CHAPTER III

THE EAST COAST

 

 

The wild and rugged parts of Formosa had in many places severely tried the engineering skill of the Japanese in the building of their roads and railways. But even where they were successfully constructed, storms and typhoons made repairs and maintenance frequently necessary to keep them open. Nowhere was the unequal struggle between man and natural forces as much in evidence as on the East Coast.

The main railway system comes around the northern part of the Island from the west to run southward down the east Coast. In that distance it frequently runs through very difficult country to emerge on a small fertile plain and then to struggle on through more difficulties. But always the railway seems to escape the menaces of the towering mountain range which forms the backbone of the Island. Always, that is, till it gets to Suao, thirty miles down the coast. There a branch of the mountain range turns across the path the railway should take and ends in precipitous cliffs which reach to a height of 6,000 feet and run vertically into the sea. They have been described as "the highest and most magnificent cliffs in the world". It is obviously impossible to push a railway through such terrifying hills and gorges. Should the economic rewards justify, it probably could be done, but the resources of the country further south are not great.

Even Suao itself is a small, nondescript village that crouches away from the threats which lie in the mountains. It does possess a port but it is away from the town and the railway has already given up the struggle before it comes to deal with the cuttings and tunnel which would be required to reach the small harbour. Instead, the railway serves a cluster of houses and a cement works. Even the cement works, when I saw it, was a disheartening sight. There was the machinery all in place but lying fully exposed to the sky with only a skeleton framework where the building should have been. It looked as though the normal process of building had been reversed and the machinery had been installed first with the building constructed round it afterwards. Actually a typhoon had come along and carried away all the roof and wall coverings.

Suao itself was not a prepossessing sight. Some of the shops were constructed of brick but the majority were of the flimsy wooden construction peculiar to many Japanese residences. The problem of where to stay for the night we thought we had solved when we obtained the advice to "stay at the Central Hotel". After we had left the station and crossed the open square with its rough rocky surface, our enquiries took us down one narrow side-street after another till we were far away from anything that could be called "central". We went into a building claiming to be the Central Hotel and containing a collection of stalls called "rooms". These were served by a common passage whose outer wall formed the outer wall of the hotel. We had an end stall in which the floor was aslant and the boards, which served as a wall to divide us from the next "room", had never been nailed up with any intention of giving privacy. As if the appearance was not depressing enough, the smells from the lavatory mingled with the smells from the tatami on the floor to add to our discomfort. Swarms of flies came with the food that was brought for our evening meal so we decided to eat bananas and boiled rice, the latter dish being brought in covered bowls. Our request for bananas had been countered by a request from the proprietor for money to give to the girl to buy them. We had found by experience that, provided the skins were not broken, bananas made a safe and satisfying meal.

When the mattresses and mosquito nets were brought in for sleeping, there was barely enough room for our luggage and, relying on the hope that our noses would soon not notice the smells from the tatami and the mattresses, we lay down to sleep; but the noise of footsteps on creaky floor boards, the banging of doors and sounds associated with the use of a lavatory, prevented our getting any sleep till all the inmates of the hotel had retired.

We had to be up early next morning because although the extremely difficult terrain had prevented the Japanese from continuing the railway down the Coast, still they had successfully built a single track road through the mountains to the Karenko Plain twenty-five miles further south and we were going to Karenko over that road. There was also an alternative connection with Karenko by sea. A fifty-ton boat plied between Suao and Karenko, at times which seemed to be determined by the time it took to obtain a full cargo. In the typhoon season, of course, typhoons made the sailings even more irregular. Arriving at the bus depot, we found a fleet of almost new buses lined up ready to start. Right on the stroke of eight-thirty, they moved off in turn to keep separated by about 100 yard intervals. For a short distance the road was fairly flat but soon the buses began to climb and the road appreciably narrowed to the width of one bus. It had only been raining a few hours before, and the thought of greasy narrow roads in this difficult mountainous country was not pleasant. But we found that where the road was greasy there were always two wide bands of concrete for the wheels to run on, and there was practically no danger of skidding. After a short run of about half an hour, we began to climb the mountains proper on the steep sides of which dark lines, which indicated the road above, showed us where we would soon be travelling. Nevertheless, there was no sudden change in the grade but just a steady ascent which seemed well within the capabilities of the buses. Eventually, turning a corner, it looked as if the road was coming out to the edge of a very high precipice and that we would fall headlong into the sea a thousand feet below. Closer examination showed a sharp turn to the right and soon we were running along a ledge carved out of the face of the precipice with the rock overhanging above. Due to the difficulties of construction, the road was as narrow as it was safe to be. It sometimes became a series of small tunnels. My companion reminded me that the "Japanese ideas of safety were more dangerous than ours". Still, I took comfort from a low concrete wall that generally bordered the outer edge: but only until I saw on a corner that the wall was broken. This, I suspected, was due to the bus not being able to negotiate the sharp corner and the wall not being sufficiently strong to prevent the bus hurtling into the sea way below.

