Highways and Byways: Come rain or shine

Tainan’s 121-year-old weather observatory and other must-see historical attractions

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Fri, Dec 06, 2019 - Page 13

In many parts of the world, ignorance of the weather causes nothing worse than discomfort or inconvenience. In Taiwan, which is regularly battered by typhoons, and where in the past droughts sometimes pushed communities to the brink of starvation, not knowing what’s going to happen in the sky can be fatal.

The Japanese understood this when they took control of Taiwan in 1895, so they rapidly established weather-monitoring outposts in Taipei, Tainan, Hengchun and the Penghu Islands. By 1945, there were 24 manned weather stations around the colony.

The only first-generation weather station still standing is the one in Tainan. Sometimes called the Former Tainan Weather Observatory (原台南測候所), it was built in 1898. It’s probably the oldest surviving Japanese-era government building in Taiwan.

The station was located at what’s now the southern end of Gongyuan Road (公園路) — a spot known for the better part of 400 years as Vulture Ridge (鷲嶺) — because it’s the highest point of land within the old boundaries of Tainan. No neighborhood in Taiwan offers a greater concentration of historical attractions. Right across the road, there’s the Maxwell Memorial Church (太平境馬雅各紀念教會), built in 1954 and named for James Laidlaw Maxwell, a British missionary of the Presbyterian Church.

This former weather station is a highly distinctive 18-sided, single-story building topped by a round white tower which gives it a total height of 11.6 meters. It’s easy to see why some locals refer to it as “the pepper pot.” The roof tiles are dark gray. The walls, which have been sandblasted clean in recent years, are mainly red brick.

To the north, there’s an inoffensive apartment building with a bank on its ground floor. The tiled edifice to the south is the Central Weather Bureau’s (CWB) Southern Regional Center (中央氣象局臺灣南區氣象中心). It’s open to the public from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday; admission is free. Exhibitions aimed at local school-children occupy the first, third and fifth floors. These cover phenomena such as mirages, rainbows and storms. Because the CWB is also Taiwan’s seismological agency, a substantial bilingual section is devoted to the earthquake that killed 117 people in Tainan on February 6, 2016.

When you step inside the modern building, one of the first things you see is a panel showing current conditions at that very location. At the time of my visit, the temperature was 24.1 degrees Celsius (not unusual in the south at the end of fall), and the wind was coming from the southeast at a speed of 1.6m/second. The humidity was 64 percent; air pressure was 1001.1 millibars.

History buffs will devote most of their time to the interior and exterior of the “pepper pot.” The doorway facing Gongyuan Road has been sealed; you need to enter and exit through the western doorway. If seeing inside really matters to you, be warned that while it’s open between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday, weekend openings are restricted to the third Saturday of every month.

At the very center of the “pepper pot” a steep iron stairway (off-limits to the public) accesses the tower, which in the days of yore contained various weather instruments. Around the stairwell there’s a narrow corridor and seven rooms, none of them particularly big. One served as the station chief’s office; another contained seismological equipment.

Some of the old seismographs are on display, as is a British-made barometer. There’s also a list of every person who commanded the weather station. Of the 13 Japanese officials who held the post during the colonial period, four did the job for less than a year.

The first non-Japanese chief, Cheng Sung-ling (鄭松齡), was appointed in November 1945. He served until mid-1988, an impressive 43 years. I’ve not been able to discover anything about him. Was he a Taiwanese who’d served alongside Japanese climatologists and experienced rapid promotion when the latter were expelled after World War II? Or a Mainlander brought over by the KMT? How old was he when he first sat behind the chief’s desk?

Two of the trees by the main road are rosy trumpet trees (Tabebuia rosea). They flower in March and April, and their purplish-pinkish blossoms attract a great many photographers.

A stately but badly listing Ficus retusa tree shades the grass to the west of the old weather station. On the other side of a low wall, there’s a Japanese-style garden that forms part of Ying Liaoli (鶯料理).

As the Chinese name implies (liaoli means cuisine), this was once the site of a fine-dining establishment. During the colonial period, the Hukuisu Restaurant was said to offer the best Japanese food in Tainan.

After 1945, it became a dormitory for teachers working at National Tainan First Senior High School (臺南一中). Over the next several decades, it slowly fell into complete dilapidation. What stands here today isn’t so much a restoration as a reconstruction. Inside there are some interesting artifacts, furnishings, and old photos, plus a pretty thorough introduction in Chinese, English and Japanese.

Ying Liaoli is open from 1pm to 9pm between Tuesday and Friday, and from 10am to 9pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Inside, there’s a cafe which sells hot and cold beverages, craft beers and snacks — but, surprisingly, nothing that’s distinctly Japanese.