Jinguashi and Shifen

Two Excellent Places for History Tours, Featuring Museums with Myriad Treasures to Explore
Most of us are constantly at the beck and call of bleeping cellphones and crashing laptops. Taiwan, in particular, is synonymous with high-tech gadgets and rapid economic development, yet we seldom pause to think about how quickly things have changed. Our recent trip to a couple of mining museums, where we saw firsthand how miners lived just a generation ago, put the past century of the island's history into better perspective.

By Catherine Thomas/Alice Davis

Head to the Gold Ecological Park in Jinguashi, easily accessible by direct bus or train/bus from Taipei City, and 21st-century life will fast be far behind you. Snuggled into a hillside on Taiwan's blustery north coast, the town of Jinguashi is eminently charming, memorable not least for the world's largest statue of Guan Gong, the God of War, a god known to help in the making of money. A little further up the valley, the Gold Ecological Park awaits.

The park's landscaped grounds are beautiful, even in the driving rain. We're met by our guide for the visit, Verna, who explains that the purpose of the park, which opened in 2004, is to preserve the gold-mining heritage and natural surroundings of the area, with community involvement with the park actively encouraged. Excellent translations around the site make this a particularly tourist-friendly destination.

Verna tells us that gold was discovered in the area in 1889, causing a prospecting rush. Six years later Japan took control of Taiwan, and its gold. The Japanese built mines, and Jinguashi became a booming mining town.

The first thing we do is get a feel for how the Japanese who managed the mines lived. Four elegant Japanese residences not far from the park's entrance area have been dismantled and then rebuilt to the original specifications. Inside the first house, there's a short subtitled documentary on how this work was carried out. The other houses are authentically furnished to reflect different periods from the time of the original Japanese occupants to when Taiwanese lived there in the 1970s.

The smell of tatami mats, the period newspapers, the eight-track player, and the pre-war glass "grenade-style" fire extinguisher bring history to life. Perfectly preserved details like this around the park set it apart from

At the same time, the park has no fear of today's more advanced technology and has made excellent use of it as an educational medium; yet it is delicately, not obtrusively, incorporated into your experience. Inside the Gold Refining Building, an animated film is projected 180 degrees around the audience, evoking the atmosphere of the heady days of gold prospecting.

"Mr. Refiner's Story" features a nostalgic ghost who describes what it was like to live and work there in days gone by. The animation is alternately beautiful and terrifying, an amusing, romantic, sad, fascinating presentation on the highs and lows of mining life.

The Environmental Education Building also occupies an original building from the Japanese period. Videos, models, and interactive multimedia teach visitors about the local topography, geology, and ecology. It's a perfect introduction to the scenic hiking trails nearby.

Next, a tunnel gives us insight into what it might have been like below ground. On entering we're given a hard hat to put on, and pass a sign forbidding women, whistling, and mentioning snakes. As we walk through the damp, atmospheric interior, audio tracks enliven the life-size models of miners at work.

The Gold Building houses an informative exhibit which nicely rounds off our visit, summarizing the history of the local mines and the cultural importance of gold. Miners' possessions are on display - working permits, tools - and there's information about the WW II Allied prisoners of war who toiled under the Japanese, forced to work with meager rations in the cruelest conditions.

You can't put a more climactic end on a stroll around a gold museum than this: to touch, no, to caress, the world's largest gold ingot. Weighing in at 220.3 kilograms, it's a huge hunk of solid gold. Weigh yourself and see what proportion of the gold bar is equivalent to your own body mass! Even the least materialistic will be impressed, and inspired to try the hands-on gold-panning experience next door.

Down in Jinguashi town, Mr. Zhang A-hui, a sprightly 85-year-old retiree, is kind enough to tell us about his many years working at the mines. His home is a museum exhibit in itself, with pictures of the area dating back to the 1940s. Zhang began working in the mines when he left school, aged 15, in Japanese colonial times. He enjoyed his work repairing and maintaining the modern machinery with which the Japanese had equipped the mines, and rapidly rose to the position of supervisor.

