‘Imperial palace’ rail car conjures up memories of colonial rule of Taiwan



Memories of Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan were recently rekindled with the public display of a nearly century-old train carriage the late Emperor Showa traveled in while visiting here as crown prince.

The 17-meter-long carriage, which had long been locked away in a spacious Nankang factory of the Taiwan Railway Administration, was opened June 7 for three days of viewing by local and foreign visitors for the first time in decades.

Taiwan’s first north-south railway was completed in 1908, enabling Japanese officials to more effectively govern the island, then known as Formosa. It had been ceded to Japan in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War and Tokyo ruled it as a colony for 50 years.

Four years later, the carriage, constructed of teak and beech, rolled out of the factory, ready to serve as an “Imperial palace on the move.”

It was not the first luxurious saloon car to be produced here. Next to it sits a smaller carriage built in 1904 to take successive Japanese governors general of Taiwan around the island.

“The internal part of the first saloon car was decorated just like . . . the living rooms of those high officials and noble lords,” a senior TRA official said.

Even more deluxe than the earlier model, the inside of the carriage used by the then crown prince was divided into five rooms, each with electric lights and fans, window frames embellished with delicate chrysanthemum engravings and walls painted with imported drawings of butterflies and seasonal flowers.

There are decorative glass panels extending from the upper wall to the ceiling that were used for ventilation.

Lavatories with oval windows were equipped with European-styled sinks and flushing toilets, and all articles of movable furniture were covered with golden embroidered cloth that helped create an elegant and cozy atmosphere.

When the Emperor — known as Hirohito during his reign — made his first and only trip to the southern territory in mid-April 1923 as crown prince, the train carrying an emblem of a 16-petal chrysanthemum, the crest of the Imperial family, caused a stir among the local people.

“Monumental archways were erected in front of every station to greet Crown Prince Hirohito’s train, and all of the residents living in towns that Hirohito’s train would pass by were warned not to take a peek at it,” recorded the book titled “100 Years of Railways in Taiwan.”

The late Taiwanese Vice President Shieh Tung-min also described the scene vividly in his memoirs published in 1988, writing, “For the first time, Taiwan’s people were overwhelmed by a feeling of heavy pressure, which was caused by Hirohito’s overseas visit.”

Shieh, then a teenager, recalled with indignation that all those who might have physical contact with the future emperor, even remotely and indirectly, were forced to receive inoculations in order to prevent the transmission of disease.

Crown Prince Hirohito’s itinerary included a visit to Shieh’s school, “where he stayed only a few minutes to listen to young pupils singing Japan’s national anthem.”

In the wake of the unforgettable encounter, Shieh decided to leave to pursue his studies in mainland China instead of under Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan.

The crown prince arrived back in Japan in early May after his 12-day journey and never returned to Taiwan. It is said that after him, around 30 members of the Imperial family rode the train before Japan’s rule ended in 1945.

The Japanese legacy lived on even after the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan following its civil war defeat against the communists in 1949, with the late President Chiang Kai-shek using the railroad’s facilities when he toured the island.

Both carriages were retired quietly from decades of service as Chiang’s health deteriorated, and received little attention over the past 30 years. Chiang died in 1975.

In the sweltering storeroom, train enthusiasts and other curious visitors gazed through the carriage’s three-layer-thick windows at the opulence enjoyed by privileged figures of Japan and Taiwan, but they were not allowed to actually go inside.

Far away from the factory, along the island’s western corridor, construction of an advanced rail system will start in 2005.

This time, it is a high-speed rail system running with next-generation bullet trains — coincidentally a product made in Japan.