History's milestones

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 2005, 12:00am

In a central Taipei park, two sets of historical objects testify to an island with a long and complex history. First, two steam locomotives stand proudly on display in a recently renovated showcase of glass and iron.

One was made in England in 1871 and immediately shipped to Japan, which was then industrialising on all fronts. For 23 years, it ran the route between Tokyo and Yokohama. When the Japanese were ceded Taiwan in 1895, they sent the locomotive here, where it became Taiwan Railway Locomotive No9 (there were already eight other steam engines running on the island).

The first of those eight engines to be imported stands beside No9. It was made in Hohenzollern, Germany, in 1887, and was brought to Taiwan to use in building the Taipei-Keelung railway, the island's first. It remained in use for 36 years.

The Taipei-Keelung route mirrored exactly the one from Tokyo to Yokohama. Both were vital connecting links from a capital to its nearest deep-sea port. Today, by inserting a small coin into a slot, you can see both engines light up and hear appropriate steam-engine sounds and a few minutes' commentary.

Fifty yards away stand stone artefacts made in Taiwan in the Chi-Lin, or megalithic, era between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. These astonishing objects always take my breath away. One is a large stone coffin about a quarter of the size of one of the steam engines. It is big enough to hold a human body of about 175cm in height, and once had six massive protrusions, three on each side, as handles for the bearers.

Nearby are three stone wheels, rough-hewn discs, the largest almost a metre across. They are only nominally circular, and must have provided a bumpy ride. The holes in the middle, though, are regular and smooth, suggesting these wheels were long used, and therefore reasonably effective.

Most awe-inspiring of all, however, are seven headless human figures, each around a metre high. Three of them have deeply cut grooves at both front and back. The grooves were likely for wooden heads to be slotted into.

These would perhaps have been elaborately carved, painted and possibly costumed, and the completed assemblage a gorgeous and terrifying god-figure.

But because wood decays over the years, especially in Taiwan's hot and humid climate, and stone does not, only these massive rock artefacts have survived, to perplex and fascinate passers-by on sunny Taipei afternoons. Taiwan's ages of stone, religion and steam have come and gone, in turn. Whatever the future holds is unclear, but it is useful and interesting to reflect on milestones from the past.



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