Taiwan 2016 Part I

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This April (2016) I was stranded in Taiwan for three weeks during a business trip. Not to miss any chance of cultural and natural exploration, I made the best out of the situation by filling all the weekends with nooks and crannies in northern and central Taiwan I omitted in my previous visits. These were mostly desolated corners too remote to reach from the high speed railway system in a hurry, as I have done before. This time, to my delight I discovered a convenient tourist shuttle network that connects many of its more isolated attractions. This reminded me that in the past a few years we have seen a major effort of Taiwan, the self-proclaimed “heart of Asia,” to promote its tourism industry, presumably in sync with its effort to strife for some political breathing room on the international stage. I’ve been constantly showered with Taiwanese commercials from the web, magazines, TV and radio, as well as various cultural festivals. Now I could say from personal experience that they’ve done a commendable job setting up the corresponding infrastructure to match the hard sell -- it was a fine destination. My trips were by design a bit scattered and random, but I will see how well I can stitch them together in the following pages.

 

My base camp, as always, was in Hsinchu (新竹). The moderate western coastal city has long established itself as a mini Silicon Valley, but somehow this high-tech hub still retained certain piety and warmth as the remnant of a historically agricultural society. People were kind and hospitable; the streets were still lined with temples and shrines; and there were no lack of anecdotes that the high tech companies here routinely practice superstitions and folk religions, sometimes to the degree of paranoia. It’s so antithetical that it has become part of Taiwan’s charm really.

 

I walked into Hsinchu’s City God Temple (城隍庙) now. It has been something of a ritual for me, to have a feast of small treats in these little eateries inside the temple every time I visit. It was heart-warming to find that the oyster omelet, stuffed meat ball soup, rice vermicelli, pork liver, fish ball and squid soup were just as hearty as I remembered.

 

Speaking of food, I’ve found local Taiwanese cuisine to be dominating and homogenizing in the culinary landscape. Any foreign cuisine that managed to set their foot in Taiwan have been highly, often regrettably, localized. Sze Chuan dishes lost their famous kick from chili peppers and Chinese coriander in favor of a milder local taste; Japanese char siu raman substitute dainty Japanese-style char siu with local soyed pork, which in my opinion was contaminating to a nice bowl of miso soup; even MacDonald churned out a “Black pepper sauce chicken drumstick sandwich,” which was about as American as stinky tofu. So when you’re in Taiwan, don’t take any gimmick of exotic foreign cuisines too seriously, stick to the local dishes.

As for local cuisine, I had to admire the creativity and audacity of Taiwanese in converting all sorts of local ingredient – algae (those green spongy and slimy stuff you found in a pond, in the first 3 pix), seeweed, wild vegetation, wild flowers, wildlife, crustaceans and mollusk of all shapes and sizes, fish intestine (the last 2 pix, believe me it tasted better than it looked), and larva – into food.

 

One of the more exotic dishes I tried this time was sizzling ocean sun fish skin. Swimming in that silver plate were semi-transparent steaks of fish skin (judging from the volume it must be a very large fish). They looked like gelatin, with texture felt like gelatin, and tasted like gelatin (which was to say not very flavorful) – it could very well have been gelatin for all I knew. So the quality of the dish relied entirely on the sauce. In general I’m not too warm about all these flavorless but expensive Chinese delicacies – shark fin, sea cucumber, swallow nest, fish maw… Scientifically speaking they are not particularly nutritious, and nowadays one can easily imitate their textures with much cheaper ingredients, so what’s the point of spending all that money? Anyway, the garlic sauce over the fish skin steak was great, so the worst possible outcome was that I had an overpriced but delicious dish of gelatin. I can live with that. The accompanying mushroom soup with Bamboo Fungus and Lion’s Mane Mushroom, on the other hand, was a real treat – the distinct mushroom flavors were intense and all natural.

 

Feeling content after the meal, I was ready for some excursions. The afore-mentioned tourist shuttle network consisted of more traditional and leisure means of transportation: buses, minibuses, and something I’ve always wanted to try, railroad trains. With the high speed railway now in the spotlight, traditional Taiwanese railway has faded from glory. However, with a long history dated back to 1887, the railway have been such an integral part of Taiwan’s industrialization and urbanization, that railroad traveling would always carry a certain romantic nostalgia.