Here and there down the coast, several large and fast flowing rivers poured into the sea and so tortuous descents were made to suspension bridges to cross them and the steady climb began again. Going through a cutting, we found it partially blocked with a slide of rock so the energetic got out of the buses and helped to clear it. Several of the rocks were so large that young trees which had come down in the slide had to be used as levers with four or five men on them to clear the rocks away. In spite of all that could be done, the buses all gave a violent lurch in passing over the slide. But there was worse to come. While running along another ledge carved out of a precipice, we came to a stop and found the ledge had completely disappeared with a portion of the precipice which had fallen into the sea. A new road was being dug out of the face but at present only formed a narrow foot track along which we staggered with our luggage to a fleet of buses waiting on the other side. The passengers from this fleet had already safely negotiated the foot-track and were sitting waiting for our buses. With a superior air, so I thought, they watched our trembling efforts at crossing along the foot-track. Still, nobody slipped over the side so it could not have been as bad as it looked.

About mid-day we stopped for lunch at an aborigines' village in a narrow river valley with the mountains towering high overhead. This village proved to be a banana village; that is, the food and cooking were so primitive and the flies so plentiful that it was safer to eat bananas.

After a run of another hour, the Karenko Plain came into view. I had been in this part of the world before and had very interesting and pleasant memories of it. In spite of the wildness of the natural element of this part, the Japanese had attempted to develop it, both agriculturally and industrially.

Electric power was obtained from harnessing the rivers which came down from the mountains. There was a plentiful supply of water, and the river-beds sloped steeply to the sea so that there seemed to be almost an unlimited supply of electrical energy available at a very cheap price. As cheap electricity was essential for the production of aluminium and alloy steels, they built factories for this purpose at Karenko. Unfortunately, the raw material was not available on the Island so it had to be shipped from overseas. This, then, meant the construction of harbour and transport facilities sufficiently large to cope with their ambitious schemes, and an artificial harbour was constructed to berth simultaneously three 3,000 ton ships.

They also developed irrigation schemes for growing rice, sugar cane and pineapple. Three large factories were built on the coast for manufacturing sugar. While the sugar companies had their own light railway for handling the cane, another light railway of 2'-6" gauge had been built by the Japanese Provincial Government for general purposes.

Realising the isolation of the East Coast, I asked a factory manager how he managed regarding his supply of coal. "Oh", he said, "we do not use coal at all", and I, realising the abundance of electricity, envisaged a factory in which all machinery was electrically driven and the processing steam obtained from electric boilers.

So I replied, "Oh, what do you do"?

To my astonishment he said, "we use the driftwood which the rivers bring down in flood-time in winter".

With considerable foresight the Japanese had designed the boilers to use this wood which apparently would be available for the whole life of the boilers.

But the Japanese evidently had underestimated the ravages which could be caused by the typhoons and the winter storms. On my previous visit to Karenko I had seen much evidence of destruction. In two recent floods during the typhoon, sufficient shingle had been brought down a river-bed to raise the bed above the water outlet from an electric power station so that, instead of the water running out of the station at this point, it was running into it and, had the valves not been shut, the station would have been flooded. This cost the Japanese 16,000 kilowatts of electricity.

Even more spectacular was the condition of two other stations in another river valley - Sesui No. 2 Station, installed capacity 5,000 kilowatts, and Domon, installed capacity 8,000 kilowatts, both of which were also out of commission due to the phenomenal rise in the river-bed, on the banks of which they were originally installed. When we visited this valley, Sesui No 2 was almost completely buried, only a portion of its top story being above the surrounding shingle waste, the bed having risen during the flood to a height of approximately forty-five feet. This also overwhelmed the Domon power station whose tail waters fed another power station, Hatsumi. As, however, the Domon power station was destroyed, there was no water to operate Hatsumi station, with the consequent loss of another 2,000 kilowatts. This large loss, a total of 31,000 kilowatts in generating capacity, was offset by the complete destruction of the aluminium works by bombing, and although at the time there was some doubt as to the future of the aluminium works, it was finally decided to abandon it and use what material was available for the repair of the aluminium works in Takao.

Undeterred by the alarming threats of this wild country, the Japanese had attempted to develop all the East Coast including the fertile river valley which, leading from the Karenko Plain, ran southward parallel to the sea coast. The valley was bordered on the one side by the mountain backbone of the Island and on the other by a low range of hills running parallel to the coast. Into this valley, turbulent and angry rivers poured out from the mountains frenziedly seeking outlets to the sea which were denied them by the mountains. It was through this type of country that road and light railway communications were pushed on to the south.

