A Promise Land

Author/ Ming-hsun Hsie (The first curator of the museum)

The TRA Kaohsiung Port Station was finally re-opened as the “Takao Railway Museum” on October 24th, 2010, the anniversary of the full operation of the Taiwan Trunk Railway. Preserving and repurposing the station into a small railway museum means a lot for both city renewal and the cultural preservation of railroads. Kaohsiung Port Station, being the first train station of the city, is also the cradle of the contemporary civilization of Southern Taiwan. Takao Station, Kaohsiung Station—No matter what name it was called, the station was the gateway to this emerging city from 1900 to 1941. After 1941, Kaohsiung Station was moved to its location nowadays with the city’s expansion and the newly implemented city plan. Passenger trains of the West Coast Line were transferred to the new station, but the old one stills played an important role on freighting in the whole country. Kaohsiung Port Station was the biggest freight station in Taiwan until its close-down in 2008.

Even the freight station giant stood no chance against the rising tide of highway transportation. Heavy industries in south Kaohsiung shifting overseas and the expansion of city center only accelerated the downfall of the freighting business. Harbor Line, connecting Kaohsiung Port station with the yards around it, left over 50 level crossings in the city center. These level crossings brought inconvenience to the traffic, and thus became a thorn in local people’s side.

Jyu-Lan Ye, the acting mayor of Kaohsiung City in 2002, took the advantage of the Lantern Festival and built a wooden path on the railway bridge of the Harbor Line near Love River’s estuary. However, the government refused to take it down after the event ended, which stopped trains on the Harbor Line from circling the city. What’s worse, people started eyeing the corridor up and planned to build a bikeway or Light Rail on it, tearing the only loop line in Taiwan apart.

The most devastating blow to Kaohsiung Port Station was done by the construction of the MRT system around 2000. The 110-year-old station happened to be on the reserved location for Sizihwan Station, the terminal station for the MRT Orange Line. Therefore, the roundhouse, south signal box, cargo platform and station tracks were all demolished in the course of the construction; obviously, there was no way that they would be restored after the MRT started operating. Nevertheless, the real catastrophe for Kaohsiung Port station was the Linhai 2nd Road Renovation Project in 2008. The project aimed to have a 30-meter wide “planned road” cut through the core of the Kaohsiung Port Station. According to the city government, the project would make the Hamasen area more easily-accessible and granting it more parking spaces.

Few people knew such a project existed before being told. What was more surprising was that the whole Kaohsiung Port Station area was planned as business districts and residential areas in order to make more money through city renewal. We (Railway Cultural Society of Taiwan) tried many different ways to show our concern to the city government. After several meetings and site investigations, the city government still insisted on executing the project since the Construction and Planning Agency already approved the budget for the project. Even though the city government promised us that construction would be reversible and the roundhouse and its tracks would be kept, we were still disappointed at them. However, the incident also hastens the forming of “Takao Station Heritage Alliance” and “Central Line Heritage Railway Society” and started promoting the preservation of Taiwan Port Station from another aspect in 2009.

In the June of 2010, Zhe Shih, the director of the Cultural Affairs Bureau, invited the former convener and the successor of Takao Station Heritage Alliance, Ciou-Er Liu and Yu-Hsuan Li, and I to discuss the future and the cultural preservation of the station in his office. To be honest, I was a little bit rude that day for what they had done; The Lantern Festival Train in 1999, the Museums Project promoted by Director Charles Lin, the government’s promise of making the station a railway museum, and the devastating city plan that slipped through without citizens’ consent all appeared to be a total scam to me at that time. A sustainable cultural policy simply did not exist; it meant nothing compared with construction and urban planning projects.

From the experiences I had with the government, I did not expect the meeting to have any effect on the project. I rather talked with Director Shih about the vacuum tube set and model trains in front of us. To our surprise, the director has had a passion for model trains since childhood; he asked us to help them make a whole set of models of the entire station. Then I casually said, “if the station will be no more while the station master will be wasting time and money overseeing nothing, why not let the Cultural Affairs Bureau take over the station? We can turn the station into a small exhibition of railway culture and put the models in there.” We did not expect that Director Shih would take the advice seriously and act on it. He immediately contacted TRA to have everything sorted out while having the budget for the operating expense allocated by the Council for Cultural Affairs.

