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Meinong – Strong Hakka Culture, Bucolic Beauty

September 19, 2013 DESTINATION No Comments Email Email

Taiwan’s “Top Ten Tourist Towns” were declared early last year, chosen with the help of public voting. Looking at the list, I quickly settled on Meinong as my favorite.

In the summer I was contracted by National Geographic to cover the towns, and was not surprised when the photographer sent over from the U.S., the well-known Mike Yamashita, mentioned that Meinong was one of the winners that had made an especially favorable impression on him. Special exhibits of Mike’s Taiwan photos were later staged in U.S. cities.

Here’s a shortlist of what visitors like so much about the place: the lovely, quiet farmland, with an in-close, mist-topped mountain backdrop; thriving old-time culture of the hardy Hakka people, in a community brimming with heritage architecture and the aromas of the distinctive Hakka cuisine; relics of the old, now defunct tobacco industry – last century, Meinong was Taiwan’s richest production area, exquisite hand-crafted oil-paper umbrellas and inviting studios; wonderful, leisurely biking jaunts, through sleepy settlement and into the country.

Located in southwest Taiwan, last year Meinong was eaten up by the broad-shouldered city of Kaohsiung, becoming Meinong District.  In this article, however, I’ll do as everyone else in Taiwan still does and call it a town.

I promise that an already guaranteed good time will be pleasure-enhanced if you rent a bike to jaunt about.  The places you’ll want to visit are spread out over the valley floor.  Driving and scooter rentals are two other options; public transportation is not.  There are seven color-coded bike routes, totaling 40 km, with themes including “folk culture,” “religion,” “historical relics,” and “country.”  Quality bikes are available for NT$80 daily from shops by the bus station, and at the attractive visitor information center at 789 Tai’an Road, on the south side of Zhongzheng Lake, the local irrigation-water source, which is ringed by parkland and viewing platforms.

Yong’an Old Street
The Hakka take great pride in their traditions, and these are on vivid display along Yong’an Old Street, which abounds with old shops/residences, shrines, and other representation structures.  At No. 177 is the rustic, open-front Jin Xing Shop, opened in 1929, where master tailor Shie Jing Lai and his wife craft tunics and other traditional Hakka clothing – all bright, lovely, and popular with tourists.  Shie loves to talk about the rich symbolism incorporated into the old-style blue-dye attire.  One example: The wide-band collar of men’s tunics symbolizes the shape of the classic Hakka fortified village.

At one end of Yong’an is the tall East Gate, telling of a time when watchtowers helped protect against bandits, rebels, marauders from rival ethnic groups, indigenous warriors and, sometimes, government troops, always poorly paid and almost always unwelcome.  Beside is Meinong’s original Earth God shrine, built when this riverfront area was opened.  Such protective shrines dot the area, as do jingzi ting or “respect writing pavilions,” miniature pavilions where any paper with writing was ritually burned and sent back to heaven by education-venerating Hakka, for it was heaven that had given the miracle of paper and written character to humankind in the first place.

Oilpaper Umbrellas
Taiwan’s exquisite handcrafted oilpaper umbrellas are popular souvenir purchases, and Meinong has long been the mecca of production.  Featuring an intricate bamboo frame and lacquered translucent paper, each is a distinctive work of art painted with bold, colorful designs.  The secret of the art was brought from mainland China’s Guangdong Province in the early 20th century.

The family is all-important to the Hakka, and an umbrella’s circular perfection symbolizes the “perfection” of family togetherness.  They are traditional wedding gifts, for the pronunciation of “paper,” zhi, resembles that for “sons,” zi, thus promoting fecundity.

Meinong has two tourist-oriented sales centers.  I recommend Yuan Xiang Yuan Cultural Village, an attractive mall which has live demonstrations.  I specially recommend Meinong k.c.s. Umbrella, however, for a view into Meinong’s non-tourist traditions.  This small workshop, run by a charming, gentle couple, Lin Rong-jun and Wu Jian-ying, has a nationwide reputation.  It’s in the country just outside town in the rear of the Lin clan’s venerable courtyard residence; the couple inherited the business from Lin’s father.  They’ll make your umbrella to order, and you can also DIY-decorate your own mini-umbrella for a few hundred NT dollars.

Between the late 1930s and 2002, Meinong was Taiwan’s tobacco-growing king.  After Taiwan’s 2002 WTO entry the industry quickly withered and died.  Many of the curing barns are now used as storage sheds, and a few have been turned into pottery studios.

Be sure to visit the Meinong Hakka Culture Museum.  This pleasant facility sits in open farm country, with big views all about.  Its shape evokes Meinong’s tobacco barns, and there is a full-scale mock-up inside.  There are displays on all aspects of local culture and history; some have English, and there are free English-audio guides as well as English tours (with advance booking).

Hakka Cuisine
There are a number of good local Hakka-cuisine restaurants, but I especially like Meinong Traditional Hakka Cuisine, home to friendly staff, tasty, hearty, inexpensive food, and intriguing antiques sourced from valley farmsteads.

Traditionally, isolated Hakka communities, often in the hills, grew their own food, with few fresh vegetables available during cool winters.  Preserved meats and pickled vegetables were thus common.  The culinary style is characterized by an especially sensitive way of combining only the freshest of crisp vegetables, when available.  These are chopped and combined in myriad manners and stir-fried lightly to evince the most delicate flavors.  The heavy use of garlic, oils, and spices is avoided.

The frugal Hakka have a dish for all animal parts; for example, pig’s intestine with ginger shreds is a favorite.  The heavy labor of both men and women in mine, forest, and oft-marginal field – places of traditional Hakka industries – led to substantial salt loss, leading to extra-salty dishes.  Most restaurants these days hold back, however.  Be sure to try the wild lotus, a local specialty, which many locals report plucking from Zhongzheng Lake when kids.  In lake-area farms you’ll see workers submerged in water up to chest and neck.

Meinong History
Meinong was settled by members of the Hakka ethnic community in 1736.  Taiwan Hakka today number about four million, about 15% of the country’s population.  Meinong itself is about 90% Hakka.  The group has close-knit communities, arising in large part as a result of discrimination and oppression in imperial times.  The term “Hakka” in fact means “guest people.”  Rarely enjoying secure title to land, they often settled in marginal areas – notably in mountains and foothills – and placed great emphasis on education (i.e., a non-material, highly mobile form of wealth generation).  Meinong was long famed for producing an unusually high number of imperial scholars and, in modern times, PhDs.

Traditional Hakka Three-sided Courtyard Residences
You’ll come across many old-style residences, even in the town.  The semi-enclosed courtyard style is most common, with a single main entrance and high exterior walls to enable defense.  To the courtyard’s center-rear is the ancestral altar.  True Hakka residences have white brick and black tile; red brick/tile indicates influence by Taiwan’s Han Chinese majority.  Other Hakka features are a door-top house name and three-sectioned walls with white-painted mud brick on top, earthenware tiles in the middle, and round stones at bottom.  The white represents the older generation’s white hair, the red-tint earthenware symbolizes the hard-working middle generation’s blood (sweat and tears), and the stones represent the hope for many children.

※ Getting There
High Speed Rail, regular railway, and Kaohsiung Metro services converge at Kaohsiung’s Zuoying Station.  Kaohsiung Bus Co. ( coaches to Meinong can be caught outside the station; 13 stop here daily, 8:20 am to 8:20 pm (NT$148 one-way; 90 minutes).

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