By Austin Smith.
In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan following China’s defeat in The First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan became Japan’s first overseas colony and there were plans to rapidly develop the island’s economy, infrastructure and industry to demonstrate that Japan was capable of becoming a colonial power. Taiwan was intended to be a model colony and, by all accounts, in the post-war years the Taiwanese looked back on the period (1895-1945) more fondly than other countries that endured Japanese occupation. On a recent visit to Taipei, I set out to find remnants of the colonial period in an ever-changing city. This post will touch on some of the highlights of this pursuit in an attempt to assess the cultural legacy of Japanese rule.
The former Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan:
The most imposing feature of modern Taipei dating from the colonial period is the former Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan, designed by Uheiji Nagano. Nagano had a reputation for combining Western and Eastern architectural styles, which were prevalent in Japanese buildings of the period. The building, which is reminiscent of Tokyo Station, has an East facing facade and blends Renaissance, Baroque and neo-Classical architectural styles. The offices were heavily bombed during World War II and not repaired until 1948. The building became The Office of the President in 1950 following the retreat of the ROC government to Taiwan from mainland China and it remains the seat of power. Whether the continued use of this building was borne out of nostalgia or necessity, it has come to symbolise the legacy of Japanese rule in Taipei.
Taipei Botanical Gardens:
The Taipei Botanical Garden was founded as Taipei Nursery in 1896, at the beginning of the Japanese colonial period. It was gradually expanded and renamed the Taipei Botanical Garden, becoming the country’s first botanical garden in 1921. It now covers 8.2 hectares and it includes more than 2,000 species of plants. Taiwan, which intersects tropical and subtropical regions, was ideal for the cultivation of a variety of plant species for natural sciences and academic research. The period of Japanese occupation was the most important in the history of botanical research in Taiwan and most of the country’s native plant species were identified during this time. The Taiwan Botanical Garden is part of a complex of education facilities known as The Nanhai Academy and it remains the country’s premier botanical institute for research and education. References to the positive legacy of the Japanese colonial period appear throughout the garden which is an oasis for those who want to get away from city life.
The National Museum of History:
In 1955, The National Museum of History was established in a pre-existing Japanese-style building on the outskirts of Taipei Botanical Garden. The museum displays historic artefacts transported from the Henan Museum in China during the Sino-Japanese War. The need to find suitable venues to house the vast collection of artefacts transported from mainland China, as well as the picturesque location, made this colonial era building an obvious museum candidate. In 1956, the building was converted to a more appropriate Ming and Qing dynasty palace style, an example of the sinicization that took place in Taiwan from 1950 onwards.
The Guest House of Imperial Envoys was built in 1889, during the late Qing Dynasty. The building was used as a temporary office for government officials and was the highest public administration building on the island. The first ceremony to mark Japanese rule was held in this building and it was used as the Taiwan Governor-General’s Office and military headquarters until the construction of the Presidential Building in 1919. In 1933, the decision was made to dramatically relocate the building to allow for the construction of The Taipei Convention Centre to mark the ascension of Emperor Showa (Hirohito). The main section of the building was moved to the Taipei Botanical Garden. The relocation of the building appears to have ensured its preservation, it is now the only remaining official building constructed in the Min-nan style. The Min-nan style is characterised by high ceilings, symmetry and the 田- shape layout formed by the wings and corridors. The walls are decorated with traditional lion sculptures symbolising virtue and tradition. The building was painstakingly restored and designated as a historic monument before being renamed the Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz Museum in 1998.
Another remnant of Qing Dynasty Taipei can be found just north of Longshan Temple, a popular tourist destination. The Bopilao district is a block of narrow shopping streets with architectural styles hailing from the Qing Dynasty onwards.
A fine example of the colonial era businesses which have been preserved at Bopilao is Taiyoo Bookbinders. The shop was founded in the early 1940s as one of the first bookbinders in Taipei. The Wanhua District was the centre of book production but Taiyoo was the first in Taipei to mechanise the bookbinding process. Taiyoo earned a reputation for high quality and was chosen to bind the official “Chinese-Japanese Dictionary” during the Japanese Colonial Period. After the retrocession of Taiwan, they went on to publish various documents for the National Palace Museum.
Much of the surrounding area was demolished as part of a modernising campaign during the colonial period and Bopilao gradually fell into decline as urban planning shifted Taipei’s commercial centre. However, the area has been preserved and it was reopened in 2010 as a cultural centre containing original shop signs and facades. The once abandoned buildings now house exhibitions an education centre.
Taiwan Grand Shrine:
One of the most striking buildings on the route from Taoyuan Airport to the city centre is the imposing Grand Hotel. It was not until researching this project that I discovered the hotel’s connections to colonial Taipei. The Grand Hotel stands on the site of the former Taiwan Grand Shrine, once the most important Shinto shrine in Taiwan and one of sixty-six that were built across the country during the colonial period. On October 23rd 1944, a pilot crashed into the grounds of Taiwan Grand Shrine, the torii gate was destroyed along with other important structures. In the post-war years, Chiang Kai Shek proposed that a hotel, fit for ambassadors, be built on the site and it became the Grand Hotel in 1952. Two copper bulls that stood at Taiwan Grand Shrine were relocated to The National Taiwan Museum.
Personally, I found the most significant colonial impression to be a cultural one. In my experience, without meaning to generalise, the behaviour and attitudes of the Taiwanese people was culturally closer to the Japanese than elsewhere in Asia. This was twinned with an obvious appreciation for Japanese fashion and food. The linguistic hangover is also worth a mention, occasional Japanese words are in daily use and the older generations remain fluent Japanese speakers. In truth, physical traces of colonial Taipei were harder to find than I had expected. The city has developed rapidly in recent years and the infrastructure put in place in the pre-war years has been superseded. Nevertheless, the foundations and desire to modernise was introduced by Japan. Significantly, the legacy of the colonial period is often acknowledged positively – this is not something which I have encountered elsewhere in East Asia.