by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Bryan Y. Chen

SEVERAL DOZEN protested in Taoyuan on Thursday in front of the city hall on September 1st, calling for the preservation of Qing dynasty railroads. Ironically enough, the historic railroads are threatened by construction for a contemporary MRT station. 

A petition calling for the preservation of the railroad has been signed by more than 1,500 individuals in less than two weeks. During the protest, speakers drew attention to the fact that the rails date back to Qing times, during which Qing dynasty governor Liu Mingchuan brought in western experts to build the railroad. The railroad also survived during Japanese colonial times. 

Individuals protesting in favor of the railroad preservation have criticized construction as violating laws regarding historical preservation, particularly because experts have sought to call attention to the historical value and cultural significance of the site. The Taoyuan city government’s current regulations specify that construction should avoid ruins. Nevertheless, they point out that the city government’s specifications as to the size of the railroad that must be avoided seem to be different from other photos taken of the site. 

Photo credit: Bryan Y. Chen

It is to be seen whether Cheng Wen-tsan’s administration makes any moves to deal with the issue. Either way, as elections are coming up, advocacy for the cultural preservation of historic railroads will primarily be an issue for Cheng’s successor. And as it is not very clear who that will be, that makes it unclear as to whether demonstrators should be targeting the KMT or the DPP in their appeals. 

Nevertheless, the destruction of historical sites is all too common in Taiwan. Oftentimes, the cultural value of a historic site is only realized afterward. In other cases, the original structure is demolished and a replacement structure is built in its place. 

This is not the first time that there have been protests calling for the preservation of railroad infrastructure in Taiwan. In 2016, student-led activists sought to protest the Taichung city government’s demolition of historic dormitories that were used by railway workers for the old Taichung station. The dormitories were the last wooden hostel in Taichung and had been constructed in 1905, dating to the Japanese colonial period. However, the city labeled the dormitory a dangerous, unsafe structure and tried to demolish it, rather than preserve it in a safe manner for the future. 

So, too, with the demolitions of historic graves across Taiwan, such as the Xindian Cemetery in Taipei and the Nanshan Public Cemetery in Tainan. Graves at the two sites date back to the earliest Han settlement in Taiwan, including the oldest known Han grave in Taiwan. The graves themselves reflect in their inscriptions and construction the various twists and turns of Taiwanese history over the past four hundred years. The graveyards could themselves even hide further history, if there are further layers of graves that current graves cover. 

But contemporary developers view the graves as an eyesore, instead hoping to demolish them for property development because of the real estate they sit on. As a result, demolition of some graves has taken place in the face of resistance from local residents, who cite the historic and cultural value of the graves, as well as that such actions violate historical preservation laws. Contemporary developers have gone so far as to smash graves, strewing bones, teeth and other human remains in the open. 

Photo credit: Bryan Y. Chen

Indeed, considering that this is how human remains are treated–merely as an obstacle for development–it may not be surprising that there is also scarce consideration for railroads dating back to the Qing dynasty. Apart from that the rail history of Taiwan is potentially marketable for tourism, given the large number of rail enthusiasts in Taiwan, including of Japanese colonial railways, the railways attest to the technological advancement of the late Qing and how the late Qing sought to navigate maintaining traditions while embracing some aspects of western technology. Railway and telegraph systems set up in Taiwan are examples of this and they may be uniquely preserved in Taiwan compared to the parts of China that the Qing ruled. 

One wonders to some extent if interest in preserving Qing dynasty sites may be political, in that there is greater enthusiasm among the pan-Green camp for preserving the Japanese colonial period, rather than historical sites that align Taiwanese history with Chinese history. However, Taoyuan slants pan-Blue, which makes the issue of lack of interest in preserving Qing-era railways mystifying. But without sufficient public pressure, one imagines that politicians would have little interest in taking action on the issue.

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