The Penghu Migrants Behind Kaohsiung’s Post-war Boom

Written by Tshinn-Hun Miguel Liou, translated by Sam Robbins.

This article was originally published in “Watch Taiwan”, the National Museum of Taiwan History. you can find a there original article here.

Image credit: Takao port, image provided by the National Museum of Taiwan History

There was a time when the internet was filled with discussions on local history and local colour. Commenters mixed discussions of characteristics unique to a specific region with stereotypes of people from that place. Some of these discussions only made sense to those familiar with the area. For example, the claim that everyone from Penghu has a relative in Kaohsiung, or put another way, that everyone from Kaohsiung knows at least one or two people from Penghu was commonly made but seldom explained. 

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing inherent about the connection between the people of Kaohsiung and Penghu, and the route that many people from Penghu took from Kaohsiung was often more treacherous than the path for those emigrating within Taiwan. However, the consensus linking people from these two places should give pause for thought. So, why is Kaohsiung the first choice for people from Penghu who move to Taiwan? 

From Seasonal Migration to Settling Down 

When placed in its historical context, it is not that hard to trace the reason for large-scale migration from Penghu to Kaohsiung. In 1908, in response to the economic situation in the south, the Japanese colonial government initiated three successive plans to develop the Takao harbour in Kaohsiung, which created a deluge of job opportunities. Many in Penghu who were already accustomed to an itinerant work-life (known in Japanese as “出稼”) that led them across Pingtung, Anping and further afield, decided instead to try to make a living in Kaohsiung and thus ceased their former seasonal migration. The chance of a life of stability and abundance in Taiwan spurred many from Penghu, who had grown weary of constant travel to head for Kaohsiung, turning a steady influx into a stream. The laborious and arduous work carried out by Penghu natives in Kaohsiung gave rise to such idioms as “girls from Penghu and cows from Taiwan” (澎湖查某(tsa-boo),臺灣牛) and a general impression of Penghu immigrants as hardworking, low-skilled migrants, which in turn crystallised a common stereotype at the time. 

The development project at Dakou harbour played a significant role in the modernisation of Kaohsiung. Whether extensive land reclamation or the urban development that started in response to new commercial opportunities, many parts of the project required significant manpower. To those living near Kaoshiung, the place seemed like a new city filled with possibilities. Not only did many come from Penghu, but many migrants from Tainan, Pintung, and Chiayi entered Kaoshiung hoping for a brighter future. The reason that Penghu locals were particularly successful in the Kaohsiung job market is somewhat surprising: their education level. According to relevant data from the colonial government, in 1928, 48.6% of Penghu children attended school, which is higher than the 44.8% of children on Taiwan island. Thus, in addition to being motivated by a lack of food and job opportunities back home, Penghu also had an oversupply of talent. 

This raises the question, why was the education level higher in Penghu? As a smaller island off the coast of Taiwan, educational resources in Penghu have long lagged behind Taiwan. That said, there has been a rich scholarly tradition in Penghu dating back for centuries. Apart from schools newly constructed by the colonial government, many educational facilities were run by local Confucian communities. For many literate Penghu locals—literacy was much less common at the time—even if arriving in Taiwan with no family connections or acquaintances, they could gain favour from local businesses and entrepreneurs due to their education. Hence, they could obtain more work opportunities. 

According to accounts from Penghu locals, those who moved to Kaohsiung during this period—planning to progress from an apprenticeship—found themselves advancing quicker than their Taiwanese counterparts. This was due to their literacy and knowledge of arithmetic. As a result, these migrants often returned to Penghu to encourage more locals to migrate to Kaohsiung for work or start a business. Thus, as local ties and business connections slowly accumulated for Penghu locals in Kaohsiung, the group gradually became an extensive professional network. 

Crafting the New Face of Kaohsiung City

Many of these first-generation Penghu locals – who initially moved to Kaohsiung – became the main force behind Kaohsiung’s construction industry. Government data on this industry reveals a high number of first-class construction industries owned by Penghu locals. This system and network also spilt over into architecture. The first chairman of the Taiwan Provincial Association, established in 1971, was Hsu Chung-Chuang (許仲川) from Guo-yeh (菓葉), Penghu. Before this, Hsu was listed as one of the top 10 architects in Taiwan alongside many other famous figures from Penghu such as Chen Ren-he (陳仁和), known for constructing the Sanhsin building and the Kaohsiung Buddhist Temple; and Siā Tsū-Lâm (謝自南), known for pioneering the aesthetic of contemporary temples in Taiwan. 

Chen Ren-he is perhaps the best example of the success and prosperity of many Penghu locals in Taiwan. Born in 1922 on Jibei Island, Penghu, Chen moved to Pintung with his family as his father was the manager of Dahe Lushe. After graduating from Kaohsiung High School, he went to study architecture at Waseda University, where he trained under famous Japanese architects such as Tachū Naito, Kenji Imai and Nobumichi Akashi. After graduating in 1945 and returning to Taiwan, Chen obtained an architect’s license in 1950 and established his own company in Yancheng District, Kaohsiung, where he started his four-decade career. He emerged as one of the most influential architects in post-war Taiwan.

From a design perspective, Chen Ren-he’s style is articulated with the vocabulary of modern architecture, and he is renowned for his confident structures and structural design. Famed for exemplifying Taiwanese “ruggedism,” his work can be seen in the Sanxin Building, the Datong Elementary School Auditorium, and the Fengshan Farmers’ Association Meat Market constructed later in his career. Indeed, all examples speak to the dominance and talent of Chen.

However, from the perspective of the architectural profession, Chen’s success speaks mostly to the communal power and networks of Penghu migrants in Kaohsiung at the time. 

Penghu People’s Solidarity while Facing Challenge

This monopolistic grasp is not only due to the high numbers of Penghu residents in post-war Kaohsiung. It is more a testament to their ability to face the turbulent situation of post-war Taiwan. For example, the fluctuation of material prices made it difficult to estimate the cost of construction, and older construction factories found it increasingly challenging to execute novel architectural designs. Many outsiders considered the industry as too risky and unprofitable, but Chen Ren-he and others from Penghu instead worked to overcome the difficulties

This model of collaborative cooperation based on the support of fellow villagers continued to function in the careers of Chen Ren-he and other Penghu architects living in Kaohsiung. Moreover, it was the most important factor in allowing Penghu natives to dominate the construction industry in post-war Kaohsiung. Through the stories of these architects and of many more Penghu natives in Kaohsiung, we can get a sense of how interconnected the two places are. Even if not particularly geographically close, there is a rich history of migration from Penghu to Kaohsiung. To locals in the know, “everyone from Penghu has a relative in Kaohsiung” is an obvious fact, and the connections between the two places are woven into the fabric of both communities to this day.

Tshinn-Hun Miguel Liou is a doctoral candidate in the architectural history and Conservation Group at National Cheng Kung University. He researched post-war Taiwanese architecture, with a focus on the regional development of architecture in southern Taiwan. He also studies Taiwanese architects who trained in Japan before 1945.

This article was published as part of a special issue on The Outlying Islands

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