Jiadong in Pingtung County (屏東縣佳冬鄉) has never been an important place. A much-used road between Kaohsiung and Kenting National Park runs right through it, yet few people stop here. Its architectural and historical treasures have been written about in specialist books and magazines, but they've not won much attention compared to similar attractions like the Lin Family Gardens (林家花園).
Much of Taiwan was originally inhabited by aborigines of Austronesian descent, and in Jiadong's case the natives were members of the Makatao tribe. Their name for this place was Cattea, and the Han Chinese migrants who began arriving in this area in the 1650s used a name derived from that toponym, Katang (茄苳). During the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), Hakka people began to settle in the vicinity of Jiadong. Soon they were playing a role in Taiwan's history: Many Jiadong Hakka joined the “Left Unit” (左堆) of the Liudui (六堆) militia, a loyalist grouping of Hakka neighborhood-defense bands which helped the Qing Empire regain control of Taiwan at the end of the Zhu Yi-gui Incident (朱一貴事件) of 1720-21.
The best-known Hakka landmark in Jiadong is the Hsiao Family Residence (蕭家古厝). A grade-three national relic since 1985, the house was restored between 1994 and 2003. Situated in the heart of Jiadong, it is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday 9am until midday and 1pm to 5pm. On weekdays, visitors are advised to call 0932-200-024 in advance to ensure somebody will be there to unlock the front door, as only the rearmost portion of the complex is still lived in. Admission is NT$50 for adults and NT$30 for children.
Visitors are sometimes greeted and shown around by Hsiao Chia-hsiung (蕭嘉雄). A sixth-generation descendant of the first Hsiao to set foot in Taiwan, he told us his forebears settled first in Tainan, then Taiwan's administrative capital, and that the second and third generations grew wealthy making wine and dyeing cloth. The Hsiaos – who can trace their lineage back 24 generations, to Jiangxi Province on the Chinese mainland – became major landowners in Jiadong. According to Mr. Hsiao, the township was once 80-percent Hakka, but because of population movement, the ratio of Hakka people to those of Minnan (Hoklo) descent is now about 1:1.
Work on the Hsiao Family Residence [pictured right] began more than 150 years ago. Many of the craftsmen and much of the wood was brought in from the mainland especially for the job. Over the following four decades, the complex was expanded bit by bit until it covered 0.4 hectares. Brick, wattle-and-daub, and round river stones were among the materials used.
The crescent-shaped pond in front of the compound, created for geomantic reasons, was originally more than twice its current size. The only part of the mansion not classically Chinese is the terrazzo facade, added circa 1920 after a severe typhoon damaged the original.
Hexagonal and rectangular entrances connect different parts of the mansion. These are deliberately unaligned, as it was believed that having one doorway facing another was like setting one person's mouth in opposition to the mouth of another, and would lead to arguments among the residents.
There are almost as many cat-flaps as actual doors. Although they were not cherished as pets in the modern sense, the mansion's cats enjoyed access to every part of the compound because they helped keep the rat population in check.
Several clan members living in Tainan relocated to Jiadong during the early years of the Japanese occupation (which lasted from 1895 to 1945), so for a period the compound housed more than 100 people. In many cases, children shared a single room with their parents, the youngsters sleeping on a wooden platform above their parents' bed.
Few of the rooms and artifacts are labeled in English, but in many cases the function is obvious. The kitchen is surprisingly spacious, and has its own well. The adjacent storeroom, Mr. Hsiao told us, was where female members of the family killed time by gambling. Carved fragments of wood – presumably original parts of the building, retrieved when the house was renovated – lie stacked on shelves, but none are labeled and nothing stops visitors from handling them. Those who do not read Chinese are unlikely to guess the function of the huge ceramic pot in the hallway: It served as a one-person air-raid shelter during World War II.
Elsewhere, there are antiques and old garments, plus scores of photographs. These images show the Jiadong of yore, the house as it looked decades ago, and long-deceased members of the Hsiao family. One clansman married an Atayal woman; her portrait shows that, like many of her fellow tribeswomen, she had a tattooed face.
One of the five halls continues to serve as the clan's ancestor shrine. Noticing that several names on the main memorial tablet were covered by tiny strips of paper – and wondering if they represented family members “cast out” after doing something unpardonable – we asked Mr. Hsiao to explain. It turned out his name is one of those covered up; when the tablet was carved some years ago, he told us, every member of the fifth and sixth generation was included. Those still in the land of the living have their names obscured; when a death occurs, the relevant strip of paper (originally red, but most have faded to white) is removed, “adding” that person to the tablet.
In 1930, members of the family built a three-story Western style building on an adjacent plot of land east of the original mansion. That structure, called the Hsiao Family Western House (蕭家洋樓), is no longer safe to enter, yet alone fit to live in.
Like Anping in Tainan, Jiadong has plenty of characterful yet unheralded old buildings. One, at 111 Gouzhu Road (溝渚路), has a superb brick entrance [pictured top] and several fine wall decorations.
Jiadong's other major attraction is located on the northwestern edge of the town. The Yang Clan Shrine (楊氏宗祠, pictured left), another grade-three national relic, almost fell victim to the wrecker's ball. In 1995, when the government announced plans to demolish the shrine so a road could be straightened, conservationists and cultural experts declared their support for the site's preservation. Civic groups mobilized public opposition, and the proposal was soon dropped.
A major renovation effort was completed in 2009, just as the shrine marked the 90th anniversary of its founding. Notable features include a lintel with two European men, each down on one knee, bearing the roof on their shoulders. The upward-curving “swallowtails” on the roof are decorated with elephants and dragons. The former symbolize hope that members of the clan can attain the rank of general or ministerial office. Traditionally, the latter are believed to protect buildings against fire.
According to a notice in the shrine, in 2011 the management accepted donations from 59 individuals, nine of whom had surnames other than Yang. The amount given totaled NT$527,200, almost a quarter of that coming from one person.
The shrine looks splendid, but some think it lost part of its charm when renovated. The silver-haired man I met inside – he was surnamed Yang, of course – responded to my compliments about the appearance of the building with a wry smile and the words: “It was more beautiful before.”