“Asia’s New Bay Area” Takes Shape in Kaohsiung

The Kaohsiung Music Center's "whales" will provide a series of intimate performance venues. (Drawing: Courtesy of Made In)

A vast plot of land once covered by wharves and warehouses is set to become the city’s new cultural and entertainment center.

Visitors to the site can see the steel-beam skeleton of the Kaohsiung Music Center’s main concert building rising on the wharf just off the Wu Fu Road Bridge, but for now the construction site offers few hints of what’s coming. Soon, however, Kaohsiung residents will be enjoying over 100,000 square meters of some of the finest cultural and entertainment venues in Taiwan – designed by Spanish architectural firm MADE IN and all located on the waterfront of a transformed Kaohsiung harbor.


Dubbed Asia’s New Bay Area, this section of the city will be home to a string of redevelopment projects, but the portion that’s likely to affect people’s lives the most is the Kaohsiung Music Center. The project will utilize both sides of the U-shaped waterfront where the Love River flows into the harbor, and it will feature jogging and bike paths, two light-rail stations, 17,000 square meters of “green spaces” with over 800 trees – plus plenty of shopping and food options.

But true to the name, facilities for musical performances will be the heart of the Kaohsiung Music Center. Currently at the construction site, a half dozen white, odd-shaped buildings seem to be sprouting out of the waterside off Hai Bian Road. The first part of the Music Center to be completed, these are what are being called the “whales” because of their rounded shape.

Each of the six whales will serve as an intimate concert venue – but if you’d rather just walk up the back of the gently angled whale and chill on its grassy roof, that’s fine too. A whale can accommodate an audience of 200 to 1,000 people, and the hope is that these relatively small settings will provide places for local bands and other performers to experiment, discover, and be discovered.

In a year or so, when you walk across to the other side of the Love River, you’ll find a building that looks like it’s on the wrong planet. The crown jewel of the Kaohsiung Music Center, it is provisionally being called the “Big Wave” building, but we’ll have to see what locals end up nicknaming this sci-fi temple to pop music.

The complex is actually two towers with steep escalator connections between them – designed to maximize space for big and small music events, as well as provide lots of open space between the towers for people to congregate before and after events. The Big Wave will include several smaller performance halls, plus a massive outdoor concert hall where 12,000 fans can enjoy the latest Korean mega group or that young wizard DJ who’s “so hot right now.”

Another 5,000 spectators can simultaneously enjoy an entirely different musical experience in the Big Wave’s indoor hall, and hundreds more can check out shows in the aforementioned smaller indoor performance halls.

When the Music Center opens sometime in 2018, returning Kaohsiung’s waterfront to its citizens, it will mark a sea change for Taiwan’s southern metropolis. And it all began in 2003 when the city tore down the long wall, started by the Japanese during the colonial era and later finished by the Kuomintang government, which closed off the entire waterfront area to all except port workers. Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s biggest port, has been known as Gang Du (港都) or Harbor City. But for many, many decades, the majority of Kaohsiung residents had no access to it.

The architect’s rendering of how the area is expected to look at night. (Drawing: Courtesy of Made In)

The story of the port goes back to those Japanese colonial times, when sugar, bananas, and other agricultural products were shipped by rail from farms in what today are the Ciaotou and Cishan Districts, as well as plantations in Pingtung, all the way up to Keelung, for transport back to the “home islands.”

Clearly, a better idea would be to export these goods from somewhere closer to their place of origin. By 1908, the Japanese had finished the first stage of a large-scale dredging operation, finally allowing large ships to enter the formerly shallow-water harbor of what was then called “Takao.” What is now the Yancheng District and the area known as Hamasin (the point from which the Gushan Ferry runs across to Cijin) were created with the soil pulled up by the Japanese port dredgers, becoming the first “downtown” area of Kaohsiung.

By 1912, the Japanese had completed stage two of the project, giving Kaohsiung a real port. But the area was heavily bombed by the Allies during World War II in a bid to slow Taiwan’s contribution to the Japanese war machine.

Post-war development

Harbors are critical infrastructure, and after the war the Nationalist government continued improvements to Kaohsiung Port, designating it for use to serve heavy industry such as the steel, petrochemical, and shipbuilding sectors centered in the area. After the “container revolution” in sea transport and Taiwan’s development starting in the 1960s into a major production center for the world market, Kaohsiung emerged as the island’s leading container harbor.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when Taiwan’s prowess as an export-oriented economy earned it a reputation as one of the “Four Asian Tigers” (along with Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore), the port ranked as one of the busiest container harbors in the world. At its peak between 1993 and 2000, it stood as the planet’s third-largest port in terms of container volume, in 1999 handling nearly seven million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), the standard measurement of container traffic.  By comparison, the leader, Hong Kong, registered 8.5 million TEUs in 1993 while second-place Singapore did just under that.

Over the last few decades, many Taiwanese enterprises moved their production across the Taiwan Strait, while at the same time Taiwan’s remaining industrial production increasingly consisted of compact, high-value, technology-oriented products that were more economical to ship by airfreight.

In addition, as China evolved into the world’s workshop, new or expanded ports were developed at breakneck speed along the Chinese coast. It soon was clear to many in Kaohsiung that its days as a leading global shipping hub were coming to a close.

Today, Kaohsiung continues to be a major port for Taiwan, but with its global ranking falling from third to 13th around 2012, huge plots of land that were once bustling with activity got quieter and then went silent.

