Lighthouses have long had a unique hold on the human imagination. They are neither of the sea nor of the land. They exist in a liminal zone on the border between the elements, between the known world of houses, streets and hills and the dark, unknowable depths of the ocean.
On the one hand, they are expressions of man’s noblest ideals: structures whose sole purposes are to save lives, to reassure the lost, and to let societies prosper. On the other, they are places of exile—barren, lonely prisons that have driven some of the men who keep them alight to murder and madness.
In the popular imagination, they seem to embody both the highest and lowest our species can aspire to: the brightest light and the deepest darkness.
As a port city with its back to the mountains, Keelung has always looks seaward to seek it’s fortunes, prepare for the future, and define its identity. Lighthouses may be a symbol universally understood, but to places like Keelung they are uniquely able to tell the story of the place its people.
Keelung Lighthouse sits on a finger of land known as Wanrenduibi—“Pile of 10,000 People.” It acquired this memorable epithet due to the wave-cut abrasion landscape formed by pedestal rocks, which from a distance look like a crowd of people’s heads on the rocky, intertidal flat. Although similar landscapes can still be found at Heping Island and Yeh Liu, it had largely disappeared from here. Nonetheless, the name has stuck.
Built by Japanese in 1899 and lit in 1900, the cylindrical white-brick beacon is the oldest lighthouse in the city. Originally a kerosene lamp, it was converted to acetylene in 1913 then electrified in 1932. Like every lighthouse in the world, Keelung’s has its own unique “characteristic” that allows sailors to recognise it even the darkest night: Two flashes of white light every seven seconds.
Coming after the earliest lighthouses built during the Qing dynasty by the British-run Maritime Customs Service and before those built by the Republic of China government after WWII, Keelung is part of the “second wave” of Taiwanese lighthouses built under Japanese occupation from 1895-1945.
The construction of this local icon marks a historical turning point that forever changed Keelung’s history. In the early years, few large ships drew into the town’s harbour, preferring Tamsui near Taipei or Anping near Tainan. When the Japanese took over, however, they rapidly developed it into their most important port in their new colonial possession, dredging the waters around Wanrenduibi that carve out deep-water berths suitable for cargo carriers.
Keelung Lighthouse was an imperative part of this process, lighting the waters around the western docks that were developed when those at the inner reaches of the harbour proved insufficient for all the incoming traffic. It was also provided with a red arc lamp to highlight the Xinlai Reef that lay submerged outside the port waters and was responsible for several wrecks.
That light, like Chiutzu Shan Lighthouse, was made redundant by the detonation of Xinlai Reef and subsequently removed, leaving Keelung Lighthouse the only operation light onshore in Keelung.
The facility is staffed year-round and equipped with a two-way radio to communicate with far-off Pengchia Yu Lighthouse. Although the main compound is off-limits to tourists, the view of this historic sentry standing guard at gates to the city whose fortunes it helped make is more than worth it.
Pengchia Yu Lighthouse
Thirty nautical miles (56 kilometres) north of Keelung, Pengjia Islet is the most distant of the “Three Islands to the North” that fall within Keelung City limits. It can only be seen from the shore on the clearest of days—something the “Rainy Port”, as Keelung is affectionately called, famously lacks.
Out of sight and out of mind, Pengchia Yu Lighthouse, crowning the islet’s forbidding mountain ridges, is a hidden gem of Taiwan’s maritime past: it is Keelung’s second-oldest light, designated a municipal heritage site in 2015.
Pengjia was first settled in 1853 by members of the Peng family who give it its name (literally “Peng Family Islet” although the second character was later changed to another with the same sound). However, it was abandoned when it was attacked by the French navy in the Sino-French War of 1884-5. Like the rest of Taiwan, Pengjia fell under Japanese control following the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.
After a single month saw 14, mainly Japanese shipwrecks, the port authorities decided they had to act to make the sea approaches to Keelung safer.
Work began on the tower in 1906, but was suspended due to strong monsoon winds and unforgiving sea conditions that made the transportation of construction materials difficult, delaying its completion until 20 July 1909.
The cylindrical, white-brick tower is a relatively modest 26.2 metres tall, but owing to the 130-metre mountain it stands on it is Taiwan’s highest light. It is orbited from its base up to its lantern dome by a set of iron rings for engineers to climb—a feature rarely seen on lighthouses anywhere in the world.
