Japanese Colonial Era

Taipei Railway Workshop (臺北機廠)

For a lot of children, trains are an exciting and mysterious sight to behold - I was no different.

One of the best things about visiting my grandparents house when I was young was being able to watch the trains pass by at the large train yard behind their home.

Taking trains in Canada however tends to be a rare experience and (at least where I come from) is not a very popular or convenient method of travel. In fact, in the two decades that I lived in Canada, I only took the train once. 

Here in Taiwan it is a completely different situation - The rail networks are not only a popular and convenient method of transportation but were also instrumental in Taiwan’s modern development.

Today Taiwan has over 1691.8 km of railway networks with a ridership surpassing well over a billion passengers a year. In addition to the railway network there is also an elevated High Speed Rail network as well as underground subway systems in Taipei and Kaohsiung with future networks planned for Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Tainan.

With the many different options available for transportation today, the railway has experienced slight declines in ridership over the past few years. The railway however holds a special cultural connection with the people of Taiwan - especially with the older generation who have fond memories growing up when the train was the primary means of transportation.

In recent years locally produced movies, television shows and commercials have highlighted that romantic connection with touching stories of people leaving the countryside for the city, for school or their compulsory military service.

Seeing a family member or a loved one off or having a reunion at the train station became a rite of passage for many in Taiwan and stories that highlight these kinds of memories brings out a bit of nostalgia in everyone.

The railway in Taiwan dates back to 1893 when the first iteration of the railroad was constructed between Keelung and Hsinchu. A few short years later, after the Japanese took control of Taiwan, work began on the construction of a modern rail network that would connect people from all over the island to an efficient mode of public transportation.

The colonial government of course was not entirely altruistic when it came to the construction of the railway network - To the Japanese, the railway was an instrumental tool in boosting Taiwan’s economy as well as allowing for important commodities such as coal, sugar, timber and gravel to be easily transported to ports and shipped off to Japan.

Consequently once the the rail network was completed and the economy was stabilized, urbanization and development soon followed. Many of Taiwan’s cities started to take form with the train station more often than not being the heartbeat of the modern Taiwanese city.

The importance of the railway in Taiwan’s modern history cannot be understated - Many factors contributed to what would become Taiwan’s economic miracle, but the existence of a fully functional railway system was instrumental in Taiwan’s path to becoming the developed country that it is today.

The Taipei Railway Workshop

One of the great things about writing a blog is that every time I write a new one I spend a considerable amount of time learning new things - One of the things I learned while researching for this one was that before the railway, people in Taiwan didn’t really have much of a concept of time or punctuality.

In the early days of the railway, missing your train meant that you’d likely have to wait a few hours for the next one - This forced the Taiwanese people to become much more aware of the time and in a few short years transformed the island into a place where punctuality and efficiency are paramount.

To ensure that the trains remained punctual, the colonial government constructed large maintenance depots in Taipei (台北機廠), Kaohsiung (高雄機廠) and Hualien (花蓮機廠) where the trains could be routinely cleaned, serviced and repaired.

The three depots were constructed in strategic locations around the country which allowed the network to be divided up into geographic service areas separating north, south and eastern Taiwan - something that continues to this day.
The Taipei Railway Workshop was constructed in an area that was (at the time) on the outskirts of the city situated between Taipei Main Station (台北車站) and Songshan Train Station (松山車站). Today though it sits in the middle of one of the busiest commercial areas of the city.
The seventeen-hectare site was initially constructed in 1899 but was later expanded upon, modernized and reopened in 1935 coinciding with the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Colonial Era.
The newly re-opened depot was a large complex consisting of several large workshops and departments where engines and carriages were constructed and maintained in addition to offices, dormitories and even a large Roman-style bathhouse.

Site Map

I won’t go into detail about every building on-site but I think its important to at least highlight a few of the most important areas:

  1. The largest single building is the Steam-Locomotive (later converted into an electric locomotive) Workshop (電力場區). It is 167 meters in length with a ceiling height of 20 meters. Considered to be the most important building on site, this is where steam locomotives were taken apart, repaired and re-assembled. The interior of the building is massive and was designed in a way that allows for beautiful natural light to constantly illuminate the building during the day.

  2. The adjacent Diesel-Electric Workshop (柴電場區) was almost as large and constructed in a similar fashion with beautiful glass windows on either side allowing for beautiful natural light. The building was where locomotives with diesel engines would be repaired and maintained.

  3. The third largest area of the workshop is the Vehicles Workshop Area (車輛場區) which was responsible for the maintenance and construction of passenger and freight cars. The interior of the building consisted of several sections where various tasks were completed and parts were manufactured.

