Steel has long played an important role in the development of human civilization. This has been especially true for the people of Taiwan’s southern city Kaohsiung, which has a century-long history as the island’s industrial heart of iron and steel production, not to mention one of the world’s busiest commercial ports.
Kaohsiung’s metamorphosis from a quiet town to a major industrial hub began in the late nineteenth century under Japanese colonial rule.
In 1900, a railway was built between Kaohsiung and Tainan, which had previously been southern Taiwan’s most significant town. Shortly thereafter, harbor facilities for large ships began to crop up, setting the stage for the establishment of Taiwan’s first iron and steel mill in 1919. Steel production continued to increase with an additional steel mill built in the 1970s.
As the city’s high tech industries continue to glisten with an ever-growing luster, the Kaohsiung City Government is working to strengthen its cultural identity to showcase the crucial importance of steel.
Steel by the Sea
Perhaps one of the most notable depictions of the city’s cultural transformation is the Pier 2 Art Center, Kaohsiung’s premiere art district.
Two decades ago, the area was home to a cluster of abandoned warehouses. But in the early 2000s, the site was converted into a venue for artistic creation and experimentation by government authorities and members of local cultural communities.
The project has since led to the establishment of a sprawling campus of large, sophisticated spaces developed to host a variety of activities such as craft fairs and art shows. Included among them are exhibition venues and stores operated by emerging Taiwanese cultural and creative product designers like the Yan Chen Metal Workshop, which uses its retail space to sell jewelry and host metalworking classes.
In 2015, the Pier 2 Art Center also launched an artist residency project. Under the program, the city government subsidizes residencies at the site, typically for periods of about three months. As of this past March, 37 Taiwanese and international artists had participated in the project.
The Kaohsiung City Government’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs has also organized a range of cultural events and art fairs at the Pier 2 Art Center, such as the Kaohsiung International Steel & Iron Sculpture Festival.
The biennial event was established in 2002 to celebrate the seaport city’s historical relationship with iron and steel. Like several of Taiwan’s other festivals, the Steel and Iron Festival features art that draws on materials vital to its local economy.
The event showcases the often overlooked aesthetics of iron and steel sculpture from an international perspective, integrating a number of specially commissioned works by metal craft artists.
Distinguished steel and iron sculptors from around the globe convene at the event where they fabricate new works over a two-week period from approximately 120 tons of materials provided by a locally based steelworks. Once completed, their ostentatious metal structures are installed along the pier, adding a renewed vibrancy to the city’s cultural landscape.
In addition to creating new works, participating artists also provide the public with insight into the subtleties of ferrous metal sculpture through public workshops and lectures. The festival also offer historical tours for those who want to learn more about the city’s relationship with ferrous metals.
Science, Steel and Spiraling Slides
The rapid growth of Kaohsiung over the past century was no doubt catalyzed by outstanding breakthroughs in technology. These advancements are not only celebrated through the city’s festivals, but also exhibitions at the National Science and Technology Museum (NSTM).
Opened in 1997, the NSTM aims to enrich citizens’ knowledge of science and technology, and record and present Taiwan’s related achievements. Exhibitions on scientific principles and applications that complement the local heavy industries not only create educational opportunities, but also enrich the culture of local industrial communities.
Since its establishment, the museum has since grown to be the world’s second-largest science museum, and is constantly adding attractions to allure even more visitors. Last year, for example, the NSTM unveiled a giant spiraling slide, which lets visitors slide from the top to the bottom in 12 seconds at a top speed of 67 kilometers per hour.
It enables visitors to not only experience the fun of sliding at a high speed, but to learn about physics-related subjects such as free fall, centrifugal force, friction and centripetal force. The slide helped draw about 800,000 visitors to London’s Tate Modern art gallery within three months following its launch in 2014.
The slide is constructed of acrylic glass and, appropriately enough for Kaohsiung, stainless steel.
As Taiwan’s steel city continues to transform into a capital of culture, it is certain that its steel roots will not soon be forgotten.