Bruce Pettman Undertakes World Heritage Mission to Taiwan

In October 2002, Bruce Pettman, Principal Heritage Architect, New South Wales Department of Public Works and Services Heritage Design Services (AusHeritage Member), spent eleven days in Taiwan assessing eleven sites chosen by the Taiwan Government for consideration as potential World Heritage status.

Although for political reasons Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it still wants to have any relevant special heritage sites in the country recognized as equivalent to the UNESCO World Heritage designation. Having lectured and worked on heritage matters in Taiwan on four previous occasions, Bruce Pettman was invited to be part of a four person mission delegation which visited the sites in far flung corners of Taiwan to assess special places for their potential as World Heritage significant sites. The mission was fully funded by the Taiwan Government’s Ministry of Culture through a local cultural foundation.

“I ended up inspecting and reporting on six of the seven sites on my own, as the other cultural heritage expert from Canada was ill and couldn’t make the trip and the other two members were ‘natural heritage’ advisors from Japan.”

An entourage of local and national government officers, as well as the media, accompanied the mission, which provided a very privileged opportunity to have access to on-the-spot information from locals and some very senior national officials. Everyone wanted to please and inform in the hope that their site might be considered of World Heritage significance even though some people may not have realised the implications of the designation other than in potential tourism and monetary terms. The government’s policy is to double tourism in Taiwan by 2008.

The seven sites visited were mainly of cultural heritage significance and included mining sites, villages, a European settlement, forts and railways:

  • Kinman Islands – military frontier (2 km from Mainland China ) and the extraordinary villages of European-influenced houses paid for by remittances from wealthy overseas Chinese from 1850 – 1930s.
  • Tamsui in Taipei County – a 1630 European fort structure, a c.19th consulate and fort structure and various European and Japanese sponsored education buildings. Tamsui is/was a strategic trading location on the north coast region of Formosa (Taiwan) and the location of early gold mining.
  • Jiguashr in Taipei County – a major Japanese gold, silver and other minerals mining site with processing plant ruins dating from the 1890s to 1970s, including a village and a traditional Japanese guest house built in 1930s specifically for the Japanese Prince who did not visit due to local unrest and threats on his life.
  • Miaoli – an old railway station at the top of an extremely steep regional passenger railway line. The 15 km old rail line section, with pleasant views and multiple tunnels, is now closed and unused but remains a popular tourist destination from Taipei.
  • Peinan – a major prehistoric archaeological site with Taiwan aboriginal connections, with slate coffins buried under the floors of family houses and dating from pre-5000 BC through to the Iron Age. This ancient settlement site also had important spiritual links to a nearby mountain which influenced the orientation of all the houses. The place is located right on the edge of the Philippines Tectonic Plate.
  • Lanyu (or Orchid) Island – an extraordinarily beautiful, mountainous and fragile island 45sq. km in area and located south east of Taiwan’s main island. The flight in by small 12-seater plane is very dramatic as the airstrip is very short and balances between a steep cliff and the sea. The frequent cloudy weather limits flights so your arrival or departure is literally in the lap of the gods. Lanyu contains less than 3000 people (the Tao) who live on a small flat land strip (from 20m to 0.5km wide) around the edge of this island. They are traditionally and culturally linked to the seasons of the flying fish and once all lived in extraordinary timber houses which are built within holes in the ground to withstand the winds of a harsh climate. Their ‘21 piece’ and ‘27 piece’ boats are wonderful and their construction and decoration are very significant community events. The people are now quite dependent on state welfare, and are seeking local management autonomy as a means of retaining their identity, living culture and sustainability. To make matters worse a ‘temporary’ nuclear waste storage facility (low strength contaminated clothing -so they say!) sits on one corner of the island.
  • Alishan forest and mountain railway – this is located 2500m above sea level and is a major tourist destination with a cypress timber forest once logged by the Japanese for building high quality housing in Japan and now a forest reserve run as a recreational park. The (1916) – narrow gauge logging trains are now important industrial heritage items now operating as a passenger/tourist train with limited carrying capacity up and down a steep 72 km rail system. The system still has all original stations, zigzag (switchback) sections and an unusual spiral track configuration using multiple tunnels. The original steam trains have been replaced by small diesels but the old trains can be inspected at 4 locations along the line. At the top of the mountain the spectacular sunsets and sunrises above the clouds and the enchanted cypress forest are major attractions.

In general, heritage conservation is alive and developing in Taiwan despite major development pressures in some areas. The ancient archaeological sites and traditional temples and housing found around Taiwan are, in some ways, complemented by the major public structures and infrastructure of the Japanese occupation of 1895–1945. The beauty and special geological features of Taiwan’s rugged east coast terrain and smaller islands are also important natural heritage assets.

The responsible Taiwanese minister plans more work for the team to assess the next stage of heritage significance evaluations based on the mission reports and the UNESCO World Heritage criteria for both natural and cultural heritage places. Four short listed sites, including Alishan and Peinan, will be further evaluated this year and the other sites thereafter.

Information: Bruce Pettman
Tel: 61 (0)2 9372 8349
Fax: 61 (0)2 9372 8444

AusHeritage is a network of Australian cultural heritage management organisations, established by the Australian Government in 1996. The network aims to facilitate the engagement of practitioners and organisations for the Australian heritage industry in the overseas arena.

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