Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jiadong: Awash in Hakka Heritage (

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.”

Like my recent piece on Yan Hong-sen, this article was commissioned by and paid for by, but not published until December.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sun Moon Lake - An Enchanting Waterscape (Unity)

When they flooded a basin near Taiwan's geographical center to produce hydroelectricity, little did the Japanese colonial authorities then ruling the island know they were also creating one of Taiwan's most enduring tourist attractions. Two small bodies of water – one called Sun Lake, the other Moon Lake – merged, and gained the name Sun Moon Lake.

For half a century, this sublime expanse of blue surrounded by rugged green mountains has been one of Taiwan's most popular destinations. Many Taiwanese spent their honeymoons here, and the lake's fame has spread beyond Taiwan. For mainland Chinese tourists heading to the island, Sun Moon Lake is a “must see” alongside Taipei 101 and Alishan.

The surface of the lake covers 827 hectares and is 748m above sea level. The waters are around 30m deep. The water level barely changes from summer to winter, so boat excursions are possible year-round. Swimming, however, is permitted just one day per day. One of the most popular ways of seeing the lake is to spend a day cycling all the way around it – the distance (33km) is too long to be comfortably hiked, but ideal even for slow cyclists.

Whether you plan to pedal or ride a motorcycle, it makes sense to start in Shuishe, where electric scooters as well as bicycles and gasoline-powered motorcycles can be rented. The main lakeside settlement also has hotels to suit all budgets, lots of places to eat, as well as a bus station.

Before leaving Shuishe, spend an hour exploring the little finger of land that juts into the lake here. Chiang Kai-shek had a villa on what is called the Hanbi Peninsula. It is long gone, replaced by one of Taiwan's swankiest hotels, but the church where the late president worshiped still stands.

Boat tours, which cost NT$300 for adults and NT$200 for children and seniors, start from Shueishe Wharf (and some other points beside the lake) and last about one-and-a-half hours.

Many of those on two wheels proceed in a clockwise direction and make Wenwu Temple their first stop. This imposing piece of architecture is dedicated to Confucius and has a superb setting. For Western visitors, however, two shrines on the south side of the lake may have more resonance. Xuanguang Temple and Xuanzang Temple – the former is by the water's edge, the latter is 850m away, accessed by a gently sloping pathway – hold relics associated with Xuan Zang, a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk revered for traveling to India and translating religious texts. His adventures were retold in a classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West; a 1970s Japanese TV series based on the novel attracted a cult following when shown in English-speaking countries under the title Monkey.

On a hillside nearby stands Cien Pagoda [pictured right]. Built on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek as a memorial to his mother, the top of the pagoda is exactly 1,000m above sea level. Do climb the stairs to better enjoy the scenery.

The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway offers even better views for less physical effort. This 1.87km-long cable car system links the lake with the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, a theme park where indigenous culture is presented in entertaining formats. Tickets combining admission to the village with the ropeway are a good option.

To meet members of Taiwan's indigenous minority in more conventional circumstances, head to Ita Thao, a village across the lake from Shuishe and home to Taiwan's smallest aboriginal tribe. As of spring 2012, the Thao numbered just 722 adults and children. When the water level rose, they were forced to leave their ancestral home, Lalu Island in the lake's western half. However, they continue to revere the islet – now just a tiny speck of land – as the abode of their ancestors' spirits. Non-Thao are barred from setting foot on Lalu Island, but many boat tours sail around it.

Visitors are unlikely to hear Thao being spoken. Nowadays only a few elderly people are able to speak the tribe's traditional Austronesian language proficiently, but activists are trying hard to save the tongue from extinction. The tribe's unique music, built around rhythms pounded out with pestles, is still going strong, and is often performed as part of the song-and-dance shows organized by the resort's major hotels.

The round-the-lake bus service is another way of circumnavigating Sun Moon Lake. Jump on/jump off tickets valid for one day are NT$80. Before each stop, announcements are made in English and Chinese.

Visitors wanting to get to Sun Moon Lake have a number of straightforward options. Motorists can take Freeway 6 inland toward Puli, then follow Highway 21 south. There are direct buses from downtown Taipei and Taichung High-Speed Railway Station. Anyone wanting to add the scenic Jiji Branch Railway to their itinerary can ride it as far as Shuili, then hop aboard a local bus to Shuishe. For more information, visit the website of Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration.

This is an edited and slightly shortened version of the article which appears in the November/December issue of Unity, the inflight magazine of UNI Air.