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Doctor Mackay: An Extraordinary Canadian in Taiwan

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Class of Taiwanese students smile with CTOT Executive Director, Kathleen Mackay, after learning about Dr. Mackay’s legacy in Taiwan.

A group of students explore the Mackay Exhibtion.

Visitors pose for pictures with the iconic, bearded Mackay.

Students open petri-glasses filled with seeds to learn about fruits and vegetables Mackay introduced to Taiwan.

Taiwanese students “spot Dr. Mackay” in archival black-and-white photos.

Dr. George Leslie Mackay is a legendary folk hero in Taiwan, famous for his accomplishments as the 19th century missionary and doctor who made significant contributions toward the development of modern Taiwan.

Even a century after his death, his legacy remains well-known to the people of Taiwan, including Taiwanese youth who can be seen sporting T-shirts featuring the iconic bearded Mackay and his motto, “It’s better to burn out than to rust out.” Yet, despite his fame amongst the Taiwanese, few realize he was Canadian.

The Canadian Trade Office in Taipei (CTOT) sought to address this gap by launching a multi-media exhibition entitled “Dr. Mackay: An Extraordinary Canadian in Taiwan” – hosted in CTOT’s “Mackay Room,” named in honour of the good doctor. The month-long exhibition attracted almost a thousand visitors and helped raise awareness of Canada’s deep and long-standing ties with Taiwan.

A lasting legacy

Although Mackay himself was visually arresting with his height and long black beard, he is best remembered for his prodigious accomplishments during his time in Taiwan.

He first embarked on his journey to Taiwan (then Formosa) in 1872, after being sent by the Presbyterian Church of Canada to set up an overseas mission. Mackay forged a new path for development in Taiwan by establishing the first modern, Western-style medical clinic and the first school for girls on the island. He went on to build churches, schools and hospitals throughout northern Taiwan until his death in 1901.

Unlike most Western missionaries at the time, Mackay was widely known for his desire to identify with the people and fully immerse himself in the culture of Taiwan. He was able to speak Taiwanese fluently within months of his arrival, and he married and had a family with a Taiwanese woman in 1878.

Today, his image adorns the walls of Taipei’s Mackay Memorial Hospital, a commemorative stamp was issued in his honour in 2001, and a brass sculpture of bearded Mackay stands in downtown Tamsui, just north of Taipei.

Taiwan’s “Canadian Son-in-law”

Many other Mackay exhibitions were organized in the past, but CTOT’s installation was the first to go beyond the traditional archival photo displays. CTOT commissioned a colourful, hands-on exhibit intended to both educate and engage a younger audience.

Many of the displays featured kid-friendly view-finders that encouraged students to “spot Dr. Mackay” in old black-and-white photos. The exhibit transported Mackay to the 21st century with numerous props and displays encouraging students to take “selfies” and tag their photos on Facebook. Visitors opened petri-glass covers to feel fruits and vegetable seeds – including tomatoes, carrots and green beans – that Mackay introduced to Taiwan. During visits by local elementary schools, trivia challenges and interactive games helped bring the material alive for the students.

The Mackay Exhibition will tour Taiwan with the Mackay Taiwanese opera, organized by the Taipei Mackay Hospital, until October 2015. After the tour, the exhibit will then be donated to Aletheia University, which was founded by Dr. Mackay in 1882, to be displayed permanently in the Mackay Archive Room and continue exposing new Taiwanese and Canadian audiences to his legacy.

CTOT’s Mackay Exhibition illuminated Mackay’s legacy, a legacy that attests to the lasting bonds that respect and mutual affection can create between people of different cultures. Mackay’s lifetime achievements are a true demonstration of the warm ties binding Canada and Taiwan.


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