That Smells Like Lam-a-khe

As in many places around the world, industrialization preceded environmental protection in Taiwan.  Environmental protection also preceded “quality of life” there, too. We lived in all three eras during our 39 years there, 25 of which were in Kaohsiung.

In the 70s and into the 80s, if there WERE any rules about air pollution, they went unenforced. Kaohsiung’s municipal government promoted the region as “A Scenic City of Heavy Industry”. The scenery could only be viewed from up close, though, because smoke and phytochemicals from refineries and power plants and dust from cement mills made the air both difficult to see through and hard to breathe.


Photo by Cudown @ flickr –

The northernmost district of Kaohsiung City at that time (before the county line was dissolved in 2008) was the district of Nanzi (or Lam-a-khe in Taiwanese). A large oil refinery belonging to the government-owned China Petroleum Corporation sat next to a petrochemical complex owned by the private Formosa Plastics corporation.  Depending on what was being produced on any given day, the exhaust would perfume the skies above the plants and for miles around. When environmental protection laws came more generally into effect, things got slightly better at a distance, but in our home we had an expression for anything that gave off an odor. We’d say, “That smells like Lam-a-khe.”  Eventually we were no longer able to say that. Not only were the rules enforced, but a general concern for quality of life over industrial production moved nasty stuff out of the nation almost completely.

We no longer live in Kaohsiung, but in Holland, MI, where the air is sweet. Even the vinegar smell from the local pickle works can be pleasant. But as trees flower in spring, the beautiful Bradford Pears that line many streets, including the prime shopping and tourist zone, five off a smell that has been compared to “rotting fish and semen.” As I write, the first week of May, it’s that time.

It smells like Lam-a-khe.

David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.


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