 

I stepped into Hsinchu Station now (1st row). Finished in 1913, the modest Gothic structure in downtown was the oldest existing train station in Taiwan, and a stark contrast from the sleek and modern high speed rail station in the suburb (2nd row). From here I would begin searching for Taiwan's nostalgic old towns and its vast wilderness.

 

There were nothing more enjoyable than a leisure train trip in the spring: quiet, smooth, with viridian rustic scenes unfolding outside the window. I was pleased to find Taiwan to be as lush and warm as I left it last time.

 

The first stop was Ruifang District (瑞芳区) of Northeastern corner. Facing the vast Pacific in the north while surrounded by undulating hills, the district was historically an underdeveloped backcountry. From late 19th to early 20th century, however, gold and copper were discovered in the area and brought unexpected prosperity to the quiet hills within years. The Japanese, then occupying Taiwan, promptly set up modern mining facilities in the area, which included an imposing castle-like 13-level Shuinandong smelter (水湳洞) on the hillside of Jinguashi. In its heyday, namely the 1930s, it was the most productive precious metal mine in Asia.

 

Well, sometimes prosperity is a blessing as well as a curse. When I visited the old smelt facility, I was amazed by the little creek running from the hillside carring a deep orange hue and stained all the rocks it passed, which created an otherworldly scene. Halfway up the hill, the orange stream hanged over a cliff, forming a Golden Waterfall embedded in lush green, creating a rather uncanny sight. As the water rushed into the ocean, its coloration was so intense that it produced a large yellowish patch in contrast with the vast Pacific blue. The phenomenon was poetically named “Yin Yang Sea.” The Taiwanese tourism industry, with their typical keen business acumen, touted this apparent pollution as a natural wonder, despite the fact that the water has always been too toxic to drink or even touch. Taiwanese scholars even produced academic papers arguing that the Golden Waterfall and Yin Yang Sea were not a product of the heavy mining activity, but from a completely natural process. One crucial evidence was, they argued, after the mine ceased operation for some 25 years, the stream remained golden and heavily contaminated with heavy metals.

 

I personally was skeptic of their conclusion, especially when commercial interests were involved. The orange hue mainly came from deposits containing iron (III) ions in the stream. When natural rainfall seeps through the mine shaft, they turns acidic and removes the iron (II) ions (and other heavy metals) in the soil, which are quickly oxidized into the orange iron (III) compounds in open air (think iron rusting). Iron (III) compounds are not soluble, so they just taint everything they touch. To me the argument that it is a natural process is weak – can you imagine all those explosions, digging, and discharged byproducts from the smelting process didn’t have a significant hydrological effect? It may be difficult to quantify the contribution of the mining activities, but I do know this: I couldn’t find a single source that provides any evidence that the Golden Waterfall and the Yin Yang Sea were just as spectacular and polluted as today before the mining started. It was not so long ago, mind you, just over a century.

 

Regardless it's natural or artificial, the golden spectacle was no doubt a heavy pollution, so I wouldn’t dare to sample any seafood within miles from the site. That was a pity, because the live seafood I spotted in the nearby Bitou Cape (鼻头角) looked really tempting.

 

Bitou, or literally the nose tip, is the northeastern tip of the island. It's a sharp rocky cape that protrudes into the Pacific Ocean like the tip of a nose (a comical towering nose of Adrien Brody at that). A thoughtfully laid out hiking trail led me all the way up to the top, overlooking the rugged coastline and steep cliff below. The shoreline was a showcase of all sorts of peculiar formations of gritstones and shales after millennia of erosion. In fact, geologists have speculated that the entire Bitou cape would be consumed by the erosion in about a million years.

 

An off-limit military outpost (looked defunct now) suggested that the outstretching Bitou Cape used to be a tactically important stronghold.

 

Under the hill was a modest community, which lived primary on fishing and tourism. A quiet cove was lined with dozens of fishing boats, many furnished with high power incandescent bulbs the size of giant water melons. They usually operate at night, I was told, and it would be a gorgeous sight when the coastline was lit up with the starry fishing boats. Regrettably, I wouldn’t have the time to enjoy it in this trip.

 

What really impressed me, however, was Bitou’s public elementary school. It was built right on top of the cape, embraced by the lush hills, overlooking the vast ocean. I felt immense admiration for the school with its lively aquatic theme playground and wide open, breath taking sceneries. Even its restroom was built on a cliff facing the ocean. So when you stand there for a pee, you could look right outside the window and face the boundless Pacific blue (last pic). These lucky kids… how can any of them grow up here not having a broad mind and a big heart? Why wasn’t I born in such a wonderful spot?

