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Town of Trade – A Discovery Tour of Daxi in Taoyuan County

September 18, 2013 DESTINATION No Comments Email Email

Han Chinese immigrants from mainland China’s southern Fujian Province settled in Daxi, originally called Daguxian, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735~1796). 

Cordato Partners-www.tourismlegal.com.auDaxi’s golden era began 100 years later, near the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644~1912), when it became an important commercial center.  In 1886, Taiwan governor Liu Ming-chuan established a government office in the town as he attempted to modernize the island.  In 1920, during the Japanese colonial period (1895~1945), the Japanese changed the town’s name to Daxi and further developed its economy.  The houses along what is now known as Daxi Old Street (Heping Road and adjoining streets) were built during this period, and the town attracted merchants and traders from all around East Asia.  The economy flourished, and wealthy townsfolk erected homes and stores that combined elements of Japanese, Chinese, and Baroque architecture.  The intricate stone carvings of animals, plants, deities, and scenes from everyday life that decorate the buildings of Daxi date to this era, and offer us a glimpse into the town’s unique cultural history.  In these old streets, namely Heping Road, Zhongshan Road, and Zhongyang Road, you can discover and relive Daxi’s glory days.

Nestled between shops selling traditional handcrafted wooden spinning tops, for which Daxi is famous, the building at No. 48 Heping Road blends in with the other buildings featuring Baroque facades that line the road.  The English word ”Kang” adorning the structure attracts the attention of passersby, and aroused my curiosity.  Entering the building but finding no one, I poked my head into the back courtyard and was pleasantly surprised to see red-brick walls enclosing the area.  As I wandered over the courtyard’s large ballast stones, a puzzled woman appeared and asked if I was lost.  After I told her that I wanted to know the story behind the word “Kang,” she said that the word inscribed above the door denoted that a family named Kang once resided here.  Seeing my puzzled face, my new friend patiently explained that kang is the Taiwanese pronunciation for the word jiang, meaning “river,” which is also a common family surname.  Sensing my continuing curiosity, she explained the building’s history, Daxi’s place in Taiwan’s history, and the collective effort to preserve the town’s cultural heritage.

No. 48 Heping Road is a fine representative of the many well-preserved residential/commercial buildings that give Daxi its unique flavor.  A typical structure will consist of three or four contiguous sections that lead away from the front of the structure.  Each section consists of two buildings and two parallel walkways that surround an open courtyard.  The residential quarters are incredibly peaceful, and seem to go on forever.  Vaguely similar to the architecturally impressive compounds in Pingyao in mainland China’s Shanxi Province, the heritage buildings of Daxi offered a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the commercial roads they line.

With my eyes glued to the red brick familiar from back home, I followed my guide as she explained the history of the Kang family business.  The family, she noted with her back to me as she rummaged through a large plastic box, was in the confectionary business.  Grinning, she finally pulled out a wooden mold used for traditional Chinese baked cakes.  Impressed by the quality of a mold that was made more than 100 years ago, I quickly realized that the plastic storage bins here were full of treasures like this.  As I glanced over the boxes upon boxes that filled the building, my guide told me that she had only recently decided to get involved in the cultural preservation of Daxi.  In recent years, she said, an increasing number of tourists from Japan and the West have been traveling to Daxi for its architecture, and the city’s residents are determined to get the preservation right.  The Taiwan Tourism Bureau has taken note, too, and last year Daxi was declared one of Taiwan’s “Top Ten Tourist Towns” in an online public vote organized by the bureau, with weighting also given to expert opinion.  From this writer’s perspective, this designation is fully deserved.