During the Second World War, Pengchia Yu Lighthouse was targeted by Allied bombers four times: the first hit it took on 9 January 1945 put it out of commission, while subsequent raids on 11 January and 15-16 May caused further damage to the tower and ancillary structures. It was finally relit on 16 June 1946, following repairs by the Republic of China’s Customs Service.
In 1993 the light was electrified, but the station still has not been fully automated. Every month, the Yun Hsing lighthouse service vessel steams out to Pengchia Yu to rotate staff who tend to the light and to deliver provisions.
Chiutzu Shan Lighthouse
Looming high over the western docks of the Port of Keelung, Chiutzu Shan Lighthouse was the first lighthouse designed and constructed by Taiwanese, instead of the Japanese or Europeans working for the Qing Customs Service.
The area around the hill on which the lighthouse stands—Mount Chiutzu—was first developed by the Japanese in 1924-28 when they built pier 14, as the Port of Keelung rapidly grew to become the most important in all of Japanese-administered Taiwan. For thousands of years beforehand, it had been a quiet, bucolic expanse populated only by aboriginal tribes.
As Taiwan rebuilt its war-damaged infrastructure and the export-driven economy took off, the Port of Keelung—still Taiwan’s busiest at the time—went into overdrive. Manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it was the harbour that never slept.
So many ships from around the world were calling at Keelung, increasingly large and cumbersome and helmed by mariners who were unfamiliar with the topography of the local seabed and its navigational hazards, that the port authority decided to make sailing into Keelung simpler. The main obstacle that incoming ships had to avoid was a clutch of rocky shoals just off the coast called Xinlai Reef.
That’s where Chiutzu Shan came in. Constructed and lit in 1956, it was erected above and beyond Keelung Lighthouse to form a pair of leading lights. Viewed from a ship at night, the two lights would become vertically aligned, one on top of the other, when the vessel was positioned on the correct bearing to pull into port and steer clear of the reef. If the vessel was on an incorrect course, the lights would not align.
To fulfil this role, Chiutzu Shan Lighthouse had to be both higher and brighter than Keelung Lighthouse, since it was set further inland but had to be just as visible. Although Chiutzu Shan Lighthouse is only 11.9 metres tall, its lantern outshone its older partner, burning with he strength of 28,000 candles and reaching 16.6 nautical miles across the sea.
But the partnership would last less than four decades. In May 1987 the port authority announced plans to build new wharves and expand the the western docks. To clear the sea floor for these new berths, Xinlai Reef was destroyed by explosives in 1989.
In March that year, the light was extinguished. Since it no longer served any navigational purpose, the tower was painted green to match the military base. Forgotten and forlorn atop its solitary hilltop, Chiutzu Shan Lighthouse simply faded into the background, subsumed by the vegetation that grew around it. Since the area was a controlled military zone, visitors hoping to pay their respects to the lost light of Chiutzu Shan were turned away, disappointed, by soldiers at the barbed-wire gates.
Chiutzu still has no navigational purpose, but it could have another purpose: tourism. Taiwan’s lighthouses attract some 1.2 million tourists annually, and the government has wisely decided to bring this one-of-a-kind lighthouse back to life for this reason. The military base around Chiutzu Shan has moved in recent years, and the lighthouse has been repainted back to its original, brilliant white coat.
Although the area has yet to be officially rezoned and the path up is still under construction at time of writing, it’s well on its way to returning to its former glory.
Keelung Tao Lighthouse
Keelung is known as the “Gateway to Northern Taiwan,” so it’s only appropriate that this doorway also has a doorsill.
The Keelung Sill is a submerged reef that stretches across the sea floor southwest of Keelung Islet, the steep volcanic island two nautical miles (3.8 kilometres) off the city’s coast. If you look westward from Badouzi, you can see a stretch line of whitecaps where currents ram into the reef and surge up.
Laying some ten metres below the water, the sill did not present a mortal danger to the sail ships and early steamers that plied the seas when Keelung was first opened as a treaty port in 1860, and drew only a few metres. But as ships grew larger over the decades their keels reached ever deeper into the water, coming perilously close to hidden dangers like the Keelung Sill.
But like so much else around the world, that would be irreversibly changed by the revolution in shipping known as containerisation.
As the US economy took off after WWII, trucking magnate Malcolm Mclean envisioned loaded trucks that could be driven directly onto and off of cargo ships, saving the average eight days it took to unload ships’ cargo by hand.
