Thursday, September 24, 2009

The life of an aboriginal chief

This fascinating blogpost by an American who lives in Wulai, an aboriginal village on the outskirts of Taipei, describes the life of a tribal chief who experienced Japanese colonial rule and Taiwan's rapid post-war modernization. Wulai is now a popular hot springs resort.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The September 21 Earthquake, ten years on

Today was the tenth anniversary of the September 21 Earthquake, the worst natural disaster to strike Taiwan since 1935 and the strongest quake for more than a century. It happens that yesterday I was in Jiji, the town in central Taiwan that was the quake's epicentre. One of the town's most memorable sights is Wuchang Temple, pictured above. It wasn't especially famous before the quake, but even now, a decade after it collapsed, busloads of tourists come to see it. As you can see, most of the rest of the structure remains intact. A new version of Wuchang Temple is currently being built less than 100 metres away.

Craig Ferguson has good photos of the temple and other places around Jiji here.

Know your fruit: The pitaya

The pitaya (sometimes spelled pitahaya) grows on a cactus about the size and height of a grape vine. The skin isn't eaten; the flesh inside is a pink-purple colour and soft, having a similar consistency to a kiwi; the taste is mild but very pleasant. They grow well in the central and southern parts of the island, and because they're relatively expensive, many farmers surround their pitaya orchards with barbed wire.

In Mandarin Chinese they're called huolong guo (火龍果), literally 'dragon fruit'.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Well of the Black Africans

The long-sealed well (pictured left) was, according to local legend, dug by African slaves brought to Taiwan by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-1600s. It's said to have been an excellent year-round water source, never drying out even in times of drought. Covered over during the Japanese occupation, it was rediscovered in 1955 and is now a national third-grade relic. It's in Lane 146 Ziqiang Street, Tainan City (台南市自強街146巷), not far from Tainan Park and the TRA Station. You'll find it easily if you follow the excellent bilingual walking maps posted on roadsides around the city.

It seems political correctness influenced the translation of the well's name from Chinese to English. In Chinese, 烏鬼井 literally means 'black ghosts well' – a less than flattering term for people of African descent.

The hand-written notice tied to the streetlight asks local residents not to let their dogs urinate or defecate here. To be honest, there isn't much to see here. The old alleyways of Ziqiang Street are worth a wander, however.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A warning for those driving themselves

In Taiwan, it's often said that if you come across what appears to be the aftermath of a traffic accident, there are two good reasons not to stop and try to help: Lawsuits and robberies. If you take an individual to hospital or pull someone from the wreckage, you may later be held responsible for their death or injuries. Also, criminals have been known to stage fake-crash scenes on quiet country roads and beg passing drivers to stop. Good Samaritans have, for their trouble, been robbed and had their vehicles stolen. Emergency-services operators seldom speak English, so if you do see a smash, it's best to stop at a shop and explain as best you can what's happened.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Temple renovation

Seeing how temples and other old landmarks are renovated is fascinating. I visited the Temple of the Navigation Superintendant in Tainan - one of that city's minor shrines - to find it covered with a temporary roof and, essentially, dismantled to allow for a complete renewal. Segments of the roof worth saving are suspended in position from the corrugated-metal ceiling by wires. Down at ground level, two women worked at painting and lacquering wood while their colleagues discussed how best to get new wooden beams into position.

Returnng a few months later, wondering if the renovation had been completed, I found one of the female artists (pictured here) balanced on scaffolding, still hard at work.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Know your foods: Deep-fried pig skin

The old town of Lukang in Changhua County is an excellent place to enjoy traditional snacks including meat balls with taro, various kinds of 'geng' and shaved ice desserts. Near the No. 1 Market we came across an establishment that devotes itself to the soaking in water and deep-frying of pig skins.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Westerners in Taiwan temple art

A few days ago I was in Tainan's Cheng Huang Temple, the best known of its three city god shrines. The exterior art features quite prominently two men of Western appearance but in semi-Chinese garb. The temple's caretaker confirmed they are 'foreigners' but couldn't tell me why they're here.

These figures are certainly not the only depictions of foreigners in Taiwan temple art. I like the five o'clock shadows on both men, and the widow's-peak hairstyles that remind me of Ray Reardon, the snooker player.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Japanese-era photos of Taiwan

Here are two fascinating online collections of old Taiwan photos hosted by Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. The web addresses are very long so I won't mention them in the book.

The Gerald Warner Taiwan Image Collection has photos taken by Japanese anthropologists and others during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. A great many of the pictures feature aborigines in traditional clothing.

The Michael Lewis Taiwan Image Collection has some even older pictures and many that are in colour.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Know your traditions: Tainan's Cixi's Coming-of-Age Ceremony

Taiwanese can drive when they're 18 and vote when they're 20. But according to one of the city's most popular customs, they become adults when they turn 16. In Qing-era Tainan, a child reaching that age was a cause for celebration because 16-year-olds working on the docks and in workshops were entitled to adult wages, not the half-salaries younger employees received.

Since the 1740s, 16-year-olds and their parents have been going to the Kailong Temple on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month to celebrate this coming of age. The event is called Cixi because it coincides with lovers' day in Chinese tradition. Until quite recently those wishing to take part in the ceremony, which involves crawling under an altar three times, had to purchase special gowns, shoes and hats and prepare specific offerings to honour Qiniangma, the goddess believed to protect children under the age of 16.

Nowadays the clothing can be rented and offerings need not adhere to custom so closely. The city government has been promoting the event as a way to bring visitors to Tainan; even if watching teenagers wave joss sticks while their parents try to cram offerings on tables already buckling under the weight of fruit, rice and seaweed doesn't interest you, some of the associated folk performances and concerts might.

The image here was contributed by Rich Matheson, the photographer I attended the event with. Rich also pointed out this very detailed 2001 article on the event.