Taiwan 2016 Part II

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Continue from Taiwan 2016 page I.

Well, at least the young laborers nowadays could have their dreams shattered right here in their hometown, saving a trip to the big cities, I thought. Once I privately coped with my loss by viewing Lukang as just another tourist attraction, I began to like the small town anew. For one thing, Lukang wasn’t meant to be an idyllic Shangri-La. Established in late early 17th century by immigrants from the mainland, it quickly became the 2nd largest city in Taiwan, after onlythe then capital city of Tainan. From late-17th century to late-19th century, Lukang was a cultural and economic center and a key maritime transportation hub of the island.

 

Lukang's prosperity was reflected on its “urn wall”, a local tradition of rich families using wine urns to erect wall as a display of wealth (showing off how much high-end wine they consumed). It was not until the construction of the original trans-island railroad in the turn of the 20th century, which bypassed Lukang, in additional to the silting of its harbors, when Lukang declined into a lonely and forgotten little town.

 

A long history of prosperity accumulated a fair number of historic sites, while a century of solitude virtually preserved them in freeze-frame. In recent years the tourism industry discovered this hidden gem, and quickly turned it into a living museum, with the consequence described above. I walked along the old street now, and was delighted by a few small discoveries that the good faith, generosity and kindness that used to define the town weren’t completely lost. For instance, this sausage stand relied on an honor system, leaving the customers voluntarily deposit money and search for changes in a huge jar – not a common sight in a busy tourist destination (last 2 pix).

 

Another instance was an old water well separated by the wall of the Wang residence on Yaolin Street, offering half of its open to the neighbors and passersby. As underground wells were the primary water supply before the age of in-door plumbing, the sharing of a private well was indeed an altruistic and generous act. The fact that this small and inconspicuous well (barely 2 ft wide and wasn’t easy to find at all) has become a tourist attraction was an implication that such virtue was still valued and respected in Lukang.

 

I walked pass an old gate (隘門, 1st pic), which was a reminder that Lukang was historically divided into fractions by several family clans. This modest red brick structure that bulwarked a small alley was the only one that’s left standing (out of the original 57). It didn’t look like much, but these gates once marked the territories of the family clans and functioned as the first line of defense against thieves, bandits, or other clans when they were at war – typically over lands and water sources. It was peculiar to picture Lukang, then a major city, in such an anarchic state where mafia-like clans dominated. But one must understand that the Taiwan was historically a peripheral remote island barely within the grasp of the central government, not unlike mafia-ridden 19th century Sicily. For average citizens, the most meaningful authority was probably not the local government but the family clan – all the more important and commendable to offer half of your private water well to the public to strengthen the neighborhood bonds.

 

The alleys of Lukang were narrow, winding, and perplexing – not easy to get your bearing if you’re not a local. Totally not my first choice if I was a bandit. One alley was so narrow that it was named “Titty Alley” 摸乳巷, because when a woman crosses path with a man, it’s physically impossible to keep her bosom from being brushed over, intentionally or not. Donald Trump would like it here, I thought. "My kind of alley!" He would say, "now build me some of that in front of my Oval Office!"

 

Being a coastal town, the specialties in Lukang included Karasumi (乌鱼子, salted mullet roe, first 2 pix), a savvy appetizer, and mantis shrimp (locally called “shrimp monkey”, 虾猴), which was typically breaded and deep-fried. The tiny local oyster was a wonderful ingredient for soup.

 

Much of the local customary flavor, on the other hand, can be found in the Lukang Folk Art Museum. The Meiji-styled building and the Chinese garden was the former residence of the Koo family, which has been prominent in Taiwanese economy and politics since the Japanese rule. It was the Koo family (represented by Koo Chen-fu 辜振甫) who arranged the epochal semi-official meeting with mainland China in 1993, the first direct contact since the civil war ended in 1949 – I had to memorize all that for my college entrance exam, and now it still stuck on the back of my head like a tiresome piece of bandaid.

 

Inside the building was an exhibit of the bountiful life of an affluent family during the Japanese occupation period (1895 – 1945). In the living room was an interesting mixture of traditional furniture and modern appliances. My problem with traditional Chinese furniture, elegant as they were, was their lack of cushioning. In winter time, when you lay your bottom on an icy piece of marble or rest your elbow on a stiff mahogany armrest, you would know what I mean.

