25 Glorious Vintage Photos From Pre-Boom Taiwan

Today, we all know Taiwan as a Pacific powerhouse that provides the world with everything from PCs to basic metals to cameras.

But for decades after World War II, the country remained something of a backwater, having been founded by refugees from the Chinese Civil War who subsequently imposed defacto martial law for 40 years.

Public transit expert Leroy W. Demery Jr. journeyed to Taiwan in 1980 to examine how the country’s investments in its rail sector was progressing, and took photos of his visit. We’ve shown you Demery’s work from his visits to Asia previously.

These photos show the country in the early stages of its modernization and industrialisation campaign — no longer an obscure, undeveloped island, but still not quite the gleaming, skyscraper-boasting megalopolis we know today.  

Click here to see the photos —>
For hardcore Taiwan and/or public transit geeks, here is Leroy’s introduction to his photo set:

I arrived at Táibĕi airport from Hong Kong on 1980 July 18, a Friday afternoon. My primary interest was the then-new electrification of the (臺北 / 台北) Táibĕi – (高雄) Gāoxióng railway. Timetable information was scarce, but it appeared that I could circle the island and visit the Alishan Forestry Railway “over the weekend,” as we say.

According to my notes …

I traveled by train from Táibĕi to (臺南 / 台南) Táinán on 1980 July 18 (Friday). I continued to Gāoxióng that evening.

I traveled by overnight bus from Gāoxióng to (臺東 / 台东) Táidōng, arriving early on 1980 July 19 (Saturday). I continued by train to (花蓮 / 花莲) Huālián, then to Táibĕi.

(Part of the (北迴線 / 北迴线, Bĕihúi xiàn) North Link Line was new. It was opened in 1980 February.) 

I had circled the island…

On Saturday evening, 1980 June 19, I again departed Táibĕi by train. I arrived at (嘉義 / 嘉义) Jiāyì on Sunday morning, 1980 June 20. I traveled by train to 阿里山 Ālǐshān and back, then returned to Táibĕi. I departed for Seoul, Korea, on Monday, 1980 July 21.

Most of the railway system in Taiwan was built during the period of Japanese rule. There were many traces of this. Some were technical, such as the track gauge (1,067mm). Others were aesthetic, such as station architecture. Still others were cultural (!). I was very surprised to hear people referring to boxed meals, sold at railway stations and aboard trains, as “bento” (!!).

A man I met on the Alishan railway said, about the railway staff, “They are speaking Japanese” (!!!). (This I consider unlikely …) 

The Táibĕi – Gāoxióng railway electrification was carried out as part of a group of infrastructure projects called (十大建設 /十大建设), Shídàjiànshè”, “10 Major Construction Projects.”

The “10 Major Construction Projects” also included the Táibĕi – Gāoxióng express highway: (中山高速公路), Zhōngshān gāosù gōnglù, “Sun Yat-sen Expressway.”) This was opened in stages during 1974-1978, and provided strong competition for the railway. Electrification permitted travel time reductions and strengthened the railway’s competitive position. 

Steam traction moved a significant share of railway traffic in Taiwan through the end of the 1970s. The British magazine “Continental Railway Journal” (CRJ) – which I did not know about “back then” – published several reports.

At early 1977, about 25 per cent of local passengers, and about 33 per cent of all goods, were moved by steam locomotives. These were concentrated on the Western Line (西部幹線 / 西部干线, Xībù Gànxiàn).

The CRJ report stated that very little use of steam traction had been observed on the Yílán xiàn (宜蘭線 / 宜兰线, ) Táibĕi – (蘇澳 / 苏澳) Sūào, or the Píngdōng Line (屏東線 / 屏东线, Píngdōng xiàn), Gāoxióng – Píngdōng.

A subsequent CRJ report stated that, at 1979 January, use of steam traction declined rapidly as use of electric traction expanded. The end of steam was forecast officially for 1979 August. (This goal was not met.)

According to CRJ, visiting railway enthusiasts did not experience difficulty because of photography – except at “steam sheds” (locomotive maintenance facilities). At early 1977, all steam sheds were open to visitors – except the one at Jiāyì. A subsequent CRJ report stated that, at 1978, steam sheds were off limits to visitors, and adjacent storage tracks were off limits to visitors. According to this report, the steam shed at Jiāyì had a sign, in English (!), which read: “No admittance. No photographs.”

Today, Taiwan is a world beater in every category of development, with GDP per capita rivaling Germany's.

Source: IMF

It has its own stock exchange.

It hosts international fashion shows.

And runs a world-renowned film festival.

Basically, we're looking at a fully Westernized, industrial country.

But it wasn't always this way...

For most of the post-war period, Taiwan remained an economic backwater, relying mostly on exporting agricultural products.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

The turning point came in 1973, when the Kuomintang government established the Industrial Technology Research Institute to promote modernization.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

The following year, the country embarked on what it called the 10 Major Construction Projects.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

Over the next four years, the government spent $5 billion on transportation, nuclear plants, steel mills and ports.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

In 1979, the government founded an additional research centre, the Institute for Information Industry.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

Progress was disrupted in the early 80s following the 1979 oil shock and subsequent economic retrenchment in the U.S.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

These events caused Taiwan to prioritise its investments more carefully.

Source: Kai-Sun Kwong

Most of the selected products were in mechanical, IT and electronics sectors.

In 1980, the Hsinchu Science-Based Industrial Park was established on the model of Silicon Valley.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

In 1987, the government devolved its authority over foreign exchange.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

Also that year, Taiwan ended nearly 40 years of official martial law.

Source: New York Times

Import controls were eased and tariffs were dropped.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

From 1982 to 1989, a total of NT $50 billion was put in a pool of investment and lending funds.

Source: Kai-Sun Kwong

The story was not without bumps. Taiwan tried to develop its own competitive auto sector.

Source: Pan-Long Tsai

It ended up only partnering with Japanese giants. The country didn't have its own auto brand until this past decade.

Source: New York Times

By 1995, the bulk of government research funds were going into electronics and computers — the country we know today.

Source: Kai-Sun Kwong

They've come a long way.

More photos from Leroy Demery's journeys to Asia...

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