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James W. Davidson’s "The Island of Formosa" and Liu Mingchuan’s Modernisation of Taiwan

While I was writing my last post about Taipei Main Station and preparing the next one about Taipei Post Office, I realised it is impossible to talk about Taipei’s modern infrastructure without some background knowledge of the modernisation efforts of the last two decades of Qing rule in Taiwan. Those decades seem to us so far away, both because little of what was built then still exists, and because in the meantime many things have happened which have changed Taiwan profoundly. However, they are an integral part of the island’s complex history.

Luckily, some books written in those crucial decades can help bring back an era that has almost sunk into oblivion. One of them is The Island of Formosa, Past and Present, by James Wheeler Davidson (1872 – 1933). The book, published in 1903, is a fascinating account of the history, economy and society of Taiwan, as seen through the eyes of a writer who lived in the country during the transition from Chinese to Japanese rule.

J.W. Davidson was a traveller, writer and explorer. He was born in Austin, Minnesota, on June 14, 1872, and he attended the Northwestern Military Academy. In 1893, the renowned American explorer Robert Peary chose Davidson to be the youngest of eight members of the second Peary Expedition, whose aim was to find the passage to the North Pole through the Northern Greenland icecap (see: Robert Lampard: Making New Friends – James Wheeler Davidson and Rotary International. In: Alberta History , Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer 2004).


In 1895 Davidson left the United States for the Far East. He was interested in Japan, then a rising Asian power, and he decided to try his fortune as a war correspondent in East Asia. He moved to Japan at a critical juncture in the history of the continent. In fact, that year the Sino-Japanese War broke out. The chief of the Herald Tribune’s Far East bureau informed Davidson that a military conflict might happen in Taiwan. Davidson therefore went to Taipei, where he was the only Western journalist to witness the events that would forever change the fate of Taiwan.


J.W. Davidson

After the peace treaty between China and Japan was signed and Taiwan was ceded to Japan, the governor of Taiwan Province, Tang Jingsong (唐景崧; simplified Chinese: 唐景嵩; pinyin: Táng Jǐngsōng, 1841–1903) proclaimed the short-lived Republic of Taiwan and became its first and last president. Japanese troops soon began their invasion of the island. The governor, contrary to his bold slogans of anti-Japanese resistance, is said to have disguised himself and bribed his own guards in order to flee Taiwan and return to mainland China. The Chinese troops mutinied. They looted and rioted for days, causing great devastation to the country they were supposed to defend (ibid.).

On June 6th, when the Japanese were marching towards Taipei, Davidson, together with an Englishman and a German, left the city, went over to the Japanese camp, and helped the Japanese enter Taipei without firing a single shot. For the help they gave to the Japanese army, in December 1895 the three foreigners received the 5th Class of the Order of the Rising Sun by Japan’s Emperor (ibid.).


As the only war correspondent in Taiwan, Davidson had the privileged position of a journalist who befriended the invading troops and followed them on their southward march of occupation. As his fame grew, the US government offered him the post of “consul agent in Formosa”. He lived in Taiwan until 1903, studying the history and culture of the island. Afterwards he was sent to Manchuria, and in 1904 he became the commercial attache and acting consulate general in Shanghai.


The following excerpt from Davidson’s The Island of Formosa tells the story of the most progressive Chinese governor of Taiwan Province, Liu Mingchuan. This account, written only a few years after the Japanese conquest of the island, at a time when the memory of the Qing era was still fresh, and much of the architecture and infrastructure built under the Qing government still existed, offers an interesting insight into Liu’s attempt at modernising Taiwan and the mixed results it obtained.

***

Liu Mingchuan

Liu Ming-chuan, whatever else may be said against him, must be acknowledged to have been an intelligent, liberal- minded, progressive person, with none of the conceit and bigotry characteristic of the usual Chinese officials … [During his governorship] Formosa became known as the most progressive province of the whole empire … The strengthening of the island’s defences was prominent in Liu’s mind, and the construction of modern forts of the best designs, to be provided with heavy modern guns, Armstrongs and Krupps, was at once begun. 