If you’d like more in-depth information about each of the buildings that make up the workshop, I suggest checking out the Taipei Railway Workshop website which has dedicated pages to each section of the workshop.

Link: The Industrial Heritage Cluster along Taipei City Capital Rail - Taipei Railway Workshop

The Second World War came to an end when the Japanese were forced to surrender to the allies on August 15th, 1945. One of the requirements of their surrender was that they relinquish all of the territory they had conquered prior to and during the war.

In a controversial move that has had long-lasting reprocussions, it was decided that control over Taiwan and the Peng Hu islands (also known as the Pescadores) would be “returned” to the Republic of China (中華民國) -  Which ironically didn’t even exist before the Japanese takeover nor did it ever actually have any sovereign control over Taiwan.

Japanese control of Taiwan was ceded to ROC forces on October 25th 1945 on what has become (somewhat notoriously) known as “Retrocession Day” (臺灣光復節).

When the Japanese left Taiwan, they did the incoming regime a huge favour by more or less handing over the keys to the infrastructure that they had spent the last half century developing.

Years of allied bombing however left areas of the railroad as well as parts of the workshop were heavily damaged. The income regime made it a priority to repair the railway as soon as possible as its control would help to ensure their own control over the island.

In 1948, the Taiwan Railway Administration (臺灣鐵路管理局) was established as a state-run enterprise and ownership over the workshop fell under its control - which is where it has stayed for the last sixty years.

In the six decades since the ROC takeover of Taiwan, the Taipei Workshop has been expanded upon several times and modifications were made reflecting the changes of modern railway technology.

The site also helped with the transition of Taipei’s above-ground railroad into an underground network.

In 2012, after over eighty years of operation, work at the Taipei Railway Workshop ended and production was shifted to the newly constructed Fugang Vehicle Depot (臺鐵富岡車輛基地) in Taoyuan.

The impending closure of the workshop brought with it a considerable amount of public discourse as to what the future would hold for the historic site.

Coincidentally when the workshop closed, the Songshan Tobacco Factory (松山煙廠) had already been restored and converted into the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park (松山文創園區).

But when it came to the Railway Workshop it can’t be understated that Taipei’s overzealous developers were salivating at the possibility of such a large plot of land suddenly opening up for development in Taipei’s posh Xinyi District (信義區).

To prevent this from happening, local civic groups quickly mobilized and put pressure on the government to come up with a plan to preserve the workshop for the enjoyment of future generations.

In 2011, a year before the workshop was to close, a group of legislators and Taipei City councillors visited the site to discuss its preservation. The consensus was that the workshop should be converted into a railway museum and be opened to the public.

The problem however was that conditions at the workshop were much different than the Tobacco Factory and it opening it up for public use would require a lot more in terms of resources.

A final decision on the matter came in 2013 when the Taipei City Government designated the site as a municipal monument and later in 2015 as a National Historic Site.

Ownership of the workshop was then transferred to the Ministry of Culture (文化部) and after a period of restoration was reopened to the public for tours on July 19th, 2017.

Today the site is opened to public visitation on a limited basis (as restoration and reparation projects are still taking place) and in the future is sure to become a popular tourist attraction.

Especially for young children who will now be able to learn about history and see the trains up-close.  

Touring the Workshop

As it stands now, if you’d like to visit the Taipei Railway Workshop you are going to have to go through an online application process to reserve a spot on one of the four weekly tours offered to the public.

It isn’t as difficult as it sounds but you’ll have to plan your visit well in advance to ensure a spot.

If you show up without going through the application process, the guards at the gate won’t let you in.

Spaces are reserved on a monthly basis and fill up quickly, so if you’d like to visit, it’d be a good idea to keep track of the dates and spaces available on the site.

Its also important to remember that the tours are currently only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the latter being much more difficult to reserve.

Link: Application Site 

Admission is free, but you’ll need to bring an ID card to gain access.

For locals, your government issued ID card is acceptable.

For foreigners, either your passport or your Alien Resident Card is required.

The tour is a little over an hour long and when you enter the meeting area the attendants will request your ID, which you will exchange for an audio-guide system that will allow you to listen to the tour guide more clearly.

Before heading out, each participant will also be given a hard hat that you are required to wear at all times due to safety concerns.

The tour is both interesting and informative and guests are given the opportunity to look around the ‘designated areas’ and take photos while the tour guide gives their speech.

Personally, I enjoyed the usage of the headsets which allowed people in the group to look around on their own while the guide introduced each section of the workshop.

I did however find the tour to be unfortunately limiting.

The tour guide is always accompanied by a couple of attendants as well as a security guard.

