Cheng-han had crossed the South China Sea to come to Taiwan in search of adventure. He was a tall and unassuming Chinese boy who was mostly quiet but when he spoke everyone would listen. He would talk about going off to unknown lands in search of his destiny, fall in love and marry a princess but his father would laugh at him. You live in your head, boy, his father Chun-hung would always say.
But he had done it. He had run away from the humdrum life of downtown Shanghai and landed in Taiwan, a small exotic island miles into the sea. He had felt the sea breeze, smelled the salt and experienced the unadulterated sunshine on his face.
He was lucky to have landed a job on daily wages as a manual labourer at the newly established Dutch settlement of Fort Zeelandia for it was rare for a civilian to work and live in this military area where locals were hardly seen. It was essentially a port where ships came and went all day; it fascinated Cheng-han to think of faraway lands with their inhabitants. He would often wonder how they lived their lives across the seemingly endless ocean.
The Fort consisted of three layers of walls constructed from Dutch bricks with a bastion on each corner, which seemed daunting to Cheng-han at first, but with time he got used to it. The downtown was outside while inside the fort lay the military and administration center, a church, and garrisons. Cheng-han often crossed downtown consisting of a market to get inside the fort, almost on a daily basis.
It was here that he had his first interaction with the white man; aloof and business-like, most of the Dutch officials were stiff and arrogant, and hardly even spoke to the locals. But Cheng-han was luckier than most; he managed to get repair work inside the cantonment area so he was a common sight heaving bricks to and fro from all over the fort. Even though it didn’t pay much, he was making his way up in the world and never complained.
One of the Dutch officials he did have some interaction with was Hendrik Gerritt, a middle-aged heavily set and tanned army officer who barked orders with precision who knew some Mandarin which served well for basic communication for Cheng-han. The Dutchman developed a particular fondness for the Chinese boy during the two years that passed; in this time Cheng-han was given errands such as delivering of letters and documents from one office to the other. It seemed as if this humble hard working local had earned the trust of his masters and it seemed to suit Cheng-han.
It was January 1634 when the huge fort was nearing its completion that Cheng-han’s life was turned upside down; he was snared from the moment he saw her. It was as if an angel had descended from heaven who smiled upon him. His rush in delivering a letter for Gerritt had knocked over some trunks which blocked his way. He stumbled and was momentarily blinded by the sunlight. When he looked up, he saw a beautiful, golden-haired angel looking down upon him; she was dressed in white and at that moment he thought he had died and gone to heaven.
After spending days awestruck and searching for this angel in vain, Cheng-han was convinced that she as not real. It was only by accident that he found out that she was Gerritt’s only daughter, Adriana and was visiting her father for some time. He could not believe that fate had dealt such a cruel blow; he had fallen in love with the forbidden apple of Eden.
On one fateful day, when he was working in the expansive leafy garden areas of the fort when he saw her alone again. She was leisurely strolling with her white parasol and taking in the sights and sounds. By the looks of it, she seemed lost but Cheng-han was hypnotized by the mere sight of her. As she approached the place he was working, she saw him and upon recognizing a familiar face, she smiled. Cheng-han froze and seemed to have lost all capacity to speak. She came closer and he saw her beautiful eyes; they were as blue as the sea, and he was simply lost in their depth. Suddenly, he realized that he had lingered too long and that it would be seen as inappropriate. He was concerned that he had offended the young lady.
Destiny had worked its magic. It was as if the entire universe had stopped in that moment. She held out her hand and spoke a musical language he did not understand. But it was music to his ears. For a moment, he struggled but soon gave into the sea of emotions raging in his body. He grasped her tender hand and stood up. Is this love? He asked himself. The touch of her hand was electrifying and he felt sensations he had never in his whole life felt before; his skin tingled, his heart was banging against his chest and he could hear the blood pounding in his ears. He had never felt so alive.
She spoke again and it sounded like a question. She then pointed at the stairs leading to the upper portion of Fort Zeelandia which overlooked the sea. I think she is asking me to walk with her, and his legs responded to her voice. He began leading her to the stairs. They climbed together in silence and reached the top just in time for the setting sun. The shades of yellow, orange and red reflected against the darkening sea created the perfect setting for this forbidden romance. No one could imagine such an unlikely love story could unfold in this intimidating Dutch army fort.
He turned to her and in that moment, his heart was bound to hers forever. He reached out and touched her face. Her cheek was soft and he was ashamed of his rough and blistered hands that were soiling this angelic creature. He dropped his hand and hung his head. I am not worthy of her, he thought.