 

It started to rain late in the afternoon and I took the bus back up to the mountain town of Jiufen (九份), another product of the gold rush. The name Jiufen literally means “nine portion,” because the town allegedly started as an inconspicuous remote community of nine families. In late 19th century, however, the gold rush turned it into a boom town, with staggering fortune rivaled that of Taipei, the capital city. But of course, it didn't last. After World War II the gold production has seen continuous decline, until the mine was finally shut down in 1971. Jiufen seemed destined to slump back into a forgotten little hamlet. But then in 1989, an internationally-acclaimed movie (悲情城市 City of Sadness) staged in Jiufen brought the city back to the spot light; this time it revived as a boom town of a tourism.

 

Jiufen was a peculiarly vertical city built on a steep slope. In the blurry view of heavy rain, all the stained and well-worn old houses, most of them no more than three-story high, seemed to be squeezing each other for a spot to set foot on the slippery hillside. I would’ve liked the place considerably more if it wasn’t raining so hard and the narrow and winding streets weren’t so perilous with cars, scooters and pedestrians all in a muddle. Our bus driver cussed between his teeth in a low voice and flung the bus over incredibly steep and sharp turns with admirable finesse and nerve, barely missing a couple scooters who were panting to clamber the hill with their meager little 125cc motors.

 

The flocks of tourists around the hills would eventually converge to this dark, narrow, and steep Jishan Street at the heart of the old town. Like so many other tourist traps all over the world, it was lined with snack bars, eateries, souvenir stores, and local specialty shops. What’s different, however, the street (an alley really) was so narrow that the extended canopy above the store fronts on both sides would cover the entire street, sheltering people from the rain but also darkening the alley considerably. It was amusing to browse through all those tacky displays, crappy souvenirs and appetizing local treats (sweet taro ball in the 5th pic was the much heralded local specialty), but I ended up buying nothing. It was just a bit too touristy to me.

 

I retreated back to small town of Ruifang (瑞芳), where I waited for the train back to Hsinchu. I didn’t plan it as a destination, but after a couple hours of strolling, I decided that I like this peaceful and unassuming little town. For decades Ruifang served quietly as the gateway to all the bustling mining activities in Jiufen and Jinguashi. It may not have the glamour of gold rush history, extraordinary mountain scenery, or tacky souvenir stores, but its leisure old streets, serene river, and rusty bridge were rather endearing – reminded me of the small town I grew up in.

 

In the local food court (I noticed that the patrons were all locals), I enjoyed a hearty bowl of thick mackerel soup, and chewed on a novel local snack item called “Dragon and Phoenix Drumstick” (龙凤腿) from a street booth. It was actually fried fish cake (mixed with pork) on a stick, something reportedly deprived parents invented to sooth their children who cried for a real chicken drumstick. It costed only $10 (30 cents in US currency) a pop – dirt cheap and tasted not all that different from regular fish cake. Yet it was quite satisfying to have a stick at hand when I slowly strolled down the old street, chewing and squirting spicy sauce all over my shirt. I felt like a kid again.

 

On reflection, it was ingenious of the Taiwan’s tourism industry to evoke the nostalgia sentiment by restoring old districts in all sizable towns, and to differentiate them by trumpeting their distinct history and promoting their signature dishes and small treats, like that “Dragon and Phoenix Drumstick” in my hand. It was just ordinary fried fish cake, but gave it a little twist (poke a stick in it) and a catchy name, and seasoned it with colorful local anecdotes, it turned into a fad.

 

Upon that revelation, I paid more attention on local historic districts for the next excursion. To my delight, there were a number of historic Hakka communities, such as Beipu and Hukou, right here in Hsinchu County.

The Hakka people (客家) were the Jews of the Chinese. Originated from Yellow River area in central China, they were exiled and scattered in the then barbaric south during a number of domestic upheavals and civil wars since about 220BC. From southern China many dispersed further overseas, including the island of Taiwan. Hakka literally means “guest families,” and for over two thousand years that was essentially what they were, a group of outsiders wherever they setlled. Historically marginalized, discriminated, and persecuted, they were confined in remote and less fertile farmlands and alienated by local communities. Realizing that they had limited prospect in agriculture, the Hakka people invested heavily in education and exceled in military, public services, and the academia. Against all odds, they remarkably maintained their cultural identity and integrity over time. The Hakka people may be widely dispersed all around the globe, but they can still communicate in the same dialect, practice the same ritual, and prepare the same ethnic dishes. It was a Chinese version of the Exodus.

