The land is still there, but the ship-breaking which once polluted it long ago moved to Bangladesh. Kaohsiung was once world famous for the practice, having outbid the breaking yards in Europe and North America for the raw material (old ships) and being right next door to steel mills that reprocessed the scrap into the steel that built Taiwan. The nation and its industry eventually moved up the feeding chain, and after an industrial accident that resulted in 14 deaths late in the 80s, things began shutting down in 1987. Sometime late that year I participated in an “environmental awareness” tour of the facilities. As the yards closed down, among the last ships scrapped there was the former high-speed English Channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, in 1988.
There was an ancillary benefit for us. Kaohsiung was hardly an “international” city in the 80s. Ships that were brought for breaking came from all over the world. The food in their galleys was a mix of things that wound up for sale in a place known to foreigners as “the ship store”. When there was cheese in the cooler there, word went out, and we cheese-starved foreigners descended upon it like locust. Once I picked up what appeared to be cheesy. It was labeled in Greek, though, which I deciphered and discovered was a 3 kilo block of Halvah from Thessalonica. Over the next few weeks, I gained about 3 kilos.
We recently went for a walk towards the bridge that funnels south bound traffic into Holland, MI, where we now live. Generally when we pass through that area we’re in the car, and because the road there has no shoulders, we have to move at 35 MPH or we’ll get rear-ended. On foot this time, we could take our time as we walked through the scrap yard that all who enter the city across the bridge must traverse on the way in. The road passes between fenced off piles of scrap brought in from local factories and junk yards for processing, shredding, and shipping out by railcar or barge to those who will make it into new things. Both sides of the street are lined with colorfully painted sculptures made of welded together bits of former equipment: a massive crankshaft, derricks, springs and gears. And there’s the mascot, Rusty, the scrap yard dog made of steel.
Seven thousand miles from home, and more than 30 years removed from Kaohsiung’s ship-breaking heyday, we can still “get the feeling” of what once was home.
David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.