Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bamboo in jade

A detail from an immense piece of carved jade shows bamboo stems and leaves. Throughout Greater China, bamboo is regarded as symbolizing strength, an acceptance of the natural flow of events, and an openness to wisdom. Because it grows very well across much of mainland China and in every part of Taiwan, is has also been used for house construction as well as making furniture, toys and musical instruments. While some Taiwanese now regard the use of bamboo as quaint, some artists and scientists are drawn to the material because it's both cheap and eco-friendly.

The work shown above can be seen in Gongtian Temple (拱天宮) in the Miaoli County seaside village of Baishatun (白沙屯). It weighs 1.7 tonnes, measures 2.35m in length and was carved in Hualien County in 2002 out of Italian jade. 

The temple is best known for an annual pilgrimage that begins and ends here. Like the better-known festival that kicks off down the coast at Dajia’s Jenn Lann Temple, it expresses Taiwanese people’s adoration of Mazu, the sea goddess. In 2011, the pilgrimage was declared a national intangible cultural asset by Taiwan’s government.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Miaoli's Hakka Roundhouse

There aren’t many reasons to step inside the Hakka Roundhouse (客家圓樓) a stone’s throw from Miaoli High-Speed Railway Station, but the exterior and setting of this newish landmark make it worth a quick stop if you’re in the area. The picture above shows the roundhouse, the station to the right, and some of the many geese and ducks which inhabit the pond, and defecate all over nearby walkways!

Rather than being a proper replica of the famous Hakka tulou in China’s Fujian province, the architecture of the Roundhouse can be said to have been inspired by the distinctive shape of those UNESCO World Heritage structures. For a start, the windows of the edifice in Miaoli are much bigger than those on any of the originals. The walls are thinner, and rather than be open to the elements, the centre has been glassed over to create a pleasant atrium where there’s a small stage.

In the exhibition rooms on the second and third floors, displays illustrate Hakka agricultural practices and cuisine. If you can read Chinese, you can learn how to make fucai (福菜), the pickled mustard greens which are a distinctive feature of Hakka dishes in Taiwan. There are tools, cots and a mockup of an old-style kitchen/dining room.

The displays are in Chinese only, so the majority of tourists won’t learn anything. That said, the website does have some English information, and admission is cheap enough at NTD30 per adult. The building is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00-17:00. 

For me, much more enjoyable and relaxing is Qingshui Corridor (lower image), a 2.6km-long eco-engineered waterway which starts just the other side of the bullet-train railroad and wends its way seaward in the direction of Yingcai Academy (英才書院). The waterway is lined with willows and a reported 111 species of aquatic plants; when I walked along it on a very quiet weekday morning, I saw hundreds of fish and several sizable waterbirds. Miaoli County Government is notorious for splashing out money on infrastructure which hardly benefits residents, but I’d say this was a very worthwhile project. On sweltering summer afternoons, I’m sure the waterway is crowded with people cooling their feet in the water.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The recycled monument on Hutoushan

When it comes to trash, Taiwan boasts an impressive recycling rate. What few visitors appreciate is the country also has a record of recycling monuments, in much the same way Hagia Sophia in Istanbul initially reflected Christian dominance but later became a mosque. After World War II, landmarks erected during Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan were either demolished, or turned into memorials which promoted the KMT (Chinese Nationalist) version of history.

One of these repurposed monuments (pictured top) is in Hutoushan Park (虎頭山公園) in Miaoli County’s Tongxiao Township (苗栗縣通霄鎮). Hutoushan means ‘tiger’s head mountain’, and the toponym comes from the shape of this modest ridge, the highest part of which is just 93.4m above sea level. If tigers did once roam here - which is possible - it was long before humans began settling on Taiwan.

Some people visit Hutoushan Park for the views that can be enjoyed up and down the coast (spoiled somewhat by a power station) and far inland (lower photo). Others want to see the well-preserved but locked-up Shinto shrine (for a short write-up, go here). Not everyone bothers to go to the very top, where a concrete gun-barrel points skyward. The seven Chinese characters on it mean ‘Taiwan Retrocession Tablet.’