In Taiwan, the largest Hakka community was right here in Hsinchu County, where 84% of the population were Hakka. Their settlement could be traced back to the 16th century, when they crossed the Taiwan Strait from mainland, drove off the native tribes (Taokas, Saisyat, and Atayal), and brought the barren land into cultivation. But with rapid urbanization in recent decades, remnants of the old Hakka communities could only be found in remote pockets nowadays.

 

I arrived in Beipu (北埔) now. This was a small rural community with hilly topography and mild weather, perfect for cultivating tea trees. The place apparently suited the Hakka people well, as the Hakka people are known for their sophisticated tea culture. The town’s specialties included a very special breed of oolong tea with subtle fruitful and honey-like flavor, known as the “Oriental Beauty.” Now here’s the gimmick: the unique flavor comes from a local pest known as small green leafhoppers (Jacobiasca formosana), which attacks the young leaves of the spring crop and prompts the plant to produce fruitful and sweet flavor chemicals (monoterpene diol and hotrienol, if you’re proficient with organic chemistry). Of course the unique process means it costs considerably more than regular oolong tea (over $21 USD an ounce, the last time I checked), so no, I didn’t spend my money on that. For all I know, I can actually buy some monoterpene diol and hotrienol to mix my own Oriental Beauty – I suppose that’s why some say science kills the romance. Well, as long as it saves my wallet, it’s OK.

 

Instead I spent my money on the more substantial and satisfying Hakka cuisine, such as this well-executed dish of sautéed frog. It’s worth mentioning that Hakka cuisine was one of the few ethnic dishes that didn’t succumb to the assimilation of the milder local cuisine. Over the centuries their dishes remained stubbornly intense, spicy and zesty. They allowed lavish application of preserved meats and pickled vegetables, which were extremely appetizing and invigorating when mixed with a huge bowl of white rice – precisely what you would need after a day of hard labor in the mountainous tea farm.

 

Afterwards I had a stroll on the Beipu old street in the rain. Most of the well-aged houses looked plain, sturdy, and lived-in. I especially loved those mechanical water pumps (they did produce crispy and icy underground water) and those retro little Nissan Verita hatchbacks.

 

The prominent structure of the town was the Tianshui Temple (天水堂), which was a private shrine of the Jiang family who founded the town (first 3 pix). Another fancier house was the former residence of tea industry tycoon Jiang Axin (姜阿新, last 2), who presumably made his fortune by selling the pest-infested Oriental Beauty tea.

 

At the north end of the old street was the Ci Tian Temple (慈天宫), an institution for public worship. It featured some ethnic deities that could only be found in Hakka communities.

 

The next stop was Hukou (湖口), a relatively modern Hakka community that arose with the construction of railroad in 1893. It became an important hub that connected the mountainous area and Taipei in the early 20th century. The buildings certainly looked more westernized with its Baroque-styled red brick veranda, but the relief ornaments were distinctly Chinese: blooming peony that symbolizes wealth and honor, white crane that signifies longevity, and bottle gourd that embodies good luck -- quite an interesting blend of two cultures. In the east end was the original site of the train station. In 1929, the railroad changed course and the station was later converted to a catholic church (last 2 pix). The inevitable decline that followed the relocation of the rail station wasn’t all bad; at least all the historic buildings were saved from urban developers in the decades to come.

 

I stepped into a restaurant, and was delighted to find the place was laid out just like a Hakka family. In front of the door an old grandma was peeling green onion and was quite oblivious of me; the inside was arranged like a busy living room of a big family; a boy was doing homework on the table; the menu was handwritten. The food, however, was a bit tamed (read “localized”) and the wild vegetable salad even had mayonnaise dressing.

 

It didn’t take long to exhaust all diversions on the 300-yard long Hukou old street. I strolled on and found a large public park with an impressive display of all sort of armor vehicles. High above, an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter was patrolling the sky. Curious, I consulted google and found out that Hukou was the base of the 542nd Armor Brigade of the 6th Army Corps. It reminded me of the air raid drill I experienced a few days ago. In Taiwan, every year around April, there’ll be a day when most of the island would cease to function for half an hour around noon time. Traffic would disappear from the streets; electricity and natural gas would be shut off; people are required to stay indoor with windows and doors closed, probably even encouraged to sit in the dark and imagine the approaching roar of strategic bombers formation. Foreigners like me would be left baffled why it was so difficult to find a taxi to go to lunch.

