Faculty of East Asian Studies

Modernizing Chiayi: The Development of the Lumber Industry, 1914-1945

Chen Kuan-fei

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the conservation movement for old buildings in Chiayi 嘉義in Central Taiwan reached an unprecedented climax in history. The movement, mainly directed by the local government with support from Chiayi residents, aimed to rediscover Chiayi’s heritage against the backdrop of urban renovation. The Chiayi Sawmill 嘉義製材所 was one of the historical buildings under discussion. Established in 1914, it was the first modern sawmill with the latest machines and technologies imported from the United States to Taiwan. During its heyday, it was even praised as “the Greatest in East Asia” with the latest equipment and largest forest farm—Alishan (阿里山). In 1963, when the Nationalist government changed its forest policies from utilization to preservation, the sawmill was shut down. Since then, it has been abandoned, and the memories associated with it have faded away from public memory.
Chiayi was once a walled city and one of the significant centers of rice production in Taiwan. As Japan took over Taiwan after 1895, in the following fifty years, Taiwan underwent a dramatic transformation in every aspect of society, particularly in economy and the utilzation of space. In Chiayi, the opening of the Chiayi Sawmill and the introduction of the modern lumber industry changed the spatial and economic landscape of the city. Its establishment signaled the beginning of the golden age of forestry in Taiwan. However, the dynamics between the city and the new industry has been neglected in current scholarship, which has concentrated on investigating the mountains and the colonial management of the forest resources.1 When the lumber industry was introduced into Chiayi, it created new economic infrastructures, such as processing stations, a transfer station, and auction markets for the processed trees. Chiayi won a reputation as a prosperous “lumber city” at the foot of Alishan. The history of the lumber industry in Chiayi city exemplifies the relationship between the utilization of the forest, the construction of infrastructures, and urban development.

The Wood Manufactory at Mt. Ali

The Wood Manufactory at Alishan (Alishan Zhicaisuo 阿里山製材所) was established in Chiayi City, 1914. Afterwards, it was called the Chiayi Sawmill. Source: The National Taiwan Library

The Lumber Yard in Chiayi City

The Lumber Yard in Chiayi City 嘉義貯木場 (ca. 1930s). Source: The National Taiwan Library

Modernity in the Context of Forestry and the Use of Natural Resources

As a borderland of empires, Taiwan was treated as the laboratory of innovation policies and technologies. Facing Taiwan, whose local customs and culture were different from mainland China or Japan, the authorities often needed to invent or try new ways that they could not implement in the respective metropoles. Taiwanese history with its multiple layers also involved specific experiences of Taiwan’s urban history. In the case of Chiayi, the geography and environment of the city and Alishan shaped the urban development and the rise of the lumber industry. For example, the location of the Chiayi Sawmill has resulted from a small tributary of the Niuchou River 牛稠溪 near the sawmill that could be used for the wood storage ponds. Based on the territory that the city possessed at the end of the nineteenth century, it is possible to analyze what factors and ideas affected officials’ and residents’ activities that then resulted in the transformation and expansion of urban space in the twentieth century.
The lumber industry offered new job opportunities that attracted people to move to this area, organized their new social circles of living and religion. This sector of the economy reshaped the communities’ composition in the cities as well. The loggers and their foremen, workers participating in the process of sawing and transportation, the officials who supervised the lumber industry, the timber merchants, and the families of the workers, employees, and entrepreneurs all lived around the factory. The production process and the formation of economic networks among these people could cause tensions among different ethnic groups who participated in this industrial endeavor -- the Japanese, the Chinese, and the indigenous people, most of them were the Tsou. With respect to the technology of lumber processing, Japanese colonial officials played the role of intermediaries who introduced the latest Western technology into Taiwan and made accommodations to the local environment. This process of integration or acculturation in Taiwan represents a specific linkage of localization and globalization, creating a nexus that involved colonial governance, modern science, and urbanization. This type of technology transfer was also applied in other regions of the lumber industry. It offers comparative perspectives to study the relationship between the lumber industry and space in Taiwan, Japan, and Southeast Asia.2 The case of the lumber industry also reminds us that besides for housing construction, wood was a crucial resource for industries such as underground mining, for telecommunications in the form of telegraph poles, and for railroad construction, such as crossties. On the one hand, this research can enhance our understanding of interconnections between industrial sectors. On the other hand, for the preservation of industrial heritage, the lumber industry can serve as an example of and stimulate reflection on previous usage or, as can be argued, abuse of wood resources. It is a case in point of the manner in which societies remember their heritage of exploiting natural supplies for the purposes of industrialization. The counter-initiatives to this larger trend consist in the preservation both of forests and of the industrial sites that were built to exploit those resources. In this respect the Ruhr Area, once one of the largest heavy industry regions of Europe, can serve as a model where industrial facilities have been successfully turned into cultural capital.

A nine-feet band mill in Chiayi Sawmil

A nine-feet band mill in Chiayi Sawmill (1928). Source: The National Taiwan Library

Chiayi’s lumber sector and urban history

Cities are the nodes of dynamic connections. In William Cronon’s well-known book, Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, he examines the rise of Chicago, and how the city’s expansion fueled the westward movement of the American frontier and its influence on the societal types of American cities that evolved as a result. Chicago was one of the cities that was transformed from a settlement to a metropolis in the course of the development of the lumber industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The demand for wood during the American western movement had caused Chicago to become a ‘lumber city’.3 William Cronon’s critical discussion about Chicago provides a holistic view to think about the similarities and dissimilarities of the development of Chiayi city and the relationship between Chiayi and its surrounding countryside, especially the mountain area.

