Touring the Remains of Taiwan’s Sugar Industry

A locked warehouse door at Suantou Sugar Refinery bearing the name and logo of Taiwan Sugar Company. Photo: Rich Matheson

The island’s economy may no longer revolve around sugar cane, but many reminders of that period remain.

Several of the world’s poorest countries are dependent on sales of a single agricultural commodity, among them Burundi (the livelihood of 55% of the population is tied to the coffee crop) and Malawi (tobacco represents over 70% of export revenue). It is hard to imagine nowadays, but Taiwan was once in a similar situation. Just before and for years after World War II, sugar was the mainstay of its economy.

Sugarcane, a species of grass that reaches about two meters in height and slightly resembles bamboo, has been grown in Taiwan for at least as long as Han Chinese have been present on the island. The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945, nurtured the local sugar industry. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered almost 170,000 hectares, a fifth of Taiwan’s farmland. Cane was grown from Linkou in the north to Hengchuan at the southern tip, on the east coast as well as throughout the western lowlands. One in seven Taiwan households had some connection to the industry.

At its peak in 1950, sugar accounted for 73.6% of the ROC’s exports by value. But since the 1970s, due to competition from Brazil and other producers, Taiwan’s sugar industry has been in unstoppable decline. The number of active refineries has fallen from 49 to just three.

The growing, transportation, and processing of sugar have left a lasting physical imprint in almost every part of Taiwan, however. More than a dozen shuttered mills are still extant, and hundreds of kilometers of railway laid by sugar companies remain in place.

Jack F. Williams, then an associate professor of geography at Michigan State University, asserted in a 1977 paper, Sugar: The Sweetener in Taiwan’s Development, that “no discussion of Taiwan’s historical geography would be complete without reference to the role of the sugar industry.” According to Williams, the Dutch East India Company, which controlled southwest Taiwan between 1624 and 1662, “recognized [sugar] as a profitable commodity.” Sugar exports rose tenfold to around 1,300 tons between 1636 and 1660.

By the late 18th century, some 18,000 tons of sugar were leaving Taiwan for overseas markets each year. Japan was by far the most important export customer even then, but the industry made slow progress until the colonial period, when Japanese investors responded positively to subsidies offered by the island’s new rulers.

Taiwan’s sugar industry also benefited when Japan introduced a sugar consumption tax in early 1901. Instituted to repay debts run up during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and to fund a rearmament program (Tokyo was anticipating the war with Russia that broke out in 1904), this ill-conceived levy raised very little money. But for Taiwan-based sugar firms subsidized and protected by the colonial government, it brought an unintended yet substantial advantage over Japan-based sugar producers.

The colonial era saw impressive efficiency gains. Between 1915 and 1939, the amount of sugar produced per hectare harvested rose from 2.76 tons to 9.91 tons. Even now, in few places around the world is it possible to consistently produce much more than 10 tons of sugar per hectare of cane. 

Unlike tobacco, salt, camphor, or opium, sugar was never a government monopoly in Taiwan. But nor was it a perfect market. According to Williams, the industry association backed by the colonial government “became in effect a giant trust that controlled the entire sugar industry. The various sugar corporations operating in Taiwan reached collective agreement, through the association, on the prices to be paid farmers, production and supply of cane to mills, marketing of sugar, and other matters…Not only were the Taiwanese squeezed out of business, but along with them went the weaker Japanese firms.”

After World War II, Japanese-owned assets were combined to create the Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC). A state-run enterprise since its inception in 1946, TSC still owns more than 50,000 hectares of land–an area greater than Taipei City and its suburbs of Banqiao, Zhonghe, Yonghe, and Xindian combined. A number of industrial zones, such as the Southern Taiwanese Science Park, were created on former sugar plantations. In 2013, TSC made a small profit on revenue of just under NT$42 billion (US$1.4 billion).

Kaohsiung’s Qiaotou plant

Taiwan’s first modern sugar-process facility operated from 1901 to 1999 in what is now the Kaohsiung suburb of Qiaotou. The 20-hectare site, which processed up to 1,000 tons of cane per day, remains almost completely intact.