 

I supposed the Taiwanese always have this embedded anxiety that someday the mainland Chinese will march across the strait for an invasion. The two sides have long parted since the civil war ended in 1949, but the mainland has always declared sovereignty over Taiwan and insisted that the two sides should eventually reunite. The Taiwanese, however, generally preferred autonomy according to opinion polls. But of course they wouldn’t be bold enough to declare independence to provoke the mainland, which is 265 times larger in area, 58 times more populous, has 8 times more diplomatic allies, and is allegedly pointing some 500 missiles right at the island at any given moment. Instead they maintained a delicate balance by declaring their sovereignty over the mainland (a bit sheepishly, I imagine) – the diametrical claim was somewhat more acceptable because it at least implied a subtle consent of a future re-unification. At the same time, the Taiwanese established a conscription policy for all males of military age and busied the rest of the public with annual air raid drills; they spent generously on the best armament they could acquire from the US and Europe; they developed their own jet fighters, missiles, and armored vehicles. On the international stage they strived for diplomatic and cultural recognition. The tireless promotion of their tourism industry was no doubt part of a larger scheme.

I strolled on to the nearby countryside and to have a close look at the rural life in Taiwan. Well, it was incredibly green. With an agreeable sub-tropical climate and fertile soil, everything grows on this island. Taiwan are prolific producer of rice, betel nuts, and various fruits. In addition, in recent years organic farming, agritourism have seen significant growth. I walked past these tents owned by the high-end hot pot restaurant chain Kublai Khan. Apparently they were growing their own organic vegetables.

 

On one edge of the farmland was this little shrine for the local guardian god, where I was delighted to find a nice plate of steamed Chicken, braised pork, and other goodies as dedication. The Chinese historically believe that the supernatural world has a parallel hierarchical administrative system that mirrors the secular world. Ordinary folks considered it their due to please their superior in both the secular and the spiritual sides, and thus the offering to the local guardian. Since the gods won’t materially “consume” the goodies, they usually end up back on the dining table after all necessary rituals. It was one of my fondest memories as a kid, usually in the New Year or the Moon Festival, when the grownups finally finished their tedious formality of offering the ancestors and the gods, and announced that the feast will begin. A whole bunch of us kids – brothers, sisters and cousins – would leap towards the offering table like a pack of wolves and start snatching. I didn’t intend to do that now, although the food did look tempting and there was not a soul about. Since I already had my lunch, I would just spare them for the village kids this time.

 

Speaking of childhood memory, there was one Taiwanese old town I wouldn’t miss for the world. I’ve always wanted to visit Lukang (鹿港), because a number of memorable old songs depicted the small town as an idyllic Shangri-La, the perfect embodiment of a simpler, more innocent and unassuming age. Oh how I missed the sweet and elegant Teresa Teng (邓丽君), who gently recounted the ingenuous life story of the small town with plain yet heart-warming lyric and melody. And I vividly recalled a Bob Dylan-ish Lo Ta-yu (罗大佑), in his black outfit and sunglasses, bitterly contrasted the treacherous metropolitanism of Taipei with the tranquil simplicity of Lukang, and accused the rapid urbanization in the 1970s of engulfing the innocence and shattering the dreams of millions of young laborers from the countryside. Profoundly touched when I was a more impressionable youth, I’ve naturally developed a special admiration for Lukang.

But of course, nothing of such perfection would ever last (or had ever existed). The old streets and the Matsu Temple described in the songs were just right there, but they were clearly not the quiet and dusty centers of a simple and easy-going small town life I’ve mentally pictured. Alongside them were hundreds of slick souvenir stores, eateries, and snack bars, which drew a bustling crowd. It was exactly the same as so many other Taiwanese tourist destinations I’ve visited. There was even a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum offering some tacky and exotic thrill, if you can believe it. The much admired ingenuousness and simplicity, alas, were nowhere to be found. What a letdown… There goes another of my youthful fantasy bubbles. By the way, I later found out that Lo Ta-yu actually has never been to Lukang, but wrote the song based on a chat he had with a young man working in a carwash. So it was indeed a fantacy bubble blown from a heresay story. There is nothing as boring as the truth.

To be continued in the Next Page.

 

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