No matter where any of the participants went there was always someone reminding us to stay close, keep up with the group and not to stray away from designated safe spaces.

Personally, I would have loved a bit more freedom to explore - The possibilities for a photographer interested in urban exploration in a place like this are almost endless.

I could have spent days exploring the workshop enjoying all of the small historic details.

Alas, I had to make do with what was permitted.

Something that you will also have to take into consideration is that the tour is currently only available in Chinese. They have English-language material available but the tour guide will only speak in Chinese.

If you don’t speak the language you are of course still invited to join the tour, you’re just going to miss out on some of the important information offered by the experienced guides.

Taking into consideration that the workshop is still under repair and the tour is currently in its initial stages there are obviously going to be areas where they are looking to improve and they welcome suggestions to make the experience a much better one. 

Offering English-language tours as well, opening up more buildings and giving more frequent tours is part of their larger plan and the future looks bright for this historic part of Taipei!   

Getting There


Getting to the Taipei Railway Workshop is quite easy - You can either walk a short distance from Taipei MRT’s Nanjing Sanmin Station (南京三民站) to the main entrance or take a bit of a longer walk from either Taipei City Hall Station (市政府站) or Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall Station (國父今年堂站) from the rear.

You may also want to consider taking Taipei City Bus #669 and getting off at the LivingMall (京華城). The workshop is across the street from the main entrance.

If you are driving a car just input “Taipei Railway Workshop” or “台北機廠“ into your GPS or Google Maps and you’ll find it. You’ll then spend three hours looking for a parking spot!

Address: No. 50, Section 5, Civic Blvd, Xinyi District, Taipei City (台北市信義區市民大道五段50號)

Visiting the Taipei Railway Workshop was a fascinating experience and I can only imagine that if you are one of those people who grew up loving trains that this tour would be a dream experience.

The Xinyi District of Taipei is one of the most expensive areas in town so the fact that this large space, could be preserved for the future enjoyment and education of the people of Taiwan is fantastic.

As time passes the tour offered at the workshop will be refined and improved upon and will also become more accessible to foreign tourists. If however you want to be one of the few people who have  gained access to this historic site you may want to sign up as soon as possible for a tour!

Donghe Bell Tower (東和禪寺鐘樓)

Taipei is a dynamic city that has had a bit of success with its ability to merge modernity with its several centuries of history. Today the city is a blend of old and new where you are able to walk past century year old buildings nestled between high-rise buildings.

As a modern metropolis, the people who live in Taipei are in tune with the most cutting edge technology the world has to offer however they are not quick to forget their history and are sure to make their voices heard when pieces of the city's history are being neglected or are in danger of disappearing completely.

The voice of the people is one that was stymied for several decades during what Taiwanese today refer to as the White Terror Period (白色恐怖) where the Chinese Nationalist Government did pretty much whatever it wanted with regards to city planning and urban development. During the thirty-eight years of Martial Law (1949-1987), many of the country’s historic buildings, especially those of Japanese origin were deliberately destroyed by the Nationalist government in order to make way for modern structures. 

Now that the people of Taiwan have rightfully earned their democratic freedoms, they have become very proactive in taking the government to task when it comes to the further destruction of this country’s history and the preservation of what still remains today has become extremely important for many of Taiwan’s civil society groups.

In recent years both the national and local governments have spent a considerable amount of resources to resurrect and restore some of these remaining buildings. Whether it is a Shinto Shrine, a Martial Arts Hall, Police or Teachers dorms, etc. Buildings of Japanese origin are being restored throughout the country to offer locals a glimpse into an important part of Taiwan’s history and one that has had long-lasting effects on this nation.

Link: My blog posts about buildings from the Japanese Colonial Era

Today’s post is about one of Taipei’s lesser known Japanese-era buildings and is one that has been preserved thanks to the voice of the city’s residents who stood up to protect it from disappearing forever. The 'structure' which is one of the last remaining pieces of a former Zen Buddhist Temple is a simple Bell Tower, but don’t let its simplicity fool you, there is an interesting backstory that goes with it.

Japanese Buddhism in Taiwan

The ‘Japanese Colonial Era’ (日治時代) began on April 17th 1895 when representatives from the Qing government signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki (下関条約) which signalled the end of the first Sino-Japanese War. The treaty, which is still a sour point in Sino-Japanese relations today forced the Qing empire to cede both territory and copious amounts of cash to the Japanese Empire.

When the Colonial Era in Taiwan started, the Japanese were quick to take care of any opposition to their control and also wasted no time in their effort to develop the island with modern infrastructure as well as modernizing the economy which would ultimately help contribute to the empire. As Taiwan was considered to be an important part of that empire, both strategically and economically, the Japanese took special effort to construct buildings of Japanese cultural influence while at the same time building schools, banks, roads, etc.