It became evident that the time had come for some serious rethinking. In fact, though, re-imagining the harbor wasn’t a new idea. “All of our recent mayors and even successive central government leaders and presidents talked about plans for redeveloping the harbor,” Kaohsiung Urban Development Bureau Director Lee Yi-Der told Taiwan Business TOPICS at his office at City Hall. “But not much actually happened for a long time.”

Which is understandable. Parts of the port area belong to state-run or government-invested enterprises such as CPC, the national oil company, and China Steel, while the Kaohsiung Port Authority has control of other sections.

The ROC military was another major player, owning large tracks of land along the waterfront, including the Guangrong (Honor) Wharf, the spot from which many a soldier waved goodbye to family members or a special someone before sailing off to Kinmen or Matsu for compulsory military service.

In short, coming up with a workable plan for the revitalization of the harbor would require somehow getting the city government, state-run companies, port authority, military and the nation’s parliament and president to agree on a vision – with specific proposals and budgets acceptable to all – and then sell that vision to the public.

A tall order to say the least

Director Lee credits Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu with bringing all the elements together, but also lauds the work of former mayors who cleaned up the Love River, a project some argue helped kickstart the reinvention of Kaohsiung.

Mayor Chen, Lee says, was ultimately the most successful in pushing through plans, because her administration was able to generate compromise and cooperation. “The city had to figure out solutions for each area, such as forging 49-51% partnerships between the city and state-run companies,” Lee says. Without developing these “win-win” scenarios, he notes, the massively ambitious Asia’s New Bay Area project might never have gotten off the ground.

One aspect of the project did make things easier, Lee says: the fact that the vast majority of the land belonged to corporations or government agencies meant no residents had to be pushed out of homes to clear the way.

The futuristic architectural design is intended to reflect Kaohsiung’s dynamism and forward-looking spirit.

With several portions of the project finished and more just over the horizon, Lee is already thinking about the next mission: attracting solid investors and professional vendors to open and operate the Asia’s New Bay Area’s many potential businesses. The director had a poster specially commissioned to better explain the opportunities to foreign investors.

Promoting tourism

Pulling in tourists is also a top priority, and for that the city is again banking on its seaside location. The first cruise liners docked at Kaohsiung Port quite a few years ago, but the growth in the business has been rather weak. Although a report by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) last year named Taiwan as the third-largest cruise market in Asia (behind China and Singapore), much of that traffic has gone to Keelung. In Kaohsiung, passenger numbers dropped from over 130,000 in 2014 to just over 42,000 in 2016, according to the Taiwan International Port Corp. (TIPC).

Hoping to reverse that trend, the city is counting on the “if you build it, they will come” strategy.  Set for completion within a year or so is the Kaohsiung Port and Cruise Service Center, a behemoth of a building that will be able to accommodate modern “super cruise ships” of up to 220,000 gross tons. In fact, plans call for the terminal to be able to handle two of these giant vessels at once, processing 2,500 passengers per hour during peak times.

The city is already seeing encouraging signs of interest from the cruise industry. In mid-January, Carnival Cruise Lines announced five new routes to depart from Kaohsiung. The city hopes to attract tourists from around the region to fly into Kaohsiung and then embark on cruises from there. Considering that Kaohsiung boasts a conveniently located airport connected to a metro line, the city’s vision for cruise tourism spurred by a refurbished port does not seem like an impossible dream.

Most of the elements for the first stage of the Asia’s New Bay Area are due for completion by the end of 2018, but the work will go on. Kaohsiung has 2030 and 2040 timetables for further projects to reshape the entire port area, including more dredging to allow modern mega-container vessels to dock, while also upgrading port facilities for maximum efficiency.

The Port of Kaohsiung might have fallen from its once mighty perch near the top of the “world’s busiest,” but as Director Lee notes, its cargo throughput has still grown – just not as fast as a number of competing harbors. Kaohsiung handled 10.26 million TEUs in 2015, a big jump from the volume of the “good old days.” With continued innovation and creativity, Taiwan and Kaohsiung Port should continue to play an oversized role in world trade, Lee says.

The refurbished waterfront is expected to create at least 10,000 jobs, and perhaps many more. To foster further economic growth, the city government will be encouraging start-ups, small and medium businesses, and investors from everywhere – but, as Taiwan’s southernmost big city, with a special eye toward attracting capital from Southeast Asia.

One of the plans is to do more to promote the MICE sector (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions), and with the right facilities, coupled with southern hospitality plus the great weather Kaohsiung enjoys most of the year, the city should have much to offer.

Already a hive of activity, the Kaohsiung Exhibition Center (KEC) – designed by Australian architect Phillip Cox – opened in 2013 with a floor area of 270,000 square feet as part of the harbor redevelopment plan. Its launch helped cement the idea that Kaohsiung was serious about revitalization. Among the successful trade shows held at the KEC was the 2016 Taiwan International Boat Show, featuring Asia’s largest indoor boat exhibition.

The Kaohsiung Exhibition Center designed by Australian architect Phillip Cox. (Photo: Kaohsiung City Government)

Renewal and healing is a slow process. For years, huge tracts of land lay fallow after warehouses and other onetime parts of the port infrastructure had been torn down. Many might have concluded that the project had stalled, but Lee explains that much was going on behind the scenes, including a busy schedule of redrawing land plots, conducting decontamination work, and laying the foundations for what is now just around the corner.

Could Kaohsiung become a hot spot for tourists and international investors by 2020?  The city certainly thinks so, and Urban Development Bureau Director Lee – who spent years studying in Europe despite looking not a day over 40 – is enthusiastic about the future.

“If we work together,” Lee says as he points out spots on his big poster map, “we can make things happen and make things better.”