Thursday, January 21, 2016

Two day-trips in New Taipei City

New Taipei City is Taiwan's most populous local-government division (officially, 3.97 million people live), but most of the municipality doesn't get as much attention from tourists as it perhaps deserves. International visitors typically spend a day or two in Taipei, then head east to Taroko Gorge, or south to Sun Moon Lake. 

Fans of traditional architecture, and those who like to see how the gentry of yesteryear lived, have two options. The sometimes-crowded but easy-to-reach Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, or the less well known Lee Family Mansion in Luzhou. (This blogger introduces both in the same post.)

Among north Taiwan's best beaches are Baishawan and Fulong. The former is not far from Danshui (some government departments prefer the heritage spelling, 'Tamsui'), and can be enjoyed as part of a daylong coastal tour I often recommend to people who want to get out of the big cities, but don't want to drive themselves or sign up for a guided excursion. Buses between Danshui and Jinshan are frequent. At Jinshan, it's easy to get aboard another bus which will take you on to Keelung, or over the mountains and back into central Taipei. Setting out from Danshui, there are several places worth stopping at, such as Laomei Algal Reef (near Fuji Fishing Harbor, where I took the photo above) and the Eighteen Lords Temple at Shimen. At each attraction, it's simply a matter of walking back to the main road (Highway 2) when you've seen enough, and making yourself comfortable (most stops have shelters and benches) until the next bus comes along. 

As well as the Danshui-Jinshan-Keeling corridor, another place in New Taipei deserves special mention: Sanxia. Separated from the ceramics town of Yingge by the broad Dahan River, Sanxia has around 100,000 inhabitants. It can be reached by bus from the capital, from Yingge and also from Taoyuan. Natural resources including camphor, coal, tea and timber powered Sanxia's growth, and indigo dyeing was a major industry in the 19th century. However, when trains and trucks replaced boats as the main means of moving goods around north Taiwan, Sanxia was overtaken by upstart towns like Taoyuan. 

Sanxia's most famous place of worship is regarded as a pinnacle of religious art in Taiwan. Zushi Temple has a fabulous number of wood and stone carvings: In addition to the usual dragons and sages, there are crabs and other crustaceans, elephants, fish, owls, pangolins (scaly anteaters about the size of a fox), and a whole orchestra of musicians. The gold leaf-bedecked ceiling of the central chamber, where incense is offered to Zushi, is breathtakingly ornate. Zushi, which means 'divine progenitor', is the godly name of a 13th-century government official honoured for his bravery at a time when the Mongols were invading China. The temple's long history has been punctuated by violence and dissent. Founded in 1769 and rebuilt in 1833, it was flattened during fighting between Japanese forces and Taiwanese militia in the War of 1895. Rebuilt again in 1899, a major renovation effort was begun in 1947 under the supervision of local politician and acclaimed painter Li Mei-shu. Since Li's death in 1983, progress on the temple has been stymied by rows among members of the management committee. Some prefer to use cheaper semi-finished decorations imported from the Chinese mainland, while others back Li's policy of employing local master carvers and artists. 

Within walking distance of the temple there's a thoroughfare which not long ago reverted to its pre-1945 name, Sanjiaoyong Street (pictured here). Sanxia's original business hub is now a touristy “old street” but the renovated redbrick Baroque-style shop-houses are well worth seeing. Some of these dwellings are more than a century old, although the street's distinctive look did not appear until around 1915, when the colonial authorities ordered gutters to be added for reasons of public health. When the street was renovated in 2004—2006, the declared doctrine was 'original architecture, original materials'. This meant firing hundreds of mud bricks for internal partitions and straightening sagging roofs. Residents were permitted to build additional floors so long as facades were preserved and the classical appearance of the street maintained. Embellishments of vases (a symbol of peace, as in both Mandarin and Taiwanese the word for vase, ping, a homophone for peace) lotuses, dragons and lions were redone. The street and the alleyways that lead off it have been paved with chiselled granite slabs, while unavoidable modern features such as utility-hole covers and house numbers have been made to look as traditional as possible. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Chiang Kai-shek's church at Sun Moon Lake

It's difficult to get a good photo of the Chapel of Christ at Sun Moon Lake because it's surrounded by trees atop a hillock. This detail - which surely made assassination from a distance less likely - was perhaps a plus-factor for the man who ordered the church's construction: Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan's dictatorial ruler until his death in 1975. This Romanesque-style place of worship was finished in 1971, and is now used for mass weddings organized by Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration

When Chiang was in the area, he stayed in a two-storey guesthouse which was wrecked by 1999's 921 Earthquake, then cleared away to make space for the ostentatious Wen Wan Resort (the curving 'mast' on the hotel's exterior is coated with 15kg of gold leaf). The barracks where his security detail stayed has also disappeared; that plot is now occupied by the equally up-market LaluIn 1971, Taiwan was still far from being the prosperous society it is today. Yet its ruler saw nothing wrong with enjoying approximately 20 residences and villas in different parts of the country, and ordering or permitting official funds to be used to build a private church he'd enter just a few times each year. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The art of photographing gods - a Taiwan Temples podcast

Two friends and occasional collaborators, Robert Kelly and Rich J. Matheson, are working on a project called Taiwan Temples. Believing Taiwan's Buddhist/Taoist/folk shrines are worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status and worldwide acclaim - but haven't received any such recognition because of the island's political isolation - the two are assembling pictures, videos, audio- and mini-essays about what they describe as an "outstanding branch of southern Chinese architecture, and the dynamic folk culture that surrounds it."

They recently released their first podcast. It's about Wu Tai-pu, a wedding photographer who in his spare time takes portraits of god statues in temples across Taiwan. For this podcast he was interviewed in Mandarin by Rich J. Matheson, and I was pleased to help out by doing the English-language voice-over. To listen to this in-depth discussion, which ranges from getting permission to take photos to spirit writing and supernatural possession, go here.

The image above shows the roof of Fongtian Temple in Chiayi County's Xingang Township. These days, it's best known as the southernmost point on the annual Mazu pilgrimage which sets out from Dajia's Jenn Lann Temple each spring.