Chiayi Tobacco Factory

When I was young my dad took me to the factory he works in a few times. It was, and still is, a huge place full of noise and movement. I remember the robotic arms made me a little nervous. The complexity of the machines gave a lasting impression, and I've since liked to be around industry and machinery.

I had an exhibition open in Chiayi recently. At the opening the local politicians attended. I made a ham-fisted attempt to talk the deputy mayor into preserving the lanes around the railway station, as they are very interesting and historic. I'm not quite sure he understood where I meant, however he could see I was interested in Chiayi's past. He began talking about the abandoned tobacco plant on the outskirts of the city. I guess my enthusiasm was apparent and he invited me to take a look around the next day.

These are sparrows nests hiding under an exterior staircase.

Part of why I like visiting these places is the sense that I've jumped onto an alternate timeline in world history. It works especially well in enormous sites like this when even the traffic around the city fades away. In this world things ended around 1998 and only dust and mosquitoes have gathered since. 

More seriously, a lot of unique places like this have gone, and more will follow. I hope through this blog and my drawings people can see the value in having a diverse urban landscape and re-use them. A Taiwan of gray towers is not a Taiwan I'm very interested in. 

The factory handled every stage of tobacco processing and cigarette making. I was told the earliest building on the site is the number 2 warehouse, which dates from 1954. However there's a very Japanese looking warehouse and wooden building that look much earlier. The factory shut in 1998 leaving it frozen in the Lee Teng Hui era. His is the most recent portrait in what I've come to call the Presidents' Room.

Sun Yat Sen still hanging proudly

Not much love for the broken Generallisimo on the floor

Chiang Ching-Kuo a little askew

Lee Teng-Hui has faded in the strong sun

A few patriotic fragments in the Presidents' room

After some confusion in the cultural bureau (I'd lost the director's namecard and people kept thinking I was looking for the pottery museum) I met the director. A couple of bureau workers accompanied drove me to the factory and along with the sites security guard gave me a short tour. I was very grateful for this little tour as they pointed out a few details I would have totally missed. Then they left, shut the gates, and told me the guard would be back in a couple of hours to let me out. At first they seemed a little reluctant to leave me. A lot of people in Taiwan have a very different perception of what's dangerous than I do: 

Wander alone in a solidly built, empty factory - dangerous,

Swim in calm water - dangerous,

Ride three on a scooter in busy traffic with no helmets - guess that one's ok.

Luckily they trusted me. 

It took me a couple of hours to cover the site. I decided at some-point I'd like to draw it, so I had to go everywhere and take photos of everything. The first part of the site has two large concrete warehouses that are actually fairly modern. The tallest one has seven floors. The interiors of these have been stripped and don't have much of interest inside.

The ground floor of one is being used as the Chiayi Plant Bank. I didn't quite understand how this worked. It seems the government stores many different plants, pots, and outdoor stuff here, and when people need something they can take it. This is how it was explained to me but I don't understand how that doesn't lose the government a lot of money. Perhaps the plants are rented out.

Between two warehouses some sort of old piping was being stored.

The next part is a complex of large two floor warehouse buildings, the earliest dating from the 1950's. This one has a unique facade with some retro-future staircases.

On the second floor of one building all the broken light fixtures are hanging from the same side. It almost looks deliberate and in some ways artistic. At times like these I wish I was a better photographer to really capture this properly. 

The other tall building on the site, which adjoins these warehouses, is known in Chinese as the 'bone picking building'. A sinister name but the bones in this case are the ribs of the tobacco plant leaves. In here they were separated from the rest of the leaf.

The company offices lie near the now permanently sealed entrance to the site (along with a mouldy mid-90's Chrysler New Yorker someone clearly couldn't be bothered with anymore).

Unfortunately many of the buildings on site have been stripped of machines and other items leaving them feeling a bit empty, and in the case of the warehouse floors a little samey. These offices were also empty of most things.

Towards one corner of the site there is another office building with an auditorium inside. It looks as though a fair few Nationalist propaganda speeches went down in here, along with a few discos. Like many state-owned entities the site has a fair collection of ROC flags and Sun Yat Sen portraits. I hope if they ever renovate it they keep these as they give the place a lot of historical character.

Sun Yat Sen always had the cheesiest parties.

In the center of the site there's a small tall warehouse. I'm not totally sure what this was used for, and for some reason a large hole has been blasted in one side. Along with a few large buildings on site the roof is wooden, which I didn't expect. Adjoining it is a small store room made of mud, bamboo, and wood. This seems very Japanese and I would expect it's the oldest building on the site.

The most impressive building on site is a vast barrel-roofed structure that houses a cigarette rolling machine.

I was very happy to see this. That childhood fascination with huge machinery came right back. It's hard to gauge the scale of this room from the pictures. I should have stood something there for scale. It even feels a little silly calling it a room. The machine is covered in rusty gauges and compartments full of rollers.

The roof in here also appears to be wooden. I was surprised by the good condition most of the roofs on the site are in. 

Next to this building is the cafeteria and the bathhouses.

They took everything! (except the kitchen sink)

Someone left an unusual robe in one of them!

I got a shock when I looked in the mirror and thought a hooded figure was there

I always associate bathhouses with the Japanese era, but these are in a 1960/70's style block. I suppose a lot of post-war factories may have them too I just haven't visited that many.


So, what is going to happen to the Chiayi Tobacco Factory? No-one knows! The city do want to preserve it, the deputy mayor told me himself, which is great news. The site is a massive blank canvas with many empty buildings in good condition. However re-use is complicated by zoning. Officially the site is called Chiayi City Park Number 36, and it's apparently very hard to change zoning. This limits re-use to leisure and recreation.

Chiayi is an aging city, actually it is currently the 'oldest' city in Taiwan. One of the bureau's ideas is to use the site as a old person's recreation center. Actually I think the two large modern warehouses would make great gyms and activity centers. It would be good to do something where old and young can mix. Before its demolition the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory had become a pretty great place to view graffiti and was hosting some live events. Some of the warehouses here would be perfect for that. Hopefully Chiayi has the community to sustain such a thing. If you have any ideas regarding re-use please mail the bureau or  comment here and I'll pass them on. 

Sort of looks like a person clinging onto the tree

Whatever happens the first step is to open it up to the public who I'm sure would flock here out of curiosity. The best way to get a community to engage with a place and come up with ideas is to first let them into it. By keeping it shut off it's not in the public consciousness. Clean up some broken glass and the site is no more dangerous than an easy hiking trail. With a few guards or volunteers around people could be left to explore it and get involved.

I realize there was clearly an open day at somepoint - I saw the route map and 'do not enter' signs. However the tour was clearly very restrictive and didn't really allow for any exploration or freedom. People must not feel they are being over-protected by the government or they will not feel satisfied or interested. This mistake was made on the open day for the Taipei Railway Workshop and I ended up feeling disappointed so much of the site was off-limits. 

If the government is really worried about people getting hurt have them sign a waiver on entrance absolving the government of responsibility. I remember a lot of places in the UK do this. Or perhaps seal off the one warehouse space with dangling lights as that's the only room I can see someone getting something land on them. Once the government involves the community people will come up with a lot of ideas and a grassroots movement to reuse the place will likely take hold. In the meantime if you have any ideas regarding re-use please mail the bureau or comment here and I'll pass them on. 

As for visiting the site, it's currently closed off and behind high fences. It's also guarded, and I like the guard and don't want to cause trouble for him.