Monday, January 17, 2011

Sweet reflections (Unity)

One crop has shaped Taiwan's rural landscape like no other: sugar. This commodity looms large in the island's economic history, having been grown on the island and shipped to overseas markets since the Dutch occupied the Tainan area in the 1600s.

Sugar production peaked at 1.4 million tonnes in 1939. At that time, around one-fifth of Taiwan's agricultural land was devoted to growing sugar cane. Refined sugar accounted for two thirds of Taiwan's exports in 1920, and four fifths in 1950. Jack Williams, a geography professor at Michigan State University in the United States writing in the 1970s, described sugar as “the sweetener in Taiwan's development.”

The industry has shrunk to a fraction of its former size because other countries are able to produce sugar more cheaply. The state-run Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC), which still has 4,000 employees and more than 50,000 hectares of land, has diversified into floriculture, biotechnology, animal husbandry, and tourism.

Many of the largest fields in south Taiwan used to be planted with cane, but it is the region's old sugar refineries to which visitors flock. Of the 42 sugar refineries TSC used to operate, all but four have been closed down. Several of the shuttered mills now enjoy a second existence as tourist attractions. These imposing complexes – some are over a century old – delight architecture aficionados and industrial-heritage buffs. Their surroundings please those who want fresh air and greenery, while the snacks and ice creams on offer keep kids happy.

Trainspotters are thrilled to see locomotives that used to haul cane from fields to mills. Until the 1990s, TSC operated its own rail network, with about 900km of 762mm-gauge track. Some branch lines carried paying passengers as well as cane. At places like Nantsing in Chiayi County [pictured below left] and Xinying in Tainan, TSC marshaling yards are full of rusting wagons.

One of the very few sugar trains still working can be found 15km west of Chiayi City, at what is now officially called Zhetang Culture Park, but which locals still refer to as Suantou Sugar Refinery. The refinery (pictured top left) started processing raw sugar in 1904, and was active until a decade ago. On weekends, tourists board the train and enjoy a short ride through the surrounding countryside.The main refinery building is open to the public, and each crusher, roller, pulping vat and boiler is labeled.

At the Tsung-yeh Arts and Cultural Center in Tainan, the atmosphere is one of creative refinement rather than brutal mechanization. Formerly the Madou Sugar Mill, this complex was established by a Japanese conglomerate during Japan's 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. Several buildings have been renovated – among them a Kyoto-style wooden guesthouse – and turned into art galleries and exhibition spaces.

The architecture at Shanhua Sugar Refinery, about 10km to the south, is not nearly so elegant, yet it does have a small museum overflowing with documents, tools and photographs from the industry's mid-2oth-century heyday.

Elsewhere in Tainan, a former sugar mill in Jiali has become the Siaolong Culture Park, a venue for festivals and exhibitions.

Perhaps the finest refinery complex in all of Taiwan is the one at Qiaotou, on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. Here you'll find lots of information about Taiwan’s sugar industry in both Chinese and English.

But for the main smokestack, those arriving at Qiaotou's elevated KMRT station won't get the impression they're arriving at an industrial landmark. In fact, it's leafier than most campuses. Among the buildings are workers’ dormitories and air-raid shelters, plus a small bilingual museum. The refinery ceased operations in 1999. The hundreds of banyan, camphor and mango trees, overgrown railway sidings, and surrounding fields (former cane plantations now lying fallow or afforested) mean butterflies thrive here in massive numbers. This fact is celebrated in the title and details of the 36m-long image that enlivens the interior of the KMRT station: Land of Sugar, Home of Butterflies.

Fields of cane can still be seen in Taiwan's southwest. Mature canes are more than 2m tall, and those on the edge of a plantation need to be buttressed so they don’t get flattened by strong gusts of wind. As you would expect, the delicacies sold in and around former refineries appeal to those with a sweet tooth. TSC-brand ice lollies are especially worth trying.

For a thoroughly authentic experience, find a roadside cane vendor, and watch as he hacks off the bark with a machete and then chops each cane into sections. Do as the locals do: Buy a bag of chopped cane, chew the sticks until all the juice has come out, then spit out the fiber. Alternatively, buy a bottle of fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice.

This article appeared in the January issue of Unity, UNI Air's inflight magazine.

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