everyone parted in good spirits the next morning. However, not long after, Ong received notification that he was to be transferred to another more remote lighthouse and was ordered to start packing. As it turned out, his replacement was the very visitor whom they treated with such hospitality a few weeks before. Suddenly, it was obvious his visit had a hidden agenda; he was scoping the place with the intent to move in. While not known for certain, one might suppose he and someone higher up had contrived to move Ong on so he could take Ong's position. This was a bitter pill for Ong to swallow; he felt used and unfairly treated, especially when Hui Ying had given birth to their first child a week earlier. He learned that for some people friendship, kindness and hospitality account for nothing where self interest is concerned. He knew it was futile to protest, in those days the word of the boss was unquestionable. They packed up and moved on.
From what we have learned thus far, it should be apparent that the Customs Department in those times was not a very good employer and it seems that lowly lighthouse keepers were treated rather shabbily. Another incident that occurred in 1957 further illustrates this supposition. At the time, Ong was working at the Pengjia lighthouse when his second daughter, Lan Li, was born. His wife and first child lived off site so she was born a some way from where he was stationed, the Customs office being his only contact when he wanted to inquire after their welfare. One day he received a message from Customs that his wife had given birth to a girl and both mother and child were well. He should have been reassured by the news but for some reason he felt uneasy and suspicious. Perhaps it was something in the message that didn't sound right, or was it that mysterious intuition that loved ones often experience in times of need? The feeling was so strong and persistent he couldn't shake it. Fortunately, a supply ship unexpectedly turned up so he went aboard, explained his situation and insisted he return with the ship to see his new baby. The Captain objected but eventually gave in.
When Ong arrived on shore the Customs Office was not pleased with his unauthorized leave, but he didn't care. At this time his family mattered more than their objections. The Customs official demanded he report immediately to another nearby lighthouse called Fugueijia, which he did before hurrying home to check up on his family. Upon arriving his suspicions were confirmed. His wife was struggling to recover from the birth and both his daughters were seriously ill. It appears his employers were more concerned about keeping him at his post than the welfare of his family and in the message either downplayed their situation or outright lied about it.
Right: Fugueijia lighthouse.
He immediately took his little daughters in his arms and began the long walk to seek medical help. He walked along the beach and right through an army barracks to a village called Laomei-chuan where he caught the last bus of the day to a bigger town, Dansheui. At Dansheui he caught the train to the Suanglein station and from there to the hospital. Both girls eventually made a good recovery.
The Keeper of the Most Lighthouses
There was no such thing as employee contracts and working conditions were completely determined by the employers. Therefore, when a lighthouse keeper was told to move to a new location it was simply a case of pull up roots and go or lose your job. Consequently, the terms you worked at any particular lighthouse were never certain; some were short and some long. Ong's shortest stretch was a mere five days at Sansaujia (4-8 October 1950) and his longest being eight years at Mudao (1 September 1964 to 11 May 1972). it was also common to receive very short notice to transfer and Ong was called upon to do so more often than most. However, this resulted in him becoming the keeper of more lighthouses than any other.
His eight year term at Mudao is his most memorable. Mudao is a small island in the Penghu group resembling nothing more than a large rock. Penghu - also known as the Pescadores - is an archipelago of ninety islands and inlets in the Taiwan Strait and about eighty kilometers west of the southern end of Taiwan. Mudao Island sits in the middle of the ocean and has no vegetation of any kind; no trees, no grass. The lighthouse there was built in 1899 and due to the harsh nature of its location is made of cast iron. It stands 39.9 meters high and is the tallest lighthouse in South-east Asia. The island itself is low-lying and thoroughly exposed to the ocean and Ong remembers the typhoon seasons when huge waves hammered the island creating a salty rain that could last for days. He also recalls the winter storms whipping up the sea to create salt-laden haze that settled on everything. As a result, one's hair and clothes were constantly crusted in salt. In those times the keepers could only hunker down and do what was possible to keep the lighthouses operational. On an island like Mudao it was extremely dangerous to be out and about in a raging storm.
Left: Mudao lighthouse, Penghu group.
A lighthouse keeper's life in those days was a hard one. Winnie Bell, Hui-ying's niece, remembers overhearing a conversation that attests to this. She heard her grandmother recounting a visit to her daughter and family at Mudao. She was somewhat shocked at their condition. She said Hui-ying was thin and dark, indicating a life exposed to the elements, poverty and hard work.
Mudao was an important lighthouse. Prior to its construction more than fifty ships had been wrecked on the reefs and rocks. It was a black-spot along the Taiwan coast. But even with a lighthouse the dangers were still very real. On one occasion Ong witnessed just how real they were. From his post at Mudao he watched in horror as a ship was taken by rough seas onto a reef. He quickly raised the big flag to signal for help. A helicopter was rushed to the scene but the weather was so foul it had to turn back. He watched the ship take on water and start going down. As the stern sunk beneath the waves the crew on deck rushed to the bow. Unfortunately, as the bow rose higher into the air, men began to slide off the decks into the roiling sea. Others managed to scramble to the bow only to find they had no room to gain a firm foothold. They, too, began to drop like insects overboard. With no-one to rescue them Ong could only watch in helpless horror as they sank into a watery grave. His horror was mixed with profound sadness and he wept at the awful loss of life that afternoon. Later, when he was able to reflect, he was struck by how unpredictable life could be and how suddenly death claimed his victims. A lot of men died at sea that day; the lighthouse keepers worst nightmare.
Things Begin to Look Up: Recognition and Promotion
It was fifteen years from his demotion in 1949 to technician before his service, skill and knowledge was finally recognized and he was promoted to full staff status. This happened during his stay at the Ludao (Green Island) lighthouse as the Assistant Executive when he was sent to the Chilaibei lighthouse to supervise its major renovation. His work there so impressed the head office he was recommended to be elevated to the position of Customs officer, his knowledge of lighthouses had proven to be of immense value. Further positive reports on other projects soon led to more promotions.
Ong Ching Ying, during his long career, served in many lighthouses throughout Taiwan. The following are photographs of several of them.