With director Ang Lee (李安) as special guest and National Geographic documenting the occasion, the majestic Taiwan Cheng Kung set sail to great fanfare 11 years ago.
At 29.5m long with a 28m tall mainmast, the 300-tonne vessel is the nation’s only full-scale replica of a ship used by Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga) during the late 1600s.
Unfortunately, that was its first and last voyage. A mast broke and a legal battle began between the Tainan City Government and the ship’s builders over the vessel’s fate.
The Taiwan Cheng Kung in 2019 became a seaside tourist attraction — giving the government at least something in return for the NT$120 million (US$4.28 million) it spent to construct it — but after a termite infestation led to the removal of the mainmast last week, Democratic Progressive Party Tainan City Councilor Lee Chi-wei (李啟維) said that it might be better if “we picked an auspicious day and burned it in memory of Koxinga.”
This drew the ire of cultural and historical advocates. The ship certainly should not be torched, but Lee Chi-wei’s frustration is understandable, as the ship has become a huge burden.
It was embarrassing enough that the ship was damaged before it could embark on the journeys planned for it, but the debacle worsened when it took eight months to tow it back to shore, and then it languished in a harbor for the next eight years.
With the lawsuits ongoing, the city spent NT$16 million restoring the vessel and building the 1661 Taiwan Ship Exhibition Park in Tainan’s Anping District (安平), which was probably the best thing it could do given the situation.
The museum appears to be popular, judging from the number of selfies posted online with the ship, but the misfortunes did not stop.
As the Taiwan Cheng Kung is a replica of a historical object, funding for repairs from the central government is limited, further restricting the city’s options. It plans to do away with the mainmast — which is a hazard — and reinforce the rest of the ship, which will cost more money and leave a crippled replica missing one of its prime features.
No wonder Lee Chi-wei wants it burned.
Nevertheless, the ship still has historical and educational value, and it is one of a kind, despite its imperfections. The city government should work with experts to determine the best and most cost-efficient way to move forward while preventing the vessel from deteriorating further.
Most importantly, the replica should be used as a lesson on the results of poor planning and attempts to be splashy without the work to back it up.
Reportedly, the city originally planned to construct the ship only for display purposes, but decided mid-construction to make it seaworthy.
The Tainan Citizen Thinktank said that “not enough research was done on the building process for such a vessel.” Other critics warned of the high costs and low returns of hiring a crew to run the ship.
This is not the only such colossal waste of public funds in Taiwan, as “mosquito halls” can be found all over the nation — highly touted, flashy construction projects that end up virtually abandoned.
While the Taiwan Cheng Kung was once a “mosquito hall” due to the accident and lawsuits, it still has considerable value, so the city should plan its next steps carefully.
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