Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The recycled monument on Hutoushan

When it comes to trash, Taiwan boasts an impressive recycling rate. What few visitors appreciate is the country also has a record of recycling monuments, in much the same way Hagia Sophia in Istanbul initially reflected Christian dominance but later became a mosque. After World War II, landmarks erected during Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan were either demolished, or turned into memorials which promoted the KMT (Chinese Nationalist) version of history.

One of these repurposed monuments (pictured top) is in Hutoushan Park (虎頭山公園) in Miaoli County’s Tongxiao Township (苗栗縣通霄鎮). Hutoushan means ‘tiger’s head mountain’, and the toponym comes from the shape of this modest ridge, the highest part of which is just 93.4m above sea level. If tigers did once roam here - which is possible - it was long before humans began settling on Taiwan.

Some people visit Hutoushan Park for the views that can be enjoyed up and down the coast (spoiled somewhat by a power station) and far inland (lower photo). Others want to see the well-preserved but locked-up Shinto shrine (for a short write-up, go here). Not everyone bothers to go to the very top, where a concrete gun-barrel points skyward. The seven Chinese characters on it mean ‘Taiwan Retrocession Tablet.’

This memorial was built just after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Famously, the Japanese defeated Russia’s Pacific Fleet early in the war, then nervously awaited the arrival of the enemy’s Baltic Fleet. Japanese observers on duty here spotted Russian vessels moving through the Taiwan Strait and alerted the Imperial Japanese Navy. Able to position themselves ideally, the Japanese decimated the Russian flotilla at the Battle of Tsushima on 27-8 May 1905.

Getting to Hutoushan Park is straightforward. If you're not driving, take a TRA train to Tongxiao on the Coastal Railroad (trains stopping in Miaoli and Taichung don't travel on this line, but instead on the Mountain Railroad). Turn left as soon as you leave the station, then walk uphill past the junior high school. It takes less than 15 minutes to get to the memorial from the station.

If you're visiting Penghu County, you can find a memorial of similar dimensions in the eastern part of the main island. It was erected by the Japanese to mark the spot where their soldiers first landed in 1895, but now celebrates Taiwan's return to Chinese control fifty years later.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

KIshu An 1917

Taipei’s Kishu An 1917, also known as Kishu An Forest of Literature (紀州庵文學森林) isn’t the only place in Taiwan where the date of its establishment has been made part of its name. The best-known example is the cultural facility called Huashan 1914 Creative Park, but there’s also Chiayi Arboretum 1907. The latter is an urban forest filled with hoop pines as well as teak and mahogany trees.

Despite its name, there aren’t many trees at Kishu An, though it is a lovely patch of green in one of the capital’s older, grayer neighbourhoods. The real attraction here is Japanese architecture, specifically the restored (‘rebuilt from scratch’ may be a more accurate description, as fires in the 1990s ravaged the original structures) main building. Constructed almost entirely of wood in 1927 or 1928 to house the high-class restaurant which had been operating on this site since 1917, it attains a level of elegance matched by very few Taiwanese-designed structures. 

Back in the Japanese colonial period, diners could sit inside and look out across the Xindian River, about 100m away. Nowadays, however, the waterway is hidden behind a tall concrete anti-flood barrier. There’s currently little to see inside Kishu An - no restaurant, at any rate - but in a way that’s the point. It’s ideal if you want to sit somewhere (on a Japanese-style tatami mat - there are no chairs), take in the peaceful surroundings and read.

The site’s restoration was overseen by Taipei City Government, and a few hours after my visit, I showed the official leaflet to a friend. He straightaway commented: ‘I have trouble telling those places apart.’ I know what he means; in the past decade, I've lost count of the number of similar places done up and opened to the public. If you’ve already been to somewhere like the Xinhua Butokuden in Tainan, you needn’t go out of your way to take a look at Kishu An. But if you do find yourself in this part of the capital and feel like killing some time, consider stopping by. And while you’re here, do take a look at the very pleasant Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park.

Kishu An is at 107 Tongan St and open 10:00-17:00 Tue-Sun. The nearest metro station is Guting on the MRT's Green and Orange lines. Admission is free.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Taiwan-shaped leaf and a tiny snail

Hiking in Pingtung County’s Neishi Township (獅子鄉) recently with the man behind Taiwan Waterfalls and a couple of other friends, I decided to pause for a while and see whether I could find any interesting insects. I found over a dozen - none of which I could identify-  and also found one of the tiniest snails I’ve ever seen, pictured above. The fact it was clinging to a leaf shaped like Taiwan made it all the more appealing.

Thanks to its warm, wet climate and lush vegetation, Taiwan has a fabulously diverse snail population. New species have been identified as recently as 2014