Maritime industry, histories and transformation in Kaohsiung harbor, Taiwan
Chang ChihChung 張 致中 in conversation with Gabriel Gee
Transcript by Daniela Baiardi
Gabriel Gee: You have a piece entitled Gevær (Riffle Gun) that just got an award at Kaohsiung museum of arts. It was made as part of a trip you did to the artic during a residence in Europe, in Scandinavia. But you are also working on the history of Kaohsiung harbor in Taiwan, where we are now, in the former docks.
Chang ChihChung / 張 致中: I started looking at ships and harbor history, and realized that I wanted to find out more. I got into another residency program here in Kaohsiung. My project as part of the program revolved around my fathers’ experience in the shipyard. Things here have changed a lot. My father had been working in the harbor, and there is a particular feeling from that experience. Because the harbor used to be famous in the world, boasting the 3rd biggest containers after Singapore and Hong Kong at the end of the 20th century. So, when it started to decline, the employees of the harbor felt it was an excuse for the city government to steal their place in the name of art and culture, which they are not interested in. In an interview with my father and his colleagues, it transpired they are not concerned by arts and culture at all, but they care about what used to be their property and belongings. Now this area in the harbor has had to be opened to the public. And they feel upset. So, my project here is to open the conversation and dialogue with my father, to teach me some more about his point of view, and his knowledge about ships and harbors. At the same time, I try to show him that arts and culture are not there solely to wipe out their histories. Rather, based on their histories, I try to build something new. I think it’s somehow, kind of convincing to him and he kind of supports me in doing this.
This year I began another project to get closer to the history of the harbor. This area is called port number one, this is the first one that was built. Now it is out use, ships got bigger, and these docks are too small, the entrance and canals are too shallow. There is another one, called port number two, at the south of Kaohsiung.It is a controversial topic, as there is used to be a fishing village there, Hongmaogang 紅毛港 (literally Ginger-Hair Port, named after the early Dutch settlements), pretty wealthy, where the early migrants to Kaohsiung had settled in the past; yet Kaohsiung harbor is a national entity, it doesn’t belong to the local government. The extension of the harbor wiped out these settlements, to extend the scale of the port. There has been lots of conflict and fights. It has been quite dramatic. The village had resources, the inhabitants went to other countries to make 3D animation demo, showing how they would make a ship and then sink it at the entrance of the port to block it. They don’t want others to get into the port. There was a protest against the government on 14 January 2002. Smaller-scaled protest at sea took place in May 1996, right before the first elected Presidential Inauguration of R.O.C. Taiwan, Teng-Hui LI (李登輝). The protesters hoped that the mayor of Kaohsiung City then would have had no choice but listened to them at such sensitive timing. However, the mayor failed them and left Kaohsiung for the event.
So, all these histories are very stunning and interesting to me, I want to get to know more. At the same time, I started to do this project here. I realized that few people know about these stories in Taiwan, even at the residence here in Kaohsiung. When I installed the exhibition, I stayed in the exhibition, and exchanged with the audience about what I had searched for and discovered, and people keep telling me they didn’t know about this history, across different generations. We have a very long maritime history, yet people don’t know about it, not even the people here. Even historians in Taiwan are not familiar with it.
GG: The work you showed at the Tina Keng Gallery in Taipei, Glory of Kaohsiung高雄之光, focuses particularly on the development of the port after the arrival of the mainlanders. The harbor has different layers of history. We see the former British consulate here on our right, the site was modernized by the Japanese government at the very beginning of the 20th century, and there is then the more recent developments from the 1950s onwards. You mention the importance of the connection with your father, your family. People have quite different personal stories in Taiwan. How does it work in your family? Does that play a part in the work that you are currently making?
CCC: For my family the harbor is just part of my father’s job. It doesn’t particularly belong to our lifestyle. The reason I started this research comes from my mother, and her family tree. I realized that my mother’s father, his family is from Penghu 澎湖 a series of small archipelagos on the left hand side of Taiwan. They left for Taiwan, when my grandfather was born. My mother and my grandmother do not eat sea food; they dislike seafood! As I began to know about their lives in Kaohsiung, it appears they tried to adopt the urban lifestyle, staying in the inner city, and away from anything related to Penghu I had not known that after so many years!
GG: Do you still have family in the archipelagos?
CCC: My uncle actually inherited a tiny piece of deformed land in a small village of Penghu, where my grandfather’s ancestral hall is located in. Some of the families still live there, while most of them are based in the urban area of the island or have moved to Taiwan already. When I was in Penghu for another field research in 2019, I contacted my uncle in advance for more detailed information, but he remembered quite little With regards to the projects for the harbor, my family didn’t get to know more about the development of the area. They just went “Oh okay, now there is a tourist attraction”; another place to visit, to have fun at the weekends. But about the past they didn’t care so much. When I was in the gallery in Taipei, and I showed my work with some other artists, I exchanged with members of the public, who recognized places and in the pictures I showed that depict Kaohsiung; some would say they come from here but they don’t live in the south anymore. Even some of my classmates who are from Kaohsiung, choose to stay in Tainan, as the atmosphere is much better for art and culture.
