Mackay Street & The Complications of Anglicizing Chinese

Part 1: From Far Formosa

My first challenge in my trip to explore George Leslie Mackay’s history was actually finding the city…

The town name is Anglicized as Tamsui, Danshuei, Tanshui and pretty much any variation around those. It was Cousin George‘s description of a city by the mouth of a river in the north of Taiwan, named Fresh Water, that helped convince me I had the right place. 谈水 means Fresh Water, and the characters are consistent even when the spelling isn’t.

You can get there on the Red Line metro from Taipei, Damsui is the last stop. I forgot my headphones and didn’t get a seat, so this part was just like riding the Red Line at home in Boston!

Damsui is a lovely seaside community, well worth a visit just for beer and ice cream with a waterside view. You can take a ferry across to BaLi or just see it across the river. There’s an Old Street and a more modern boardwalk.  I was delighted by the little seaside town, because I didn’t have terribly high hopes for my trip to Damsui.

Damsui, like my first Chinese home city of Yantai, was ceded as a treaty port in the Treaty of Tianjin (which was  Anglicized as Tientsin at that time).  When I read about Yantai before moving there in 2006, I expected to find some foreign influence and interesting international history.

But when I was actually there, I found the old Foreign Concession on Yantai Hill wasas  disappointingly poor repair, and few locals I asked were even aware of Yantai’s history as a treaty port (or at least they wouldn’t discuss it with the laowai). Researching back home, I discovered that Yantai’s foreign concession was more recently Chefoo Concentration Camp, and my “interesting international history” was less architectural melting pot and more death. Knowing the right name opens up a lot of new information…

Mackay Street in Tamsui, Taiwan. #馬偕 #mackay #tamsui #谈水

A photo posted by Meg (@simpsonsparadox) on

For my trip to Damsui, it turns out the inconsistencies in the Anglicization of Chinese words hid something else: There’s a Mackey Street here in Taiwan! It’s spelled as Maxie Street (Ma Xie) on most English language maps I saw, including Google Maps. I had to see the characters to be sure.

George Mackay is such a distant cousin that we are barely even related, but it was still a physical jolt to see my family name on a Chinese street sign. More than 100 years before my first trip to China, there was a Mackay cousin here learning the language.  I took so many pictures of the Mackay Street signs that it drew the attention of other visitors, so I explained that that my 外婆 is a Ma Xie. One of the Taiwanese tourists nodded, and asked if I was now headed to the Mackay Graveyard to see my ancestors for New Years. I didn’t know there was a Mackay Graveyard just a few blocks away!

Unfortunately the graveyard on the grounds of a school that was closed for CNY, so I couldn’t see it on this trip.

Tamsui Here’s Mackay Church today. It’s an active church with Sunday services.  There are actually two sections of Mackay Street, where a major highway has cut through the winding walking paths, but you can walk easily between Mackay Church and the school started by Mackay, Oxford College. The Oxford College building is still there, but it’s now part of Aletheia University. Another name change for historians to uncover!






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One Response to Mackay Street & The Complications of Anglicizing Chinese

  1. mary kowatch says:

    Wonderful information, thanks for sharing. Do you have more information on who this George Mckay was…parents, where born, wife, children?

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