This memorial was built just after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Famously, the Japanese defeated Russia’s Pacific Fleet early in the war, then nervously awaited the arrival of the enemy’s Baltic Fleet. Japanese observers on duty here spotted Russian vessels moving through the Taiwan Strait and alerted the Imperial Japanese Navy. Able to position themselves ideally, the Japanese decimated the Russian flotilla at the Battle of Tsushima on 27-8 May 1905.

Getting to Hutoushan Park is straightforward. If you're not driving, take a TRA train to Tongxiao on the Coastal Railroad (trains stopping in Miaoli and Taichung don't travel on this line, but instead on the Mountain Railroad). Turn left as soon as you leave the station, then walk uphill past the junior high school. It takes less than 15 minutes to get to the memorial from the station.

If you're visiting Penghu County, you can find a memorial of similar dimensions in the eastern part of the main island. It was erected by the Japanese to mark the spot where their soldiers first landed in 1895, but now celebrates Taiwan's return to Chinese control fifty years later.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

KIshu An 1917

Taipei’s Kishu An 1917, also known as Kishu An Forest of Literature (紀州庵文學森林) isn’t the only place in Taiwan where the date of its establishment has been made part of its name. The best-known example is the cultural facility called Huashan 1914 Creative Park, but there’s also Chiayi Arboretum 1907. The latter is an urban forest filled with hoop pines as well as teak and mahogany trees.

Despite its name, there aren’t many trees at Kishu An, though it is a lovely patch of green in one of the capital’s older, grayer neighbourhoods. The real attraction here is Japanese architecture, specifically the restored (‘rebuilt from scratch’ may be a more accurate description, as fires in the 1990s ravaged the original structures) main building. Constructed almost entirely of wood in 1927 or 1928 to house the high-class restaurant which had been operating on this site since 1917, it attains a level of elegance matched by very few Taiwanese-designed structures. 

Back in the Japanese colonial period, diners could sit inside and look out across the Xindian River, about 100m away. Nowadays, however, the waterway is hidden behind a tall concrete anti-flood barrier. There’s currently little to see inside Kishu An - no restaurant, at any rate - but in a way that’s the point. It’s ideal if you want to sit somewhere (on a Japanese-style tatami mat - there are no chairs), take in the peaceful surroundings and read.

The site’s restoration was overseen by Taipei City Government, and a few hours after my visit, I showed the official leaflet to a friend. He straightaway commented: ‘I have trouble telling those places apart.’ I know what he means; in the past decade, I've lost count of the number of similar places done up and opened to the public. If you’ve already been to somewhere like the Xinhua Butokuden in Tainan, you needn’t go out of your way to take a look at Kishu An. But if you do find yourself in this part of the capital and feel like killing some time, consider stopping by. And while you’re here, do take a look at the very pleasant Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park.

Kishu An is at 107 Tongan St and open 10:00-17:00 Tue-Sun. The nearest metro station is Guting on the MRT's Green and Orange lines. Admission is free.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Taiwan-shaped leaf and a tiny snail

Hiking in Pingtung County’s Neishi Township (獅子鄉) recently with the man behind Taiwan Waterfalls and a couple of other friends, I decided to pause for a while and see whether I could find any interesting insects. I found over a dozen - none of which I could identify-  and also found one of the tiniest snails I’ve ever seen, pictured above. The fact it was clinging to a leaf shaped like Taiwan made it all the more appealing.

Thanks to its warm, wet climate and lush vegetation, Taiwan has a fabulously diverse snail population. New species have been identified as recently as 2014

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An earthquake memorial in central Taiwan

Not long ago, after an appointment in central Taichung, I jumped on a bus to what is now the city’s Shengang District (神岡區), but which was part of Taichung County until the city and county were merged at the end of 2010. Why Shengang? I’d never been, and I reasoned that in every place there’s something of interest.

