Trains, railway stations and railroads — these have been a core part of the collective memory of Taiwanese for more than 100 years. Trains have enabled people to travel faster and facilitated exchanges between the north and the south, gradually giving shape to a collective concept of life in Taiwan. They were integral to the nation’s modernization in the 20th century.
Given this importance, the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) and civic groups have organized the “Back to 1919: Taiwan Railways and Architectural Heritage Exhibition” to mark the 132nd anniversary of Taiwanese railways. The exhibition, showcasing 50 paintings by 29 artists depicting historical sites, is on display until July 31 at Taipei Railway Station.
The exhibition will then go on tour to three other major railway stations around the nation — Taichung Railway Station, Kaohsiung Station and Hualien Station. It is the perfect opportunity for the public to reminisce about Taiwanese culture and explore its diversity.
The railway is a major form of transportation for many, either for commuting or long-distance travel. Aside from regular intercity links, there were also sugarcane trains or half-gauge trains, operated by Taiwan Sugar Corp during the 1950s to 1960s, when the sugar refinery industry was at its height, connecting cities and townships. These smaller trains formed commuting networks in central and southern Taiwan, and facilitated the transit of people between townships.
Trains might differ in form and appearance, but they have become a central part of people’s lives. Railway stations hold a special emotional significance in the collective memory of Taiwanese. Stations and platforms are evocative of feelings, such as the joy of a reunion or the sorrow at bidding farewell to a loved one.
Singer Chang Hsiu-ching’s (張秀卿) Train Station (車站), a Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) song about a poignant parting, made her a household name in the nation: The protagonist’s heart feels heavy as the train that is to carry away her beloved approaches the station, and the feeling gets heavier as she sees other people on the platform happily welcome their family members back home. The lyrics vividly describe the wide range of emotions that people feel at railway stations.
For many, the station is the doorway to their hometown — where the feeling of homesickness intensifies or finds release — as well as the local landmark. It is a hospitable and familiar place. Even now, railway lunchboxes evoke such warm feelings among Taiwanese.
Aside from appealing to the emotions, train stations hold cultural and artistic significance. Railway construction was initiated during the Qing Dynasty by then-Taiwan governor Liu Ming-chuan (劉銘傳), but work was halted after his retirement.
Construction of the larger part of the railway was not finished until the early 20th century, under Japanese colonial rule: the Taiwan Trunk Line (縱貫線) railroad was completed in 1908 with an opening ceremony held in Taichung Park. The former Taichung Railway Station bears witness to the line’s completion, and the Pavilion at Taichung Park Lake was also built for commemorative purposes.
From this point on, train stations — big or small — became architectural showcases, with the so-called “Seven Classic Railway Stations” — Keelung, Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan and Kaohsiung — being the most eye-catching of all. Tainan Station even boasts a railway hotel and restaurant.
The exhibition highlights the distinct architectural characteristics and styles of these stations that were built during different periods in the nation’s history. The architectural styles of the seven classic stations range from Renaissance (Keelung) to the Romantic (Hsinchu and Taichung), Japanese-Western Eclectic (Chiayi) and Japanese Imperial Crown (Kaohsiung), showing a great variety of characteristics ranging from refined elegance to solemn, sumptuous, indulgent or practical.
Hsinchu Railway Station, for example, is a combination of the Renaissance and Gothic styles. Built in 1913, the building is among the oldest stations in the nation. The architecture would impress any newcomer to Hsinchu and has already become a vital part of local people’s collective memory.
Keelung Station was originally constructed in the Renaissance style with red brick walls, metal roofing tiles, frame windows, iron railings with carved patterns on the roof and a bell tower. The building, lauded for its “unsurpassed beauty,” was demolished in the 1960s, and its depiction in paintings only reinforces a feeling of loss among railway enthusiasts.
Railway stations are also eyewitnesses to history. Chiayi Railway Station, constructed in 1933, features a modern revivalist or eclectic architectural style. National treasure Chen Cheng-po (陳澄波), the first Taiwanese artist whose oil paintings were featured in the Empire Art Exhibition held by the Japanese government, was executed in front of the station during the 228 Incident a few days after he attempted to negotiate with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops on behalf of local residents.
The former Kaohsiung Railway Station, now repurposed as the Kaohsiung Vision Museum, was completed in 1941 — the youngest among the seven classic stations. Through the years, the building has borne witness to many major historical events, including World War II, the 228 Incident and the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident.
A statue of a red carp that used to grace the square in front of the station has been moved to the side of the museum. The statue was erected in memory of Dai-a Fishing Harbor Village, whose residents were relocated and the village flattened to make way for the construction of the old station. The name of the village, “Dai-a” in Hoklo, means carp, as it used to be famous for its wild carp.
In the later phase of Japanese rule and after the war, new railway stations with distinctive features started to emerge. These include stations noted for their scenery or creative architectural styles, as well as those constructed for the mass rapid transit system and the high-speed rail. Combining the modern and the traditional, many of these stations have attracted railway enthusiasts.
In 2017, the TRA selected the 16 most beautiful train stations in the nation to boost railway tourism. Its listing of wooden railway stations has also fueled interest in local stations.
Nevertheless, hard lessons, such as the demolition of the old Keelung station, allegedly to “remove the Japanese influence and the poison residue of the Kominka Movement,” underscore the atrocities committed by the post-war Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime intended to eliminate the collective memory of Taiwanese society.
These hard lessons highlight the importance of striking a balance and achieving harmonious relations between the new and old in the preservation and maintenance of architectural heritage in an era of rapid change and progress.
Tokyo Station is a model of achieving harmony between the new and old. For more than 100 years, the building has maintained its beautiful western architecure, while its facilities are constantly updated to keep pace with the times.
The station is not only the gateway to Tokyo by virtue of it being the central station of the Japanese capital, but it has also been designated an “Important Cultural Property” by the Japanese government and one of the “100 Top Stations in the Kanto Region.”
The design for a new ￥10,000 (US$93) banknote, for use beginning in 2024, features an image of the station on the reverse side. In this respect, the TRA, which boasts 87 historical sites and buildings, is sitting on a vault of historical and cultural treasures. The agency has a responsibility to cultivate the collective memory of Taiwanese society.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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