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May 26th, 2010

Traveling with an Engineer’s Eye: Ciaotou Sugar Refinery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

By Robert Szczesniak | Comments (3)
Hello from the Travel Desk at the Reactor.  I am perpetually on the road for work and would like to share some of the ‘engineering’ sights I have seen.  While you won’t find many of these sights on a typical “Must-See” list, I think they are interesting and worth a visit if you are in the area. For example while recently spending some time in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on the southern end of the island almost opposite Taipei; I visited a sugar refinery that has been turned into a museum of sorts.

The History of Sugar in Taiwan

Sugar was primarily introduced to Taiwan by the Dutch, who influenced the island during the 1630s. Though the Dutch soon were forced off the island, growth in sugar production continued to grow eventually booming in the early 18th century. Taiwan’s sugar farms and mills were small scale operations and continued to be, making it hard to keep up with industry pricing. The southern sugar growing regions lagged behind the northern rice growing regions due to this lack of development. When the Japanese asserted control [caption id="attachment_1674" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Ciaotou Sugar Refinery"][/caption] over the island in 1895,  they set to modernizing Taiwan’s sugar industry. Centered in the southern sugar growing region, the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery was built in 1901 as Taiwan’s first modern sugar refinery. Without modernization of the supply chain, Taiwanese sugar was still not competitive on the world market and was mostly sold duty-free to Japan. In 1946, with return of sovereignty, all of the various sugar companies in operation were merged to form the Taiwan Sugar Corporation. Sugar regained the top spot as Taiwan’s export in the '50s and '60s but then falling back as Taiwan developed manufacturing industries and became a less agrarian economy, eventually leading to the closure of the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery in 1999. The current incarnation of the Taiwan Sugar Corporation – TaiSugar - is still in business but has diversified into tourism, floriculture, biotechnology, retail, and real estate.

Approach and Ciaotou Refinery Grounds

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Image by ChEnected via Flickr"]Ciaotou Sugar Refinery - 9[/caption]
The refinery is easily accessible from almost anywhere in Kaohsiung by the MRT – Kaohsiung’s train system.  From the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery stop, out of Exit #2 it is a short walk past the old Taiwan Sugar Corporation Kaohsiung Headquarters building, and following the signs, to the refinery entrance.  The grounds to the refinery are quite expansive, once housing all the Japanese workers and managers along with all the space needed for operation.  The wide entrance avenue is lined with palm trees, on one side are the few manager housing units remaining and the other a few shops selling snacks. Beyond the snack shops is a treat for railroad fans – the retired German Diema locomotives sit on what remains of the narrow gauge track.  Beyond this are groomed walkways through the grounds and a collection of artwork made by local artists from machinery collected from the shuttered facility.

Description of the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Image by ChEnected via Flickr"]Ciaotou Sugar Refinery - 2[/caption]
Finally, the main attraction.  There are a couple of steel walkways that lead from the raw material sorting area into the main crushing and processing room then into the storage tank farm.  There was little decommissioning work done except to clean out the pipes – there are still some tools lying around and some PPE on the shelves.  Heat exchangers and motors can be examined freely.  There are some signs explaining the process and what each piece of equipment did in the process, but not all are in English.  The administrative office, displaying a timeline of office equipment throughout the years (including air raid siren), and a shrine built for the Japanese workers during construction and operation, round out the site. I found it this site interesting on a couple levels. One was the reuse and display of this old industrial site into a playground for children and center for local artists.  The other was to witness a plant of a different time and culture.  The landscaping of the facility was beautiful enough to rival many gardens. While I have seen similar landscaping in some tropical locations, this is definitely different than what a plant looks like in the US.  This was a good thing for the workers since this might have been their entire world.  The company provided housing (still a common practice in some Asian countries) and for a while under Japanese occupation some workers would have even been very far removed from their families.  The shrine is also another notable difference. In the States, our factories are opened by CEOs or presidents but there are still many places where a deity is overseeing production. References: More great photos: http://thedailybubbletea.com/2009/06/24/kaohsiung-the-ciaotou-sugar-refinery/ Info: http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/olds.taiwan.economic.history

Flick Photo Slideshow of the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery

Any thoughts? Do you know of any examples of old plants that have been repurposed?

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3 Responses to “Traveling with an Engineer’s Eye: Ciaotou Sugar Refinery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan”

  1. Great article – interesting to hear the history/culture behind the sugar refinery.

  2. Jared says:

    Thanks for posting, I'm going to go tomorrow.

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