 

Some of the larger rooms were modified to display a wide assortment of artwork, antiques, artifacts, and farming implements.

 

Back at the Matsu Temple (serving Matsu, the Sea Goddess), I discovered one reason why it was so crowded today. It was the alleged birthday of Ji Gong (济公), a legendary mischievous alcoholic monk (1113-1209) in the Song Dynasty that was widely revered as a benevolent arhat in Chinese folk religion. A folk hero, Ji Gong was typically depicted as a burlesque vagrant in tattered clothing (symbolized here by colorful patches on the monastery robe), whose grass-root images was apparently rather appealing to the Taiwanese. They made him the medium for divine message and responsible for séance. He may not be the highest ranked among the deities, but he’s definitely the most affable and congenial guardian for ordinary folks, so a party was definitely indispensable for his birthday.

 

I have always been marvel at how the Chinese managed to keep a meticulous list of all the anniversary dates in folk religion. If you’re really pious and dedicated, you could literally spend two third of the year celebrating the birthdays or nirvanas of all sort of celestial beings, from the gods of the heaven to the Yama of hell, to the Monkey King, the God of Pests, the God of Smallpox, or even the Goddess of Lavatory (no kidding, her holy crappiness’ birthday was December 30th of the lunar calendar, and yes, people do commemorate that). I wondered didn’t people have better thing to do than frabricating a fictitious date for an imaginary being?

 

No matter how ridiculous their religious practice sounds, I had no question on the piousness of the Taiwanese, especially that of the elderlies. Before I arrived at Lukang, I had to take the train to Changhua (彰化), the county seat, from where I took the bus. Early in the morning, on my way to the bus station, I walked pass a temple, in which I was surprised to find all over the floor were a group of elderlies sleeping in bedsheets. They were not sleeping in the guest rooms you understand, but lying on the hard brick floor under the half open hallway and corridors, in a bug-infested spring night. Some of them seemed to spend the night in the open, right under a tree.

 

Curious about what event required such dedication, I asked around and discovered it was the important day that Liu Fang Matsu (六房妈祖, a localized version of Matsu) “arrived at” Changhua. Every year, one of the five branches of the Liu Fang Matsu religious coalition would take turn caring for the Matsu idol and related artifacts. The transportation of the idol is a spectacular event, so all those elderlies slept in the temple overnight for the greeting ceremony in the morning. All around the temple the traffic was jammed by half dozen of pickup trucks going around, presumably carrying all the utensils for the ceremonies.

 

It was not easy to comprehend the religious landscape of this island. Its prevalence, its intertwining complexity, its unparalleled degree of freedom, and its stark contrast with Taiwan’s modern façade were all perplexing and fascinating. A 2014 survey by US State Department concluded that up to 80% of Taiwanese were religious, among which 34% were Buddhists, 33% were Taoists, and 10% adhered to a wide variety of confounding sects of Buddhism / Taoism / Confucianism derivatives and mixtures. But honestly, even the Buddhists and the Taoists were only loosely defined – the boundary between the two is quite ambiguous. Eastern religions are generally more tolerant and homogenizing compared with their more exclusive western counterpart. In Chinese mythologies, Buddhist arhat and Taoist saints shared the spiritual space and frequently allied with each other to subdue evils – imagine if only Christians and Muslims can do the same...

 

In practice, most Taiwanese would not discriminate against any religion or sect, but simply cherry-pick whatever elements that fulfill their spiritual and emotional needs, a mix and match if you will. What’s more, they threw in additional tidbits such as ancestor worship, superstitious believes or practices (such as shamanism), and ancient mythologies, which resulted in a sort of mumbo jumbo we loosely termed “folk religion.” For instance, they would invite a Buddhist monk to regenerate the soul of a deceased loved ones, then take on Taoism practice to cultivate their health, and finally visit a Confucian shrine for blessing for their final exams. For additional assurance, they would go back to the family shrine and repeat all their prayers to the ancestors, who presumably would mediate the actualization of the pleadings through their connections in the spiritual realm. Such pragmatism and fluidity in spiritual commitment would be nothing short of blasphemy to the Abrahamic western religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), all monotheistic and exclusive. Just imagine what a Yahweh from the Old Testament would do to these swaying infidels…