A Shay   locomotive with   a log   train at   Mt. Ali

A Shay locomotive with a log train at Mt. Ali (1928). Source: The National Taiwan Library

Government investigation reports and minutes by the Government-General of Taiwan and the Forestry Bureau of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as well as the research papers by scholars in the Agriculture and Forestry College of the Taihoku Imperial University founded in 1928 help us understand the process of policy decisions. In addition, personal accounts recording the private reminiscences, images, and events that occurred in Chiayi, including those in literature and arts produced by the residents and migrants, but also the authorities’ propaganda through education and tourism to show the progress of modern industry, form the basis for examining the economic and social activities, but also the feelings and multiple historical memories on modernization and industrialization.

Chiayi City, the countryside, and colonial modernity

To write the history of a city’s production and marketing system, it is important not to perceive the urban space in isolation. Throughout the history of the industry, we find that city and countryside were tightly bound in an efficient system where each was equally dependent upon the other. Before the twentieth century, Chiayi had already emerged as part of an interdependent process in which a key feature was the agricultural development of the surrounding rural area. Under Japanese colonial rule, the lumber industry worked as the connection between the plains and the mountains. Thus, the case of Chiayi and its lumber industry will improve the understanding of the role of the city in Taiwan, the urban history of the Japanese Empire, and the world. Under Japanese rule, Taiwan underwent the two major historical processes of colonization and modernization. The authorities introduced modern institutions, facilities, and technologies into the colony while instituting political domination and economic exploitation. The exploration of Chiayi city will improve our comprehension of the relationship between the development of industry and urban planning. In such a study, it can be shown how colonial modernity, migrants, and gendered space worked in urban Taiwan. Colonial industrialization was one of the engines to accelerate the modernization. The contemporary Taiwanese society grapples with multiple post-colonial tensions. In the past four centuries, each colonial government, from the Dutch, the Qing, Japan, to the KMT led Republic of China, has created its interpretations about the past to enhance its rule over Taiwan. The results have changed urban layouts through decisions to either demolish or preserve historic buildings and sites. Likewise, remembrance or forgetfulness of cultural and technical transfer of previous historical phases keep on shaping Taiwan’s identity until our present days. In other words, the multiple colonial histories of Taiwan and the varying interpretations of material and immaterial heritage result in a melting pot of cultural, institutional and technical memories.


[1] Li (2001); Hung (2015).
[2] Totman (1985).
[3] Cronon (1991).


Chen Kuan-fei 陳冠妃 (2019). Jiayi zhicaisuo diaocha yanjiu ji zailiyong jihua’an diaocha baogao“ 嘉義製材所調查研究及再利用計畫案調查報告 (Report of Chiayi Sawmill Research and Reuse Project). Jiayi: Linwuju Alishan linye tielu ji wenhua zichan guanlichu 林務局阿里山林業鐵路及文化資產管理處 (Alishan Forest Railway and Cultural Heritage Office).

Chen Kuan-fei 陳冠妃 (2020). “Jiayi shi bei de sanjiaodi, cuisheng yi zuo fanrong zhi cheng: Jiayi zhicaisuo de qianshi jinsheng” 嘉義市北的三角地,催生一座繁榮之城:嘉義製材所的前世今生, on StoryStudio website, 15-06- 2020, https://storystudio.tw/article/gushi/chia-yi-the-timber-city/ [last accessed 01-01-2022].

Cronon, William (1992). Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.New York: W.W. Norton.

Hung, Kuang-chi (2015). “When the Green Archipelago Encountered Formosa: The Making of Modern Forestry in Taiwan under Japan’s Colonial Rule (1895-1945).” In Environment and Society in the Japanese Islands: From Prehistory to the Present, ed. by Philip C. Brown and Bruce Batten. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, pp. 174-193.

Li Wen-liang 李文良 (2001). Diguo de shanlin--Rizhi shiqi Taiwan shanlin zhengceshi yanjiu 帝國的山林--日治時期臺灣山林政策史研究 (The Mountain and the Forest of the Empire--A Study on the History of Taiwan’s Mountain and Forest Policy under the Japanese Rule). Ph.D. Thesis, Department of History, National University of Taiwan.

Totman, Conrad D. (1985). The Origins of Japan’s Modern Forests: the Case of Akita. Honolulu: Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawaii.


The National Taiwan Library (Guoli Taiwan tushuguan 國立台灣圖書館) (2019) Rizhi shiqi qikan yingxiang xitong 日治時期期刊影像系統. (Open access; all last accessed 01-01-2022]).

The Wood Manufactory at Mt. Ari (Ali) 阿里山製材所, Taiwan shashinjō 臺灣寫真帖, http://stfj.ntl.edu.tw/cgi-bin/gs32/gsweb.cgi?o=dwensan&s=id=%22F070192%22.&searchmode=basic

Lumber Yard in Chiayi City 嘉義貯木場, Taiwan shashin jō臺灣寫真大觀, http://stfj.ntl.edu.tw/cgi-bin/gs32/gsweb.cgi?o=dwensan&s=id=%22F080207%22.&searchmode=basic

A nine feet Band Mill in Chiayi Sawmill 九呎帶鋸, Arisan to Shinkōsan shashinjō     阿里山と新高山寫真帳, http://stfj.ntl.edu.tw/cgi-bin/gs32/gsweb.cgi?o=dwensan&s=id=%22F091829%22.&searchmode=basic

A Shay locomotive with a log train at Mt. Ali 運材列車通過橋樑, Arisan to Shinkōsan shashinjō 阿里山と新高山寫真帳, http://stfj.ntl.edu.tw/cgi-bin/gs32/gsweb.cgi?o=dwensan&s=id=%22F091840%22.&searchmode=basic


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