Taiwan’s Donghua Camphor Factory mixes innovation with tradition
Wu Teng-jin, owner of Donghua Camphor Factory, Miaoli County, talks about the camphor oil manufacturing process. (Photos courtesy of Donghua Camphor Factory)
- Publication Date：01/13/2013
- Source： Taiwan Today
- By Grace Kuo
“My father Wu A-hsiang, a Japanese-licensed camphor cutter, started the family’s camphor business in 1937,” Wu Teng-jin, the current factory owner, said in an interview with Taiwan Today Dec. 27, 2012.
Wu said his father, a Hakka from Tongluo, was forced into the camphor business. A lack of opportunities in agriculture in the area was a basic problem.
“Miaoli is Hakka country. There are plenty of mountains and hills, but few cultivable fields,” he said. However, although the family owned land in the township, it was appropriated by the government, giving Wu’s father no choice but to move away to seek work.
“My father first went to central Taiwan’s Taichung and rented land for farming. Even though we harvested twice a year, he had to go to nearby Nantou County and find another job as a camphor cutter and oil manufacturer in Jiji Township to support the family.”
The camphor industry in Taiwan thrived between 1860 and 1895, during which 70 percent of camphor-related products in the global market came from the island, Wu said. Once the Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1895 they saw the huge profits involved and camphor’s wide range of uses—not just in everything from Chinese and Western medicines to mothballs—but, crucially, in explosives manufacture. The Japanese began to implement restrictions to control the development of the sector.
“To become a camphor cutter and oil manufacturer, you had to obtain a license from what is now known as the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp.,” Wu said. “Educational background was irrelevant to passing the test. A camphor examiner relies on his nose to differentiate the various types of camphora, such as cinnamomum and linalool. If you could tell the difference you were granted a license.”
Cinnamomum camphora contains white crystalline substances, is high in camphor oil and quite pungent, whereas linalool camphora, with less camphor oil, has a less pronounced odor.
Because camphor was then used in the production of explosives, being in the camphor industry during the Japanese colonial period was like being in national defense, Wu said. “Back then, pork was rationed by the government. A normal person got 37.5 grams of pork per week, but as a camphor cutter, you had many privileges. You got that much pork every day, and water and electricity were half price.”
It was not just the workers who needed licenses—the trees did, too. “Every single camphor tree on a plot had to be registered and numbered,” Wu recounted. “Officials with the TTL would visit from time to time. If a tree went missing without a good explanation, those in charge of the land would be severely punished, and might even go to jail.”
Wooden buckets were the main tools for camphor oil extraction during the Japanese colonial period.Wu said his factory follows the traditional distillation method to manufacture camphor oil and related products. The wood is chosen, with preference given to cinnamomum camphora, because it contains camphor in white crystalline form. It is then fed into a wood chipper before being distilled for five hours. The resulting extract is filtered to produce the camphor oil. “Six hundred kilograms of camphor only produce 15 kilos of camphor oil.”
In the heyday of camphor production, more than 200 factories manufactured natural camphor oil, and Donghua alone produced up to 300 kilograms of camphor oil per day, Wu said, with the price ranging from NT$700 (US$24.1) to NT$1,000 per kilogram. However, following the privatization of the camphor industry in 1967 and the widespread adoption of the much cheaper, chemically synthesized camphor oil, the family business experienced a downturn, and his counterparts closed one by one. “Today, we only produce one-third of the amount we used to manufacture,” he lamented.
However, innovation has halted the slide, and a rebirth may be on the horizon. One day in the 1990s, Wu’s third son Wu Chih-tseng, who runs the Chee Yen Soap Factory in Taichung City, met a wholesaler and got the idea of adding camphor oil to his soap. Since then, he has developed other camphor-related products, such as a body wash, lotions, shampoo—even detergent.
“My son’s factory has kept the family business going,” Wu said, adding that they are always thinking of new products. But the camphor oil is not the only resource the elder Wu is thinking about—he is considering opening the factory to tourists, with a display of the tools and procedures used in making camphor oil.
“Scholars, such as Wang Ben-chaung, an architecture professor at National United University in Miaoli, have told me that it’s a pity to waste the water from the camphor extraction process as it contains phytoncides” —antimicrobial organic compounds—“So I am planning to set up an area in the factory for visitors to bathe their feet in the water,” Wu said.
Natural camphor oil manufactured by Donghua Camphor Factory.Asked why he stuck to manufacturing natural camphor oil in such a competitive environment when most of his counterparts had shut their factories, Wu said camphor has innumerable uses passed down from ancient times; everything from repelling mosquitoes to soothing insect bites. “It was called one of the three treasures of Taiwan in the Japanese colonial period, along with sugarcane and tea, and should be produced naturally without adding chemical ingredients.” (SDH)
Write to Grace Kuo at email@example.com
bon voyage, mothball, camphor, phytoncides