Sunday, 19 June 2011

Wushantou Reservoir (烏山頭水庫) Trip

Wushantou Reservoir lies very close to the Lioujia District of Tainan County, where the plains begin to meet the first foothills marching away into the distant mountains of Nanxi and Nanhua further out to the east where the other two reservoirs lie (Tseng-Wen [曾文水庫] and Nanhua [南化水庫] respectively). It is also the oldest of the three having apparently been constructed between 1921 and 1930 under the direction of the Japanese civil engineer Hata Yoichi during Formosa's colonization by the Japanese*.

Of course, the public information on Yoichi in English was not subjected to any sort of quality control, but the basic factual claims are clear enough, if sorely lacking in detail; I could have read a few pages on this fellow and not thought my time wasted.

The mapped layout of Wushantou Reservoir shown above is actually quite uninformative, since it shows only those spots deemed by the authorities to be of interest to visitors whilst failing to give a proper geographical description of the reservoir itself - notice how the reservoir is presented merely as a blue area fading to white as it disappears off the top of the board. For me this is a negative because the geography is actually quite interesting; from the top of the levy, Wushantou appears much smaller to the eye than either Tseng-Wen (曾文水庫) or Nanhua (南化水庫), and yet it is a fair size as its' disintegrated, chaotic-cactus-like appearance on this irrigation map below indicates.

Note the position of Tseng-Wen reservoir at the top of the map with its' two outflowing rivers to the north and south. The contrast is due to the fact that Wushantou reservoir lies well to the west of the mountains (which, though not shown on that map, cover the entire white area to the top of that image) with its minor constituent pools lying in the little troughs between the hills and ridges with small feeder streams running between and connecting them. It is possible to catch glimpses of some of these constituent pools from way up on the mountainside beneath the electricity pylons on route 174, but they cannot be rendered comprehensible from a single encompassing point unless it be from the air.

The blue mountains blocking the horizon of this image straddle the County districts of Dongshan to the north and left (with the Guanziling hot springs), Lioujia in the centre and Danei to the south and extreme right; on the other side of them is Nanxi district where the much larger Tseng-Wen (曾文水庫) reservoir can be approached. Wushantou reservoir itself however, seems to deflect all approach but from the west (which I think of as the "front") - even as it invites with glimpses of little half-villages on the other side...

Toward the south end of the western levy from which the reservoir is viewed (and from which these images above were taken) there is an unremarkable little mansion behind a grove of trees elevated on a natural hill, within which there is a statue of Jiǎng​ Jiè​shí (蔣介石, and known in the west as "Chiang Kai-shek" the "generalissimo", even though he was an incompetent general and mass-murderer of civilians**).

Wushantou reservoir must have been a favourite spot of the KMT leadership, since, to this very day, the staircase to the hill is prefaced by an immaculately maintained helicopter landing spot!

The statue itself is mounted on a plinth inscribed with the usual hagiographic guff, though the red lithographs*** set into the lower sides of the thing are remarkable for their anachronistic appearance today, highlighted by the mocking stains of already age-tinted birdshit.

Whilst the statue and all other artifacts on that hill were either rusting away, cracked, broken or in a general state of disrepair, the trees populating the grove were evidently being trimmed once in a while and generally looked after. They were mostly Junipers with a few Rosewoods, and one or two of a tree in which I have some interest: the Camphor tree (牛樟樹).

Aside from the petroleum base, camphor is the chief ingredient in anti-mosquito creams such as Tiger Balm, Mentholatum cream and Green Oil.

Blurry as this picture is (even on automatic focus, it's not easy to focus on little camphor berries in the breeze - and they were slightly too high to be got hold of between thumb and forefinger), it does at least give some detail on the camphor berrry. Back in the 1860s, the Americans (and later the Brits) had realized that camphor could be used, in conjunction with nitrocellulose, to produce the world's first plastic: celluloid. During the brief period of forty years or so between the ratification of the treaty of Tientsin in 1860, and the handing over of Formosa to the Japanese in 1895, Taiwan may well have been the world's foremost exporter of camphor (which other countries were exporting it?) - fulfilling a critical function in the global market for celluloid-based products (e.g. camera film, dolls, stationary), much like the semi-conductor industry in Taiwan today fulfills a critical function in the global market for consumer electronics products. This is another aspect of Taiwanese history which many Taiwanese are themselves unaware of.

