Xinying is a dusty mid-sized town between Chiayi and Tainan. A sugar factory once dominated its southern end and miles of railways snaked out from it across plantation fields. While the main factory building was demolished in 2001 the rest of the site was left. It's spread over an enormous area; some is easily visited, some is off-limits. I took it all in, including the closed off parts. I had no idea I'd been in restricted sections until I came to leave.
From the early 20th century Taiwan was a huge sugar exporter. At one point it was fourth in the world, which is quite impressive for a small and very rugged island. Sugar cultivation mainly took place in southern regions, especially in the fields stretching from Changhua to Tainan. Towards the end of the 20th century production became uneconomical and declined. Only the Huwei and Shanhua sites remain in production. They are run by the government-owned Taiwan Sugar Corporation, often abbreviated to Taisugar. Large factory sites are still extant at Wushulin, Nanjing, Xihu, Yuemei and Taidong among others. Xinying was one of the largest and the first parts were built in 1908. Like many, it suffered a lot of damage in World War 2 but then was largely rebuilt. What follows is a thorough exploration of what remains on the site.
I'd first noticed the factory from the mainline railway. A few abandoned warehouses are visible and these piqued my interest. I decided to stop off on the way to Tainan. It's about a 15-20 minute walk from the train station. I first reached a large area of railway sidings that had a scattering of carts and engines on them. At one point there were hundreds of kilometers of narrow gauge railways carrying sugar to refineries across Taiwan. Now the network has shrunk to a few tourist trains. Nearby was a station with what looked like a tourist train set-up, but I was more interested in a distant workshop.
Everywhere was deserted. Although I doubt Thursday mornings are ever busy it was a little weird how empty the site was. Apart from two guards at a gate later that day, and a a distant one riding a scooter, there was absolutely no-one. No tourists, no personnel, no locals. For a couple of hours it was birdsong, a gentle breeze and distant echoes from passing trains.
I wasn't sure if entry was permitted but I could see a few tourist boards. So I assumed it was fine and made my way along the tracks. The workshop was full of small sugar railway train engines. This was the first time I'd seen them up close and they were a lot bigger than I thought they'd be. I'd assumed they'd be tiny narrow gauge toys. Going inside and around the trains seemed to be no problem and a few information boards were scattered around. At one point I headed up to a second floor which had some rooms with cluttered bookshelves. At the top of the stairs an alarm sounded and I wondered if I was about to be apprehended. Down the tracks a small train engine reversed into the distance and the alarm stopped.
The original location of the sugar plant was next to the train depot. Some old photos can be seen here. There are also some aerial comparisons here. Now there is just an open grass plain and some overgrown wasteland. A few sculptures dot the grass along with an incongruous transformer. This section of the site I think is generally accessible to the public. I realized with some horror while crossing the grass that all the white areas were spiderwebs. I didn't see any weavers though so I assumed they were tiny or well-hidden.
I jumped though a squat warehouse and some smaller outbuildings. One was clearly used for presentations recently and before that it was used to make railway sleepers. As I headed south, winding around various warehouses, I passed through what must have been a gate between the restricted and open areas. There was no barrier and no guard. There were also tourist information placards around. I was completely relaxed and nonchalant, even sitting in the open eating lunch, but I was lucky I wasn't seen and escorted away before I saw everything. I later found this blog which has a map of the restricted areas and more information. Apparently a large part of the site is only accessible via an organized tour. This explains why there were tourist boards around but also some slightly dangerous buildings left wide open. Immediately on the right through the gate was a memorial to the merger of two sugar factories into the Xinying complex in 1937.
Nearby was one of several air raid shelters. During World War 2 Taiwan's sugar factories were principal bombing targets. Many were heavily damaged or completely destroyed. Each factory had a multitude of bunkers and many late Japanese era buildings had a solid basement level for some protection.
A few more warehouses were behind a locked gate but a more interesting looking building caught my eye. I'd found the historic sugar company office building; one of three old buildings in this part of the site.
The colonnaded walk around two sides reminded me of some of the foreign trading offices in Anping and Danshui. All three of the colonial era buildings are abandoned but not in a terribly dangerous condition. They could be restored.
Adjacent were some large warehouses from the middle of the 20th century. These were the ones I'd seen from the train. There was nothing much inside but I liked their scale and they reminded me faintly of the Chiayi Tobacco Factory.
I went around and into one of the other historic buildings: The head office of the plastic processing division (I'm not sure of this translation). This part of the company was responsible for making bags and other non-edible sugar products.
It was a little more rickety though the floors in most parts felt solid. There were colonies of birds living in the roof which I startled. They all started whacking into the windows in total panic. I stood there feeling quite embarrassed for them until they realized the way out. The third pre-war building was a more ordinary warehouse.
There was one more building but it was too lost in trees so I started to head out of the site past a modern Taisugar Company Office building. Here I met a guard. He assumed I'd somehow only just slipped past him. At first he spoke Taiwanese to me and then broken Mandarin. He told me there was nothing to see in the site. I didn't try to correct him, thanked him, and left.
Just outside the gate are the remnants of what used to be a large workers' village. Most of it is now gone. The factory directors’ homes and one for an important manager remain, although they are closed off. Further on there are dormitories for lower ranking workers, but just one ruined rowhouse is accessible.
I headed back to the small station where there was a collection of sugar railway artifacts.
It seemed like no trains were running that day and I had to go give a talk in Tainan in a few hours so I left. The trains usually run to a farm southwest of Liuying Village where cattle can be fed. Unfortunately I can't find reliable information for when the trains run. Nearby is a printing museum but that was also closed. I'll return to Xinying and see more of the town and also check out the other sugar factories and railways in the future. All locations are on the Hidden Taiwan Map.