Sunday, July 15, 2012

Out and About in Historic Lukang (Taiwan Business Topics)

Lukang, as every Taiwanese knows, is a place where the forces of modernization have failed to make much of an impression. In terms of architecture and genuine living, breathing tradition, much remains of the old settlement. If anywhere in Taiwan deserves to be called “a living museum,” it is this town, 155 kilometers south from Taipei. 

In middle of last year, Lukang's historical importance received an unusual form of recognition. The Ministry of the Interior decided that because the spelling “Lukang” has been used by non-Chinese since at least 1842, road signs and official documents would continue to use that version, rather than “Lugang” – the town's name when spelled according to hanyu pinyin, the system of romanization adopted by the central government. Road names within Lukang are to be romanized according to hanyu pinyin, but as in many other parts of Taiwan, older signs often show different spellings. 

Lukang’s heyday lasted about 100 years, starting in the middle of the 18th century. During that period it was a population, trading, and shipping center second only to the then capital of Tainan. Until the arrival of the Japanese in 1895, commercial and civic affairs in Lukang were dominated by three clans and eight guilds. According to American anthropologist Donald DeGlopper, who did fieldwork in Lukang in 1967, until the 1930s the three clans – surnamed Shih, Hsu, and Huang – had an unusual way of letting off steam: “The men... would gather every year on one day in the early spring, line up by surname, and throw rocks at their fellows of other surnames... The rock fight was a festive public occasion; women and children watched and cheered; vendors sold snacks. Blood was shed and teeth lost, but no one was ever killed. [Some people] believed that if blood was not shed in the spring, then the community might suffer bad luck during the coming year.” 

Of the eight guilds, one consisted of merchants who traded with Quanzhou in Fujian Province Another comprised those who exported rice and sugar to, and imported timber from, the Kinmen archipelago and the Fujian towns of Xiamen and Zhangzhou. A third guild imported salted fish products from Guangdong and Penghu; the others focused on oil, cloth, dye, sugar, and groceries.

Town elders are sometimes blamed for the passing of Lukang’s glory days. It is said that in the early days of Japanese rule, when the authorities were determining the precise route of Taiwan’s north-south railroad, town leaders lobbied against routing the rail line through Lukang. They failed to understand the economic importance of a rail connection. Perhaps, like 19th-century Chinese, they believed this new, noisy technology would upset the area’s fengshui. 

A look at a map of Changhua County gives this explanation less plausibility. It is unlikely the colonial authorities seriously considered having the railroad veer toward the ocean, and then back inland, to link a town whose harbor had silted up – the main reason for the town’s decline – and whose leading businessmen had begun moving elsewhere...

For an online version of the complete article, click here. For a pdf version with photos, click here. I took the photo here inside the town's Tianhou Temple.

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