A Throwback to Taiwan’s Golden Age: A Trip to Jinguashi

A view of Jinguashi and the Pacific Ocean from the town’s Shinto Shrine. Photos: Matthew Fulco

A hundred years ago, Taiwan was a Japanese colony with an ascendant gold-mining industry. When the Japanese colonial government established a Gold Mining Bureau, it divided the mining region in northern Taiwan into a western section, today’s Jiufen, and an eastern section, today’s Jinguashi. Both are now part of Ruifang District in New Taipei City.

Of the two old gold-mining towns, Jiufen is better known as a tourist destination. While scenic, Jiufen tends to get overrun with visitors, especially the tacky “Old Street” crammed with food stalls and souvenir shops. It’s not the place to go to get a sense of Taiwan’s history as a gold producer or former Japanese colony.

Just three kilometers away from Jiufen, Jinguashi seems a world apart. Its Gold Mining Museum, set up by the New Taipei City government in 2004, is integrated with well-preserved colonial Japanese architecture and a Shinto Shrine, so that a visit to the town feels like a seamless step back in time.

Because the copper ore enargite was also discovered at Jinguashi, both copper and gold were mined there. It became Taiwan’s most prominent mine, and the Japan Nippon Mining Co. built Asia’s largest gold and copper refinery in the area.

Taiwan’s gold production peaked in 1938, in the twilight of the Japanese colonial era. when Jinguashi produced 2,603 tonnes of gold, according to government data. Gold mining steadily declined thereafter, as rising costs limited profitability. The Taiwan Metals Mining Co., which started mining gold in Jinguashi after Taiwan’s retrocession to the Republic of China, finally shut down in 1987. 

The Gold Mining Museum is worth exploring for anyone with even a faint interest in geology or Taiwan’s past as a gold manufacturer. On display are a wide variety of gold samples, including glittering nuggets as well as many other rocks in which trace amounts of gold are present.

In some of the samples displayed, the gold is invisible to the naked eye. That’s because ore grades of 30 parts per million are usually necessary for people to be able to see the precious metal without using a microscope. Gold in most mines is invisible, yet rocks containing more than one part per million of gold are considered worth mining.

The best-known exhibit is a 220-kilogram gold bar that once held the Guinness record for the world’s largest pure gold ingot. It is indeed worth its weight in gold, approximately US$9 million.

During Taiwan Business TOPICS’ visit to the museum, numerous visitors took the opportunity to touch the gold brick (the museum allows that) through an opening in its display case. Those concerned about hygiene may prefer to look and not touch.

A few caveats about the Gold Museum: The Benshan No. 5 Tunnel, which is supposed to give visitors a sense of miners’ work environment, is currently closed for renovation, while Jinguashi’s signature gilded frozen dessert has been put on ice. When asked why the gold leaf-topped, soft-serve ice cream is unavailable, an attendant said that it was “too expensive” and “sold poorly.” At NT$150, the gold ice cream was not a lot pricier than Häagen-Dazs, but perhaps lacked the latter’s brand cachet.

Of Jinguashi’s colonial Japanese buildings, two are normally open to the public: the Crown Prince chalet and the Four Joined Japanese-Style Residences. The former was unfortunately closed during TOPICS’ visit, ostensibly for renovation. The Japanese colonial authorities reportedly built the mansion to host then Crown Prince Hirohito (later Japan’s emperor) but he ultimately never made the trip to Jinguashi.

The Four Connected Japanese-Style Residences (mistranslated as “The Four Joined of Japanese-Style Residence”) is one of the few remaining buildings of its kind in Taiwan. Constructed in the 1930s as a dormitory for senior Japanese managers, it is a fine example of early Showa period (1926-89) Japanese residential architecture.  The wooden structure and tatami flooring were ordinary at the time, but their earthy qualities seem extraordinary compared to the concrete, glass, and tile that dominate Taiwan’s architecture today.

Fit visitors to Jinguashi will want to hike up the mountain to see the Jinguashi Shinto Shrine, also known as Ogon Shrine or Gold Temple. Vandals damaged the shrine in the post-war era, when anti-Japanese sentiment ran high among some segments of Taiwan’s populace. Still, the massive stone torii – the gate which in shinto denotes a symbolic transition from the ordinary to the sacred – remains intact.

The remains of the Jinguashi Shinto Shrine, also known as Ogon Shrine or
Gold Temple. Photos: Matthew Fulco

Pass through the gate and you will reach the mountain’s peak. On a clear day, standing amid the shrine’s ruins, you can look out on the town of Jinguashi nestled in the emerald hills below and beyond to the Pacific Ocean glimmering azure.

Before leaving Jinguashi, it’s worth checking out a shakuhachi performance by virtuoso player Chou Sung-tsun who plays under the trees on a set of abandoned railroad tracks. Introduced from China to Japan in the seventh century, the shakuhachi is a bamboo flute traditionally used by Zen Buddhist monks for meditation exercises. It is a versatile instrument though, and Chou delighted some young spectators by playing “You Are My Sunshine” and on request, the theme song to the popular Japanese cartoon “Doraemon.”

Virtuoso shakuhachi player Chou Sung-tsun performs a traditional Japanese song. Photos: Matthew Fulco

Chou told TOPICS that he has been playing regularly in Jinguashi for the past four years, making the journey from his home in Taipei’s Tianmu district.  He clearly has a passion for the shakuhachi – and has even traveled to Osaka to participate in a concert of traditional Japanese music.

“I don’t know exactly why I enjoy playing here so much,” he says. “I guess the music just fits the scenery.”