Thursday, March 24, 2011

Back to Little Liuqiu

A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Little Liuqiu, this time with my wife and son in tow, for 24 hours of ecotourism on behalf of Travel in Taiwan magazine. While driving around the southeastern corner of the island, we approached what most maps call 'Indian Rock', because it resembles a North American native wearing a traditional headdress. Our guide, a knowledgeable young man working for Dapeng Bay Scenic Area Administration, pointed out that many visitors feel it more closely resembles Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu.

The highlight of the visit was a nighttime tour of the intertidal zone at Yufu Fishing Harbor (魚福魚港). The foreshore there is rocky and uneven, so there are countless pools and trenches where sea creatures hide out between tides.

The guide sensibly began by warning us not to touch anything until he gave the OK; some denizens of the intertidal zone – such as rock boring urchins – can inflict nasty stings. We waded what seemed a considerable distance from dry land, but never getting more than our ankles wet, and saw black brittle starfish, sea cucumbers, and metre-long black-and-white worms no thicker than a strand of spaghetti. More remarkable were the sea hares, soft gastropods that emit purple ink when under attack. This substance intoxicates and disorients fish; our guide said that when he was child, he and his friends would use it to help them catch fish.

Like any good entertainer the guide had a finale. Asking us to dim our flashlights, he began brushing the water with his hand. Within seconds spots of greenish lights appeared in the water. Bioluminescent plankton, the underwater equivalent of fireflies!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book: Far Eastern Journey

This book, which describes a journey made in 1960, has long been out of print. I found my copy in a secondhand bookshop in the south of England more than a decade ago. The author, Bernard Newman (1897-1968), was very prolific, writing at least 20 travel books and around 80 other volumes. Unlike his contemporaries, Eric Newby and Norman Lewis, his body of work has mostly sunk without trace.

This book describes a trip from Pakistan to Taiwan, via India, Hong Kong and Singapore. Nine of the 26 chapters deal with Taiwan, where he was clearly regarded as an important visitor, meeting both Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.

On the second page of his account, he makes an observation that will cause anyone familiar with the crowded, chaotic streets of 21st-century Taiwan to chuckle:

"The great peril of Formosa was soon apparent: Not the people, who are very friendly and cheerful, but bicycles. They and their relatives, the pedicabs, bore down on me from all directions – from either side of the street, making their own rule of the road as they went along."

While in Taipei, Newman sees water buffalo pulling carts into the city, taking wood and farm produce to market. (I've never seen a buffalo in a city, but I've spotted more than a few in the countryside.) Visiting Wanhua's Longshan Temple, he sees effigies that strike him as “quite grotesque.” The Confucius Temple, however, is “much more dignified.”

His trip to Kinmen sounds exciting. The plane he travelled in, "flew very low... to avoid being caught on Chicom radar." These days, the Tourism Bureau suggests visitors go to Pingxi and release lanterns; Newman sent off a bunch of propaganda balloons in the direction of China's coast. In addition, he went to Sun Moon Lake and other places in the mountains; took in a Beijing opera performance; and witnessed a traditional funeral.

Politically, he's as naive as most short-term visitors. He pins all the blame for the February 28 Incident on Chen Yi, implying that Chiang Kai-shek did not plan or approve of the massacring of Taiwan's civic leadership. And he swallows the idea that while there weren't any proper opposition parties, the KMT regime wasn't really authoritarian.

"There have been a series of rumours...which suggest Chiang Kai-shek intends to found a dynasty, and has decided that his son, Lt. Gen. Chiang Ching-kuo, should be his successor. But actual events suggest that this is absurd. Chiang Kai-shek cannot defy the constitution."

Well, when the elder Chiang died in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo was already premier (prime minister) and in day-to-day control of the government. Vice President Yen Chia-kan served out the remainder of Chiang Kai-shek's term, and no one was surprised when Chiang Ching-kuo became ROC president in 1978. Newman writes that at the time of his visit, there was talk of a new party being formed, the China Democratic Party. That party was crushed soon after it launched, and its leader Lei Chen was jailed for ten years.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A grave as big as a house

Spotted during my recent drive through Pingtung County, this ornate but slightly tattered grave of a physician surnamed Chang (張) who died in March 1958, and his wife. During the Japanese colonial era and for some decades afterwards, medical doctors were considered the elite of society, partly because senior government posts were reserved for Japanese (until 1945) or mainlanders (until the 1970s, at least).

The grave is located just south of the town of Wandan (萬丹).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hakka Cultural Artifacts Exhibition Hall

Several small museums around Taiwan celebrate the culture of the island's Hakka minority, and the one in Pingtung County's Xishi isn't bad, even though there's very little English labelling.

For me, the most interesting sections are those displaying traditional clothing and dealing with a custom that existed throughout the Chinese world, but which used to be especially strong in Hakka villages - that of scouring the streets for scraps of paper on which words were written or printed, picking them up and then taking them to a special furnace for burning. This tradition is said to reflect a deep reverence for learning and literacy.

According to Francis L. K. Hsu's often stupendously dull but occasionally fascinating book Americans & Chinese: Passage to Differences, traditional Chinese communities lacked the broad range of voluntary non-kinship groups we find in affluent societies including 21st-century Taiwan. Hsu says there were three exceptions: Associations that provided free coffins to the indigent, teetotalers' groups, and associations that, "hired men to roam the streets with bags on their backs and pointed sticks in their hands. They collected any piece of waste bearing written characters in the gutter or on the ground and burned what they collected at the end of the day in the specially provided urn in the local Confucian temple."

The museum includes a pair of dedicated baskets once used for collecting written-on paper (pictured above left).

I'm pretty certain the custom has died out. Would modern-day practitioners collect every single item bearing Chinese characters - cigarette packets, candy wrappers and the like?

The Hakka Cultural Artifacts Exhibition Hall (六堆客家文化園) is in the heart of Zhutian Township's Xishi Village (竹田鄉西勢村) and it's open Tuesday to Sunday, 09.00-17.30. If you read Chinese, you'll notice the Chinese name is actually "Liudui Hakka Culture Zone." The term Liudui doesn't refer to specific place, but rather to the six clusters of Hakka settlements in Pingtung and Kaohsiung who raised a militia to protect themselves during the Zhu Yi-gui (朱一貴) uprising of 1721.

The zone's other feature is an Yimin Temple
(忠義祠). Similar temples throughout Taiwan celebrate the sacrifices made by militiamen during various rebellions. The exhibition hall and the temple side by side, about 500m from Xishi TRA Station.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

As seen in many temples...

The character 囍 (pronounced) is often prominent in temples and also on the red paper banners glued to household doorways around the Lunar New Year. It means "joy" or "double happiness," and is thus greatly auspicious.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

SketchUp images of Taiwan landmarks

Drawings of dozens of temples, city gates, public buildings and other notable structures in Taiwan can be found on Google's SketchUp pages. However, doing a search isn't easy if you don't read Chinese.

Among them are Lukang Folk Arts Museum, the Japanese-era Assembly Hall in the same town, Taiwan's oldest Catholic Church, (in Wanjin, Pingtung County), and the ornamental gate of Donglong Temple in Donggang, also in Pingtung.