The historic gold mining town of Jiufen, an easy day-trip from Taipei or Keelung, occupies a stunning hillside location with fine views of the northeast coast. It’s justifiably renowned for its tasty snack food and atmospheric teahouses, though despite the hype, the town itself is architecturally fairly typical and not especially attractive. From Jiufen, the road runs 2km over the Mount Keelung ridge to Jinguashi, fast becoming a major tourist destination in its own right and far more interesting. Most of the town’s mining-related attractions have been absorbed into the Gold Ecological Park, an ambitious project that combines restored Japanese buildings with old mining tunnels and ruined temples.
Gold was discovered in the Keelung River in 1889, and in 1896 the Japanese began intensive mining in the area, dividing the land split by Mount Keelung between two government-run companies named after the officers in command: the concession operated by Tanaka Group became Jinguashi, while Fujita Group developed Jiufen. The gold ore on the Jiufen side was less pure and in 1899 the Japanese began to lease the concession to local entrepreneur Yen Yun-nien who founded the Taiyang Mining Corp in 1920 and began sub-leasing smaller chunks of land to Chinese prospectors. As a consequence, Jiufen developed haphazardly as a series of independent claims, gaining a reputation as a get-rich-quick town, or Little Hong Kong, in the 1930s.
Taiyang ceased all operations in Jiufen in 1971, and though artists started to settle here in the early 1980s, the good times seemed to be over – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 movie City of Sadness, in large part shot in a then atmospheric Jiufen, changed all that. The film was the first to make reference (very indirectly) to the 2-28 Incident and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Overnight the town became a must-see attraction, creating the tourist carnival that still exists today. One of its admirers is Hayao Miyazaki, who used Jiufen as inspiration for the village in his Japanese anime hit Spirited Away (2001).
In contrast, the Japanese maintained direct control over Jinguashi until 1945, the town developing in an orderly, pragmatic fashion. Its silver and especially copper deposits, discovered in 1905, became far more important than gold – by the 1930s the town was home to around 80,000 people with the hills honeycombed by a staggering 600km of tunnels. Mining finally ceased in 1987 when debts bankrupted the state-owned Taiwan Metal Mining Company – there’s still gold in the hills but it’s become too expensive to extract commercially.