The real threat of Taiwan being pared off by Japan, the U.S. or a European power helped finally turn Beijing's attention to island affairs in the 1870s. The military beefed up coastal defenses, installed and maintained strategic pathways (including Batongguan, 八通關越嶺道), and raised lighthouses to bolster China's claim to active sovereignty and give potential occupiers pause for thought before committing troops. Attention to the island spiked again after the Sino-French War (1883-85), when the island was granted provincial status (Taiwan had previously been governed as part of Fujian Province). The capital was moved from sunny Tainan to soggy Taipei and one of the Empire's first commercial rail lines was installed to link the deepwater port of Keelung to Taipei (Banka, 艋舺) and Hsinchu.
In the end, it was all a case of too little, too late. The island's status as a relatively recent acquisition, its physical separation from the Chinese Mainland, its proximity to Japan and the disintegration of central authority across much of China made Taiwan too tempting a prize in the aftermath of a war fought far to the north.
The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)
In the closing years of the 19th century, Northeast Asia's crumbling status quo pushed Korea, ancient vassal and ally of China, to the center of regional rivalries. Japan wanted control of the strategically positioned peninsula and saw in either a collapse or rejuvenation of China the inevitable transformation of Korea into a forward base for unfriendly powers. On the one hand, China's collapse could very well consign the peninsula to Russia, Japan's main strategic rival in Northeast Asia. On the other, China's rejuvenation would surely reinforce the prejudices of Confucian Korea against Japan - a nation "slavishly" adopting alien Western values. Japan initiated hostilities to pull the kingdom, preemptively, into its political orbit.
Albeit brief and decisively one-sided, the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭) holds claim to several "firsts". It was the first modern conflict between Asian powers and the first time the latest in maritime weaponry – the ironclad battleship – had a central role in combat. It was also Japan's first test as an ascendant power in the Pacific.
The war represented a calamitous setback to China's efforts to limit to a handful of coastal districts foreign influence in her country. Ten years later, much of eastern China was open to trade and travel; Beijing had been sacked by an army of eight allied countries; and foreign powers had taken formal control of five new enclaves along China's seaboard as well as prime real estate in the northeast.
Positioned on the southern flank of the Ryukyu Islands (琉球, Loo-Choo Islands [see map here], which Japan had annexed less than two decades before), Taiwan was coveted by expansion-minded Japanese as both a protective buffer for the home islands and a projection of imperial ambitions in Asia. China, its imperial capital exposed and Northern Fleet at the bottom of the Yellow Sea, could offer little resistance to Japan's peace terms, which, among other demands, included the surrender of Taiwan and the Penghu (Pescadore) Islands. The Treaty of Shimonoseki was ratified on 8 May 1895, and China left Taiwan to its fate under Japanese occupation. The handover ceremony, originally scheduled to take place in Taipei, was actually convened in choppy waters off Bitoujiao (Punto San Diego) – Qing officials fearing reprisals from Taiwanese loyalists should the ceremony take place on land.
Largely unaware of the scale of their country's military defeat; sure of the difficulties Japan would have in occupying Taiwan; and hopeful that Japan's European rivals might step up to the island's defense, local Qing officials (to the apparent annoyance of the imperial court) and prominent Taiwanese made a hasty declaration of Taiwan independence -- 15 days after Treaty ratification and 6 days prior to the arrival of Japan's occupation force. Likely reflecting the sentiments of the island's ethnic Chinese majority, which had not previously contemplated separation from China, the president of the newly declared Republic of Formosa (台灣民主國), Tang Jingsong (唐景崧), professed the island's continuing loyalty to the Qing throne and subordinacy to China as a tributary state.
Placer (alluvial) gold was discovered near the end of the 1880s in Keelung River (基隆河) sediment near Nuan Nuan (暖暖), at the eastern terminus of sampan routes traversing the Taipei Basin. One account attributes the discovery to a Cantonese member of a railway construction crew who had previously panned for gold in California and saw something enticingly familiar glinting in mud scooped from the river. The find sparked a gold rush that for several heady years saw the Keelung River bank done over in a motley hodgepodge of prospector tents and shanties.
While many came to work the riverbed, others prospected in the wilderness upstream, hoping to reach the font of Keelung's golden sands. Strikes were first made around the source of the Keelung River in the rugged hills around Jiufen, a settlement overlooking the sea once so remote and sparsely populated that its name (九份 - literally "Nine Portions") was conferred by merchants sailing the coast to designate the number of provision bundles they could expect to sell there. In 1893, less than two years before Japan took control of the island, a large strike was made beyond Jiufen, in the hills below Teapot Peak (茶壺山). Prospectors flooded in and, taking note of the unusual shape of a rocky outcropping, named the district Jin-gua-shih (金瓜石, "Pumpkin Rock").
By the 1890s, rights to mine beneath Jiufen had been licensed to several families, who divvied up and further subleased their holdings to the flood of hopeful prospectors. As a result, dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of small shafts were dug and worked in and around the town. Jiufen, like all mining towns, enjoyed its raucous boom days and, once the gold gave out, slid into melancholy bust.
The town was ready to crumble into obscurity when film director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) chose Jiufen's steep alleyways and fading façades as the backdrop for his 1989 film City of Sadness (悲情城市, see movie trailer here). Its place in Taiwan's history thus confirmed, Jiufen joined the pantheon of Taiwan's modern historical landmarks and is today a congested weekend tourist trap chock full of eateries, teahouses and souvenir shops.
The newer and richer mines at Jinguashi followed a somewhat different fate. After 1895, Japan consolidated and then nationalized mining operations at Kinkaseki (the Japanese pronunciation of Jinguashi). Mountains of earth were, literally, "moved" and the land was torn apart to reach and follow subterranean mineral veins. Copper was discovered in 1933 and, by the 1940s, Kinkaseki was producing more copper than any other mine in the Japanese Empire.
