In the years after China’s “Liberation” (as an aside, China’s “liberation” should always be used with quotation marks) a steady stream of leftist visitors paid court to Mao Zedong’s PRC and came away enthusiastically repeating CCP propaganda. Likewise, there were many “useful idiots” on the right who returned from stage-managed tours of Taiwan evangelical in their praise of Chiang Kai-shek and his “Free China” (once again quotation marks are required, as it was neither “free” nor “China”).

One of my favourite of these propaganda accounts is a forgotten book called Flight to Formosa, (1958) by Frank Clune (1893–1971), a staggeringly prolific Australian travel writer and popular historian. Clune, who churned out bestsellers from the 1930s through to the 60s, came from a poor family of Irish stock. Leaving school at fifteen, he lived an adventurous vagabond life, which would provide the material for his memoir Try Anything Once (1933), its success starting him on a writing career of sixty-six books in thirty-seven years.

Flight to Formosa, the last of his foreign travel books, details a five-week trip around the country in winter. The sub-title gives a strong hint of the flavor: “A Holiday and Fact-finding Tour of Nationalist China’s Fortress of Freedom and the Ports of Hong Kong and Macao.” I love the odd mix of informality and earnestness of “A Holiday and Fact-finding Tour,” and the phrase “Fortress of Freedom” accurately predicts that alliteration will be more prevalent than nuance. Clune says he was in Taiwan “to find out the facts, by independent investigation on the spot.” The veteran of Gallipoli (wounded and invalided home) was angry that despite Australian troops fighting the Chinese Communists in Korea only five years earlier, newspapers were running “puff pieces” on the PRC and maligning the ROC.

Clune travelled to Taiwan with his wife, “an extra pair of eyes, observing things from the feminine angle” and also providing some comedy in the role of the hapless tourist reacting to exotic colour such as a terrifying pedicab ride. The couple were met at Taipei airport by Sampson C. Shen, the director of the Government Information Office (GIO), and driven to the Friends of China Club (on Hwai-ning Street), the usual accommodation for foreign correspondents, and where the character Barton stayed in Vern Sneider’s A Pail of Oysters.

After a round of visits to various officials, the Clunes headed south by car along the west coast plain: down to Hsinchu, Miaoli, Changhua, Taichung, inland to Sun Moon Lake (foggy in winter), Chiayi, Tainan, and Kending. They visited factories, farms, fisheries, and they talked to foreign missionaries – contrasting their persecution on the Mainland with the religious freedom on Formosa. Into the 1980s there were quite a few missionaries living here who had colourful tales from China; they’d lived through civil war, WW2, and early Communist rule.

The author was impressed with what he saw: “Formosa has been transformed into a well-managed and highly productive democratic country, prosperous and unified.” One of the things that struck him most was the intensive nature of farming, and it’s interesting to think that despite the population having doubled since then, the rural population has shrunk and the fields are much emptier. The farming population was so congested on the west coast plain that he likened it to “one big outer suburban area or continuous market-garden.” The farmers’ “industry, patience and ingenuity in tilling the soil are beyond compare.”

He was also impressed by the lack of drunkenness. His visit to a government rice-wine factory in Puli, prompts a comparison of Chinese sobriety with his fellow countrymen – the “heaviest booze-guzzlers in the world.” During his five weeks on Formosa he “didn’t see even one person drunk.”

When Clune visited the Hengchun Peninsula, he mentions a whaling station operating (a recently started joint venture with the Japanese). Near Hengchun he had a lunch of eels and shrimp at a warm-water spring and a Japanese-style inn. In an example his wordplay, he describes the waitress serving them: “Golden Lily is a comely wench with a golden smile, caused by three gold teeth which glitter like the rising sun when she grins. She wore a jade-green jacket and Chinese-style slit dress, showing bare leg thigh-high on the port side.”

After the road trip back to Taipei, the Clunes had an audience with Chiang Kai-shek on first day of Chinese New Year, the honor of being his first guests of the year. Clune was impressed by Chiang’s good health, sprightly and younger than his seventy-one years: “His eyes are bright, keen and kindly. But his bearing is soldierly, erect and firm.” He was “a great personality, and a great leader … one of the truly great men of the twentieth century.”

President Chiang Kai-shek ordered arrangements to be made for the Clunes to see the work in progress on the epic Central Cross Island Highway being build across the Central Ranges. From Taipei they flew in an Air Force DC3 to Hualien, “a clean, thriving town” buoyed by investment on the highway, and then traveled by jeep through coastal plains of sugar-cane and peanuts to Taroko Gorge, built by veterans, “lunched with the road-workers in their barracks on the summit of Ho Huan Pass.” Construction had started in 1956 and would opened to traffic in 1960.

Clune’s writing is a strange mix of cheesy informality and political punditry. It also focuses on the practical – notes on fertiliser production are more likely than glowing descriptions of scenery. Flight to Formosa casts the inquiring tourist as hero, champions the common sense of the Australian every man over the snobbery and elitism of the “parlour pinks” and “eggheads.” He even takes several swipes in the foreword at “critics who sit on their backsides and sling off at my travel books for being too slangy or autobiographically egotistical.” But “they get their copies free” unlike the many Australians who buy and read his books. Clune aimed for mass market appeal, and it worked.

Although terribly dated, Flight to Formosa has lasting value because of its very disposability. The author put relatively little work into it, so we get uncomplicated travel impressions, and the information provided by and the pat stories he was told by his government minders. Written to appeal to contemporary readers rather than with an eye on posterity, it gives us an interesting snapshot.