December 26, 2019
Wide sidewalks along Kaohsiung’s port area opened up to a much wider grassy space. In the distance, Ki and I could make out a thin crowd milling around old trains and gigantic train parts on the lawn. Our urban trek led us to Hamasen Railway Cultural Park, the site of the city’s first railway station preserved as Takao Railway Museum. If this were in my country, the space would have either been developed into a swanky complex of condos and malls or neglected to become a slum area. In Taiwan, even the heritage of public transportation merited such an expansive museum.
The outdoor exhibition drew out the train buff in me. The century-old tracks were still functional but now used to showcase preserved steam locomotives from the Japanese colonial era. Most prominent among them was the magnificent CT259, a passenger train of Taiwan Railway. It had been retired since the early 80s. This was one of only two black models in existence. The other was shorter, the CK58, parked nearby. Also built in Japan after the turn of the 20th century, it plied the mountain line. Although not environmentally friendly, the train must have looked cinematic as it traced the island’s Chungyang Range.
The erstwhile Kaohsiung Port Station became mainly a freight hub for diesel locomotives serving the heavily industrial city then. Hood units on display took us back to their heyday in the 70s. Since then, the road system had been developed leading to the railway station’s closure in 2008. Further back in history, it was hard to imagine that this field was a beach before the 1900s. The area had seen the changing phases and faces of Kaohsiung.
There were some installation art depicting train or rail parts, most interesting of which, especially to kids, was a train horn. They all evoked the time when the station was in full swing, which was from the roaring 20s to the swinging 60s.
We got to Hamasen Museum of Taiwan Railway across the park rather late. The museum occupied one the Penglai Warehouses of the Port of Kaohsiung. Warehouses for storing cargo from harbor to station back in the day had been repurposed into exhibition halls, the transfer platform into exhibition grounds. This revitalization of the former industrial area was a dynamic and interactive reminder for modern Kaohsiung residents of their city’s role in the country’s development. Ki and I decided to forego a visit to the indoor museum and enjoyed outdoor attractions. We got our kicks from watching adults cramped on a miniature train going around a grassy patch.
The other warehouses presently comprised part of Pier-2 Art Center. In an ironic twist, what used to be called Dagou Station or Dog Station was exhibiting the cat art of Shu Yamamoto. The Japanese artist specialized in recreating world-famous artworks and replacing the subjects with cats. Mona Lisa and the Milkmaid never looked so catty. I had seen many of the originals in my trip to Europe just half a year before. What a happy treat to be reacquainted with them, this time with feline faces.
Ki found an unlikely souvenir from Hamasen – a fragrant yellow flower growing by the sidewalk. He picked one and preserved the petals in a bottle. The aroma would last for at least a couple of years.
Soon, evening was upon us. The formerly grassy field had become a dark sea with streaks of light snaking from end to end. We approached closer to find the train tracks outfitted with LED lights. This landscape illumination project was appropriately called Hamaxing (xing being “star” in Chinese). Perhaps it meant that rail tracks lighted the way to national development. The flower and the “starry” surprise capped our visit in the most memorable way.
Train travel was not a thing of the past in Taiwan. It was not merely a museum piece. We circled back to Hamasen Light Rail Station of the Circular Line of Kaohsiung Rapid Transit System. Ki asked a staff if it was operational because the station was empty but fully lit up. We missed our chance to ride a tram in Morocco a few months back; we made up for it in Kaohsiung. Though the route was a roundabout way back to our hotel, we went for it for the experience. This modern light rail was at street level, similar to a tram, at Hamasen although it did go above ground down the line. We were the only passengers from this terminus before a few others got on in succeeding stations.
I could not help but compare. Taiwan, with just a third of the land area of my country’s main island, benefited from the efficiency and convenience of railway systems. They valued their train heritage enough to put up museums and exhibitions around it. Somehow the city, if not the entire country, had been freed from the tyranny of private cars. It was most likely the reason we never saw heavy road traffic in Kaohsiung. The ease and affordability of urban and cross-country travel was a point of envy for us.
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