Japan's lighthouse legacy lives on in Taiwan

by Ko Shu-Ling


In the summer of 1867, the American merchant vessel Rover, sailing north from southern China’s Guangdong Province, lost its way during a storm, drifted into waters off the southern coast of Taiwan, struck a reef, and sank.

While the captain and crew of the ship managed to reach shore alive, all were subsequently killed by local aborigines.

Four years later, sailors of the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Prefecture) met a similar fate, surviving a wreck off the same coast only to be massacred after they came ashore.

Following the second incident, China, which then ruled Taiwan, came under pressure to take steps to protect shipping in the increasingly busy waters around the island.

Lacking the necessary knowhow, Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) officials hired a British architect to build a lighthouse on the Hengchun Peninsula at the extreme southern tip of Taiwan, looking over the treacherous Bashi Channel, to warn approaching mariners of the dangers ahead.

The Cape Eluanbi lighthouse — Taiwan’s one and only fortified lighthouse and one of the few examples of such a structure in the world — was completed in 1883, followed by two more also built with British help, which satisfied China’s critics and undoubtedly saved many lives.

But that was not the end of Taiwan’s lighthouse history. Today, there are 36 on Taiwan and its surrounding islands, nearly all built after the Qing projects.

Serious lighthouse construction began in Taiwan in 1895 when it became a colony of Japan.

Unlike China, which was preoccupied with troubles at home and treated Taiwan as little more than an administrative nuisance, Japan saw the island as a cornerstone of its budding empire in the western Pacific.

For this reason, Japanese engineers immediately began to modernize domestic infrastructure such as railroads and irrigation systems. They also expanded facilities that would open Taiwan to the world: ports, harbors and steamship lines to enable the movement of goods and people between the new colony and Japan.

To protect this shipping, the Japanese built 18 lighthouses during their 50-year rule.

The importance of these lighthouses is suggested by how quickly they appeared, with the first two completed in 1896, one year after Japan took over, at Capes Fuguei and Bitou on the north coast.

After that, a new lighthouse was constructed on average every 2½ years, including another on the north coast east of the first two at Cape Sandiao following two devastating shipwrecks in the area.

The last Japanese lighthouse in Taiwan was built on Green Island off the southeast coast in 1939.

Unlike the Chinese, who relied on foreigners, the Japanese developed their own technology and expertise. To save time, lighthouses were made of wood or cast iron, which in many cases was replaced later with brick or concrete.

Japanese firms also produced their own lamps and rotating lenses. After many years of using wood, charcoal, and marine oil, they began to use kerosene, gas and electricity to light their lamps.

To operate their lighthouses, the Japanese civil service recruited and trained young men, first from Japan and later from Taiwan itself.

Manning such facilities required dedication, vigilance and the ability to bear long months of isolation in remote locations.

While none survive from the Japanese colonial era, several lighthouse keepers from later years are still alive. Recruited in Shanghai by the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Chinese military just before it lost the civil war in 1949, Chu Tsung-kuang would not see his family for nearly 30 years. Now 94, Chu would eventually manage 14 lighthouses in and around Taiwan before retiring in the 1980s.

And some are still at it. Third-generation lighthouse keeper Bor Wen-fa has served 28 years at eight lighthouses, including his current post at a facility built by the Japanese in 1904 on Dongying Island in the Taiwan Strait.

After Japan’s departure in 1945, the island’s government continued building lighthouses on Taiwan and its possessions, nine in total, with the latest becoming operational last December on Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island in the South China Sea.

Over time, however, the role of lighthouses has changed.

While the Chinese and Japanese built lighthouses mainly as an aid to navigation, this function has been largely superseded by satellite tracking and global positioning systems.

Today, Taiwan’s lighthouses, old and new, are more likely to serve military purposes.

Lighthouse technology has also evolved, with fossil fuels replaced by solar power, and human operators by automated systems.

Clearly, the time has passed when lighthouses were wilderness outposts where lonely men battled the awesome forces of nature.

But if modern technology has robbed lighthouses of their romance, their public appeal has increased dramatically.

A new government agency, the Maritime Port Bureau, was established in 2012 to manage Taiwan’s lighthouses, which now collectively represent one of the largest tourist attractions in the country despite their out-of-the-way locations.

The Cape Eluanbi lighthouse, for example, attracted more than 1.6 million visitors last year, nearly as many as those who visited the famous Yangming Mountain in Taipei, which can easily be reached by public transit.

Drawn by their distinctive appearance and panoramic ocean views, people visit Taiwan’s lighthouses by bicycle, car, tour bus and boat.

They also take countless photographs, as any Internet search will show.

Noticing their popularity, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau launched a pilot program this summer encouraging people to visit lighthouses at the island’s extreme tips hoping to increase tourism revenues in the more remote and outlying areas of the country where they were built.

As for romance, one Google user suggested earlier this year that for some, lighthouses still serve as beacons of light, although a different kind than was originally intended.

Visiting the Cape Sandiao lighthouse last year, Jack Taipei wrote, “You will need to do some climbing, which is quite exhausting, but in the end, it is all worthwhile. I want to have my wedding pictures taken here.”