Nearly 600 British and Commonwealth soldiers taken prisoner during the 1942 fall of Malaysia and Singapore were shipped to Kinkaseki and interned at the most infamous of Japan's 15 POW camps on Taiwan. The more than 1,100 prisoners held at the Kinkaseki camp between 1942 and 1945 worked as slave labor in the mines and endured the harshest of conditions. Cave-ins, injury, disease, malnutrition and executions made Kinkaseki one of the worst of Japan's POW camps. Fewer than 100 of the Allied prisoners held at Kinkaseki are believed to have survived to war's end.
With the end of the Second World War, Jinguashi mines reopened under ROC government management. However, increasing tunnel depths and engineering difficulties gradually made the mine uneconomical ... and operations shut down for good in 1971.
Today, Dongsha is administered by Taiwan's Coast Guard (海巡署), which oversaw an overdue about-face change in policy toward the atoll. Those now stationed on the island by and large observe a ban on all resource harvesting (fishing, crabbing, souvenir hunting, etc.) and sup only on food and drink shipped in from Kaohsiung. I learned that even swimming is against the rules for those stationed there (at least strongly frowned upon). A main objective of the Coast Guard on this southern outpost of the ROC, beyond upholding Taiwan sovereignty in the area, is protecting the coral reefs from further destruction. This is pursued primarily by shooing away the fishing boats (mostly from China and Vietnam) that move in unfailingly after nightfall in hopes of working Dongsha reefs. The Coast Guard has a difficult, often thankless task that is made exponentially more difficult by Taiwan's extemporized international standing.
Dongsha Island and its reef appear, finally, to have a chance to recover. White coral sand beaches are now clear (pretty much) of razor wire and the more obvious defensive fortifications have been cleared away or allowed to crumble. Illicit reef destruction by fishermen and rising / warming waters now pose the greatest threats. One of the Hainan shellfish divers related that nearby waters are much warmer than in years past and large swathes of coral have turned black. Shellfish catches apparently aren't what they used to be either.
I remain in awe of Dongsha's tropical beauty and isolated tranquility. We had free reign of the island while there, and I took full advantage of the week in paradise - walking the beaches, sitting patiently by sand crab hovels awaiting an appearance, taking pictures and enjoying sunsets. The Pratas seems in good hands with the Taiwan Coast Guard, which seems as eager as anybody to make sure the atoll has time and space to recover.
I hope that the National Park, when declared, continues to focus on conservation, with just enough tourism allowed to win for the reef broader appreciation and respect as a natural heritage site worthy of greater regional and international protection. The international community should also take advantage of Taiwan's willingness to protect and preserve Dongsha's isolation to the benefit of the entire Southeast Asia ecosystem.
Special thanks to those on the Pratas who helped turn a week-long stay into memories sure to last a lifetime.
This past spring, I had the good fortune to accompany one of Taiwan's best documentary film directors (now producer of CTV (中國電視公司)'s long-running, one-of-a-kind TV documentary, Discovering China [大陸尋奇]) and production crew to Dongsha Atoll (東沙群島, aka Pratas Atoll), one of Taiwan's two holdings in the South China Sea (南中國海).
Although Dongsha remains off limits to the casual visitor, being part of the documentary team gave me a reason to be there and a seat on the 1 1/2 hour, once-a-week flight from Kaohsiung City.
Director Su (蘇志宗) was shooting material for a documentary on the Pratas scheduled for release in conjunction with a declaration of Dongsha Atoll and surrounding waters as Taiwan's 7th National Park. The DVD was released this summer. The National Park, I believe, is still in the works.
Dongsha Islet, the only part of the Atoll to break surface waters, is one of a number of islands along and around the China coast that has been garrisoned by the ROC military since the Nationalist (KMT) government, under Chiang Kai-shek, executed its "strategic withdrawal" from the Chinese mainland in 1948/49. China's new communist leaders lacked a navy to challenge ROC sovereignty offshore, and by the time they had acquired one faced other priorities (the Cold War, détente, maintaining the "status quo" in Cross-Strait relations) that set ambitions to "liberate" these scattered island outposts on the back burner.
Sovereignty over Dongsha Atoll is today "disputed" only in the sense that the reef is claimed by both China and Taiwan. As China claims sovereignty over all of Taiwan anyway, Beijing appears content to acknowledge Taiwan's authority over Dongsha pending eventual "resolution" of Taiwan's own political status.
The situation on Taiping Island (太平島, aka Itu Aba), Taiwan's other significant South China Sea property - further to the south, is much more complicated. Located at the center of the "sea of oil" imagined to underlie the area, Taiping Island and its reefs are contested by Vietnam and the Philippines ... as well as by China.
(part two to follow soon)
Indigo, one of civilization's oldest dyes, has tinted the robes of Egyptian pharaohs and brightened the clothing of both Chinese peasant and American farmhand (think Levis jeans). Before cotton was "King", indigo was one of the U.S. Deep South's most important cash crops.
Recognition: Naturalized hill indigo today grows in northern Taiwan along mountain streams well-shaded by forest canopy. Patches can be found throughout Keelung, eastern and northern Taipei County, and Yangmingshan National Park (and probably other parts of Taiwan too). As hill indigo is not indigenous to the island, significant tracts typically signal areas of previous commercial cultivation. Look for signs of terracing and pits where the dye would have been bleached from leaves.
The herbaceous plant grows to over one meter in height and produces delicate lavender-white flowers during winter (December/January). Its fleshy leaves are serrated and grow to about 11cm in length. Leaves emerge in opposing pairs from the main stem, with leaf pairs alternating at right angles to one another (in a repeating "cross" formation) up the stem.