Then he saw a hesitant, white-gloved hand touch his chest. He looked up in surprise. By her expression, she was caught in a struggle of duty and love; her smile was shy and scared. But he took her hand and this gesture encouraged her. She smiled more confidently now and this gave him more courage.
Slowly and gradually, as the sun disappeared into the sea, so did the reluctance of the two lovers. Their souls were mingling and their bodies felt it. He enveloped her in his arms and breathed in her scent. He could feel her trembling and it made him never want to let go. Soon, their hearts were beating as one; they were no longer two bodies, their souls had consummated.
She whispered endearments which he didn’t understand, he narrated odes of her beauty and grace that she couldn’t comprehend. But their love didn’t need interpretation; words were replaced by their limbs and eyes. When he kissed her soft lips, he lost all sense of propriety and wanted to marry her right there and then! He no longer cared about social customs, inappropriateness or even that his life was in danger because of this daring indiscretion.
From that day onwards, this secluded spot of Fort Zeelandia became their secret rendezvous. Every day, Cheng-han would drop everything and hurriedly make his way through the military offices and housing area to the top of the fort. Often, he would wait for her for hours before she could make the proper excuses for her absence and make her way there without suspicion.
Every evening was a reliving of the beautiful sunset of the very day they had fallen in love. Their kisses became more passionate and fervent. Their hands explored more of each other, but they did not dare to go further for the fear of being caught played in their minds. Cheng-han was aroused but did not want to scare Adriana off because he was thought she was too good for him, a lowly manual labourer. Even though his body ached and longed for her, he promised himself that he would not take her virtue without making her his lawful wife.
Now, the days at Fort Zeelandia seemed long and stifling to Cheng-han. He longed for the freedom of the sea with Adriana by his side. The stolen looks and smiles during day time were not enough for him anymore. He wanted to run away for the second time, but this time to make a home with his love. But it seemed impossible, for no one would understand his love for a white woman and he could not dare to speak of it or expect any help from any one.
Adriana was also anxious all the time. She always feared that someone would see her with Cheng-han and report him to her father and be executed. But her heart was drawn to him as a moth is drawn to a flame. She had never imagined that a trip gloomy forbidding visit to her estranged father in a lonely fort would change her life completely.
She had been taught to look down on ‘yellow men’ but from the moment she saw him toppled over her trunks that fateful day, she knew there was something different about this China-man. She could not understand whether it was attraction or infatuation but this tall, handsome Chinese boy had stolen her heart. He was so tender and sweet; even the way he touched her showed so much respect, something that she could never find in men from her own country. He was courteous but also showered her with so much love that she only in a few days she could not imagine her life without him.
She had longed to escape the dull country life in Gouda which lie in the south of Holland. Even though her uncle had a match waiting for her as soon as she went back home, she felt trapped; even her father would not hear of rejecting her future betrothed Hans, who was a ginger-haired conservative and small minded clerk at the local townhouse. While they did not speak the same language, she knew that even though Cheng-han had no money, he greatly cared for her.
Cheng-han had picked up some Dutch words and was slowly beginning to communicate his concerns to her. She understood his dilemma. But as luck would have it; these innocent unsuspecting lovers were to be as quickly separated by fate as it had brought them together.
Cheng-han was sent to the port of Armosa which lay a few miles outside the fort, a trip that was to take two days because he was to supervise a delivering shipment of Dutch bricks. He hadn’t even had a chance to tell Adriana about his absence and was intuitively worried. Meanwhile, that very morning after his departure, Adriana was dismayed to find out that she was to leave for Holland at dawn the next day! She rushed to their secret meeting place and cried to Cheng-han out to the sea, but in vain. He was nowhere to be found. She thought the worst; they had been found out and that is why she was being sent back. She feared for him and prayed the whole night for his safety. With a heavy heart, she set out for the port and boarded her ship.
As the ship backed away from the harbor, she saw a lone figure running towards the dock through her tears from the deck. It was Cheng-han who was crying out to her and pleading with her to come back to him! But alas, it was too late, she saw him jump into the water but being from the mainland he had never learned to swim and several other workers at the dock dived in to retrieve him but he was never found. It was assumed that he drowned under the tides as he looked up through the water he saw her image rippled and disfigured. He wanted to remember the moments they shared with each other and could not live with the sadness of living a life without her. Legend has it, he has turned into a ghost who now haunts the fort of Zeelandia.
And from that moment on, Fort Zeelandia was no longer just a monument of Dutch colonialism; it was an ode to an everlasting love of two innocent souls who were bound in spirit, but sadly, were never to unite in the flesh.