Sun, Apr 23, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Putting down rifles for pickaxes

The majority of workers who perished during construction of Taiwan’s first cross-island highway were military veterans, who comprised more than half of the entire workforce

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Workers on Central Cross-Island Highway smashed through rock with only dynamite and pickaxes because the terrain was inaccessible by machinery.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

April 24 to April 30

Civil engineer Chin Heng (靳珩) was inspecting the construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway in October 1957 when he was struck by a rock. Along with an unfinished bridge and several crew members, he fell into the gorge below. About five months later, five workers were buried in a landslide caused by blasting the rock with dynamite. And in July 1958, a typhoon flooded a construction site, killing dozens.

It was a momentous task cutting through Taiwan’s central mountain range, with about 5,000 people working with only dynamite and pickaxes. The terrain was not accessible by machinery and most of the work was done by hand.

Huang Chao-chung (黃肇中) writes in Travels in the Central Mountain Range: Inspecting the Cross-Island Highway (中央山脈之旅:橫貫公路複勘散記), a book detailing his experiences as part of the initial survey crew, that there were few transportation options on the east coast at the time. A railroad connected Hualien and Taitung, but it was frequently closed due to floods. The only road connecting the area to the west was the Suhua Highway (蘇花公路), which was a narrow, one-way road frequently closed due to bad weather. There were flights from Taichung to Hualien, but Huang says that a road was needed to service the points in between.

In addition to economic and military benefits, Huang also saw tourism opportunities for Taroko Gorge, which had been inaccessible since the end of World War II due to landslides and neglect of roads built during Japanese colonial rule.


The process took almost four years, and by the time construction wrapped up on April 25, 1960, the official death toll stood at 212. A bridge was named in Chin’s honor, but not much is known about his life — except that like the five men in the other report, he came to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after the Chinese Civil War.

In fact, more than half of the roughly 10,000 laborers who worked on the highway were KMT military veterans. The workforce was bolstered by soldiers, civilians, military and regular criminals, unemployed young men as well as students undergoing military training.

Chin Shang-teh (金尚德) writes in his book One Hundred Years on the Liwu River (百年立霧溪) that military veterans were assigned to the most dangerous areas of the project and suffered the majority of the casualties.

Documents from the Martial Law era state that the veterans were more than happy to sacrifice themselves and perform such a dangerous task for the sake of the country. A 1972 government publication describes how a group of veterans were willing to forfeit their pay because they knew that the project was experiencing financial difficulties.

“They are able to channel their determination to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield and perform at the highest efficiency,” it says.

In a 1956 article, the Central Daily News details the workers’ “carefree and happy” lives living on the construction site. They sing, drink and dance, and one falls in love with an Aboriginal woman.

“They’re not only used to life here, they’ve grown to love it,” the article says. “Many turned down other job offers just to remain here. There’s a lot of freedom, and the work is meaningful. Nobody is forced to work; they rest and leave whenever they want. But nobody is willing to leave.”

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