The temporary capital of the new province was placed at Taipehfu [=Taipei]. No sooner had this been decided upon than the city began to assume a new appearance, reflecting the energetic spirit of the governor. In 1885, the work of reconstruction commenced. A substantial wall was built to surround the city, streets were rearranged and paved with stone. A capacious yamen [government office] was constructed and the streets lit with electricity; this, we believe, being the first instance of the official adoption of electricity in any part of the empire. It was later found, however, that the system was too expensive, and, with the exception of the yamen, which continued to be thus illuminated, the lights were withdrawn. 



Seat of Taiwan’s Governor General, photographed in 1901. It was later demolished by the Japanese to build present-day Zhongshan Hall.

Outside of the city and in Twantutia [=Dadaocheng; 大稻埕; pinyin: Dàdàochéng; Wade–Giles: Ta-tao-ch’eng; Davidson spelled it this way probably because the Hoklo name of Dadaocheng is Tōa-tiū-tiâⁿ]; several streets were paved, and in 1888 Governor Liu introduced jinrikishas, the new roads having been constructed with this in view, by laying down in each street some two or three sets of parallel tracks constructed of long slabs of stone a foot wide, placed end to end. In between these tracks the streets were paved with cobble stones. That the jinrikishas might be well established the governor ran them at his own expense for some time, and then turned them over to the coolies. 

Equal attention was given by this phenomenal Chinese official to inland communication. A cable steamer, the Feichen, was purchased; and, in October, 1887, the laying of a cable from Anping to Dome Bay in the Pescadores was completed. While this was of little importance to the commercial world, there being scarcely any trade between Formosa and the Pescadores, it was of great value from a political standpoint, the strategical importance of the islands demanding that they should be in communication with the capital. 

West Gate (Ximen), built in 1882, and demolished by the Japanese in 1905.

Of greater interest to those having business in the island was the construction of the line between Tainanfu [=Tainan] and Taipehfu, which was completed in March, 1888. This, together with the line previously constructed between Takow [Kaohsiung] and Tainanfu, united the north and south. Of still greater benefit, both commercially and politically, was the construction of a cable line from Tamsui to Sharp Peak at the mouth of the Min river in Fokien [=Fujian], also completed in 1888, thus joining Formosa to the world’s telegraphic system. The service in Formosa was placed under the superintendence of Emanuel Hansen, a Danish expert.

If the reader is acquainted with affairs in China and has noted the extremely conservative tendencies of the mandarins and “fengshui” worshipping literati, he will no doubt observe with some surprise the progressive spirit exhibited by Liu Ming-chuan. Although no railway had yet been constructed by officials in the whole Empire of China, governor Liu decided that Formosa should have one. Aware that one of the great obstacles to the commercial development of the island was the lack of harbors. Governor Liu’s attention was devoted to the forming of some practicable plan which might lessen the disadvantages. Kelung [Keelung] was the only harbor in the island available for the largest ships, and it was the governor’s idea that, by improving the harbor and constructing a railway from north to south, he could convert Kelung into the shipping port, to the great advantage of commerce and peace: for it was anticipated that, with the railway to afford rapid transport, the inhabitants of Formosa could be better controlled. 

To obtain Imperial sanction to the undertaking, Governor Liu represented to the authorities that, if the capital was removed into the interior as they had recommended, it would be necessary, as there were no roads, to construct a railway from the new capital to one of the coast ports, preferably Kelung in the north. This proposition met with some opposition in Peking, but eventually Imperial approbation was obtained.

A train station completed in 1891 under Liu Mingchuan’s governorship. It was located in Dadaocheng, which at that time was outside of Taipei Walled City but close enough to serve as the city’s train station.  

Early in March. 1887, the work was commenced, and to quiet antiforeign critics the governor himself gave evidence of his interest in the enterprise by accompanying a German engineer, Mr. Becker, and personally supervising the marking out of the first four miles. The headquarters of the railway were established at Twatutia and the work was commenced at that point. This city stands in a plain which extends some seven miles towards Kelung, is nearly level, and consists of rice fields traversed by numerous irrigation streams. Consequently, the first few miles presented no difficulties other than the construction of many small bridges and culverts.

Foreign engineers were employed to peg out the line, and soldiers were distributed along the route as fast as the work was ready: the task of directing the labor being assigned to the officers in command. A 3 feet 6 inch gauge was adopted and 36 lb. steel rails used. The maximum gradient was 1 in 30 and curves of 5 chains minimum radius were permitted. As there is much talk of railway construction in China at the present day, the details of the Formosan work here given may prove of interest and value. 