Back to the red-propaganda nonsense; this one is on the east side of the 蔣介石 statue and features a fairly poor etching of a row of P40s (with cockpit canopies retracted) many of which were later captured by the (other) commies.

This image above shows the dictator gesturing toward what would seem to be the north end of Wushantou reservoir - he was perhaps inspecting repairs to the dam, as the water is released through a series of large pipes to the north end of the reservoir, set beneath its clay levy from which the previous images above were taken.

This image shows the dam outlet from an angle off to the left with the flat line of the levy clearly visible above. Of course the pipes will have been refitted in recent years but it's remarkable in a young country like Taiwan that this is a more than 80 year old piece of (Japanese) civil engineering still serving the agricultural needs of the farmers in Tainan County's central plains today.

To the left of that last image (hidden by the tree), there is a small building housing a museum dedicated to the history of the reservoir and the people involved in making it. I spent a little time in there, but it contained more than enough to suck me in for at least an hour, so I decided to quickly cool off under one of the showers they had built in the family play area, head off back to Lioujia to get some 雞肉飯 (chicken rice) and a beer and then see if I could drive around to the other side - the east side - of the reservoir and take some pictures from there while the light was still good.

Alas I didn't find any proper access roads leading down to the reservoir from the east side; route 174 just kept climbing into the mountains. There were however, a few tiny farmer's trails snaking away into the bamboo, strewn with dead leaves. There were no signs so I drove the bike a little way down one of these and then decided to get off and walk. After about 20 minutes going steeply downhill to what I hoped may have been one of Wushantou's constituent pools, I entered a little clearing full of lime bushes (青檸喬木) planted in rows beside a dried up stream with a few banana trees at the back.

A half of one of those limes, cut into two pieces, is what I put in my gin and tonic at night. It was eerily quiet down there next to that dried up stream; I was trespassing in any case, so I was concerned to get out quickly lest I be discovered and have to apologize to the owner and explain what I, some random foreigner, was doing wandering around with a professional-looking camera in his grove of immaculate lime bushes.

That little foray was disappointing (though not without interest and a certain disturbing discovery**** on my way back up the trail), and so I headed back to shoot the reservoir from the west side some more before heading off home.

The light had changed by this time due to the heavy clouds rumbling in from the mountains out east and I began to think I might get soaked. On the way back I stopped to photo the blue wharehouse of a steel rod supplier (for the yacht industry in Kaohsiung).

Given the circumstances in which I left Wushantou, it struck me as somewhat serendipitous to come across this apparition from Conrad's book. The inadequacy of words, indeed.

* Formosa was of course occupied by Japan from 1895 to 1945, following the Sino-Japanese war over Korea; yet it was actually the British Foreign Office which was partly responsible for this turn of events since it was they who issued a defacto sanction to the deal by indicating to the Qing their unwillingness to intervene on behalf of British trading interests on Formosa (I have papers for this somewhere which, if my memory serves me well, include copies of the written correspondence between the British Consul and the Foreign Office).

** It was under his rule that the KMT instigated periods of "White Terror" both in China and on Taiwan.

*** 1970s KMT propaganda, as evinced by the modern-looking train.

**** Of which I'd rather not say anything at this point (and for very good reason, so don't ask - I may relate what it was I found at some point in the future, but not now). Please bear in mind that this is my blog, and I am, in some ways, my own most important reader.


  1. Not a fact check, but a Miss Marple-style detective deduction: In 1945 Truman gave the final green light to drop the A-bomb on Japan. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. at that time. So I guess it's he that gave the planes to Chiang Kai-shek.

    Regarding Chiang being a mass murderer of civilians. I understood that he ordered massive number of Chinese communists killed, and consequent to that order, massive civilians killed (rather err on the side of killing ten innocent ones than letting slip of one guilty one was the modus operandi 快刀斬亂麻).

    However, is it possible to conceive a notion that in that historical time in China, Chiang's action was somewhat understandable? Basically I'm asking that is it possible to see a context, to see it from Chiang's perspective, that his decisions and choices were necessary to his mission of unifying China, that if he were to choose any other alternative it would have been worse? Is such a context excusing his action possible?