The Japanese evidently had anticipated trouble in getting their railways across the wild, rushing rivers which emerged from their gorges in the mountains at the head of shingle fans. A very slight change of direction at the head of the fans could bring the rivers out miles away from their original courses when they arrived at the foot of the fans. The Japanese, of course, attempted to control the vagaries of the rivers by means of dikes, groins and various construction works but with only moderate success, and the rivers were turning parts of the valley into shingle deserts several miles wide. The bridging of such rivers was an extremely difficult task and the railway engineers very wisely kept their crossings near the head of the shingle fans. Consequently, the railway was something in the nature of a switchback with the small engine puffing and wheezing up a fairly steep grade to the head of a fan, crossing a bridge, and racing madly down the other side. In one or two places the shingle fans had risen so high since the construction of the railway that high walls had to be constructed to keep the shingle and flood waters from overwhelming the railway. We found it interesting to speculate how much higher these walls should be built before it would be more economical to put a roof on and have the railway running in a tunnel.

The roads and the sugar factory railways had of necessity to run in the valley and were in a much more difficult position, being at all times liable to disruption by the floods. Similarly, the irrigation schemes were always likely to be damaged by the heavy rainfall.

This valley, about sixty miles long, was particularly striking. Beautiful wooded mountains and green fertile plains alternated with rocky slopes and grey shingle deserts. Perhaps I was influenced also by a particular railway journey I took through this country in a special rail-car which was beflagged with the Chinese National Flag and the Union Jack on the front and decorated with bunting. On arrival at Karenko I was greeted by district representatives - the Mayor and chief public officials of the town including the power company engineers. The station was decorated with bunting and greenery and there were several banners with inscriptions in English, "MR. SHACKLEYTON HERE YOU WELCOME". Visits to power stations were equally welcomed with banners having the inscription, "MR. SHACKLEYTON WE FAITHFULLY WELCOME YOU".

But what impressed me more than anything was the situation which the Chinese Provincial Government had forced upon the district. I was asked to reserve a particular afternoon for a discussion of the district's problems with officials and engineers and my reception room at the hotel was filled with various people sitting cross-legged on the tatami, all anxious for the future of the district. It appeared that in September 1945 there had been 1,200 millimetres of rainfall in forty-eight hours. This excessive rainfall had produced widespread damage, as the water control works established by the Japanese had been unable to withstand the force of the flood waters. The power stations suffered not only from the effects of the rise in the permanent level of the river-beds, but also in their dams and races which governed the water supply. Bridges, both railway and traffic, were washed away, much arable land disappeared in the flood waters to be replaced by large wastes of shingle, and irrigation schemes were very severely damaged. This was probably the worst period of destruction that the East Coast had and the problem of repair and restoration was an extremely difficult one. The Japanese engineers and technicians had already left although their plans were still available and it was intended to use those again. The same plans had been in use for about thirty years and although each year brought its damage still the same design was adhered to. The designs were therefore old-fashioned and conditions had proved that they would never be satisfactory and that they should be changed. Unfortunately there was not the engineering skill available now among the local engineers. But more serious still was the enormous quantity of material which was required. One dike alone, of a number, was estimated to require 25,600 one-hundred-and-ten-pound bags of cement while three other constructions required a total of 26,000 bags. This, in other words, represented about 2,500 tons of cement, and cement was very difficult to obtain.

But the greatest difficulty was that of finance. In the Japanese time the Provincial Government made grants which covered eighty percent of the expenses to be incurred, while the local authorities had to find the other twenty percent. The Japanese Government recognised that it was impossible for the local authorities to meet the expenses even when the damage was not extensive. But now, when the district was faced with the repair of damage which greatly exceeded all previous records, the Chinese Provincial Government gave them nothing. There was to be no subsidy, and the local authorities had to rely on resources which were practically depleted owing to the demands which had arisen from the destruction of factories, dwellings, roads, etc., due to the bombing, and the position was critical. It was recognised that now even comparatively minor floods would cause destruction out of all proportion to their size.

The matter was discussed later with the various Government organisations concerned, including the Railway Department, the Department of Industries and Mining, and the Agricultural and Forestry Department. All agreed that something should be done, but in pressing the matter still later as to when something was to be done, I found that the question of abandoning the East Coast was being considered. I have not sufficient evidence to say that this policy is being put into effect, but from the last visit I paid I have a very clear recollection of a beautiful concrete road bridge about 100 feet long with grass growing on it, completely disused; the only reason for its disuse being that the approach was washed away. In the meantime, the local inhabitants had recourse to the primitive conditions of constructing some sort of a track across the river-bed for use in times when the water was low, but it was obvious that communications must be frequently interrupted.

The East Coast, then, was also suffering from the economic decline which was taking place all over the country.