The “adoption” of the station was very complicated, and I honestly did not think that everything would be settled that fast. At that time, things were awkward between the city government and TRA because they could not reach a consensus on the city plan of the station area. It was awkward for TRA because they could have exploited the land and make money were if not for the regulations of urban planning projects; there was almost no profit for they had to plan roads, parks and cultural properties. On the other hand, the city government had to withstand the pressure from organizations like us and local people. All in all, this was why there was not a final version of the plan even though it was one of the five primary city renewal targets of Taiwan.

What was on my mind was that the earth in that area was not solid and the lands around were not developed enough to guarantee a fat profit. Building more houses there not only were pointless but also took away the rare open spaces in Hamasen and Yangchenpu; therefore, I always opposed the development being too intensive. In my opinion, we should give TRA the land right of other places like Qianzhen Yard and Kaohsiung Railway Workshop, where houses sell better and more easily. However, 90% of the lands around Qianzhen Yard belonged to Kaohsiung County, and only 10% belonged to the city; it would be difficult to ask them to cooperate with our city plan or transfer the land rights to us. Thankfully, the mergence of the city and the county made the project possible, and it seemed that everything was going in the right direction. The future was bright for the preservation of the station.

As a result, the Urban Development Bureau of Kaohsiung City Government flip-flopped on decision making and held a competition for the best city renewal plan of the cultural preservation of the station. They offered a top prize of 1 million NTD to encourage people, as individuals or as teams, to share their ideas on the development of the area. The best concept would even be used as the city planning guideline for this area.

“Takao Railway Museum” was opened on October 24th, 2010 under such political and cultural atmosphere. On the aspects of preserving, displaying and promoting railway culture, the museum achieved what other so-called railway museums in Taiwan did not by preserving the abandoned station, and exhibit everything as it was with high research value. I think the museum should present faithfully the heyday of TRA freight trains from the 60s and 70s. The museum should offer the visitors, tourists or locals alike, the atmosphere of the good old days. Consequently, there are no messy signs scattering around in our museum; we have museum guides, QR codes and even the objects and spaces themselves to tell the stories and history. So far, our strategy is proven to be successful, especially among foreign tourists. We once had a visitor from Japan who were deeply moved by our exhibit because it reminded him of the JNR Standard Stations from Shōwa Era.

Besides the exhibition, we initiated a railway archive. In the archive were books and reference materials of railway culture provided by Railway Cultural Society and researchers. We offer the most complete selection of research materials, including the Railway Gazette since 1951, and free Wi-Fi. To railway fans, nothing beats sitting at the wooden TRA desks studying all the information! We hope this archive will become the treasure trove for the cultural research of railways in Taiwan.

Our museum holds 1 to 2 “Railway Culture Seminars” every month. Experts from every field are invited to give speeches at our museum and interact with people who are interested in the topics. We have held two seminars so far and both were well-received. To date, we have had several organizations borrowing our indoor spaces and platforms to hold workshops or seminars. The museum will continue playing the promoting role of railway culture in the future; we will be actively engaging in the cultural affairs of our communities; including comprehensive community development and oral history lecture from people who lived here or worked at the station, or even those who took a boat ride here to serve in the military in Kinmen. We have also formed partnerships with Hamasen Cultural Society, Yangchenpu Cultural Society, Love RiverCultural Society, Tourist Guide Association, Gushan Presbyterian Church and Wude Hall in the hope of creating a window to learn more about the history of our community and our city.

Another goal of the museum is to use it as a pioneer project for other possible railway museums in Kaohsiung in the future. With this museum, we can collect and preserve railway cultural heritages and even cars. Up to this point, the Cultural Affairs Bureau has scheduled to move two steam locomotives to our museum for exhibition. Soon, people will be able to see two iconic locomotive giants—DT609 and CT251. We will recruit volunteers to help restore the old trains and we can further contribute to the preservation and exhibition of various kinds of freight engines that were once kept in Kaohsiung Railway Workshop. We hope that ten years later, we will have a railway museum of a larger scale that revolves around on freight engines.

Takao Railway Museum now assumes the important role of educating people and promoting the preservation of cultural heritage. Through our exhibitions and events, we expect people to recognize the cultural value of the museum instead of thinking that we should just build more houses in this area and make money out of them. There is still a long way to go before everyone will reach a consensus; we will need everyone to join hands on the path of cultural preservation.