Wufeng: The 9/21 Earthquake Museum and Lin Mansions

The main school building

This is an easy and very worthwhile day-trip from Taichung. It's no secret that Taiwan is on some shaky foundations. Anyone who has lived here more than a few months has probably felt at least one earthquake. The island is crossed by dozens of fractures and subduction zones. The faults range from fairly benign deep faults mostly in the north to some very dangerous slip-thrust faults in the center and south.

9/21 Earthquake Museum

Over the fault in a classroom building

Tilting classrooms

Most people have heard of the 9/21 earthquake which happened at 1:47 am on September 21st 1999. Taiwanese over 25 usually remember it quite vividly as at Mw7.6 it was by far the strongest to hit the island in recent times. It killed 2415 people and left around 105'479 buildings destroyed or damaged. The earthquake was centered along a fault called Chelongpu. A roughly 100km section from Cholan in Miaoli to Chushan in Nantou ruptured. The small town of Wufeng sits on top of and around this fault and it suffered terrible damage. Before September 21st Guangfu High School was a fairly ordinary school with a couple of hundred pupils. It had the misfortune to sit directly over the fault and it was almost completely destroyed. Luckily as the quake hit in the middle of the night no one was inside. It now forms the center of the 9/21 Earthquake Museum which is hands down one of the best museums I've visited here.

The ground floors of the wings are almost completely flat. It looks like the museum route went through here before but it’s closed off now.

The first thing I noticed while walking up to the museum area is how unscathed the rest of this part of town is. Considering the amount of abandoned ruins that dot Taiwan I expected this area to have a fair few structures that were leveled in the earthquake and never rebuilt. However, despite almost all the surrounding buildings predating the quake it seems they all survived intact. I had a preconception that earthquake damage radiated out from an epicenter point. This is the impression most news graphics give. In actuality damage was concentrated on the fault line here with areas even immediately adjacent surviving well. This made the sight of the school quite jarring.

The ground beneath the school uplifted by a couple of meters on one side of the fault line. Some parts of the fault uplifted almost 10 meters in other areas, so despite appearances this was not as bad as it could have been. Combined with intense shaking a lot of the buildings pancaked in on themselves or tilted at precarious angles. The structure of the school and most other schools from that era was especially vulnerable. As you visit the exhibits you'll learn of the 'short-column effect'. The lack of columns and their poor re-enforcement amplified the damage here. Entry is next to the running track, half of which was pushed up. The building here is designed to look like a needle and thread stitching up a rupture in the earth. The route then winds through some of the safer classroom buildings which are full of interesting and well-written exhibits and vivid photography.

The real power of the museum is the fault itself and the classrooms left in stasis from that day. I'd never seen a fault like this up close. All previous earthquakes I've experienced in Taiwan ranged from enjoyable little wobbles to slightly stronger but never concerning shakes. Of course I've seen the aftermath of quakes on the news or in documentaries but there's always something distant about that. Seeing all the damage up close was actually very unsettling. I think I'd convinced myself that as long as you're not up too high and if you hide next to a desk or something you'll probably be fine. Or that most room collapses leave some space for survival as long as you're quick enough to get into a likely safe spot. But some buildings here were absolutely flat. No corner spaces for anyone to hide in. The power of the fault was instantly comprehensible and genuinely scary. Fortunately a lot of buildings in Taiwan were retrofitted with shock absorbing technology following 9/21, though as seen in recent quakes in Hualien and Tainan many buildings are still vulnerable.

This was the scariest building: Two floors reduced to a 70cm stack

The museum is not especially easy to get to which perhaps explains the unexpected lack of English language accounts of visits. Buses from Taichung generally run as far as Wufeng town but the museum is 2km further down an unpleasant busy road. I recommend hiring a taxi in the town and I was lucky to find one for the ride back. It’s open daily except Mondays and holidays.

One of the informative maps and a photo of the fault running through tea fields

Guangfu New Village

Dilapidated home in the village

To the west of the museum there's a large old military dependent's village. This area was built in 1956 and was one of the first large planned military villages. Most of the homes are empty and bare but there's clearly a project to rehabilitate them underway. Houses in several streets have been converted into small businesses, mostly for food or design. The area seemed quite popular and had a sort of village fair atmosphere on the Sunday I visited.

Typical small business in a restored house

The Lin Mansions

The stage in the Great Flower Hall

This enormous complex includes some of the finest traditional mansions in Taiwan. The Wufeng Lin, Banqiao Lin, Hsinchu Beiguo and Tainan Wu complexes were considered the four great garden mansions of Taiwan. The Hsinchu house is gone and only a fragment of the Tainan site remains. The Banqiao house has a better garden but the Wufeng group has the grander architecture.

One of the closed halls

Pineapples are a symbol of luck and fortune

The 9/21 earthquake did not spare these buildings. There was catastrophic damage and some of the buildings were 80-90% destroyed. Most have been rebuilt now apart from the Grass Hall. I actually met one of the Lins and he said this one would be rebuilt by the end of 2019. That seems ambitious though as there is very little house there currently.

Door guardian paintings and the site of the Grass Hall

While the homes are mostly modern constructions they have been restored delicately and they do still contain a lot of atmosphere. Not all the buildings are open; just the Great Flower Hall and the Gong-Bao Di Hall. The homes are a popular tour group stop but you can visit independently and avoid the large groups.

The hell is going on with this cat?

The site is described as a 'compound' or 'house' but really it's seven adjacent large traditional homes. You can't move between them easily without heading out to the front plaza each time. The group was established by a Fujian army commander in 1858 and greatly expanded over the next 70 years. To give an idea of the scale a walk around the group would be over a kilometer long. The family maintained close ties with the Qing empire and during the Japanese era they were largely pro-localization. Later they established quite a few schools and literary associations.

One of the structures in the Gong-Bao Di Hall

Within the buildings themselves the Gong-Bao Di Hall is a restrained but elegant courtyard house. There are some nice carvings and woodwork but honestly if you've been to any of the Taipei area mansions it's quite similar. The Great Flower Hall is much more worthwhile. This building was used for banquets and entertainment. The large wooden stage is the only one like it in Taiwan and it is quite beautiful. The other houses aren’t open but can be viewed from behind their perimeter walls.

Another view of the stage

The Jing-Xun Building, which is not open

Behind the mansions in the grounds of the Ming-Tai High School is the garden palace. It's a small two floor building set among tranquil lakes and gardens.

On a slope above is the Lin Ancestral Cemetery. Some slightly demonic looking elephants flank this elegant and somber shrine.

Other than these sites I couldn't find much else in Wufeng itself. On the bus back to Taichung I jumped off at Dali where a new arts area was being built next to a wooden Japanese era office. It seemed unfinished though the large installation made for some good photos. All sites here are as ever on the Hidden Taiwan Map which is slowly being expanded into south Taiwan when I can make the trip!

The art plaza in Dali