Soon after getting off the bus, I came across this memorial. I didn’t notice the man taking a nap behind it until I got home and looked carefully at my photos; while I was there I was busy trying to figure out what event it commemorated, because the characters incised on the plinth were barely legible. 

It turned out to be a memorial to the deadliest earthquake in Taiwan's recorded history, the temblor which struck the west-central region just after dawn on April 21, 1935. According to the Wikipedia entry on the disaster, 3,276 people were killed and just over 12,000 injured. Almost 18,000 houses were destroyed; twice as many suffered serious damage. The most famous and photogenic reminder of the 1935 disaster is Longteng Broken Bridge, a short distance north in Miaoli County. This part of Taiwan was also hit badly by the more recent 921 Earthquake (so named because it occurred in the early hours of September 21, 1999).

Friday, September 30, 2016

Wufeng Story House

Wufeng Story House (霧峰民生故事館, pictured above) celebrates facets of local history and agriculture not far from Taichung, central Taiwan’s principal city.

The Story House occupies a late 1950s two-storey concrete structure which served as both a clinic (downstairs) and a residence for Dr. Lin Peng-fei (林鵬飛, 1920-2010) and his family (upstairs). The building had been empty for some years, and in a sorry state due to earthquakes and typhoons, when it was taken over in 2014 by Wufeng Farmers Association. The association says they decided to fund the project entirely by themselves so they’d retain complete control; in Taiwan as in many other countries, central government money always comes with strings attached.

Cracks in the walls and floors were fixed, new windows were installed, and the doctor’s office was restored to its 1960s appearance. Among the items on display are some - among them a microscope - which Dr. Lin himself used. Others were donated by some of Taiwan’s most notable medical-intellectual families. Over the past decade, nostalgia for pre-1970s Taiwan has become an important driver of domestic tourism.

Like many physicians of his era, Dr. Lin wasn’t a specialist, but handled internal medicine, pediatrics and external medicine on a daily basis. According to one blogger, he was ‘well-respected as an ethical physician who often provided free care to the poor’. 
One part of the downstairs is now a restaurant where typical Taiwanese dishes showcase local produce. Set meals cost around NTD450. Wufeng is especially famous for its mushrooms, so it’s no surprise these feature prominently. The field behind the Story House will soon serve as an organic farm, supplying vegetables to the restaurants and demonstrating to visitors how food can be produced in an ecofriendly manner.

What’s now upstairs is altogether more sobering, but will fascinate anyone curious about Taiwan during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonisation and World War II. By his late eighties, Dr. Lin was the last surviving member of the class of 1941 at the medical school of what was then called Taihoku Imperial University (now National Taiwan University). Several of his classmates, conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Navy, perished on January 12, 1945 when the ship on which they were sailing to Japanese-occupied Indochina, the Shinsei Maru, was sunk by US warplanes. Some 247 Taiwanese personnel - among them 41 doctors - died in that incident. In all, over 30,000 Taiwanese were killed while serving with the Japanese armed forces between 1937 and the end of the war. 

The Story House’s upper floor is devoted to the sinking of the Shinsei Maru and the Taiwanese who lost their lives on board. Amid the maps, photos and models - and a Rising Sun flag autographed by Taiwanese servicemen - especially striking is the black-and-white movie footage taken at the wedding of one of the doctors in the late 1930s. It’s interesting to see the cars and fashions of that era, but the mere fact the movie was shot is proof of the elite status physicians in Taiwan enjoyed throughout the colonial period, and have continued to enjoy, albeit slightly diminished, ever since. Unfortunately, all the displays here are currently in Chinese only.

A look at Wufeng Story House can easily be combined with a look around the area’s best known attraction, the 921 Earthquake Museum (also known as the 921 Earthquake Educational Park). The museum is just 1.5km from the Story House. 

Less than a minute’s walk to the south of the Story House is Wufeng Farmers Association Distillery (霧峰農會酒莊). There you can buy locally made sakes which has won awards in European competitions.