A piano factory in Taoyuan County’s Daxi Township is among the growing number of tourist factories around Taiwan, and now allows visitors to learn about piano production and the mechanics that make the instrument work. Travel in Taiwan made the short trip from Taipei to find out more.
By Kurt Weidner
If you come across a new upright piano in Taiwan it has, with almost 100% certainty, been assembled in a certain factory that is a 40-minute drive southwest of Taipei City. Since the only other producer of pianos in Taiwan, Yamaha, closed its local business in 2009, Tong Ho Musical Wooden Works Co., Ltd. has been the sole domestic company supplying musicians with pianos that are not imported. Keeping the production line running over the past two decades has been quite a challenge, with sales numbers declining ever since the “golden 1980s” when Tong Ho sold up to 700 pianos a month. The present number is about 150. In an attempt to stimulate business and create an additional source of income, five years ago the then 40-year-old company decided to open the plant up for visitors. After a year of preparations, the doors of the Music 4 Fun Tong Ho Music Experience Museum were swung open.
The factory/museum is located just 15 minutes by foot from Daxi’s Old Street, the town’s main tourist draw. Even before entering through the main gate, the sound of piano music emanating from loudspeakers fills the air, setting the tone for a highly educational tour that is all about pianos and music.
"Opening the doors of the factory for visitors," explains Chen Wei-hong, the plant’s manager and vice-director, “is an attempt to create an interest in music in general, and the piano in particular, among the younger generation. Children are nowadays more interested in playing video games than learning a musical instrument, and it is therefore important to introduce them to music at an early age. Only with this interest established will we be able to sell more pianos in the future”.
It is therefore not surprising that the tourist factory is primarily geared toward entertaining visiting families and school classes, with the first mainly coming on weekends and the latter during the week. Visitors who do not belong to one of these groups are nevertheless welcome too, and everyone who’s interested in music will find a tour of the plant highly interesting, and perhaps even eye-opening.
Music 4Fun offers half-day and full-day tours (NT$200 and NT$400, respectively). On our visit we opted for the half-day tour, which includes a session on DIY assembly of musical instruments, a tour of two exhibit rooms where you learn a great deal about the piano, a visit to a hall housing simple devices for creating sound (or better, noise) built with recycled waste materials, and a tour of the factory’s assembly.
The DIY session is especially geared to kids. You are shown how to put together a harmonica by screwing the different parts together with tiny screws, and you learn how the different parts of a recorder are put together. The most interesting part about the harmonica assembly is learning how the reed plate at the core of the instrument works – sound is created by blowing wind into the holes to make the reeds vibrate.
The DIY session is conducted on the first floor. Afterwards, we went up to the display hall on the second floor. If you have ever wondered what a piano looks like on the inside and how the sound is created, you’ll find all the answers here. The pianos and piano components arranged around the two large rooms here have been dissected in every possible way to let you see inside and help you comprehend the surprisingly complicated mechanics.
In the first room, you will learn that spruce from Alaska is used for the soundboard, how the keyboard is glued together, how the hammers hit the strings, what material the hammers are made of, what’s happening inside the piano when pressing the pedals, and much more. The second room has displays of piano peripherals, including humidity sensors, a device that turns a piano into an electrical instrument (allowing musicians to play on at night without disturbing their neighbors), and a fancy system that slows down the fall of the “fall” (the keyboard cover).
Filled in with all the details about the piano, visitors – especially the younger ones – are delighted with the next part of the factory tour. In the “Environmental Music Area,” located inside a hall opposite the exhibition building, you can make sound to your heart’s content on simple devices made with recycled trash by factory workers. The title “Music Area” is a bit misleading, because if you visit this hall at the same time as a 30-strong class of elementary students, the “music” created by hammering on metal surfaces and plastic buckets is more like an assault on your ears, the piano music from the aforementioned outside loudspeakers completely drowned out. Have fun, and don’t say you weren’t warned.
The last part of the tour – and in our view the best – is the visit to the assembly hall, where you’ll see 20~30 pianos being assembled by a dozen workers. Following a designated path through the hall, you look right over the shoulders of the workers, watching how they put together keys and hammers, strings and boards, pedals and covers. At one end of the hall you witness how the sound for each piano is fine-tuned before the instrument is shipped out.
About the Company
Tong Ho is the Taiwan agent for Japanese piano producer Kawai Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co., Ltd. The company was established 45 years ago, starting as a producer of wooden cabinets for TV sets. Cooperation between Tong Ho and Kawai began when the two sides were introduced by a company supplying the paint for both Tong Ho’s cabinets and Kawai’s pianos. In the 1960s, 90% of pianos in Taiwan were imported from Japan, and because of their high price tags only affluent Taiwanese could afford to buy one. Thanks to the cooperation between the two companies prices were reduced and the market expanded by importing the parts from Japan and assembling the pianos in Taiwan. Today, Tong Ho still imports main components from Japan, while the wooden boards and other less important parts are produced in low-cost countries around Asia. The heyday of the company was during the 1980s and ’90s, when an average of 700 pianos were built each month. During that time the company was also a major producer of amplifiers, selling 6,000~7,000 units per month and exporting them around the world.
Other Places of Interest in the Area
The town of Daxi is best known for it’s Old Street (Heping Road), lined with old shophouses, many sporting Baroque-style facades, an indication of the town’s thriving commerce in times gone by. There are numerous shops and eateries here, where you can sample local specialties such as dried beancurd and rice cooked in bamboo tubes.
At the western end of town is the small Zhongzheng Park, from which you enjoy great views over the Dahan River. A path below the park, by the river, leads to the photogenic river-spanning Daxi Bridge. A nice place to enjoy a cup of coffee while taking in the river views is the terrace at Daxi Artist Villa, housed in what was once a summer retreat of late President Chiang Kai-shek.
For more about tourist factories around Taiwan, visit taiwanplace21.org/en/index.htm.
Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly March April Issue, 2012