I remember my first hours in Taiwan. When I arrived at Taoyuan Airport I went to buy a sim card for my phone, and then a ticket to Taipei Main Station. It was 5 pm, the sky was cloudy, and the weather hot and humid (at that time it was shocking to me that the weather could be like that in November). A bus driver shouted at me in Chinese, asking me where I was going. Then he pointed at an old bus. Hoping that my Chinese pronunciation - which I tested for the first time - had not betrayed me, I boarded the bus, and so began my adventure.
I still recall the excitement and nervousness of those moments. I looked outside the bus window, trying to see as much as possible as we drove through the outskirts of Taipei and entered the city. I couldn't believe that I was really in Asia, so far away from Europe, in a country where everyone spoke Chinese and where I was truly a foreigner.
Around two hours later - the bus was quite slow and there was a lot of traffic - the electronic display finally announced that the next stop was Taipei Main Station. I was relieved; the journey had felt so long, and I had begun to worry that I might have taken the wrong line.
For you, too, Taipei Main Station is likely to be the place in Taipei City where your feet will touch the ground for the first time, and the area around the station is the one that will give you the first impressions of the Taiwanese capital.
In retrospect, I guess that a part of me was disappointed. I had thought Taipei would either be an ultramodern, shiny global city with glittering facades and skyscrapers, like Hong Kong; or a traditional, old city with a lot of historic buildings. What I saw was a actually in between; neither ultramodern nor traditional, it had a rather 1970s-1980s-style look. There was only one skyscraper, and Taipei Main Station itself looked quite unprepossessing: a large, light brown square structure with a Chinese-style reddish roof, a mix of old and modern architecture.
|Taipei Main Station|
As many other placesin Taipei, the area around the main station has an invisible history behind it. History must be learnt, guessed, discovered. What previous generation built, the next generations tore down, in a process of constant renewal that has cancelled many traces of the island's rich history. In some respects, Taipei reminds me of Berlin, another city where the past can often be seen only in old photographs.
Taipei Main Station is yet another of those buildings with a long, but invisible history. And this history began more than a hundred years ago, when Taipei was the capital of China's Taiwan Province.
Liu Mingchuan and Taiwan's First Railway System
During the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, Taiwan was at the forefront of the conflict, and the French even tried to invade the island. However, they were repelled by an able Chinese administrator, Liu Mingchuan (1836–1896).
Liu Mingchuan was a Qing loyalist, but he was also a moderniser close to the circle of late Qing reformers such as Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofen. In 1885, he was appointed first governor of Taiwan Province (which had previously been just a prefecture of Fujian Province). Liu believed that modernising Taiwan's infrastructure and defence was the key to making the island safe from foreign aggression. He embarked on a period of great modernisation that made Taiwan the technologically most advanced province of the Empire.
Among other things, Liu had built the very first railway system in the whole of China, which connected Taipei with Keelung and Hsinchu. Liu did not build the railway station inside Taipei walled city, but in Dadaocheng (大稻埕; pinyin: Dàdàochéng). Dadaocheng was outside of Taipei city walls, but today it is an integral part of Taipei City. In those days the small town along the Danshui River was an important centre of commerce, and therefore it was chosen as the location for the first railway station. The building was a plain Western-style two-storey house. The station remained in use until 1901, and in 1908 the Japanese tore it down (note, and Zhuang Zhanpeng et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou. Taipei 2000, p. 126).
|Dadaocheng Railway Station.|
The Japanese Era (1895-1945)
The Japanese administration decided to build a station close to the northern section of the former Taipei City Walls and the North Gate. The location of the new station was just opposite the West Exit of present-day Taipei Main Station, and it signalled the strategic importance of the Qing Dynasty City Walls in the planning of the new Japanese colonial capital. From the old train station, which is now a paved pedestrian area with benches, one could walk directly to National Taiwan Museum along present-day Guanqian Road. the entire area looked very different from today, and there were representative buildings such as the Railway Hotel (臺灣鐵道飯店), on present-day Zhongxiao West Road, where now the Mitsukoshi Tower stands. The Hotel was destroyed during Allied Bombings in WWII (Zhuang 2000, p. 124).
|Taiwan Railway Hotel|
The new train station was built in 1901 in neoclassical Renaissance style, and remained in use until the end of the 1930s, when it was again demolished. A new building was erected in 1941, this time in a functionalist modern style. This last building survived until very recently; it was demolished only in 1981.
|The station built by the Japanese in 1901, demolished in the 1930s|
|And the one built in 1941|
In the 1980s, when Taiwan had already established itself as a major global economy, the Taipei administration began a series of projects to improve and modernise Taipei's urban traffic and its railway connections with other cities. First, within the framework of the Taipei Railway Underground Project aimed at shifting railway transport from the surface to underground levels in order to improve traffic as well as the city's appearance, the first underground network was built under the current station. The construction of the Taipei Metro System followed, with the inauguration of the first line in 1997. And in 2007, the High Speed Rail System was launched.
The new Taipei Main station, which was completed in 1989 in a sort of neoclassical-modernist Chinese style, became a major hub for all the aforementioned projects. While the exterior has remained basically the same since 1989, the interior and the underground levels are constantly upgraded. Apart from the expansion of the transport networks, in recent years many shops, restaurants and cafes have been opened. One major restructuring was made during my first visit to Taiwan, at the end of 2011, when the ground floor was renovated and many new shops were opened.