The buildings of Japanese cultural origin which include the various Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples, etc. were constructed with the sole intention of helping to ‘convert’ the people of Taiwan into 'loyal citizens' of the Japanese empire who would be 'Japanese' in every sense of the term except for ancestry.

Buddhism, having established a foothold on the island several centuries earlier was one of the tools that the Japanese used to help bring the two peoples together. Initially, the Japanese brought Buddhist monks with them to serve roles in the military as chaplain-missionaries offering spiritual guidance during the initial years of the occupation.

The monks who came to Taiwan eventually began to construct language schools and charity hospitals where they would focus on improving the lives of average Taiwanese citizens as well as promoting Japanese-style Buddhism. This effort didn’t last long however thanks to the language barrier and the fact that Japanese Buddhism was viewed by the locals as a colonial system of beliefs which only benefitted the colonial power.

The lack of results in terms of cultural conversion led to funding ultimately being cut off by the Japanese central government and forced the monks who had come to Taiwan to focus less on the native population and more so on the benevolence of the Japanese people who migrated to the island.

Interestingly, even though Buddhism was originally used as a way for the colonial powers to endear themselves to the people living in Taiwan, the religion ended up becoming a tool for the people of Taiwan. The people of Taiwan, who have always been quite entrepreneurial knew that Buddhist temples were the perfect places to brush shoulders with the higher-ups in Japanese society. So, to gain political or economic favour Buddhism was often used to achieve a more prosperous life during the colonial era. 

Today, a large portion of people in Taiwan, if asked would claim that they are Buddhist - The history of Buddhism in Taiwan can be a long and confusing one and despite the religion being a tool for state control (for both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists). The legacy of the Japanese Colonial Era can still be felt today as most of the largest Buddhist organizations operating in Taiwan adhere to the philosophy and practices of the schools of Buddhism brought to Taiwan by the Japanese.

Bell Towers / Shoro (鐘樓)

Taipei office workers heading back to the office after lunch.

A common feature of Buddhist temples throughout Asia (and admittedly is one of the first things that comes to mind when foreigners think about Buddhist temples) is that of the sound of a gong or a bell being rung. If you’ve seen a Kung-Fu movie, its likely that you can picture that of a misty mountain with the sound of a bell ringing.

Whether its a temple high in the mountains or one in the middle of busy Taipei City, Bell Towers are a common feature among Buddhist temples. Much like the call to prayer in Islam, the Bell Towers in Buddhist monasteries serve as a way to wake monks up, summon monks to the temple, notify people of dinner, etc.

When Buddhism was brought to Japan, the practice of using a bell tower as a part of religious ceremony and temple architecture was brought over as well. In Japan, the bell towers, known as “shōrō” (鐘樓) became an important part of a temple's design and was a practice that was later integrated into Shinto temples as well.

While temple architecture in Chinese temples has traditionally been quite strict, adhering to the principles of Feng Shui, the Japanese were able to mix things up a bit and modify not only the architectural design of the bell towers but also the position for which they are located within a temple. 

Japanese Bell Towers typically fall into two different types of architectural design, both of which can still be seen in Taiwan today - The first type is the most traditional variety known as “Hakamagoshi” (褲腰). This type is typically a walled two-storey hour-glass shaped building with the bell on the second floor. The second type is a newer (13th century “new”) variety known as “Fukihanachi“ (吹放ち) which is an open structure with no walls and a bell hanging in the middle. The common feature of both types of towers is that they are adorned with beautiful Japanese-style gabled (切妻造) or hip-and-gable (入母屋造) rooftops.

The bells, otherwise known as “Bonshō“ (梵鐘) typically hang from the middle of the bell tower and are cast from thick bronze. Rather than being struck from the inside like most western bells, they are struck from the outside with either a handheld mallet or a large wooden beam that is suspended by ropes. The thickness of the bell and being struck from the outside cause that deep resonating iconic sound that most people are familiar with when they think about Asian temples.

Bell Tower’s serve both practical and symbolic purposes within temples and monasteries as they are thought to have the power to 'awaken people from the daze of everyday life and the pursuit of worldly things like fame and fortune'. The ringing of the bells, which can often be heard within several kilometres of the temple is a reminder to people of all walks of life to slow down and enjoy life.

Donghe Bell Tower (東和鐘樓)

In 1908 (民治41年) the Soto Zen Daihonzai Temple (曹洞宗大本山別院) was constructed in Taipei’s historic Dongmen District (東門町), now Zhongzheng District (中正區). The temple which was designed in Japanese Zen Buddhist style was a popular place of worship but was initially limited solely to serving Japanese nationals who likely would have been among the bureaucrats working in the capital’s governing district.

