Monday, April 11, 2011

A park honoring a Japanese engineer (Taiwan Business Topics)

The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, left their imprint in every corner of the island. Taiwan's people have mixed feelings about the colonial period. Japanese rule was often harsh, and the economy was organized to meet Japan's requirements and benefit Japanese enterprises. Nevertheless, during the colonial era Taiwan enjoyed rapid development and social stability.

Of individual Japanese fondly remembered for their contributions to Taiwan, none are revered more highly than Yoichi Hatta (1886—1942), a civil engineer. By unlocking the agricultural potential of southwestern Taiwan, Hatta helped feed four generations of Taiwanese.

Hatta's achievements have been the subject of numerous Chinese- and Japanese-language articles and books. His life story inspired a feature-length cartoon – Yoichi Hatta: The Father of the Chianan Canal, released in 2009.

Tourists interested in Hatta and his legacy will soon have a new place to visit. To honor the man and highlight his contributions, the Siraya National Scenic Area has established the Yoichi Hatta Memorial Park. Anyone interested in the lifestyles and architecture of 1920s Japan will enjoy the park, which is expected to become one of the national scenic area's leading attractions.

Around US$300,000 has been spent on the 3.9-hectare park, but more important than the budget are the care and attention lavished on the project. Scholars and historical organizations in both Taiwan and Japan were consulted during the design phase, as were Hatta's descendants, to ensure every aspect is historically accurate.

The centerpiece of the park – which is located less than a kilometer from Wushantou Dam, the landmark with which Hatta is synonymous – is the house where he lived with his wife and eight children.

All four of the Japanese-style wooden bungalows on the site, including the former Hatta residence, have been faithfully renovated using traditional materials. The beams are cypress, an especially fragrant wood which the Japanese call hinoki. Some of the internal partitions are paper, while others are wattle and daub (lattices of bamboo smeared with a mix of soil and rice husks).

The furniture and furnishings inside the buildings [pictured lower left] are either genuine heirlooms from the 1920s and 1930s, or articles chosen and arranged to match the mood of the period. In front of the house is a new bronze statue of Mrs. Hatta, who also showed a great love for Taiwan.

Elsewhere in the park there is a service center and an exhibition hall where visitors can watch multimedia shows about Hatta, his work, and the Chianan Plain. In addition, the tennis court laid out for the use of Hatta's colleagues has been recreated. Hatta was loved by his workers because he took good care of them; he built a school and a hospital, and organized sport events and entertainment.

Within just a few years of graduating from Tokyo Imperial University, Hatta had proved his capabilities while working on water-supply projects in the north of Taiwan. In 1920 he was assigned to a remote site about 30km from the ancient city of Tainan. At that time it was a sunbaked and malarial flatland, prone to both floods and droughts.

Japan was then suffering from food shortages, and Hatta's job was to create from scratch a reservoir and a network of irrigation canals that could transform this unproductive, hardscrabble landscape into rich agricultural land.

That he succeeded is obvious to 21st century visitors driving across the Chianan Plain (so called because it accounts for much of Chiayi County and Tainan Special Municipality). Scenes of bucolic prosperity greet the visitor. Rice – then as now a staple food in Taiwan and Japan – is grown in large quantities, as is corn, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes.

When Hatta arrived, the region lacked roads, so he ordered the laying of a branch railroad that could bring in building materials and heavy machinery. Some solutions were low-tech, however. To compact soil for the laying of foundations, herds of water buffalo were used to trample it down.

Over the course of a decade, Hatta supervised the construction of a number of tunnels (one being three kilometers long), plus several thousand kilometers of canals [pictured lower right], channels and ditches to carry water to fields. Central to the project was the 1,273-meter-long, 66-meter-high rock-filled barrage now known as Wushantou Dam. In terms both of size and technical complexity, the dam is a watershed in the history of civil engineering. Nothing like it had been attempted before in Asia, and it literally changed the face of a good part of southern Taiwan.

In recent years, a coalition of academics, farmers’ associations and civic groups have campaigned to have the entire irrigation system added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The 1,300-hectare reservoir is fed by more than 30 streams, and its nickname, Coral Lake, is inspired by its shape. With numerous peninsulas and inlets, in aerial photos it does indeed resemble a piece of blue-green coral.

In addition to irrigating 100,000 hectares of farmland, the waters of Coral Lake generate hydroelectric power. The surrounding trees, bamboo and thick foliage make the lake an especially good place for camping, barbecues and nature rambles.

In 1931, local people showed their gratitude to Hatta by commissioning a bronze statue of the engineer [pictured top left]. It can be seen inside the Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area, atop a hillock shaded by camphor and beefwood trees.

The statue itself is rather unusual because of a condition set by Hatta when he reluctantly agreed to pose for it. He said it should not be stiffly formal nor idealized, but rather an accurate depiction of how he looked when working – sitting on the ground, scratching his head with his right hand and gazing wistfully into the distance, as if pondering an especially difficult engineering problem.

When Taiwan returned to Chinese rule in 1945 at the end of a long and brutal war, many symbols and relics of the Japanese colonial era were done away with. Sympathetic locals removed the statue, fearing the new government would order it to be destroyed. Kept hidden until 1981, it was then restored to its original place. These days, visitors will often see fresh flowers in front of the statue – further evidence of the high esteem in which Hatta is still held.

Nearby stands the Hatta Memorial Museum, a one-room exhibition hall filled with fascinating photographs; some show Hatta with his family, while others chart the construction of the dam. In one corner, some of Hatta's clothes have been preserved for posterity.

Yoichi Hatta Memorial Park will be open to the public every day, and admission will be free, at least for the initial period. Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area is open from 6am to 6pm daily, and admission is NT$200 per person (parking extra).

This is an advertorial I wrote (paid for by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau) that appeared in Taiwan Business Topics, the monthly magazine published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Researching and writing it was much more interesting than many jobs of that kind, so I'm posting the whole text here.

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