More often bypassed than visited, Qishan (旗山, sometimes spelled 'Cishan') is used to being neglected by tourists who rush through en route to the Hakka district of Meinong or the religious center of Foguangshan. However, this bustling-yet-bucolic town - now officially part of the Greater Kaohsiung Municipality - is not only charming, but can also rightfully claim to have played an important role in Taiwan's economic and agricultural history.
Qishan is synonymous with one crop - the banana. Amid the cornucopia of delicious fruits grown in Taiwan, these yellow-skinned delights are quite humble. They're commonplace and inexpensive. When people want to make a gift of fruit, few opt for bananas. They're more likely to buy perfect peaches, gorgeous grapes or prestigious pitayas.
Half a century ago, Japanese consumers couldn't get enough of Qishan's bananas. Nienty percent of the bananas eaten in Japan were from Taiwan, and exports of the fruit generated a third of Taiwan's foreign currency earnings. An entire section of the Port of Kaohsiung was dedicated to the fruit. The warehouses where they were kept cool before shipping, now known as Banana Pier, have been revamped into a shopping-and-banqueting complex.
At the height of the boom, each banana tree generated as much income per year as a teacher earned in a month, and it's said that for every six bananas a farmer sold to Japan, he could buy a quality suit. Not that banana farmers made a habit of wearing fine garments - it's also said that even in their free time, while shopping or drinking with friends in Qishan's downtown, bachelor farmers liked to wear their sap-stained work clothes. This wasn't due to any sense of thrift; they did so because everyone knew banana growing was lucrative, and advertising one's occupation was a surefire way to attract a wife...
This is the second of my two articles in the most recent Travel in Taiwan magazine. The other is here. The photo, which I took, shows an 87-year-old banana farmer checking on his crop.