Sun, Mar 24, 2002 - Page 17 News List

Harbor city to hunt for hidden loot

A legend of World War II treasure buried in Keelung is shaping up as Taiwan's top X file. Just because no one can find it, doesn't mean it's not out there

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

In Ilan County, the town of Tali faces the black rock coast of the Pacific to the southeast, while its back is set against a wall of steep jungle-covered mountains to the northwest. It is roughly centered around the two century-old Tiengung Temple, which rides up the mountains' lower slopes. The staircase to the temple's right side continues past the temple structure and issues into a road of dirt and stone. It is the beginning of a historic foot highway, the Tsaoling Trail. In the early 19th century, this footpath was the first major route to cross the mountains of "the dragon's back" and open up Ilan's as yet untamed and undeveloped seaboard plains. Passing the mountains between Gungliao and Tali, the trail served as the major mercantile highway into Ilan until other routes, including the 2km-long Tsaoling railroad tunnel, were pioneered by the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century.

Taiwan's development hasn't changed Tali too much. Like most of Taiwan's rainy northeast coast, the area remains sparsely populated and barricaded by mountains. The temple, however, is now adjoined by a northeast coast tourism center, and in fair weather, day hikers flock to the Tali trailhead. But in October 2000, when I walked the Tsaoling Trail one overcast weekday afternoon, I had most of its 9km to myself. I was hiking southwards from Gungliao towards Tali, and it was only at the final pass, the spot of the crowd-pleaser vista where the Pacific seems to spread flat 400m below your feet, that I ran into?well, this guy. He was around 30 and sported the complete small-time gangster uniform: slippers with slacks, wide collar, gold chain, betel nut. He spoke Mandarin like a character out of a martial arts movie, and he told me -- I still have no idea why -- that he knew of a stash of buried Japanese gold; it was worth more than NT$1 billion; and only he knew where it was. All he needed to dig it out, he said, was the government's permission. I assumed he was just a harmless whacko, and I let him talk. When it was almost dark, he got on his scooter and drove down the hill and back into oblivion.

Located about 36km up the coastal highway from Tali is Keelung, northern Taiwan's largest port. On March 4 of this year, the Keelung City Government applied to Taiwan's central government for funds to survey and possibly excavate an old Japanese hilltop fort. The application cited a legend that 5,000kg of gold are buried underneath the base, and according to the city, this cache of gold would be worth over NT$1 billion -- if it exists.

Pure coincidence?

The coincidence of these two stories, when I remarked on it, was enough to make Keelung City Government Civil Affairs Bureau Traditional Culture and Ceremonies Section Chief Lin Chen-hsing (林振興) raise his eyebrows. And that was it. To him it might as well have been another UFO sighting, or more precisely, another person who knew about the legend of the Tawulun Battery's (大武崙) buried treasure.

The sole source of the Tawulun legend is this: In 1984, a man surnamed Chen applied to the Ministry of Defense, which then administered the Tawulun fort, to dig up a stash of gold buried under the Tawulun Battery by Japanese soldiers fleeing at the end of World War II. Chen claimed that the source of his own information originated with some unnamed source in Japan. The bureaucratic channels for treasure hunting applications run through the Ministry of Economic Affairs' State Assets Department, which administers Taiwan's buried treasure bylaw, formally and fully known as the Regulations Governing Applications for Excavation and Retrieval of Buried or Sunken State Assets (March 27, 1970). As application rules demand disclosure of the treasure's type, amount, value and location, Chen revealed the figures of 5,000kg of gold and NT$1 billion.

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