Thursday, 3 January 2008

My first visit to Taiwan

The Lungshan Temple in Taipei

In an earlier post (Working for the Big Boys) I described how, in the 1970s, my firm came to supply railway telecommunications equipment to GEC Telecommunications for use on the Trunk Line Electrification Project in Taiwan. During the commissioning of this equipment, I made three visits to Taiwan.

The first trip was also the first time I had travelled to the Far East or, indeed, outside Europe. To minimise the travel costs, GEC supplied the tickets (economy class, of course) which involved flying to Hong Kong, overnighting in a decent hotel and then flying on to Taipei, capital of Taiwan. GEC had their own travel company called Magnet Travel which made arrangements for all the GEC companies.

As you can imagine, it was all a bit of an adventure for me. I was not used to flying so even getting to Heathrow and checking in was a challenge. The flight to Hong Kong was long. In fact, it seemed interminable to me. But eventually, we broke through the low cloud on our final approach to the original Hong Kong airport, Kai Tak.

At the time, Kai Tak was regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. It was very close to the mainland city centre and the runway had been extended out across the bay. Landing involved quite sharp manoevring at low altitude to miss the multistorey apartments. It used to be said that you could check out what people in the flats were having to eat as you approached. A missed approach was equally hazardous as the end of the runway faced a tall rock face and it was no mean feat to gain sufficient altitude to climb over the rock face in order to 'Go-around'. You may imagine that I was just a little anxious as we landed but we did so, safely.

I went through immigration, was re-united with my luggage and then noticed how amazingly hot and humid it was. I feared that I might collapse with the oppressive heat. Neither was I prepared for the noise and clamour - so many people, so much shouting! I think I managed to sort out a taxi to take me to the hotel, hardly believing that I was really there, in Hong Kong. The hotel was modern, large and comfortable but I was soon outside again, exploring, although it was already dark. My curiosity was stronger than my terror of this alien place. I was fascinating with the way life was conducted on the pavement - open shopfronts revealing an amazing variety of businesses which remained open very late, street vendors selling food I didn't even recognise from makeshift stalls and food being stir-fried virtually in the gutter and eaten nonchalently by diners balanced precariously on ramshackle seats at tiny tables. I'd never experienced anything like it and I was frightened and amazed in about equal measure. Nothing untoward happened to me but next morning, when I met up with well-travelled GEC staff, they did suggest that it was somewhat inadvisable to go wandering around Wan Chai alone at night.

I can't remember much about the onward flight to Taipei. It might have been a China Airlines flight. They had a rather poor safety record and I can certainly remember one flight in a superannuated 'Caravelle' which did little to instill confidence in the carrier but I'm not sure whether it was that flight. We landed very close to the city centre at Chiang Kai Shek Airport. Since then, international flights have been diverted to a new airport miles away but Chiang Kai Shek is still used by domestic flights. It didn't take long to get to our hotel in the centre of Taipei - the Flowers Hotel. I think GEC had a block booking on rooms here to cater for all the coming and going in connection with the Project but I'm afraid it was a rather run-down establishment.

GEC had offices within the headquarters building of the Taiwan Railways Administration and I was soon introduced to some of the senior Chinese from the railway who were managing the Project. I was impressed with the unfailing courtesy which which I was treated on all my visits to Taiwan by the Chinese railway managers. They could be demanding and they were sometimes displeased with progress but this was not used as an excuse for raised voices or unpleasantness or, at least, certainly not when I was present. However, the Chinese ways of business are quite different from what I was used to. These cultural differences were mainly dealt with by GEC's Chinese agents - Grand Engineering.

Most of my work was technical and practical, but I discovered a little about the recent history of Taiwan. When the supporters of Chiang Kai Shek were finally driven out of Mainland China by Mao Tse Tung and the Communists, they settled in the island province of Taiwan which became the Republic of China. The indiginous Taiwanese with their own dialects of Chinese had to absorb many upper-class Chinese, Mandarin-speaking, who assumed positions of power. The immigrants brought significant wealth and many historical artefacts with them. They considered themselves guardians of the true Chinese heritage. The U.S.A. provided support to Taiwan, as the last bastion against the Communists over-running South East Asia. Taiwan was technically at war with mainland China, the 'Peoples Republic of China' and armed police and military were everywhere. I didn't find this situation as intimidating as I expected because people seemed friendly but it was still worth remembering not to act in a way which could be construed as 'Spying for the Communists'.

I travelled extensively to various locations on the railway, accompanied by GEC staff who knew their way around, but when I received my own all-areas travel pass for the railway, I started travelling on my own in the evening or at weekends. I'd acquired only a tiny collection of Chinese phrases, like 'Good morning', 'Please', 'Thank you' but armed with my railway pass and rather laborious research to try to decode timetables in Chinese, I could travel anywhere and did. I never found out exactly what it said on my pass but I could expect salutes from security staff as I marched importantly through the ticket barrier. I remember standing on the open verandah at the rear of a passenger train one evening, enjoying the sunset and having a bit of struggle persuading the attentive guard that I didn't want him to throw passengers out of their reserved seats so that I could sit inside!

Around Taipei, services were either diesel multiple units or diesel locomotive hauled. Further South, I found a little steam but, sadly, I lacked the opportunity and, perhaps, the inclination to go in search of it. After all, I was being paid to work and there were plenty of problems to try to solve. I also regret that, at the time, I was not taking photographs, so I have some wonderful sights preserved only in my memory. Those of you who have trawled my digital photographs on the web will be aware that I'm trying to make up for those barren photographic years now.

Although the hotel in Taipei was a little basic, the GEC ex-patriates based in Taipei for the Project duration fared rather better with their rented houses and servants. I was frequently invited for a visit or meal to one of these rather grand places. When people have once worked overseas, they are often reluctant to return and work back home, because they usually cannot recapture the life-style they enjoyed abroad.

At the time, the main station in Taipei was a rather elderly and scruffy affair and the railway lines headed off North and South at ground level, intersecting dozens of important roads at a series of manned level crossings provided with ramshackle lifting barriers and almost-incessant electric warning bells. The most common road transport was the bicycle and I can still picture the mass start each time the barriers lifted and a hundred or more bicycles pedalled furiously away, clashing with the bicycles heading in the opposite direction and with the impatient motor vehicles threatening carnage as they forced their way through.

When I re-visited Taiwan in 2005, the railway through Taipei had been placed in a tunnel, the main station rebuilt, the most common road vehicle is now the motor scooter and the city has grown almost beyond recognition. Click for details of my subsequent trip to Taiwan in 2005.

Many other memories of my three early trips to Taiwan bubble up, particularly the third one, where I was accompanied by my Mother on her first trip to the Far East, but I'll save them for another time.