Due to the popular demand however the group who controlled the temple eventually constructed a separate hall in 1914 (大正5年) to accommodate locals. The newly constructed hall, known as the Guanyin Hall (觀音堂), was situated directly to the side of the original temple yet was constructed in a traditional Fujian-style (閩式) rather than one that would be identifiable as a Japanese Zen Temple.

There could be a few reasons for this, but given the time period it was likely meant to segregate the two groups of worshippers while offering an olive branch of sorts to help integrate locals. 

In 1916 the group who ran the temple constructed a Junior High School (私立臺灣佛教中學) for boys on the temple grounds. Even though they originally only intended for the school to help educate the children of the temple worshippers, it grew quickly and in 1938 was forced to relocate to Shilin District (士林區) changing its name to the “Private Taipei Junior High” (私立臺北中). Today the school still exists and is known as Taibei Junior High School (臺北市私立泰北高級中學).

Soto Zen Daihonzai Temple (曹洞宗大本山別院) in 1936

Donghe Bell Tower (東和鐘樓) in 1936

In 1930 (昭和5年) as the temple had expanded in size and more importantly in the amount of funds that it was taking it, it was decided that a traditional bell tower should be constructed to act as the entrance and welcoming area for the temple.

As mentioned above, bell towers are common on Japanese Buddhist temples in Taiwan, but for the first twenty years of this temples existence, it had done without one. The Bell Tower at the temple was constructed using the “Hakamagoshi” (褲腰) architectural style meaning that it was more than one story tall and was a walled structure. The bell was on the second floor which had a narrow set of stairs leading up to it.

The bell was the final piece that was added to the temple grounds making it complete in its design - Unfortunately today, the only remaining parts of the original temple grounds are the bell and Guanyin Hall, which is somewhat hidden away behind a wall.

In 1945 when the Chinese Nationalists took control of Taiwan the temple grounds were taken control of by the government and for a period of time became home to a group of squatters who set up a shanty town on the grounds. Between 1945 and the year 2000 the beautifully constructed main hall was vandalized and left to decay by the government.

In the year 2000, the Taipei City Government made plans to relocate the squatters, tear down the shanty town and at the same time tear down the main hall and the bell tower. As I mentioned in my introduction, these plans met with resistance from local people who insisted that parts of the grounds be preserved. The government eventually capitulated and promised to both preserve and restore the historic Guanyin Hall as well as the Bell Tower with the project being completed in 2006.

While the Bell Tower stands as a beautiful reminder to the past, it is unfortunate that the original temple couldn’t have been preserved as well - the historic photos above show that it was a beautiful one and if it were still around it would serve as a great historic relic to the city as well as an important spot for tourists and local people to learn about the city’s history.

Taipei however is still home to two beautiful Japanese era Buddhist temples with the Puji Temple in Beitou and the Huguo Rinzai Temple next to Yuanshan MRT station and are always open to visitors. 

Even though the original temple was demolished years ago, the Bell Tower remains an attractive tourist spot in a part of Taipei where not many tourists really spend a whole lot of time. If you are visiting the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, you may want to consider taking the short walk to visit the beautiful bell tower. You really don’t need a lot of time to see it, but its an important historic site with a cute little Buddhist monastery to the rear.

Getting there / Map


There are two different walking routes that tourists can take to arrive at the Bell Tower - Both routes are short walks from an MRT station, so its up to you which you prefer to take. The first route is a walk from the NTU Hospital MRT Station (台大醫院站) while the other is from the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Station (中正紀念堂站).

The route from the NTU Hospital Station is a simple one - From the exit walk up Gongyuan Road (公園路) until you reach Ketagalan Road. Once you see the Xiananmen Rotary you just keep walking straight onto Ren’ai Road (仁愛路) until you reach Linsen Road (林森路) where you make a left turn. The Bell Tower is a block away from there.

The route from CKS Memorial Hall is a bit easier. Basically you just have to leave the MRT station and walk along Zhongshan South Road (中山南路) until you turn right on either Xinyi Road (信義路) or Ren’Ai Road (仁愛路) and then finally making a left turn on Linsen Road (林森路).

If I were a tourist, I would likely choose to first check out the CKS Memorial Hall and then when I was done, take the short walk from there to see the Bell Tower before moving on to check out the Presidential Building later in the afternoon. On the other hand if you decided to take the walk from NTU Hospital, you could also check out the beautiful 228 Peace Park (二二八和平公園) before moving on to the Bell Tower.