Squeezing juice out of cane is energy intensive, but at Qiaotou and other refineries crushed cane fiber (known as bagasse) fueled the boilers. U.S. bombers targeted Taiwan’s sugar refineries near the end of World War II because another by-product, ethanol, was important to the Japanese military.

A small part of the complex was demolished amid controversy to facilitate construction of the Kaohsiung MRT’S Red Line (the name of the station is spelled “Ciaotou Sugar Refinery”). In addition to the refinery itself, the site contains worker dormitories and air-raid shelters, and architects rate the buildings highly for their baroque and Japanese features.

The on-site museum (Tel: 07-611-3691; is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; free admission) is small but worthwhile if you read Chinese. On weekends and national holidays visitors can take a short ride (NT$80 for adults; NT$50 for children, senior citizens, and the disabled) on one of the trains that replaced ox carts in 1907 as the principal means of moving cane from plantation to refinery. But for many people, less tangible sensations of space and history are key aspects of Qiaotou’s appeal. Lingering beneath the old banyan trees while watching butterflies is a good way to spend time there.

Part of Qiaotou Sugar Refinery is now called the Ten Drum Ciaotou Culture Park and serves an educational base and performance space for the Ten Drum Art Percussion Group. On weekends, the troupe performs its electrifying adaptations of traditional temple-parade drumming. During the summer, the culture park hosts visiting drum groups from Japan, Korea, and elsewhere.

Qiaotou is in fact the second former sugar refinery utilized by Ten Drum. Since 2007, the group’s main base has been what is now called Ten Drum Culture Village (Tel: 06-266-225; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; admission NT$300 for adults, NT$280 for senior citizens and students) in Tainan’s Rende District. The smokestack of this long-closed TSC facility now bears the words “Ten Drum” in English and Chinese, and is a useful landmark if you are arriving by train (get off at Baoan Station, turn right and walk for 15 minutes).

Tourists wander through Ten Drum Culture Village in Tainan.

There is more to Ten Drum Culture Village than the troupe’s music. Under the terms of their contract with TSC, Ten Drum is also responsible for preserving the local ecosystem and the site’s sugar industry relics. An especially interesting corner is the drum workshop; the fulltime drum maker working here is in his late 50s and is one of just six or seven people in Taiwan still able to make drums the traditional way. Drop by and you may see him curing a buffalo hide or adjusting the clamps that stretch the leather so the membrane is taut and the sound just right.

The buildings that now form Soulangh Cultural Park in Tainan’s Jiali’s District; Tel: 06-722-8488; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed-Sun; free admission to park; some activities and exhibition charge admission) functioned as a sugar mill between 1908 and 1998.

To learn about the sugar-making process, one of the better places to go is Suantou Sugar Refinery, located just a few minutes’ drive from the Chiayi High-Speed Rail Station. The refinery’s crushers, rollers, pulping vats, and boilers have not been used for over a decade, but still remain in place. The inside of the mill is open to the public, and each item is labeled in Chinese. Individuals fascinated by industrial heritage (or industrial archaeology, as it is called in the UK) will spend a happy hour gazing at the rusting yet intensely photogenic infrastructure.

For Taiwanese day-trippers, Suantou’s still-functioning locomotives are a major attraction. Those who grew up in Taiwan’s rural southwest before 1990 likely recall seeing TSC’s 762mm (30-inch) gauge trains trundling across the countryside. They may cherish memories of clambering over parked wagons, chasing after trains in the hope of snatching a few canes to chew on at home, or even riding a TSC passenger car.

Sugar trains still run for tourists at Suantou Sugar Refinery in Chiayi Country. Photo: Rich Matheson

In Chinese, these trains are often referred to as wufenche [五分車], literally “five tenths car,” to distinguish them from regular Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) engines and cars, which run on 1,067mm (42-inch) gauge tracks (qifen, “seven tenths”). In Taiwan, only the High-Speed Railway and the mass rapid-transit (MRT) systems in Taipei and Kaohsiung are standard gauge (1,435mm or 56.5-inch).

