HAKKA TUNG BLOSSOM FESTIVAL
Enjoying the “Snow of May” in Taiwan
By Kurt Weidner
Photos/ Council for Hakka Affairs, Executive Yuan; Vision Int’l
When Taiwan’s short spring is in its final days and the next long, hot, and humid summer is just around the corner, the wooded hills of Miaoli turn white. What looks like snow on trees from a distance (for example, when driving on the Second Northern Freeway) is in fact the blossoms of the tung tree (also known as the paulownia tree). This beautiful sight is the second major highlight of the year for flower lovers in Taiwan after the cherry-blossom season, which lasts from late February to early April.
Thousands of visitors head to hill and forest in April and May to see the snow-white blossoms up close. Tung trees can be found in many parts of Taiwan, but their concentration is highest in the counties of Miaoli and Hsinchu, located in the northwest of the island. These two counties also have the highest concentration of Hakka people in Taiwan, an ethnic group that, over the last century, has had a close relationship with the tree and its attractive blossoms.
The tung tree, a deciduous tree growing up to 20 meters tall, is common in southern China, Burma, and northwestern Taiwan, and has long been used commercially for the production of tung oil, which is derived from its seeds. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895~1945), the Japanese planted the tree in large numbers in the hills of Miaoli, which offered ideal conditions for its growth. The oil was used in paint, varnish, caulking, and wood finish, and for other purposes such as the coating of paper umbrellas. The wood was made into furniture, wooden clogs, toothpicks, and matches. Later, however, the tree lost its commercial value when cheaper synthetic alternatives to tung oil became available. The tree plantations were abandoned, and the trees soon spread at random over large neighboring areas, creating the tung-tree forests that exist today.
There are two species of the tung tree in Taiwan, aluerites fordii hemsi (you tong shu in Chinese), which blooms from April to July, and aleurites montana (mu you tong), which blooms a bit earlier, from March to May. The blossoms are loved for their colorful beauty – pure-white petals and bright-red filaments with yellow anthers. What makes them especially popular in Taiwan is their snow-like appearance; because of their large numbers and size, trees seen from afar seem to be covered with a layer of snow. When the blossoms fall in large numbers to the ground they often completely cover stretches of country roads and hiking trails, not unlike fallen snow. In a land where the winters are not cold enough to generate any snow except in the high mountains, the scenes created by the tung blossoms are a welcome alternative to the snowscapes common in colder climates.
In 2002 the Council for Hakka Affairs, Executive Yuan, staged the Hakka Tung Blossom Festival for the first time. This annual event is centered on the blooming season, the aim being to attract visitors to come and gaze at the amazing floral beauty and at the same time experience the many intriguing aspects of Hakka culture. During numerous activities staged over several weeks you get the chance to taste traditional Hakka fare, listen to traditional Hakka music and watch other forms of entertainment, and to buy unique traditional handicrafts. The Hakka were heavily involved in the tung-tree business when the industry was flourishing, and their close relationship with the tree is evident in the fact that they have adopted the blossoms as a symbol of their culture and as motifs on a wide variety of handicrafts, from traditional garb to innovative pottery.
The festival is a grand happening lasting several weeks, from April to May this year, involving a large number of villages and communities in Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, Taichung, Changhua, and Nantou counties. There will be several hundred cultural events during the festival period. In order to help visitors get their bearings and find out what’s in store at different locations, the council each year publishes an informative booklet with maps showing the best spots for getting close to the snow-white blossom. The booklet also contains a list of shops and restaurants where you can buy Hakka products and feast on Hakka specialties. For more information, visit http://tung.hakka.gov.tw. This very helpful website (in Chinese, English, and Japanese) presents you with much valuable information on the best places to visit, cultural programs, available tours, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. There is even a frequently updated map showing the current status of the tung-tree bloom around Taiwan.