The foreigners worked under great disadvantages. They were without authority over the soldier laborers and their officers. The line as surveyed by them was frequently diverted, and the pegs which they had placed were often pulled up by the soldiers to be utilized as firewood. The level road bed and a minimum of curves was not recognized by the workmen as of much necessity ; they gave the preference to their own eye rather than to the instruments, and were altogether inclined to go forward with the road much as if they were constructing a Chinese footpath through the savage district [the settlements of the aborigines].

Furthermore, the Chinese superintendents were very easily bribed. For a small compensation they would introduce alarming curves to avoid some grave in which the payee was interested. The course of the line was also dependent upon the amounts paid by the owners of rice fields. It is stated that the Chinese in charge frequently diverted the line out of its intended direction towards the property or grave of some rich farmer with the intention of inducing that individual to come forward with liberal bribes, whereupon the line would, according to their assertion, be changed. All this naturally annoyed the foreign engineers, and frequent complaints were made by them to the governor. But as that official had no other method of redress than through his generals, the bad work continued, as the officers were inclined to support their own officials and themselves rather than the foreigners. So intolerable was this that there were as many as five changes made in the head engineer. Owing to these obstructions, the line progressed so slowly that, in the spring of 1889, only eleven miles, commencing at Twatutia, had been completed. Regular traffic was then opened over this section …

In October, 1891, the road was completed to Kelung, and regular train-service was commenced on the 20 miles to Twatutia, the engines being driven by English engineers … 

From Twatutia the line runs to the south. The first work of construction was to bridge the Tamsui river. The river had to be crossed at Twatutia, where it is about a quarter of a mile wide, although during the freshets it attains to much greater width. An iron bridge was on that account proposed by the engineers as the most serviceable. But the expense of this discredited it in the eyes of the Chinese directors, and accordingly a wooden bridge was erected ( 1889) by a Cantonese contractor.

At the north end an iron swinging span centered in a masonry pier was erected, giving a clear passage of 23 feet. This was worked by hand and was opened at intervals every day to permit junks and large river boats to pass through. The bridge was 1,498 feet long, divided into 46 spans besides the draw.  From the bridge the line ran over nearly level ground for some seven miles. It then ascended to a tableland on a maximum gradient of 1 in 30.

The work progressed very slowly, and the line contained many unnecessary curves and heavy grades. In 1891, the line was opened for 20 miles southward, and by the end of 1893 it had been completed for the 20 additional miles to Hsin chu (Teck chain) when regular train-service was instituted over the whole 60 miles. Among the several foreigners who had been employed during the work of construction, W. Watson, C.E., held the position of chief engineer and H. Mitchell as locomotive superintendent, while H. C. Matheson, C.F., who had arrived in the island to fill the position of superintendent of the coal mines, became in 1887 consulting engineer of the railway.

Although the railway had been surveyed to the south of the island terminating at Takow and some of the material from the abortive Woosung railway was shipped to the south, no portion of the line south of Hsin-chu was constructed. It seems that the progressive schemes of Governor Liu were not looked upon with favor in Peking.

The high officials, perhaps not without reason, feared that if Kelung were converted into a fine harbor with wharfs, docks, and godowns, and with steam communication with the interior and extensive coal mines at hand, it would be a temptation too strong for ambitious countries on the lookout for coaling stations to withstand. Accordingly, nothing more was done at Kelung, so that instead of its becoming the great shipping port which had been anticipated, even the old trade dropped off year by year.

The railway became a mere passenger line, the service not being sufficiently reliable to be entrusted with freight. The government collieries were now closed, and frequently months elapsed without the appearance of a single foreign vessel. A big white building of the usual style of foreign architecture was the ghostly remnant of the last foreign firm long since gone. As time went on, matters grew worse and worse, until, in 1894, two Custom House officers, the only foreigners in Kelung, wearily spent their days in enforced idleness, watching for the smoke of a foreign steamer. Kelung was dead! It might have dropped off the island completely without causing the least inconvenience to any one save the pitiably poverty-stricken natives who lived in their squalid huts in the tumble-down village.
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