Seeing Zhang's photographs and hearing him speak passionately and vividly of the past, city life seems a million miles away. He speaks fondly of the learning culture fostered by the Japanese, with bilingual textbooks freely available to employees (with the notable exception of those books which detailed how to actually refine the raw materials into gold!) and a good wage and rice ration. As a young man, he saw the undernourished POWs who were made to work in the most dangerous mines. Many decades later he met some of these same men when they returned to Taiwan, and has photos of them all at the nearby POW memorial that was erected in their honor in 1997.B

The smell of tatami mats, the period newspapers, the eight-track player, and the pre-war glass "grenade-style" fire extinguisher bring history to life

In the year that gathering took place in Jinguashi, coal miners in Shifen (about 15 km southwest of Jinguashi) faced the closure of their pits. The Coal Mine Museum, which is within walking distance of Shifen Railway Station, pays tribute to their labor.

In the 1960s, there were 500 active mining companies in Taiwan. Thousands made their living in the sweltering, cramped tunnels. They worked seven-hour days in the dark, wet, and dusty mines, their labor powering Taiwan's power stations. By the turn of the century, the local mining industry had collapsed after cheap imports flooded the market. Were it not for the dedication of mining enthusiasts, this world would have been entirely swept away.

Coal mining in Taiwan was a hard business, with coal seams just 40-60 centimeters thick - as opposed to Australia's seams of around 30 meters - meaning miners had to stoop to mine the coal. On our tour we experience how cramped the conditions were in the recreated tunnel. Hunched over, we clamber through only with difficulty. The tunnel is very slippery, so wear sensible shoes!

The Sky Lantern Room contains maps of Taiwan's coal belt, and black-and-white photographs of miners, but it should be noted that there's little in the way of English translation. We don coal miners' clothes and smear coal dust on our faces for a memorable snap.

Another tunnel offers the opportunity to see how the mine shafts were built, and appreciate the sheer mass of the one-ton carts that just two or three workers pushed along the shafts. The adjoining display room houses some period equipment and a few models.

The original bathhouse somewhat resembles a hot spring with its two large, sunken stone tubs. The water was heated using coal from the mine. The first tub was used to rinse off the sweat and grime, and the second offered a soothing bath to ease the muscles after an arduous shift.

The highlight of the museum is the tram ride. The tram jostles past a cornucopia of foliage and veggie patches, following the original tracks to where the coal was tipped and sorted. The ride is highly enjoyable in the winter drizzle, but must be quite spectacular when the tung trees blossom heavily along the route each May.

We experience how cramped the conditions were in the recreated tunnel. Hunched over, we clamber through only with difficulty Visitors flock to the museum for the April firefly season to enjoy a guided tour, ride the train in the evening when fireflies can be seen, complete a Do-It-Yourself craft project, and eat a simple lunchbox for the bargain price of NT$350. During this season the museum stays open until 10 pm. A visit here can be nicely followed with a trip to the Gold Ecological Park in Jinguashi, or can be combined with a trip to the nearby valley town of Pingxi, or with mountain hiking and a stop at scenic Shifen Waterfall.

Back at the museum after our tram outing, we paint a sky lantern - one of the selection of craft activities that visitors can take part in - and let it float off into the night sky, dark as coal and studded with golden stars. As we drive back to Taipei along the snaking mountain roads, mile by mile "returning" to modern civilization, our phones spring back into life, bleeping us back into the here and now.

Environmental Education Building 環境館
Gold Building 黃金館
Gold Refining Building 煉金樓
Guan Gong 關公
Jinguashi 金瓜石
Pingxi 平溪
Shifen 十分
Shifen Waterfall 十分瀑布
Sky Lantern Room 天燈室

Gold Ecological Park (黃金博物館區)

Add: 8 Jinguang Rd., Jinguashi, Ruifang District, New Taipei City (新北市瑞芳區金瓜石金光路8號)

Tel: (02) 2496-2800

Website: www.gep.tpc.gov.tw

Coal Mine Museum

Add: 5 Dingliao Zi, Xinliao Village, Pingxi District, New Taipei City

Tel: (02) 2495-8680

Website: www.coalmine.com.tw