Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hualien's Baibao River

Many of my favourite places in Taiwan are famous within the country. One that isn't so well known is Baibao Brook (白鮑溪), also known as Baibau Creek, not far from Liyu Lake (鯉魚潭) in Hualien County's Shoufeng Township (花蓮縣壽豐鄉). English-language information is thin on the ground, but Chinese-language websites and bloggers provide good coverage of the area's attractions. The creek is one of very few places in Taiwan where jade can be found. Tour operators occasionally bring visitors here to try their hand at picking jade, but I wonder if removing stones from the stream bed is legal...

On sunny weekends you can expect to see dozens of people cooling off in the stream, so last weekend my wife and I thought ourselves lucky because conditions varied between murky and serious drizzle. Fewer people means birds and dragonflies are easier to spot.
The typhoons which batter Taiwan each summer sometimes cause rivers to dramatically change course. Baibao Brook used to flow northwards to the Mugua River and not southwards into the Hualien River. Shifting waterways cause great inconvenience for humans, and since the Japanese colonial era great efforts have been made to keep rivers where they are. The huge amounts of concrete poured onto the landscape have hurt numerous species. Weirs built to hold back sediment make it difficult for fish to move up or down river, and are likely one reason for the decline of the Formosan landlocked salmon.
Baibao Brook demonstrates river-management techniques which aren’t so disruptive, such as low wooden weirs and fish ladders (above and below). From what I’ve seen during a couple of visits, a wide range of small creatures thrives in the valley. According to various websites, amphibian residents include Moltrecht’s tree frog, the Japanese Buerger's frog and the endemic Buergeri robustus. Among river dwellers are Geothelphusa bicolor (the Chinese name means ‘two-coloured pond crab’), goby and Taiwan shoveljaw carp (Onychostoma barbatulum). 
My wife, whose birding skills far outstrip mine, identified some species above and beyond the usual egrets. The highlight came when we were walking back to our car: a single Grey-throated minivet. A beautiful creature in a beautiful place!

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Japanese imprint in East Taiwan

Few countries have changed as much in half a century as Taiwan did during the 50 years it was a Japanese colony. Also, it can be argued that no part of Taiwan was more influenced by Japan than the east, which until the 20th century saw very little development. 
Taiwan was not among the issues when war broke out between China and Japan in the summer of 1894, yet following the Qing Empire’s quick defeat at the hands of Japan’s modern armed forces, the court in Beijing handed control of Taiwan and the Penghu archipelago to Tokyo. Taiwan was already exporting significant quantities of sugar, tea and camphor, and Japan was eager to exploit these and other resources. Between 1909 and 1922, east Taiwan’s first railroad was laid, and trains were soon passing within earshot of one of the region’s most important industrial sites, what’s now called Hualien Sugar Factory. At the same time as the lowlands were being used to produce sugar and rice - and to settle Japanese immigrants - control over the highlands was sought so high-altitude forests could be plundered for valuable timber. Lintianshan (first photo) is a former logging settlement in the East Rift Valley where Japanese influence is still evident.
The Japanese were able to indulge their love of hot springs at several locations in the east, including Antong (安通, second picture shows the springs during the colonial era). The old Japanese-era structure there is currently under renovation, a process which involves replacing a great deal of woodwork.
Not all every remnant of the Japanese period relates to economic development, however. In Hualien County’s Jian Township (花蓮縣吉安鄉), the Buddhist Qingxiu Temple (慶修院, second and third photos) survived post-war anti-Japanese settlement to emerge in recent years as a favorite tourist attraction. However, Shintoism rather than Buddhism was the official religion of Japan until its defeat at the end of World War II, and the colonial authorities made some efforts to promote it in Taiwan, especially after 1937. Shinto jinja were constructed throughout Taiwan, including around 40 in Greater Taipei alone.
The jinja built in 1928 on a hillside overlooking the town now known as Yuli (玉里鎮) suffered grievously after World War II. The main structures (formally called haiden and honden) were demolished. Chunks of stone and concrete remain, more or less where they fell, and among them it's possible to make out a few engravings which suggest that what once stood here wasn't merely utilitarian. For decades, locals used the vacant plot to grow sweet potatoes. Because people live so close to the shrine, it's hard to appreciate any sense of religious awe when approaching. A stainless steel water-tank gets in the way when one tries to photograph the lower torii, and one of the legs has been incorporated into a house!
Since 2008, the remains of the jinja has been a county-level heritage site. Hualien County Government has done a good job tidying the site and providing bilingual signboards, like the one shown in the sixth image, featuring newlyweds and their immediate relatives at the shrine in 1942.
The shrine's stone lions disappeared sometime after 1945, and the Japanese words engraved on the stone lantern columns have been scratched off. But several of the latter are quite intact, like this one our guide introduced:
The surrounding shrubs and flowerbeds attract a lot of butterflies. The first set of stairs from the road has 37 steps. The second has 36, the third 16 and the fourth just 9. These numbers have a religious significance that was too esoteric for me to grasp
Reaching the top, you'll likely to spend more time admiring the views than pondering the ruins. If you've walked or biked from the railway station - a distance of 1.1km - consider bringing a picnic.
Even those who dislike breaking a sweat will agree the view from the site over Yuli's train station and downtown, as far as the Coastal Mountain Range makes any exertion worthwhile. While there, do look south for the double red arches of the new railway bridge, built to avoid an inconvenient tectonic fault beneath the Xiuguluan River. 
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Pingtung's Shengli New Village

Within walking distance of Pingtung Train Station there's a cluster of single-storey houses built before and after World War II to house air force personnel. Known to locals as Shengli New Village (勝利新村), the 50-odd buildings here are in varying states of (dis)repair. None are utter wrecks; several need a lot of work, but others have been fully renovated and turned into bistros, coffee shops or art galleries. Some of the businesses, like the one pictured top, play up the air force connection. A few houses are still lived in, presumably by retired military personnel and their spouses. Banyan trees have spread their roots far and wide, and a good number of cats make their home in the neighbourhood. Every house has its own yard – an unimaginable luxury for many Taiwanese.
The building at 61 Zhongshan Road (not the one pictured above) was built in 1937 and housed a Japanese air force captain until the end of World War II. Later, it served as a residence for General Sun Li-jen (孫立人). Sun, famous for his exploits fighting the Japanese in Burma, fell out of grace with Chiang Kai-shek in mid-1955 and then spent decades under virtual house arrest, rather like the better known 'Young Marshal' Zhang Xueliang (張學良). 
The road on the western side of the neighbourhood is Chongqing Road (重慶路), named for the city which served as the temporary capital of Nationalist China during World War II. Qingdao Street (青島街), also named after a major city on the mainland, runs east-west.
As is typical of abandoned buildings in Taiwan, neither proper fences nor security guards prevent you from getting close and sometimes inside. In one room I peered into there was a poster of Tom Cruise starring in Top Gun, indicating it was inhabited in the late 1980s, perhaps more recently. 

Ruined buildings always appeal to me much more than smartly done-up ones; for good images of the latter, see this Chinese-language blog post. The city's bus stations are nearby, so heading back to Taichung or Taipei is straightforward, but if you're in Pingtung with your own car or motorcycle, try to visit Wugou Hakka Community and/or Wanjin Basilica.