Long before “made in Taiwan,” there was “grown in Taiwan.” As recently as the 1930s, the island was the world’s number-one source of natural camphor, and the fourth-largest producer of sugar. In terms of tea harvested, Taiwan ranked sixth.
Trading in two of these three commodities brought prosperity to Sanxia and Daxi in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both towns are conveniently close to Taoyuan International Airport, within day-tripping distance of Taipei, and much adored by sightseers who have a taste for antiquity.
Sanxia means “three gorges,” and the place name reflects the importance that rivers held in the old scheme of things. Pioneers of Chinese origin began settling here in 1685, drawn by an abundance of natural resources. In addition to enough water to grow two crops of rice per year, the nearby mountains were covered with rich woodlands and streaked with seams of coal. In an era before roads, let alone motor vehicles or trains, goods of every kind were carried by porters to the nearest navigable waterway.
When tracts of forest were cleared for agriculture, the timber was used for building or sold, unless it was camphor. A model in Sanxia’s Historical Relics Hall depicts the low-tech, labor-intensive process by which camphor trunks were cut up, then heated to produce an oil prized for its medicinal and insect-repelling properties. Indigo dyeing was another major industry in the Sanxia of yore, thanks to abundances of clean water and Goldfussia formosanus, a wild plant from which the dye was extracted. Behind the Relics Hall, tourists can try their hand at dyeing tablecloths or handkerchiefs, so long as they make an appointment in advance.
By the 1750s, businesses of all kinds were clustering a stone’s throw from the Sanxia River, a tributary of the Dahan River. The latter drains more than 1,100 km2 of hill country southwest of Taipei, and used to be the region’s main water-highway. Since the completion in 1964 of Shimen Dam, however, the water is rarely deep enough for a dinghy, let alone a barge.
From the late 18th century until well into the 20th century, Sanxia’s commercial hub was known as Sanjiaoyong Street. John Dodd, an Englishman who played a key role in the development of Taiwan’s tea industry in the final third of the 19th century, is believed to have come here on business. By 1945, when the official name was changed to Minchuan Street, road networks were steering commerce elsewhere. Many of the photogenic shop-houses fell into disrepair, a decline not arrested until the authorities launched a major renovation effort in 2004.
The thoroughfare’s original name was restored along with its century-old red-brick arcades. Ornate baroque-style relief decorations were sandblasted. Hundreds of mud bricks were made by hand to fix disintegrating internal partitions. Sagging roofs were straightened. The street itself was paved with slabs of granite that were chiseled rather than machined. Unavoidable modern features, such as manhole covers and house numbers, were made to look as traditional as possible.
Entrepreneurs have repopulated the street. Stores here sell everything excursionists could possibly want, including Sanxia’s famous niujiao (“ox horn”) bread. These chewy croissants come in a variety of flavors. For some visitors, Sanjiaoyong Street is not Sanxia’s top attraction. At the northern end of the street stands Zushi Temple, a treasure house of religious art. This shrine was founded in 1769, yet nothing here is especially old. Its value instead derives from the post-World War II efforts of Li Mei-shu, a local politician and acclaimed painter who set the highest standards while supervising restoration work between 1947 and his death in 1983.
The number and quality of wood and stone carvings is astonishing. There are crabs and other crustaceans, dragons, fish, owls, pangolins, elephants, sages, soldiers, and a whole orchestra of musicians. The ceiling of the central chamber, where incense is offered to Zushi, is breathtakingly elaborate. Zushi is the godly name of Chen Zhaoying, a 13th-century government official remembered for his courage during a Mongol invasion of China.
Zushi Temple is often filled with people and incense smoke, so those seeking a more contemplative environment may wish to drive 15 minutes south to Baiji Xingxiu Temple [pictured here during freakishly cold weather in January 2016, when snow fell on the hills around Sanxia].
Located near the top of 740m-high Mount Baiji, the decor and design of this house of worship embody Taoist ideals of simplicity. Each day, dozens of people come here to undergo shoujing, a “fright-soothing” ceremony which many Taiwanese believe can relieve trauma and anxiety. Each ritual, conducted in the main courtyard by a blue-robed volunteer, takes less than a minute. Other visitors prefer to hike, or simply enjoy the view. On clear days, the lowland conurbation stretching from Taipei to Hsinchu is visible between the green hills which crowd the foreground.
Thirteen kilometers upstream, on a bluff with commanding views over the Dahan River, the settlement now known as Daxi (literally “big creek”) appeared in the early years of the 18th century. The first inhabitants were Ketagalan and Atayal indigenous people, but within a few generations Fujianese and Hakka settlers dominated the area.
A century ago, the Japanese authorities then ruling Taiwan reorganized Daxi’s commercial district. After the roads were widened, property-owners commissioned architects and artisans to create new facades for their homes. In keeping with the times, these incorporated a fabulous assortment of Baroque, Greek, Neo-Classical and Renaissance elements, along with some distinctly Taiwanese motifs. What was then known as Lower Street, but is now Heping Road, has better preserved buildings than Zhongyang Road, formerly Upper Street. Both deserve to be explored at a leisurely pace...
This article appears in the May edition of EVA's inflight magazine, and can be read online, starting from page 42.
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