Houtong has achieved some fame as “the cat village”. Starting in the mid-2000's village residents began posting pictures of their efforts to help stray cats and from there it snowballed. Fast forward ten or so years and there is cat inspired stuff everywhere. I like cats, and I'm happy strays are being looked after, but traveling over an hour from Taipei to see a few more than usual seems like a waste of time to me. However, as I think I mentioned before, Houtong has more than just cats. This tiny village on first glance looks mostly train station but it was once the most industrious mining area in Taiwan. A lot of good hikes start or end here too (I've written about some here: Sandiaoling, Jinzibei, Dacukeng and Xiaocukeng Trails). This post is going to focus on the mining stuff so if you came looking for cats, here are some cats:
The rest is going to be dark tunnels, bats, and ruins lost in the forest. If that sounds nightmarish to you then cat-ch you later. (ohh that was shameful, yes I made this face when writing it, and yes I do apologize).
I wrote about Taiwan's mining history in general in Part 1 of this series. Mining for coal, gold, and sometimes copper here was perilous and Taiwan had its share of mining disasters. I don't think it's possible for us in the present day to really understand how hard this job was. I've crouched in rough earthen tunnels perched on hills far from anywhere but I still knew I didn't have to go any further or stay longer than I wanted to. And I certainly didn't have to chop away at the walls all the while wondering if it would collapse or if poisonous gases were building up. A lot of mines are quite beautiful now as the forests wrap around them and it does feel rewarding managing to locate some of the really lost ones. The excellent Shepherd Wolf Blog has visited many old mines and written about them in Chinese. I've found quite a few by following those entries.
The Houtong area mines range from big tunnels with grand entrances run by large companies like Ruey-San to small warrens barely big enough for an adult. Fortunately the village has started to open a lot of the mining areas to visitors and provide some information. The Ruey-San Company has an interesting history. It was founded in the 1930's by some Taiwanese brothers named Li. They took over mines in the area that the Japanese thought were exhausted. They mined deeper, found rich seams, and opened more tunnels. Soon the company mined the most coal in Taiwan and the brothers became quite wealthy. After the start of the Sino-Japanese War the Japanese became suspicious of anyone with many employees. They thought these people could easily mobilize a challenge to their rule. Li Jianxing, the head of the company, offended the Japanese and refused to take a Japanese name or learn the language. In 1940 Li and his brothers, along with mine employees, were imprisoned and tortured on conspiracy charges. One of the brothers and 20 miners died in prison. When the KMT took over after World War 2 Li Jianxing was appointed Mayor of Ruifang. He undertook many philanthropic works and the mining companies were nationalized.
Outside the train station is a tangled mess of iron and concrete. This was the coal-dressing plant. It was built in the 1960's on the site of an earlier structure and it was used to clean and purify coal. Nearby is the Vision Hall which has some small exhibits inside. The large arched bridge next to the coal plant was used to transport carts from the Houtong and Fuxing mines.
I headed past Houtong Mine to the further Fuxing Mine first. Both were large mines operated by the Ruey-San Company. The walk there passes a lot of miners' housing. Some, like the Ruey-San Company Director's House are in ruins.
Others like the US Aid housing are inhabited and in good condition. There are a few large concrete blocks from about the 1940's. These are partially inhabited but in a terrible state. Most of the dividing walls are wooden and a little rotten.
The Fuxing Mine is through a tunnel past some roofless brick houses. It started operations before 1923 as a joint Taiwanese-Japanese venture and was later taken over by Ruey-San. Most of the mine structures date from the 1930's to 60's.
The lower part of the site contains bathrooms and an office building along with slope for hoisting carts. The entrance slopes sharply down and seems to have collapsed partially. I noticed a way to get into the office building and then saw other structures hidden in the forest up above.
These were the air compressor pump rooms. Such a large mine needed two of them to keep fresh air circulating. This area was very dark and still. Only chirping bats and the sound of passing trains in the distance. The grate on the smaller pump tunnel looked like a set piece from a horror movie.