In my family we live in a harbor city, but our lives are not really connected to the sea. Even, I would say that I’m not a good swimmer at all! I’m learning but I’m not really good; parents tend to tell their children not to go to the sea or to the beach because it’s too dangerous. It’s not about pollution, but rather about nature being dangerous. I go hiking these days. My parents never went. Because they preferred to stay in the urban area.
GG: You use archive material in your work, photographs, films. Where did you find these images?
C: From the library, as well as from the interviewees. Because a lot of material is kept in governmental offices and is not accessible to the public. Here used to be the museum of harbor history. I was here for three months, I got back in early April, and tried to find materials. One of my father’s senior colleague works here as a volunteer. So, I thought I could find materials, but soon realized there is nothing at all. There is nothing in the museum now. I was so shocked, all the documents, all the models, and record were moved out. I asked the volunteers, they told me they are going to change this place into a restaurant or a coffee shop. The history of the harbor is not important to, because this property that belongs to governmental bureau. Now they think this place is better for some commercial purpose. I try to bring Father and my whole family here, because they saidit was about to close.
G: Maritime museums usually have such resources, there is one in Hong Kong, and Singapore has a rather strange maritime museum. Taiwan is particular as well, there is the Evergreen museum in Taipei, which has a proper collection, although it’s a private foundation.
C: There is another in one in Keelung as well, it also belongs to a private company, to Yang Ming.
G: It’s indeed striking that Kaohsiung has no maritime museum; your piece also looks particularly at the 1950s and 1960s period that is quite politically loaded.
C: I try to represent these histories. There is a history museum in Kaohsiung, and I tried to contact them but I’m just at the beginning of this.
G: Set up a maritime museum!
C. I visited the Netherlands where I got to see the maritime museums, in Amsterdam and Rotterdam; I was so impressed. This is how it should be! I was especially impressed by the museum in Rotterdam, it’s great for the kids to understand maritime culture. When I spoke with my father, we both agreed that the modernization of ports takes the coast and the ocean away from people, as it gets more dangerous and difficult with the scale construction to access the sea. Here we know about the river, but we didn’t get to know about the harbor. You have to teach the new generations about the port, so, they can understand it and get along with it. But I think here we are not doing this. So, I marveled at the museum in Rotterdam, where they get kids to know how people work in the harbor through games.
The work I made in Kaohsiung started with a model ship made by my father, he initially trained to become an engineer, but then became a government officer, he didn’t really get the chance to be involved in ship construction. When he found abandoned wooden parts of an abandoned ship model, he decided to make a ship out of his interest; I was only five or six years old. The model was that of a mud barge, but he tried to transform it into a huge cruise ship; the ratio is wrong. When I started looking into this project, I asked him if I could use the ship as part of the exhibition. He was embarrassed about it, told me the model was all wrong. But for me it was interesting, because he knew the proportion were wrong, but he still made it. At this point, Kaohsiung had been so prosperous as a harbor city, and has been able to build the port infrastructure on a huge scale; the ship then becomes a symbol of that story, and my father has been part of that story, which is reflected in the model, so I chose to start the conversation from the ship. There are three parts in the exhibition, one was dedicated to the documentation, the interviews, that document the histories that were told to me by former harbor officers. There is a film from the cultural bureau, together with materials I gathered in the area, they are projected on the wall. I also organized a workshop at Pier 2, as they want us to do more things with citizens, I teach people how to do cyanotypes, I teach some basic knowledge about the ships, such as flag signals. The works of the students are shown as a collective piece. I also used text and material from the books on display, which are very important for me, and I wanted the audience to be aware of it. Such as this one, this is from the ship director, which was shown at TKG+, underlining that the ROC is an ancient nation is an ancient nation originating from mainland China, thus not familiar with engaging and developing the ocean after coming to Taiwan. I made two videos, which are like anchor points. One is from Kaohsiung, taken in the yards in the harbor, from the berth side; the other was made in Norway, I put it in a different space. In the show you start in Kaohsiung, then you go further and further away, to the end of the world in the artic. And then I come back to start this project. This takes place in the warehouse P2, which is the first warehouse that was used for the arts here in the former restricted area of the port.
Nearby you have Shipbreaker Street. These buildings were illegal, there was a lot of controversy about it. The government tried to remove them to put a park. This takes us back to the Japanese period. The area was always in the Japanese plan as a park, the road is named park road. However, it became a shipbreaker street. I did many interviews with people in this era, to ask how people work, and how they survived the controversy. In Taiwan there are no shipbreakers anymore, it’s become illegal. People there are happy when younger generation are interested in the history and talking to them.