 

Anyway, I didn’t have the time to stop for the Matsu ceremony. But later on, I found a chance to visit Changhua’s iconic giant Buddha statue up in the Bagua Mountain. The imposing 26-meter-tall figure sat on a plateau at the top of the mountain, watching over the skyline of Changhua city. Upon close inspection, the statue was actually a large building holding various shrines, with windows opened on the back and on the lotus throne. The architect made no effort at all to conceal the windows, which seemed sloppy and aesthetically awkward. But then again, it was a reflection of the whole pragmatic attitude of the Taiwanese towards religions. When you need a window on Buddha, you just open a window, no worry.

 

Behind the Buddha was a three-story temple, and on the very first floor was a shrine for none other than Confucius (last pic). The arrangement seemed curiously incoherent if you’re familiar with the teaching of Confucius, who we could labeled as an agnostic regarding supernatural matters. From the Analects, he had been tactfully avoiding any detail discussions on any supernatural topic all his life. Confucianism was never about otherworldly believes; it’s more of a school of moral philosophy rather than a secular religion. But in this case, Confucius was borrowed by folk religion and assigned the task of managing academic performance – the temple apparently was ready to install whatever gods that have a strong market demand. So here he was, aloof and distant, sitting up straight with a flat face on his gilded throne, reflecting on his own fate of being kidnapped and exploited by the very people he’s been trying to avoid his whole life. This was not an idol; it was more of a caricature.

 

In the city of Changhua down the hill, Confucius actually had his own turf, a 290-year-old temple no less. The shrine in the Confucian Temple was much more subtle and sensible – no distasteful statue, no gilded throne, no smoggy incense, but just a memorial tablet with his title (without even his name) written on it. Here Confucius was revered as a sage, a teacher, a secular saint, not a god, because the greatness of Confucius lies on his advocacy of morality without any supernatural string attached. You behave justly because it’s the right thing to do, not because of the fear of Karmic retribution or suffering in a fiery hell. Anyway, the buildings of the Confucius temple, while not sumptuous, were solemn and elegant. When strolling around, I was drawn by the noise of a large group of kids from the wing-room. To my delight, I found a classroom full of parents and children of about five or six, who were having a lesson reciting Confucius’ analects in their chirpy and silvery treble. I was deeply touched, as only someone who grew up in Chairman Mao’s communist China could be.

 

In the 1970s, in an effort to strengthen his grip on the country and to re-examine Chinese history from a Maoist perspective, Mao and his literary henchmen turned their pens towards Confucius, the most influential Chinese philosopher and an emblem of the old establishment. Mao was a master in applying his theory of class struggle and revolution as an instrument to muddle up the political scene, distract social discontent, and purge his oppositions. The collateral damage was Confucius being denounced as a “delegate of the slave owners”, a rightist, a hypocrite, and a crook. Confucian temples, Confucian scriptures and artifacts, and even Confucius’ grave were vandalized and destroyed. Confucianism has sunken so low and depreciated so much that the term actually carried a certain stink in the decades to come. In my early childhood I could still hear thugs and boors insult the educated with the term in the street. It was a shame really.

But what do you know, while Confucianism was near extinction in the land it was born, it was preserved and thriving in the outlying island of Taiwan. By that I don’t mean the worship of Confucius as an academic god who could boost your final exam scores, but the incorporation of Confucian values into daily life: humaneness, humility, righteousness, filial piety, and ritual consciousness. You could feel it in the way Taiwanese treat their elderlies, their goodwill towards strangers, and their self-discipline. I had no doubt that these values were ingrained into their minds in an early age, as I observed right here in this small classroom. As I stood there and listened, I felt immensely grateful that this little island has preserved such fine Chinese traditions and values when they were detested and rejected in their motherland.