    I'm unclear on this issue and have conflicting thoughts about it. I grew up in Taiwan in the 60's. I was not aware of the so-called white-terror at that time. I did feel uneasiness towards police. I've lived in the U.S. since late 70's, and have learned a great deal of KMT's corruption and the so-called white terror lately. The term used at that time was simply martial law.

  2. Herman,

    The atomic bombs had nothing to do with the sale of the P51s.

    Truman took over from FDR in, I think, April 1945. So the question is whether the agreement for the planes to be sold was signed before or after that date. My bet is with FDR, but I need to check.

    "However, is it possible to conceive a notion that in that historical time in China, Chiang's action was somewhat understandable?"

    Understandable? Possibly. Excusable? No.

    "...that his decisions and choices were necessary to his mission of unifying China, that if he were to choose any other alternative it would have been worse?"

    I disagree that China "had" to be unified: that objective was nothing more than the outcome of a hive mentality.

    I believe the term "white terror" refers to specific incidents such as the 228 massacre.

  3. Michael,

    You are quite right to say the sales date is the critical point. Whoever was the commander-in-chief at that time was the one.

    I didn't mean to connect the P51s to the atomic bomb. I meant to connect them to the commander-in-chief. I did however half consciously mean to connect Truman to Chiang. For I question that if someone finds Chiang's action inexcusable, will he go so far as accusing Truman's action inexcusable? The history did record that these two men, through their orders, caused massive civilian deaths.

    You and I as civilians can talk agreeably that China did not need to be unified, that Chiang and KMT's propaganda machine brainwashed the masses on that score. But suppose you were a thinking person caught in that era in China, and were a soldier or military commander to boot, are you sure you would or could still hold the same view as a civilian?

    I venture to guess that a military man, the one who was not conscripted but joined voluntarily, would view it under the influence of "Nationalistic Pride." That this pride is a necessary and fundamental ingredient to a soldier-person. And one consequence for this military person is that, in order to succeed, the option of allowing his Nation to fall apart, to be divided into smaller pieces was simply not acceptable to him.

    I'm discussing Chiang as a military commander. It is perhaps more meaningful to discuss "Nationalistic Pride" than Chiang: that if a person is possessed by a Nationalistic Pride and is in a position of power, his action could not be much different from Chiang's. But I'm probably already out of my depth in saying all this.

    What's really more relevant here is the topic of "white terror", the "228 massacre". Because that plays such a big role in the antagonistic state in Taiwan today. I mean the political dramas between KMT, DPP, WYZ, ABC... (author unknown)... Perhaps someday we will continue this thread elsewhere. But until my mind is clearer, I'd better not add to the already massive half-baked opinions.

  4. "What's really more relevant here is the topic of "white terror", the "228 massacre"."

    Actually Herman, I think your comments about the necessity of "nationalistic pride" to a soldier at the time are at least as interesting as the consequences of the 228 massacre.

    Ideas have consequences through action - and that is why ideas are too important to be left to the "prestige" of the universities and academics let alone military generals.

    Plato's "Apology Of Socrates" and Popper's "The Open Society & Its Enemies" both admirably make the argument for the popularization of a critically rational attitude toward ideas.

    Chiang was in the position he was in partially as a consequence of certain political ideas and their pervasive influence at the time. But I will never excuse him - and that is because better ideas were available to him if only he had chosen to look and think again.

  5. What you say is fair enough, Michael.

    I will pick up the topic "idea-action-consequence-idea-action-..." with you another time.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  6. Interesting post Mike.

    Regarding the camphor trade, I don't think it the main use was celluloid products until fairly late on.

    Pickering writes that China was the main market and they were certainly using it for medicinal oils, flavouring (they used to make an ice cream with it!), scent etc. It was also used in ship building.

  7. That would be William A. Pickering, yes? I'd like to read more about him and about the camphor trade in general.

  8. You can get it online for free - great read. He really had some front, the lad.

  9. @James @Michael Fagan Regarding the use of a medicinal oil, it served a particular purpose, namely as a tranquillizer. It seems to have been the most common resort for a doctor to use camphor if he had to do surgery.

  10. BTW, Michael, your...ahem...good friend (sic) Flora Faun has a new letter out in Taipei Times this week!

  11. What do you want me to do Thoth? The Taipei Times have refused to publish my last five or six letters... why don't you give it a try?


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