As I looked down one tunnel past the bats I heard a weird rumble from the depths. A low pulsing hum that was getting louder. Confused and a little nervous I stood back from the tunnel, and then realized it was vibrations from a train across the river. Above the air pump room is another warehouse but there's nothing very interesting inside that one.
Returning through the tunnel I saw a sign for 'The Horse Mine'. Horses in Taiwan were extracted from rich equine seams deep underground. After the mining industry ceased so did the extraction of horses, which is why you don't really see many in Taiwan anymore. Or as the case may actually be it's named after the horses that used to pull the coal carts. I found an overgrown platform with vines snaking around a signboard.
There's supposedly a mine entrance in the foliage, and a mineral-hued rivulet joins the main stream here, but it's impossible to see anything. There is a group of dogs here but they'll just bark at you and not do anything. I headed further up the road out of curiosity and came to a bleak corner of Houtong. Just one house is inhabited up here. The nicest was this old courtyard home from 1934 complete with entrance gate.
This was owned by one of the brothers who founded the Ruey-San Company. A small neglected temple sits up a hill but otherwise there are only abandoned shacks here. Apparently there is a mine entrance called Xinfeng back on the road to Houtong but I couldn't find it. From a picture I've seen it looks like houses have been built in front of it.
This is Houtong's most well-known mine. The entrance is hard to miss as it's next to the coal bridge. It dates from the 1920's and like most of the other mines in Taiwan it closed in the 1990's. There are some nice photos of how this and the other mines looked ten years ago before they were restored here.
Recently this area has become a small museum with a ride on a train through the tunnel. This tunnel isn't actually one of the mine entrances here. It just cuts through a spur of rock. The actual entrance was buried long ago in landslides. Up the stairs past the beige former Ruey-San office building is the museum area without the train. There's a large coal sorting structure and an area where you can try out a pneumatic drill.
I was intrigued by a steeply sloping path with tracks and since no one was around headed up it. This was a cart railway descending from a higher mine. However after climbing some way the tracks were suspended over washed out ground and there was no way forward.
While in the area you'll see signs for Houtong Shinto Shrine. Unfortunately all that remains up the steep climb is a torii gate.
A fair way past Houtong Village, near the start of the Dacukeng Trail, is another mine entrance. This is Shengfu Mine. For now it's just an entrance with a cart so it's not worth heading all the way out here unless you are driving or walking the trail nearby. The mine building nearby is in use as some sort of office.
Further towards Ruifang is a large abandoned factory site that looked as though it might have something to do with a mine. It's easy to get over the wall but watch out for the gully. Despite looking promising there isn't much in here and one building is still used. I think it used to be a tile factory.
Scattered around the hills above the village are lots of more informal looking mines. These were the worst to work in: Cramped, hot, and dangerous. Keep an eye out next to any trails in the area. Many simply look like small caves from the outside but they can extend hundreds of meters with many branching tunnels. Most were operated by very small companies and extracted gold from minor seams.
Ruey-San Main Mine
On the train station side of the village, towards Sandiaoling, is the largest mine in the area. The tunnels here extended over 4km under the mountains. Interestingly there's a tunnel 1,2,3 and 5 within. I assume the lack of a tunnel 4 is due to superstition. You'd want all the luck you could get in these tunnels.
A good path (which eventually heads over the mountains to the Sandiaoling Waterfalls) passes the old mine bathrooms and offices. This mine was opened in 1940 and a lot of the sites are well-signposted. The main entrance is under a low railway bridge. It's on a much larger scale than the other mines in the area and even has a small stream coming out of the entrance. Further down the path is a windowless red-brick building. This was miners' accommodation but it's just a shell now.
All of the sites described above, apart from Shengfu Mine and the old factory, can be reached by walking. Combining a visit with one of the nearby hikes would make a full but good day. Local trains and a few faster ones stop at Houtong Station from Taipei roughly every 40 minutes. Check the locations for these places on the Hidden Taiwan Map.