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Have you heard of the container transportation history in Taiwan?

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What is a container?

Container transportation is an industry that seems far away from ordinary people. But if you think about it, a container ship in a port, a container truck running on the highway, or a container standing in the suburbs are not that far away from our daily life. So, what exactly is a container? How does it affect the social economy, and even your life and mine, when we can barely see it?

Keelung Container Terminal and Lianwai Road are close to the daily life of local people.

A container is a box-type transport compartment used to ship goods. Compared with the traditional transportation method used a hundred years ago – which consisted in putting goods directly in the cabin – the breakthrough development of container transportation lies in the use of these compartment to load goods. Moreover, the size of a container ship is not based on the traditional ton, but on the length of the container. According to the standard size formulated by the International Standard Organization (ISO), this type of ship must be 20 feet or 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, 8 feet 6 inches high. When browsing information about containers, a common set of English words “TEU” for “Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit” is actually the standard for "container ship capacity". If a ship has 1,000 TEU, it means that the container ship can carry 1,000 20-inch containers. Later, with the gradual maturity of shipbuilding technology and the increasing development of container transportation, larger and larger container ships were also developed. Now they are called “Terramax” with a capacity of more than 32,000 TEU!

The history of container ships only goes back a 100 years ago

The development of container shipping has witnessed the process of globalization in the 20th century. The birth of the first container ship can be traced back to the American truck tycoon Malcom Purcell McLean, who set sail from the port of Newark in the United States on April 26, 1956. But in fact, in the early 1950s, the concept of container shipping was not well understood by people.

Since the 1920s, the industry began to use stackers, and until the 1950s, some western ports installed conveyor belts to unload goods. However, manpower is often the last resort and the industry also relied on dock workers. At that time, the ships were mainly bulk carriers, and there was an open space for dry cargo on the lower deck. But this design was not conducive to commercial efficiency, because the interior of the ship was narrow, and the hull space was wider than the bow and stern, and dock workers had to know how to fill such irregular spaces. At the end of the voyage, the workers first placed the cargo on the dock, sorted it one by one and checked the labels before knowing which warehouse to move the cargo to.

Dock workers are working hard to unload the US aid materials from the freighter and sort them onto trucks and carts. Image credit: China Rural Revitalization Joint Committee (1963). "American Relief Supplies Arrived at Keelung Port". Authorized by the National Archives Reading Center.

After the 1950s, although the container has become a hot topic, there is no uniform specification. When a container is unloaded from a ship, it will be related to whether it is compatible with other companies' ships and railway trolleys. In 1965, the United States new international standard finally drew an end to the discussions between the manufacturers and the governments concerning the complicated container shapes and various problems that it would induce.

Keelung Port now has 15 container terminals.

Container Shipping in Taiwan

After the appearance of this invention, it took several years and even decades before it became widely known and accepted, and before it can be widely used in human daily life and economic activities. In the ten years following the 1950s, the concept of container shipping gradually took shape in the United States, and it rapidly grew global after the 1970s. It was also during this decade, by introducing container ships, container terminals, and a land transportation network, that Taiwan officially entered the era of container transportation, just in time to keep up with the global pace. Before that, Taiwan had professional ships divided by function. For example, early dry cargo ships were mainly refrigerated ships and timber ships carrying bananas and wood, or later specialized ships such as bulk carriers and ore ships. This was gradually replaced by container ships.

Introducing the bridge crane

The first container terminal in Taiwan appeared in Kaohsiung Port, which was officially opened in 1972. Afterwards, Keelung, Taichung, and Taipei Ports were successively established. One of the most important facilities around the container terminal is the bridge crane. It can easily lift several containers at a time, greatly shortening the working time of the container ship staying at the terminal. It is so powerful that it must be erected on a relatively solid foundation. The water depth must also be sufficient to dock container ships.

At this time, the Keelung Port was facing both problems of foundation and water depth and was seeking solutions to overcome these constraints in the process of building its container terminal. In order to solve the problem of limited terrain, a jetty was directly filled in Keelung Port. It was the very first container terminal here. In January 1972, the brand-new container ship "Oriental Leader" set sail from Keelung Port. Later, as the first container center was not enough anymore, a second and a third one were successively built. It was still difficult to continue to expand due to the limitation of the hinterland. Taichung Port and Taipei Port were later constructed too.

A bridge crane.

The current Keelung Port has a total of 57 piers and one port entry channel. The total area of the port area is 572.17 hectares. The harbor is roughly funnel-shaped, wide in the north and narrow in the south. Among the 57 terminals, there are 15 container terminals. 3 container bases are equipped with 35 to 40 tons of high-performance bridge cranes that can load and unload 13 to 18 rows of containers, and can handle 2 to 3 million standard containers per year (TEU). Standing like giants on the edge of the wharf, they move the hanger to the top of the container and align it with the hole. The four corners of the spreader are used to buckle the holes of the container, and the bridge crane driver communicates with the conductor on the ground to complete a hanging operation about every two minutes, every day. The dock workers in Keelung Port, in addition to facing the advent of the container transportation era, also encountered the impact of the privatization of stevedoring companies at the end of the 20th century. Most of them chose to return home or retire, and the longshoremen culture within port gradually faded with time.

Establishment of containers shipping companies: Yang Ming, Evergreen

During the development of container shipping in Taiwan, Yang Ming and Evergreen kept pace with each other and developed into internationally renowned shipping companies. Yang Ming was initially established and entrusted by the state. In response to the international situation after the 1970s, Taiwan was in an increasingly difficult situation. After its establishment in 1972, the government intervened in the company's operations with the purpose of consolidating the country's shipping resources. Since the end of the Qing Dynasty, China Merchant Steam Navigation Company (CMSNC) has officially becaome part of Taiwanese history. Among Yang Ming fleet, container ships played a very important role: until 1996 when it was privatized, there were 38 full container ships among the 47 ships in operation. Most of them grew rapidly after the 1980s, following the global wave of containerization.

Yang Ming detected the trend of these times and strengthened the competitiveness of its container ships. In 1987, the company built a 3042TEU container ship, which was the largest container ship in Taiwan at that time! In addition to building container ships and ordering containers, it also actively negotiated the lease of container sites, sent personnel to study abroad, and recruited a group of new employees, making full preparations for the upcoming era of container ships. By 1985, among the two popular routes in the world – the  Far East/America and the Far East/Europe – the TEU containers of Yang Ming accounted for 42.4% and 44% of the world's total TEUs respectively. To this day, when it comes to container transportation, Yang Ming is still one of the most representative world-class companies in Taiwan.

In less than a hundred years, the development of container transportation has greatly changed the previous model that relied on a large number of dock workers for loading and unloading operations. If the revolution started from the east coast of the United States, Taiwan was also involved due to the wave of globalization, including Keelung Port of course. Not only are ships replaced with new ones, but industrial changes will also follow, and people's concept of transportation and trade carriers as well, offering new possibilities for imagination and innovation.



Photography: Ru Mengnan

Translation from Chinese: Angelina Magne



Wang Yufeng, "Magnificent Waves: The History of Container Shipping in Taiwan", Taipei, Tianxia Culture, 2016.

Marc Levinson, “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger”, Princeton University Press, 2008

Dai Baocun, "Modern Taiwan Maritime Development: Junk Ships to Evergreen Huge Ships", Yushan Society, 2000.


To find more off the beaten track Keelung sights and sounds, click below to book a cultural walking tour!

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To find more off the beaten track Keelung sights and sounds, click below to book a cultural walking tour!

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