 

The experience gave me a rather favorable impression on Changhua. Upon further exploration I discovered that it was a town with a rich literary tradition. There were literary organizations and museums everywhere. Near the parking lot of the Bagua Mountain was an imposing steel wall that was composed of about a hundred steel plates. They were bound together and formed a graceful curvature, which resembled an archaic Chinese bamboo scroll that people used to write and read before paper was invented. On the plates, however, was a modern prose by a local poet Lai Ho, which was carefully hollowed out. Lai, a physician turned poet, was an influential figure on the Taiwanese literati in the 1930s. Some regarded him as the father of modern Taiwanese literature. But the prose, to be honest, was just a few mediocre lines of chanting that would have been considered progressive in its age. It was far less impressive than the wall itself if you ask me.

 

Along the mountain trail, a few lesser local literary figures also had their poems engraved into these little rock stands, which created an educated and sophisticated atmosphere for a morning walk. But the quality of the poems... was not really something I would boast about. All I could say was, at least they had the courage to try.

 

In comparison, I had higher opinion on Changhua’s local cuisine. Changhua’s specialty is their juicy fried meatball (彰化肉圆), an appetizing afternoon snack when accompanied with a hot bowl of spinal marrow soup. But the most bizarre food item I encountered was up on Bagua Mountain, where one of peddler was selling all kinds of eggs of various sizes (last pic). The biggest among them were a pot of ostrich eggs with the size of grapefruits. It must be as heavy as a cannon ball. I wondered who buy this kind of stuff and take the pain to carry it all the way down the mountain trail?

 

But apparently Taiwanese people were quite used to hiking up and down – this is a rather mountainous island. Taiwan has the highest density of high mountains in the world, with 286 of them over 3,000m (9.800ft) above sea level. Mountaineering was reportedly the most popular leisure activity here. So I considered it a due to stretch my legs on some slopes here.

The first destination, conveniently chosen, was the 1,611-ft Lion Head Mountain (狮头山) southeast of Hsinchu, just 70 minutes away from my hotel by bus. Rounded and densely vegetated, the mountain resembled a perky and hairy lion’s head.

 

Thanks to its quietude and reasonable accessibility from civilization, the area has long been a popular sanctuary for Buddhists and Taoists. In the last a century and a half, they constructed over a dozen Buddhist temples and Taoist abbeys all over the hills. Some of them were creatively modified right out of natural caves in granite walls. It was a neat idea, as the mountain would serve as a natural air conditioner, keeping the temple cozy in winter and cool in the summer.

 

But I was more interested in the lush foliage of the subtropical evergreen forest, which covers most of the island. The woods added immense depth to the mountain and provided habitats for 60 species of mammals, over 500 species of birds, 90 species of reptiles and over 17,600 species of insects (among them over 400 species of butterflies).

 

I didn’t have the luck to spot any mammals, but did encounter a fair share of bugs and birds. In the first 2 pix, a Taiwan Yuhina (Yuhina brunneiceps); in the last 3 pix was a Brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) artfully arrange its eggs into a matrix.

 

An Asian Long-tailed Skinks (Eutropis longicaudata, 2 pix); a juvenile Taiwan japalura (Japalura swinhonis, 1pix); a Chinese Skink (Plestiodon chinensis, last 3 pi).

 

The life source of the forest and all the fascinating creatures was ample rainfall, and that was exactly what I got. It was supposed to be a relatively gentle hike, but intermittent showers made the trails muddy and hazardous. It took me some five hours to complete a 6-mile loop, and I decided that was enough hiking for a weekend.

 

I learned my lesson the following weekend, and checked the weather of the entire island before decided on a destination. The winner was Xitou (溪头), a “nature recreation area” in central Taiwan. The name Xitou literally means the origin of a brook (the Beishi River), but it was a lot more than that. Around the streams were some 2,500 hectare of natural forest, with trees as old as 3,000 years. It was a logging area during the Japanese occupation, but today it was designated “experimental forest” by the National Taiwan University, presumably for ecological research.

 

Apparently that was why this little reservoir near the entrance was called the “University Pond.” On top of the pond was an ingenious arched bridge made entirely from bamboos. It was amusing to walk across the bouncy structure, testing the natural resilience of bamboo stems.

 

The whole area was thoughtfully furnished with rope bridges, sky walks, and wooden benches. Even the trash cans were tastefully disguised as tree stumps. In the visitor center was a group of statues with good old Chiang Kai-shek at the center indoctrinating a class of youth.

