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Mystery of German Empire consulate in Taiwan decoded...almost

2019/01/02 18:53:19

Photo courtesy of German Institute Taipei

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

It all started about three years ago when an official at Germany's representative office in Taiwan was struck by a detail in a book written by a German author.

The author wrote that the German Empire had a consulate in Taiwan in the late 19th century, a revelation that propelled Sven Meier, the public relations officer at the German Institute Taipei, on a long journey to find the exact location of the old diplomatic post.

"According to the book, the impressive two-story building was built right on the banks of the Danshui River and was known as the most magnificent construction by the river at that time," Meier told CNA in a recent interview.

The old map versus the current map around Zhongxiao Junior High School (忠孝國中) / Image courtesy of German Institute Taipei

During a three-year journey, he followed a series of clues that eventually answered the central question of his search -- where the building was exactly located -- but still left one missing piece to the puzzle -- what actually happened to the structure.

The official seal of the German Empire's consulate in Taiwan / Image courtesy of German Institute Taipei

The search begins

What piqued Meier's interest was that nobody in his office knew there once was a diplomatic mission representing the German Empire in Taiwan.

To find its exact location, he first contacted a local tour guide in Dadaocheng (大稻埕), the area identified in the book as the old consulate's general location.

The guide confirmed having heard that the area used to house a number of foreign consulates, including that of the German Empire.

The German official also contacted several local historians at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top academic research institution, where they found old maps of Dadaocheng that they hoped would confirm the exact location of the consulate.

According to the old maps, the area was home to a number of foreign consulates starting the late 1880s, when Dadaocheng began to prosper as the Danshui River opened to commerce, but the consulate's exact location remained elusive.

With their initial findings in hand, Sven said his institute posted a message on Facebook in October 2016 asking if anybody could provide more insight that could help solve the mystery, and Zhongxiao Junior High School (忠孝國中) responded.

The school was aware it was in a part of Taipei that had a rich history and had been home to foreign diplomatic missions, and school principal Chen Tse-min (陳澤民) said the post prompted the school's history teachers to do some further digging.

They used a digital historical map to try to locate the old consulate, only to find it was located where the school's office for teachers exists today.

"The German consulate stood in the school's northwestern corner. The then-U.S. consulate and Netherlands consulate were close to the campus site as well," Chen said.

Zeroing in on building's history

Encouraged by these findings, Sven contacted Germany's foreign ministry and found the century-old contract for the purchase of the consulate building itself, which helped the German Institute Taipei establish a clearer picture of the old building's back story.

German trading companies began establishing a presence in southern Taiwan after the island opened its ports in the mid-19th century and Kaohsiung and Tainan -- then known as Dagou and Anping -- prospered.

In 1890, the German Empire stationed Constantin Merz in southern Taiwan as its deputy consul, but he was asked in early 1895 to move north to establish an official presence for the empire in northern Taiwan, where he became its first consul.

A file photo of the German Empire's consulate in Taiwan / Photo courtesy of German Institute Taipei

At that time, Dadaocheng was emerging as the preferred location for foreign trade over the more established port of Danshui because of its proximity to the downtown Taipei area.

As foreign merchants set up satellite offices of their Danshui operations, which specialized in the tea, cotton, and silk trades, the Dadaocheng area began to thrive, and the German government decided to build a consulate there.

It signed a contract with Taipei-based German businessman Arthur von Butler to build the consulate in February 1895, and it was completed the same year. The German government would later buy the land and the building from Butler in October 1899.

The consulate's existence was short-lived, however. Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing dynasty in 1895 after it lost the First Sino-Japanese War, and international trade become increasingly challenging in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, marginalizing the consulate's role.

It was closed in 1908 and handed over to the Japanese administration. The building later became the mansion of the president of the Taiwan Governor-General Office Medical School. In 1940, it became a customs office.

Missing piece of the puzzle

What happened after that remains a mystery, as the building disappeared from maps issued after 1957. Zhongxiao Junior High School was built on the site in 1969.

Meier said no official documents have been found revealing exactly when the consulate building was torn down or why, but he believed the Japanese government could have an answer and said he is considering making an inquiry to Japan's foreign ministry to solve the final piece of the puzzle.

In the meantime, thanks to Meier and the joint efforts of local experts and school authorities, the history of the long-forgotten consulate has been preserved for posterity.

In a ceremony held at the high school on Dec. 12, Germany's top envoy to Taiwan, Thomas Prinz, unveiled a commemorative plaque on a wall outside the school marking the location of the German consulate that existed more than 100 years ago.

Thomas Prinz / CNA file photo

Prinz said he was happy that the site had turned into a junior high school where young Taiwanese are learning every day and where the seeds of friendship between Taiwan and Germany have been planted.

The special connection has led several students to express interest in studying in Germany, and also encouraged them to learn more about the history of the area, Chen, the school's principal, said.

"We've designed a series of courses on Dadaocheng's history in the late 19th century and tour that allows students to walk through the old district to learn more about the area surrounding their school," he said.

For Meier, the search, though perhaps still not complete, has been rewarding because the findings not only satisfied his curiosity but also turned out to be meaningful today.