Under Japanese occupancy for 50 years, Taiwan’s old wounds are healing. Fiona Harper reports.
It’s appropriately dreary and wet, the Pacific Ocean disappearing behind us as we ascend the snaking, twisting mountain road into the Ruifang District of northern Taiwan. Sporadically we pass village huts clinging to the shoulder which drops away steeply into vegetation-clad slopes. The higher we ascend, the heavier the rain becomes. Long after my ears have popped we stop at the town of Jinguashi, with waning enthusiasm for exploring, now about as damp as the bilges of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. With over 200 peaks that rise above 3000 metres, the Chungyan Mountain Range (or just simply Central Mountains) acts as a sort of ‘rain magnet’ dumping on average 2.5 metres of rain per year. Much of it seems to have fallen on the day I’m in town.
But my own sodden misery is inconsequential compared with the deplorable suffering of those interred here 70 years ago. After the surrender of Singapore to Japan in 1942, the Japanese (who had occupied Taiwan since 1895), started bringing Allied FEPOW’s (Far East Prisoners of War) to Taiwan to use as slave labour.
Kinkaseki POW Camp stood on the side of the mountain, its location chosen thanks to its proximity to a copper mine. Though, in reality, I discover that it wasn’t actually located particularly close to the mine. POWs were forced to march further up the mountain behind the camp before descending to the depths of the mine where they slaved in appalling conditions – day in, day out.
There were 523 FEPOWs interred at Kinkaseki POW Camp. Many of them were Australian. Most suffered enormously. Some never made it home. The camp operated for three years before being shut down when no longer ‘viable’, with surviving inmates despatched to other camps.
Sixteen years ago the Taiwanese people set about the task of honouring Commonwealth and Allied prisoners. A moving memorial depicting two men, arms around each other offering support, now stands at the former Kinkaseki site, offering a focal point for relatives to pay their respects. It’s perhaps deliberate that there is no shelter within close proximity of the life-size sculpture. Water cascades down my own face, just as it does these two bronze men, a sombre tribute to their dignity as I pause to reflect on what occurred here.
Nearby, an intriguing display at the Gold Museum in the former Taiwan Metal Mining Corp offices offers some insight into just how treacherous underground mining was 70 years ago. Alongside POW history and mining which occupies much of level one, on the second floor there’s a rather imposing 220kg gold ingot on display where visitors clamber to have photographs taken stroking its mesmerising surface.
The same terrain that is pitted with tunnels and mines, causing such grief for POWs, now attracts visitors for its raw beauty. Rather grand Shifen Waterfall, Taiwan’s broadest, drops from a tributary of the Keelung River in a stunning cascading display. Clinging to a mountain slope, Jiufen is an historic goldmining town retaining a quaintly picturesque charm that attracts artists, filmmakers and photographers. On a clear day the Pacific Ocean can be seen in the distance, dotted with fishing trawlers.
Further inland, residents of Pingxi have made good use of their high annual rainfall, as it’s the only official location in Taiwan where flaming sky lanterns can be launched. During the annual Lantern Festival (held during Chinese New Year celebrations) Pingxi is swamped with visitors who flock here to adorn paper lanterns with wishes for luck, love and prosperity before releasing them to the heavens. Steeped in tradition, for hundreds of years sky lanterns have been released in spiritual celebration. Though somewhat of a fire hazard if lanterns drift back to land before the flame is extinguished, thanks to its high annual rainfall, the hazard of lanterns sent aloft is somewhat dampened.
Accessible by rail from Taipei, for one day each year Pingxi morphs into a vibrant, pulsing street festival with laneways and streets clogged with festival-goers weaving through street vendors. Lantern vendors do a brisk trade too. Though figures are rather vague, it’s estimated that more than 50,000 flaming sky lanterns are released during one day. While overhead the sky is dotted with flaming lanterns, down at street level the air is filled with aromatic steam rising from dumplings piled up in bamboo steamers on vendors’ carts.
Taiwan does street food exceptionally well. It’s always cheap and plentiful, mostly recognisable in a Chinese sort of way, and washed down with Taiwan lager makes for a terrific meal.
Chinese heritage has a strong influence on Taiwanese life, with almost the entire population Han Chinese to varying degrees. Though, being an island nation, Taiwan has always been vulnerable to other Asian influences, and was indeed under Japanese occupancy for 50 years until 1945. Taiwanese are a rather resilient lot though. Erecting a memorial to atrocities that were committed on their soil during WWII is an important step in assisting old wounds to heal amongst neighbours across the Asia Pacific region. •
The writer was a guest of Taiwan Tourism Bureau.