The Taipei Post Office is located in Zhongxiao West Road, just a few minutes walk from Taipei Main Station, and opposite lightly to the left of the North Gate.
Immersed in Taipei’s concrete jungle, the post office can be easily overlooked by first-time visitors. Unfortunately, this destiny is shared by many buildings of that area, which during the Qing Dynasty constituted Taipei Walled City, and under Japanese rule was the centre of the colonial capital.
|The facade of Taipei Post Office
Postal Services During the Qing Dynasty
As I have explained in an earlier post about Qing Dynasty Taipei, Taiwan did not have any major geopolitical relevance for the Qing Court in Beijing until the middle of the 19th century, when foreign powers threatened China’s coastal areas and forced the country to open up its markets to Western commerce. Faced with the menace posed by the barbarians, the imperial government understood that it couldn’t afford to neglect frontier areas, because their weakness would make them an easy prey for invaders.
Taiwan was one of those regions of the Empire that foreigners craved. It experienced rapid development in the 18th century. The island’s economy grew thanks to the export of its agricultural produce such as tea, camphor and sugar. The penetration of Western merchants and the opening up of China forced upon it by foreign powers favoured the expansion and globalisation of Taiwan’s trade.
The population increase, the shifting migration to the north and the urbanisation of the island reflected its patterns of economic development. While in 1811 Taiwan’s population stood at around 2 million, with 70% of them living in the south, by 1893 the population had reached around 2,6 million and 30% of them lived in Taipei Prefecture.
In fact, the northern part of the island was developing fast and attracting more Han immigrants from southern Taiwan as well as from the mainland. The reason is that trade in the north was flourishing, and the port of Danshui, which was one of the several Treaty Ports opened up to Western commerce, became a major trade hub.
The originally small settlement of Dadaocheng developed into a thriving trading town thanks to its proximity to both Taipei Walled City and the Danshui river. By the end of the 19th century Dadaocheng had reached a population of 31, 533 inhabitants, thus surpassing the older city of Mengjia (Bangka), which had around 24 thousand (see: Robert Gardella: From Treaty Ports to Provincial Status, 1860-1894. In: Murray A. Rubinstein [edit.]: Taiwan – A New History 2007, chapter 7). Dadaocheng also had a considerable foreign community and several foreign consulates and trading houses*.
It is not a coincidence that both the first train station and the first post office in Taiwan were built in Dadaocheng, and not in Taipei Walled City. Unfortunately, neither of these buildings has survived.
Taiwan became a battlefield during the Sino-French War, and it was only thanks to the able leadership of Liu Mingchuan, the governor of Fujian Province (to which Taiwan belonged) that the island was saved. Recognising that Taiwan’s loss would be a major blow to the Empire, the Qing court sought to strengthen and modernise Taiwan, and in 1885 the island was granted the status of a province. Liu Mingchuan became the first governor of Taiwan, and he put his efforts into modernising it.
Before 1885, the only state-run postal service that existed in Taiwan – just like its counterpart on the mainland – was used exclusively to forward official governmental documents. The postal service for government officials was called Pudi (舖遞). Those who held no official posts – that is, the great majority of the population – had to send their mail privately.
In the 14th year of the Emperor Guangxu (1888), Liu Mingchuan established the “Central Post Office” (郵政總局, pinyin: Yóuzhèng Zǒngjú), the first modern postal system of the country; he also issued postage stamps and opened 13 post offices. For the first time, the state created an official universal system for mail delivery that compared favourably with the postal services of Western countries. It was also by far the most advanced in the whole of the Qing Empire (Zhuang Zhanpeng et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou. Taipei 2000, pp. 48-49). As I mentioned above, the first post office was not opened in Taipei Walled City, but in the neighbouring town of Dadaocheng.
The first post office inside Taipei Walled City was built in 1892, and it was a single-storey wooden building near Taipei North Gate, approximately where the present-day post office stands. However, in 1913 the building was destroyed by a fire (note.).
The Japanese Colonial Era
|This picture shows Taipei North Gate (left) and Taipei Post Office (right) during the Japanese colonial era
In 1895 the Japanese invaded Taiwan. In order to secure communication with the mother country, 20 “Field Post Offices” were set up, the nucleus of the new Japanese postal service. Until 1896, the post could only be used by Japanese, then it was opened to Taiwanese, as well (Zhuang 2000, p. 49).
|The Post Office during the Japanese era. You can see the portico which has been removed after WWII.
In 1926, the Japanese started to construct the new Post Office in its current location. It was completed in 1930, but it wasn’t exactly like the one we see today. If you compare a picture from the Japanese era to one taken recently, you can see that the old portico has disappeared, and that the building now has one more floor. This is because in the 1960s and 70s the Post Office underwent major renovation works to expande it and simplify the exterior, taking away some of the charm of the old structure.
Because of blogspot’s limited capacity to visualise pictures on mobile devices, I have uploaded more pictures of the post office and the surrounding area on my Facebook page.
* James W. Davidson, who lived in Taiwan from 1895 to 1903, describes the foreign community in the town of Dadaocheng prior to the arrival of the Japanese thus:
The residences of the foreign community of Twatutia (=Dadaocheng), with two exceptions, were either on or near the bund of the Tamsui river. At the time we write of, the hong of Jardine, Matheson & Co., which was represented by Mr. C. H. Best and Mr. M. Woodley, was the last foreign building, surrounded by a nest of Chinese shanties, and in the most dangerous situation of all. The next building towards the south and up river was occupied by Dr. C. Merz, the German consul.
In the next block was the Twatutia Foreign Club, and at the north end of the third blook the hongs of Boyd & Co. represented by Messrs. A. Gardiner and G. M. T. Thomson, and Tait & Co. by Messrs. R. H. Bruce and E. H. Low. Two streets back of the Foreign Club was the hong of Brown cY Co with no representative, and two blocks to the south was the hong of Lapraik, Cass & Co. represented by Messrs. Francis Cass, Francis Ashtoo, and B. N. Jenkins; while Captain Shubrick, commander of the English marines was there as a guest.
On one street forward was the office of Reuter, Brockelmann & Co. and the residence of their representative, Mr. R. N. Ohly, where, thanks to his kind hospitality, I was at this time residing. In the next block to the south resided Mr. E. Hansen, electrical engineer. Back from the river one block was the hong of A. Butler & Co. aud the residence of Mr. J. B. Siebenman, while several blocks to the south back from the river and near the Arsenal was the residence of Count A Butler, where Lieutenant Timme, in command of the German marines, was staying as a guest.