Visiting Keelung History Up Close
If you’ve ever been sightseeing in Taipei, you’ve probably noticed that there are hardly any pre-World War II sites left. Taipei is, generally speaking, a city that was deprived of its historical shape by the politics Kuomintang Party governing after the war. It and its history were transformed in line with the party’s Pan-Chinese ideology using billions of tons of concrete. The historic city gates of Taipei, for example, were either destroyed or “restored” in a foreign architectural style typical of Northern China, so that their original shape is almost unrecognizable. The only exception being the North Gate, which was saved by public protest.
To experience the history of Taiwan more authentically, I recommend also visiting some of Taiwan’s other cities. The town of Keelung, just north of Taipei, is a great destination if you’re wondering where to go next when staying in Taipei. As one of Taiwan’s oldest port cities, Keelung has long been Taiwan’s gateway to the world. Many of the developments that have produced Taiwan’s unique culture are particularly evident here and have produced historical monuments that you will not find anywhere else in Taiwan. I would like to introduce you to some of these monuments of Keelung and their historical backgrounds.
Did you know that Keelung was once occupied by France?
Keelung was occupied by the French army for almost a year during the Sino-French War (1884-85). The war was triggered by France’s attempt to colonize Vietnam, which the Chinese Empire tried to prevent and safeguard its as the region’s traditional hegemon. In the Hue Treaty of 1883 French troops forced the then-government of Vietnam (Kingdom of Dai Nam) to recognize in the French Republic as a protective power, which de facto turned the whole of Vietnam into a French colony. However in the same year, the Chinese government, too, sent troops to Vietnam to support the local government repulse the French and maintain the status quo. This way fighting between the armies of France and China broke out. As negotiations between the two powers failed, France tried to carry the war into the Chinese heartland beginning in August of 1884.
The French government considered Taiwan (which at that time was inhabited by about 2 million people) to be an easy target and tried to land in Keelung on 1 August 1884 and in Tamsui on 8 October of the same year. At the time Tamsui was a port opened to international trade, while Keelung was strategically important for the supply of battleships due to nearby coal mines. The Chinese garrison in Taiwan, however, had prepared for a French attack, so that they could repel the French landing in Tamsui and successfully circled the French troops in Keelung, without the French managing to gain control over the coal mines at Keelung. In total, about five thousand French troops were deployed in Keelung, of which about five hundred fell. The majority of the local population was displaced by the fighting, but could return after the end of the French occupation. After peace between China and France was closed in April 1885, French troops withdrew in June of the same year.
The war greatly influenced both Keelung’s and Taiwan’s later history. Keelung’s fortifications were greatly improved to prevent further attempts of foreign invasions. The hills around Keelung are today lined with numerous historic fortifications. Taiwan was upgraded into a province by the Beijing government, and Taipei, which due to its geographical proximity to Tamsui and Keelung served as the headquarters for Chinese commander Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳) during the war, was expanded to become the capital of Taiwan. The first railway line of Taiwan was further opened connecting Keelung and Taipei.
If you are interested in the events of the Sino-French War, I recommend you to visit Fort Ershawan (二沙灣炮臺). It is located on a hill east of the harbor and offers a great view over it. It was built in 1841 during the first Opium War to prevent a possible British landing in Keelung and modernized in 1884 in preparation for a French landing. During the French invasion, it served as a command post for Chinese General Liu Mingchuan, but was destroyed on 5 August 1884 by the bombardment of three French warships and then captured by the French. It was rebuild, but not further modernized after the Japanese takeover.
Today, most of the fortress is used as a park. While the historical cannons were unfortunately not on display the day I visited the fortress, I was able to enjoy the view over the harbor.
In the immediate vicinity of the fortress is a park with more recent military equipment remembering the Kinmen artillery battle of 1958 between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist troops.
Between the military equipment one can observe numerous dogs sleeping.
A memorial remembering the people killed during the 2.28 incident of 1947. At that time, in February and March of 1947, much of Taiwan’s population protested against the dictatorial regime of the Kuomintang Party, but their uprising was bloodily quelled by the National Chinese troops under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. Although Keelung was especially hit by the
incident and the first place the troops landed in 1947, the monument is surprisingly small, reflecting the fragmented historical memory of Taiwan. Near the fort, you can also visit numerous temples, as well as this small shrine, which seems to serve ancestor worship. Not far away there is also a cemetery dedicated to the French soldiers fallen in Keelung.
If you are interested in exploring Taiwan’s history in Keelung, be sure to check out our website Keelung For A Walk.