At Suantou, tourist trains leave the refinery’s colonial-era passenger station every day at 10am and 3pm; extra services are put on when needed. Tickets are NT$100 for adults, NT$80 for students, and NT$50 for seniors and infants. As you head out at a speed of 15km/h for a short tour of neighboring fields, an onboard guide introduces (in Mandarin and Taiwanese) the area’s history, flora and fauna. The guide will tell you that the rats inhabiting the can fields grow big and healthy, and are a delicacy served in nearby restaurants.

Besides Qiaotou and Suantou, sugar trains carry tourists at Xihu in Changhua County and Wushulin in Tainan City.

TSC passenger services, which ended in 1982, allowed people to travel from fairly remote spots such as Suantou to TRA stations where they could board north-south trains. At its peak , TSC operated more passenger stations than TRA does now. A few stations, including ones in Lugang in Changhua County and Yanshui in Tainan City, have been renovated for tourism purposes. Others, such as the tiny stop in Chiayi County’s Yizhu, have been forgotten. Not long ago, most of the Chinese characters on the front of the station had fallen off, while the tracks and much of the platform were overgrown with foliage. A tramp had taken up residence in the stationmaster’s office and taped plastic bags over the broken windows.

TSC’s diversification

Just as Royal Dutch Shell no longer deals in the seashells that gave it its name, TSC continues to diversify away from the production and sale of sugar. TSC units grow orchids, raise livestock, run gas stations, and make ice popsicles. The lollies are sold at several former refineries, and the range of flavors is impressive. The azuki bean, taro, and pineapple variants are popular, while the sugarcane-juice popsicles are both refreshing and appropriate. Options for the adventurous include soy sauce and yeast.

Last year in east Taiwan, TSC’s Leisure Business Division launched its most exciting venture to date. Rather than demolish what used to be senior managers’ housing at the former Hualien Sugar Factory in Guangfu Township and redevelop the land, TSC has renovated the Japanese-era wooden bungalows and turned them into one of the region’s most attractive lodging options.

Most of the 28 rooms in Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory Guesthouse (Tel: 03-870-5881) accommodate up to three people and cost NT$2,880 to NT$4,800 a night, depending on the season. Guests sleep on tatami mats, and don yukata (Japanese dressing gowns) after soaking in ofuro (high-sided wooden Japanese bathtubs). According to a local Chinese-language blogger, “The style allows you to feel the beauty of the Japanese culture of silence, soft colors and soft lighting.”

Rooms come with modern conveniences like air-conditioning and flat-screen TVs. Guests can play table tennis and billiards in the factory’s entertainment center, or borrow bicycles and pedal to Guangu’s small downtown, about 1 kilometer away.

Some 1,250 hectares of former sugar plantations near Guangfu have been designated as the Danongdafu Forest Park. Unlike the national forest recreation areas managed by the Forestry Bureau, the park is neither hilly nor at a high altitude. Created with ecological diversity and recreational potential in mind, it should also create jobs in an area where several villages have lost most of their residents since the sugar refinery closed in 2002.

For those curious about the role of sugar in Taiwan’s development but unable to leave the Taipei area, Tangbu Cultural Park (156 Dali St; open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday; free admission) in the capital’s Wanhua District preserves a few relics and displays a great deal of background information (almost entirely in Chinese only, however). The refinery itself was demolished decades ago to make way for apartment blocks; three warehouses, within walking distance of the Longshan temple MRT Station, are all that remains.

Between 1911 and 1942, cane grown in Linkou and Sanxia was brought here for processing. Most arrived via a network of man-powered rail cars known in Japanese as daisha. Even though the refinery was at a lower elevation, meaning gravity was on the side of those pushing the wagons when loaded, each one-way journey took well over two hours. Old photos of laborers moving daisha stacked high with canes are displayed inside the park. These images are a reminder that, however sweet Taiwan’s sugar tasted, producing it was, to use the Mandarin expression, xinku [辛苦], “bitterly exhausting.”

- This article originally appeared in the July 2014 “Travel and Culture” issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS.