history · Taiwan

Camphor: From Totoro to Taiwan

Does anyone else remember the name of the giant tree that Totoro likes to sleep in?


For some reason, this detail has stuck with me to this day– “camphor”. And that’s probably the last time I encountered this word in English.

In Chinese however, you’ll encounter the word for camphor 樟腦 in everyday life. It pops up in the word for moth balls 樟腦丸 and at gift shops that sell soaps, fragrances, mosquito repellants, and other souvenirs made of 樟腦油”camphor oil”. So if you say “camphor” in Chinese, most adults in Taiwan immediately understand what you’re saying.

In fact, just a few days ago, I even found the word in this children’s book about Alishan:

“This area was a forest full of camphor trees. A hundred years ago, camphor huts abounded in the mountain.”

This is probably related to the historic importance of camphor in Taiwan’s economy (and perhaps its role in traditional Chinese medicine?). By 1868, Taiwan was the world’s largest producer of camphor, exporting over two times more than the second larger exporter, Japan (Taiwan in the Global Economy, p. 176). One of the most prominent families in Taiwanese history, the Lins of Wufeng 霧峰林家, made their fortune off their monopoly on camphor sales.

But why camphor? Who used it and for what? I learned about this (and more!) at the camphor refinery-turned museum near my house. Here are my findings about camphor, Taiwan’s colonial history, and Taiwan’s role in the global economy. Please don’t fall asleep.

About the Museum

Many visitors to Taipei will have visited the cultural parks at Huashan 華山1914文化創意產業園區 or Songshan 松山文創園區. Those coming from other parts of Taiwan might have come in from the bus terminal 轉運站. Interestingly, all of those sites were once state-owned factories churning out monopolized goods. Huashan Cultural Park’s predecessor was a brewery and the Taipei Bus Terminal and Songshan Cultural Park were once tobacco plants.

Turns out these aren’t the only Monopoly Bureau buildings that have been turned into cultural centers. The Bureau’s former camphor and opium processing site, which I visited are now also museums and cultural spaces.

Before we explore the factory site, let’s look at a building right down the block:


This was the Monopoly Bureau’s head office. Government monopolies over opium, camphor, salt, tobacco, and alcohol were the primary source of funding for the Japanese colonial government, accounting for nearly half of all revenue by 1910. So we can see why the Monopoly Bureau got this fancy building.

It’s currently owned by by the Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corporation, the state-owned company that brews Taiwan Beer, though it’s… also being turned into a museum. The trend continues.

Now let’s get back to the camphor refinery:

nice-looking trees

This is the view of the factory from the Monopoly Bureau office. As you can see, it has a more modest appearance, though has the same red-brick, white stripes 紅磚白飾帶 aesthetic.

Keep walking and you’ll reach the entrance:

the queen of trees on this block

You’ll notice that the entrance plate says “Nanmen Park”. As the name “Nanmen” (South Gate) implies, this neighborhood is close to the South Gate– one of two entrances to the city through its city wall. This area was known as 城南 : south of the former Taipei City Wall. As it was not yet developed, the Japanese colonial government found it convenient to build government buildings and residences here. A animated video about this neighborhood by Taiwan Bar.

Currently it’s still home to many government buildings. Much of this block belongs to the Ministry of Finance. When demand for camphor fell after WWII, part of the former factory was torn down to make place for government buildings, including the Ministry of Finance building 財政大樓. Also on the block are the Department of Labor building 勞工保險局總局 and a couple Central Bank 中央銀行 buildings.

OK actually onto the museum…

lots of nice trees here too

The building on the left is the camphor refinery. The smaller building on the right dates back to 1902 and is known as the “Little White House” 小白宮. It formerly stored opium. It looks small but the inside is quite spacious:


Some of the stones in the wall were recycled from the Taipei City Wall, dismantled by the Japanese. In the back, you’ll see this row of red somethings that seems to have been taken down. According to the tour guide, these were the former eaves for bike parking:


Workers commuted to work on bikes, so this is the equivalent of company parking lots in our time. If you turn around, you’ll see a fountain:


This fountain wasn’t here for decorative reasons, but for fire protection purposes. (In fact, all fountains around the world were once functional, providing water for residents’ drinking and bathing purposes. They didn’t just look pretty.)

The water for this fountain was supplied by excess cooling water used in manufacturing. Besides putting out fires (which did occur), the water was also used to clean the grounds and water the flowers and trees in the garden.

If you walk further back, you’ll find this road with palm trees: IMG_3633

These are quite typical of large roads in Taiwan. The nation’s most prestigious university has the most famous palm-tree-lined road, known as 椰林大道 “Palm Tree Boulevard”. It’s the road you take to enter the university.

This road here was also once the “Main Street” of this factory site. You can see it in the middle here:


This is what this block would’ve looked like before WWII. A huge factory that operated night and day, refining camphor and opium. The current site is at most an eighth of the original.

At this point though you may be wondering why camphor?

Camphor in Taiwan and the World

At the museum, I learned that camphor was used to make celluloid, an early version of plastic. American inventor John Hyatt (no relation to the hotel chain), developed the material in the late 1860s “while researching a substitute for ivory to produce billiard balls”. Celluloid was then used to make everything from fountain pens to eyeglass frames, safety glass in cars to toys.

So you can imagine why the Japanese colonial government wanted control over this industry. The importance of natural camphor gradually diminished after WWI (due to the development of synthetic camphor) and after WWII (due to the invention of modern plastic). But during the Japanese era (1895-1945), most of the world’s supply of raw camphor went through this very factory.

You can (virtually) sit on a wagon with crates of crude camphor 😀

I couldn’t find information on the factory workers, though there was a plaque introducing camphor workers 腦丁 who went into the mountains to get the raw material. They faced harsh climate, pests, disease, and conflicts with the Native peoples. The job was dangerous, nomadic (they moved to another place when they’d finished logging all the trees in the area) and not much better compensated than farming on the plains.

For more info on the park, see the National Taiwan Museum website.

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