 

Here I finally had my first wild mammal encounter in Taiwan, albeit the subject was just a Red-bellied Tree Squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus). The little creature wore somewhat darker fur, and was nimbler than their over-weighted American relatives, but it brazenly begged for food from the tourists just the same.

 

What’s more impressive was an assortment of over 7,000 species of birds, frolicking in and out of the woods. A paradise for birders indeed. Here we have a White-eared Sibia (Heterophasia auricularis, 2 pix); a Taiwan Whistling-thrush (Myophonus insularis, 3rd pic); a Steere's Liocichla (Liocichla steerii, a pretty endemic bird, last 3 pix).

 

A Taiwan Barwing (Actinodura morrisoniana, 1st pic), Light-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis, 2nd and 3rd), and a Malayan night heron (Gorsachius melanolophus, last 3 pix).

 

A Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, 1st 2 pix); a Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis, 2 pix); a Carrion Crow (Corvus corone, last 2 pix)

 

Home for the birds was this vast primeval natural forest much older than the Chinese civilization. This balding Red Cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis, last 3 pix) on the roadside may not look much, but it was one of the oldest tree in the area. It has weathered through over 2,800 years of typhoons, earthquakes, floods, and landslides. Some two centuries before Confucius was born, it sprouted on top of a boulder, and managed to wrap its roots around the rock for anchoring over the years. However, the years haven’t been too kind, as fungi and insects have eroded and hollowed out its core, leaving a cavity large enough to fit one person. Miraculously, the tree survived, and seemed thriving – that probably why the locals called it the Devine Tree.

 

Before I wrap up this trip, I shall dutifully run through an account of all other newly spotted wildlife in this trip. Taiwan is known as the "Kingdom of Butterflies," with some 430 recorded species dancing all around the island. Here are a few of them: a Great Mormon (Papilio memnon, 3 pix) and a Chinese Peacock (Papilio bianor, 3 pix).

 

A Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon, 2 pix); a Purple Cow (Euploea tulliolu, 2 pix); a Tawny Mime (Papilio [Chilasa] agestor, last 2 pix).

 

A Common Sailer (Neptis hylas, 3 pix) and a pair of Taiwan Wave-eye (Ypthima multistriata, 3 pix)

 

A Tawny Rajah (Charaxes bernardus, 2 pix), a Large Faun (Faunis eumeus, 3rd pic); a Motzui Skipper Butterfly (Potanthus motzui, last 2 pix)

 

A Seseria formosana (an endemic species without English common name, 2 pix); a Three-spot Grass Yellow (Eurema blanda arsakia, 2 pix); a Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae, last pic).

 

More insects. A red Cissites cephalotes beetle (3 pix) a Black-winged Firefly (Luciola cerata E. Olivier, 2 pix); a Golden Net-winged Beetle (Dictyoptera aurora, last pic). April was firefly season in Taiwan, but I regretfully didn't get a chance to enjoy the otherworldly starry fluorescent night. Well, someday I will...

 

A Red-bellied Skimmer (Orthetrum pruinosum, 2 pix); a Great Spreadwing (Archilestes grandis, 3rd pic);a Yellow-legged Assassin Fly (Pagidolaphira remota, 4-5th pix); a Paper Wasp (Polistes tenebricosus, last pic).

 

Spiders... In the first 2 pix is a Leucauge magnifica, a species originated from Japan.

 

Fresh water fishes and shrimps in amost every stream I walked by. Some I met on the dinning table as well.

 

Marine creatures. A Striped Shore Crab (Pachygrapsus crassipes, 3 pix) and a group of sneaky Sea Slaters (Ligia oceanica, 3 pix).

 

So that was it, an incidental tour consists of many hurried day-long excursions all over northern and central Taiwan. Admittedly it was a bit random and rush, but I think I made the best out of the situation. I was again impressed by the effort of the Taiwanese to make the island such a tourist-friendly destination. I enjoyed very much learning about the local history of this modest island, which in a glance seemed to be a minor extension of the greater environment of the continent, but in fact was often defiantly unique. I especially appreciated the Taiwanese people for embracing and preserving many traditional Chinese values and customs, just like preserving their forests and wildlife. I think this charming island, with its deep Chinese root and a healthy blend of Japanese influence, deserved to be called “the heart of Asia.”

 

 

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