Thanking my guide and bidding farewell, I continued my stroll down Heping Road, stopping occasionally to admire the handcrafted goods and ornate furniture lining the road.  Not looking to add anything to my (non-existent) furniture collection, however, I chose to enter a tofu shop.  As a vegetarian, the fact that Daxi is famous for its dried tofu was another reason I had been excited about my trip.  Huang Jian-tai, owner of the Huang Ri Xiang Tofu Shop, at No. 56 Heping Road, offered a brief introduction to his store and the various kinds of tofu that Daxi is famous for.  Local specialties include dried tofu, marinated tofu, and pickled tofu, all of which are available for purchase.  And for dessert lovers, Daxi has dozens of stalls that offer some of the island’s freshest dou hua (tofu pudding).  Most surprising to me was that even though Mr. Huang has been in the tofu business for more than 30 years, he still eats tofu every day!

Noting that it was already noon and that I still had two more sites to visit, I hopped on a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Little Wulai Route bus and rode to the terminus at Little Wulai (45 minutes from Daxi; for info on how to get to Daxi, see “Getting there and around” below).  The scenery at Little Wulai did indeed bring to mind the deep gorges and verdant forest surrounding Wulai, a small hot-spring town located roughly 25 kilometers south of Taipei.  I walked up to the ticket booth of the Little Wulai Skybridge and bought my entrance ticket, which is NT$50 for adults.  I walked down a short path and heard the thundering sound of rushing water, which grew louder and louder as I approached.  Nearing the waterfall that is the primary attraction here, I glanced down and was surprised to see a glass floor below me.  Although I don’t suffer from a fear of heights, seeing the water cascading over hundreds of boulders below my feet was enough to make my stomach slightly queasy.  Eager for more natural beauty, I explored some of the surrounding forest with a hike down one of the many trails in the Little Wulai area, then took the shuttle bus and made my way back to my third and final stop: the Cihu Mausoleum.

After a 40-minute bus trip to the Cihu Mausoleum, I toured the grounds of Chiang Kai-shek’s former summer residence.  Unfortunately, I had arrived too late to view the mausoleum itself; however, there was enough time and sufficient light to spend a good half-hour examining the Chiang Kai-shek busts and statues that dot theCihu Memorial Statue Park.  As a result of changes in Taiwan’s political environment, statues from across the island were brought to Cihu starting in the year 2000.  Nearly 200 statues are on display.  With the sometimes stern and sometimes placid face(s) of Chiang Kai-shek looking down upon me, I spent the rest of my time enjoying the sunshine and the natural beauty of Cihu before catching a Cihu Route bus back to Zhongli and from there traveling back to Taipei by train.

History of Daxi
Located 35 kilometers southwest of Taipei, Daxi sits on the banks of the Dahan River.  The site was first inhabited by the indigenous Atayal people.  Daxi’s modern history began in the early 19th century, when it became an important trading town.  Local merchants would package commodities, primarily tea and camphor, and send them downriver by boat to Taipei.  The settlement was reconstructed by town planners during the Japanese era, and many Daxi residents incorporated elements of Baroque, Japanese, and Chinese architecture when rebuilding their homes.  You can see evidence of this architectural amalgamation on the beautiful facades that adorn the shophouses in the Daxi Old Street area.

Getting there and around
Daxi is readily accessible from all parts of the island.  The easiest way to reach Daxi from Taipei is to take a train from Taipei to Zhongli (40 minutes).  A five-minute walk from Zhongli Railway Station will get you to Zhongli Bus Station, where you can take a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Cihu Route bus to Daxi Old Street.  There is a departure every half hour on weekends and holidays (on weekdays every hour), and the trip takes you about an hour.  Cihu Route day tickets cost NT$100 and allow travelers the opportunity to get off and explore all of the sites that the Cihu Route services, including Daxi Old Street, the mausoleums of Chiang Kai-Shek and Chiang Ching-Kuo.  Be sure to pick up a map of the Daxi Old Street area and a Cihu Route map in Zhongli.  If you want to visit Little Wulai, there is the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Little Wulai Route that starts at Taoyuan Railway Station and brings you to the scenic waterfall via Daxi and Cihu.  At present the service is available only on weekends and holidays.  Day tickets cost NT$100 and buses depart every hour.  For more info on the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service, visit www.taiwantrip.com.tw.

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