Taiwan in Time: State-Sponsored Luxury

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The ultra-chic Taiwan Railway Hotel was completed four days before the arrival of its first guest, Prince Kotohito, for the inauguration of the colony’s first north-south railway

  • By Han Cheung / Journalist

Oct. 18 to Oct. 24

For Chief Engineer Kinsuke Hasegawa, the completion of the Taiwan Railway Hotel was just as important as the launch of Taiwan’s first North-South Railway.

Many guests, including Prince Kotohito of Japan, would come to Taiwan for the Western Trunk Line inauguration ceremony on October 24, 1908, and it was imperative to welcome them to this extremely lavish new facility. Hasegawa has personally presided over its construction for the past several months, which has continued day and night with more than 1,200 workers working shifts.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

They just did – four days before the official ceremony. Designed by German architect Tsumunaga Matsugasaki, the baroque-style red brick structure was Taiwan’s first western hotel. Destroyed when the United States bombed Taipei in 1945, it was located where the Shinkong Life Tower is in Taipei today.

The building resembled other notable colonial structures in the region, including the office of the governor general, but it was said to have been the first to feature French-style mansard roofs, which frequently appeared on future government buildings. The hotel housed the country’s first elevator and had a bar, hair salon, reading room, tennis courts and swimming pool.

Anyone could stay at the hotel, but its room rates limited guests to the rich and privileged. In 1935, only 5% of the guests were Taiwanese, 74% Japanese and 21% foreigners. It never made a profit, but the government invested money to keep it afloat, not only as a status symbol to show visitors the progress of the colony, but also as a popular venue for official events, banquets, conferences, exhibitions and artistic activities. performances.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

PURE LUXURY

Matsugasaki, a Japanese nobleman / royal, spent most of his formative years in Germany. He was appointed baron in 1884 after his return to Japan and discovered Taiwan for the first time after designing the residence of former Governor General Taro Katsura.

It is said that Matsugasaki’s lack of familiarity with the Japanese language hampered his professional success in his native country, and in 1907 he came to Taiwan to work for the Colonial Railways Department, which was on the verge of complete Taiwan’s first north-south railway.

Photo courtesy of Green Film Production

He was much more prolific in Taiwan. In addition to the hotel, he also designed the stations at Keelung in 1912 and Hsinchu in 1913 – the latter still exists today. Another of his existing works is Ximending’s Red House Theater, which he co-designed with Juro Kondo. His final project was the 1918 Taichung Meeting Hall, which was demolished in the 1980s.

Everything about the Taiwan Railway Hotel was first rate. Under the guidance of Atsushi Fukushima, known as the “magician of hotel management”, the hairdressers were trained at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and were familiar with the latest trends in Western hairstyling and beauty. The game room had both pool and pool tables and even employed a pool instructor to teach guests.

Fukushima was immensely proud of the hotel’s Western-style restaurant, which featured European-trained chefs and a cellar full of premium wines and spirits from around the world. The restaurant used only imported Canadian flour for its homemade bread and worked with government researchers to develop its own brand of soda. Customers remember little details such as how the fruit was served with a small bowl of water for washing hands.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While most of the furniture was imported, the rattan chairs and wooden tables in the bedrooms were made by inmates from Taipei and Tainan prisons. The two luxury suites cost 15 yuan per night, about half of a teacher’s monthly salary, and were enough to feed a family of four for a month.

The hotel was not sustainable. It only achieved its opulence with government funding, and there would be no other formal structure like this. The country’s second railway hotel, established in Tainan in 1936, was much more modest.

ACTIVISM WITNESS

Famous anti-Japanese activist Lin Hsien-tang (林獻堂) was one of the few Taiwanese to frequent the hotel. He preferred to sleep in establishments run by Taiwanese in the Dadaocheng area, but at least once booked the luxury suite at the railway hotel. Many of the Taiwanese elite of the day were also political activists pushing for more autonomy, and the hotel has witnessed its fair share of historic moments.

With Lin as a co-founder, the Taiwanese Assimilation Society was formed at the hotel in 1914. With more than 3,000 members, the group called for equal treatment for Taiwanese and Japanese. The group invited civil rights activist Taisuke Itagaki, founder of Japan’s first political party, to speak that year, also lodging him at the hotel.

The completion of the railroad made it much easier for activists to get their message out, and the movement grew rapidly despite the government shutting down the company in 1915.

In 1930, the Taiwanese People’s Party (TPP) informed the League of Nations that the Japanese government was manufacturing and selling opium to Taiwanese. The League’s opium officers were in East Asia and arrived in Taihoku (Taipei) on February 19.

The government tried to be on their side by making them stay in the railway hotel, so the TPP sent all the incriminating evidence there. Despite government interference, on March 1, Lin and his colleagues met with officers at the hotel.

It was one of the incidents that led the government to ban the TPP in 1931. A month after his disappearance, party co-founder Chiang Wei-shui (蔣 渭水) visited Lin at the hotel to discuss the matter. the future direction of the movement. The two had fallen out earlier due to ideological differences, and the discussion came to nothing as Lin was still against Chiang’s left-wing goals.

The next day, the Japanese police visited Lin at the hotel, asking if he and Chiang were planning to have another party. Lin replied that his stay was purely professional.

REMARKABLE PATRONS

In addition to Prince Kotohito, the hotel has hosted a number of prominent guests. He welcomed another prince, Kuni Kuniyoshi (the maternal grandfather of the current Emperor Akihito), in 1928.

There were “rare azure-eyed guests” including American aviator Art “Bird Boy” Smith, who arrived in 1916 as part of an Asian tour to show off his acrobatics. Smith’s performance inspired 16-year-old Hsieh Wen-ta (謝文 達) to become the colony’s first Taiwanese aviator. In 1923, a group of 450 American tourists on a luxury cruise made a day trip from Kirun (Keelung) and dined at the hotel.

In 1926, the Japanese revealed the name of the new variety of rice they were growing in Taiwan during a hotel ceremony. “Ponlai rice, Ponlai rice,” Katayama Saburo, then head of the productive industries bureau, read twice on stage.

Explorer and businessman James W. Davidson, author of The Island of Formosa: Past and Present, stayed at the hotel in 1931 while touring to promote Rotary International in East Asia. He made a presentation to prominent citizens during a lunch at the restaurant.

The hotel hosted the founding ceremonies of two important art associations: the Taiwan Watercolor Society in 1927 and the Taiyang Art Research Association (台 陽 美術 協會) in 1934.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rebuilt part of the hotel and continued to operate it until 1963, when it was razed to make way for the Jinhua Hotel (金華 飯 hotel) and the founding headquarters of Shin Kong Life Insurance (the current tower was not built until 1993).

Jinhua was replaced in 1973 by the Hilton Hotel (now Caesar Park Hotel), which was Taiwan’s first five-star international hotel.

Taiwan in Time, a column on the history of Taiwan that is published every Sunday, highlights important or interesting events in the country that either have birthdays this week or are linked to current events.

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