Realising that if these carts could be separated from the chassis they’d not only be able to save the space taken by truck wheels but could also stack them, the first container was dreamt up by McLean in 1949. Seven years later, the world’s first container ship, SS Ideal-X, set sail carrying 58 containers. Realising the efficiency of the new system, the world hasn’t looked back since.
This new breed of massive, every-growing container ships settled more than ten metres into the water. They had to assiduously avoid the waters around Keelung Islet and pass through the deeper waters around Heping Island instead in order to safely pull into the Port of Keelung and deliver their cargo.
Keelung Tao Lighthouse was thus built atop the precipitous mountain cliffs of the island and beaconed in 1980 to help these hulking new vessels find safe passage into what was, at that time, not only Taiwan’s biggest port but also the world’s seventh-largest port in terms of containerised cargo volume.
The 12.3 metre octagonal structure was made with construction materials transported by cable cars and workers who climbed the 200-meter winding paths every day. It was then draped in vertical, black-and-white pinstripes—one of only three lighthouses nationwide to sport this unique pattern.
It was refitted to become Taiwan’s first solar-powered lighthouse in 1998, and further equipped with a small wind turbine in 2006. Like much of the Taiwanese coastline and offshore islands, it was an off-limits military control zone until relatively recently, opened to civilians only since 2001. During the high season, boats shuttle tourists from the city docks to Keelung Islet, where a new pier, pavilions and footpaths made the climb up to the light far easier than it must have been for the hardy lighthouse-builders of yesteryear.
Lighthouse Heritage Museum
On a drizzly winter’s day, there’s a good chance you’ll be the only visitor to the Lighthouse Heritage Museum between the Chiutzu Shan and Keelung lights.
As you walk into the building—an unassuming garage just off the busy road filled with lorries shuttling to the western docks—they’ll turn on the lights just for you. One by one, the collection of over 60 lamps and optical systems will ignite around you like the lantern room of a vast landlocked lighthouse.
The museum, which opened on 1 March 2017, shines a light on the illustrious history of lighthouse technology, as it evolved from wick oil to luminescent and acetylene flash lamps up to electric and LED lights, as well as auxiliary gadgets such as automatic light bulb changers and sun salves.
Among the lenses exhibited are a pair of Fresnel lenses manufactured in France in 1895. Hailed as “the invention that saved a million ships,” these revolutionary devices replaced the smooth, curved shape of conventional lenses with a series of concentric grooves that rise and fall like a rippled surface of water. These cause the light rays to bend and collimate into a single focal length that could sweep much further across the dark, inky ocean.
Yet what makes this building truly special isn’t the collection of artefacts but the dusty, unkempt workshop beside it—the only one of its kind in Taiwan.
Whether they’re from Taiwan’s northernmost outpost in the Matsu archipelago or from tropical Taiping Island in the South China Sea, whenever any of the gear in Taiwan’s 36 lighthouses need tending to they come here. When they do so they’re transported aboard the vessel Yun Hsing, which sets out from its home port in Keelung to sail between every lighthouse nationwide, conducting maintenance and transporting essential goods and rotating personnel.
Even though Keelung’s lighthouses are not the oldest, tallest, or most iconic in the country, the city is, in effect, the national lighthouse capital of Taiwan.
The decision to open up this workshop to visitors and convert part of it into a museum was part of an ongoing initiative to restore Taiwan’s light stations and develop them as tourist attractions. This began soon after 1 January 2013 their administrations and management passed from the Department of Maritime Affairs within the Directorate General of Customs, under the Ministry of Finance, over to the Maritime and Port Authority within the Ministry of Traffic and Communications.
That might just sound some bureaucratic gobbledegook at first, but this seemingly bland fact actually spotlights another fascinating detail about Taiwan and its lighthouses that sets from apart from the rest of the world.
Up until that point, Taiwan was the only country in the world whose lighthouses were operated by the nation’s customs bureau. This was because China’s earliest modern lighthouses were built by the Maritime Customs Service, an international organisation that was officially a part of the Qing dynasty government but managed by Britons (and, later, one American) and staffed by people from all over the world.
The Republic of China inherited this idiosyncratic relic in 1912 and brought it with them to Taiwan after the war, where it underwent numerous reforms but remained in place when into the twenty-first century.