Time Spent in Meinong
By Rick Charette
Past and Present in Bucolic Harmony
The lovely Meinong area, in the northeast of the former Kaohsiung County, now part of Kaohsiung City, sits deep in a divide where a high-mountain valley eases off and opens up into farm-able land of deep, rich earth. Framed on two sides by pretty misty hills hundreds of meters high, this is a proud Hakka enclave; in pioneer days, the Hakka were commonly forced up into the hills from the coastal flatlands by their Chinese brethren from other areas in China.
in 1736, the area is today perhaps best known for its exquisite hand-painted oilpaper umbrellas, which are sold around the globe. Visitors can look in on master craftsmen in shops practicing the craft in much the old ways.
Many older architectural gems have been caringly preserved along the narrow old streets of the main town and out in the surrounding farm country, notably along Yong’an Old Street; the Hakka take great pride in their traditions.
Many visitors like to purchase the distinctive traditional Hakka dress, and you can have your own clothing made at a quaint old open-front shop on Yong’an Old Street that’s changed little if at all since the elderly owner couple entered the trade in their youth. They’ll need a few days minimum for custom cuts, however.
The Hakka Story Told
The Hakka on the island number about four million,
about 15% of Taiwan’s population. Their path through history is shrouded in mist and mystery, but it’s thought they came south in stages from China’s northern regions, especially in times of turmoil, in the great southward Han Chinese migration. As they moved into hilly areas south of the Yangzi River, their other Han Chinese brethren didn’t see them as being of the same race, though in fact they all share most physical/cultural traits.
They have close-knit communities, arising in large part as a result of oppression and discrimination. The term “Hakka” in fact means “guest people.” Heavily outnumbered, in Taiwan they eventually became concentrated in two areas – in the foothills of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli counties in northwest Taiwan, and in the south’s Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties. Until recent times there was limited intermarrying with other groups.
Old-style residences abound in Meinong. The huofang or semi-enclosed courtyard style is most common in Taiwan, with a single main entrance and high exterior walls to enable defense. To the center-rear of the courtyard is the ancestral altar. True Hakka residences have white brick and black tile; red brick and tile indicates influence by the Taiwanese majority, whose ancestors came from China’s southern Fujian Province. Most Hakka ancestors immigrated to Taiwan from northeastern Guangdong. Other characteristic features of Hakka residences are the name of the house above the door and three-sectioned walls of white-painted mud brick on top, earthenware tiles in the middle, and stones at the bottom. The white represents the white hair of the older generation, the red-tint earthenware symbolizes the blood (sweat and tears) of the hard-working middle generation, and the stones represent the hope for many children in the new generation.
The old town is home to many old residences, shrines, and other representative structures. Walk along Yong’an Old Street, paralleling the Meinong River, and don’t be shy about dipping into the narrow side lanes and pathways – the people are friendly and inviting. Walk past No. 177 and you’ll likely see master tailor Xie Jing-lai and his wife hard at work on traditional Hakka tunics and other clothing in their small open-front business, the Jin Xing Shop, opened in 1929. Xie loves to tell interested visitors (apologizing that he can’t speak English) all about Meinong’s history and traditional Hakka culture, tailoring technique, and the rich symbolism incorporated into the old-style blue-dye attire. One example: The wide band around the collar of the men’s tunic symbolizes the shape of the classic Hakka fortified village.
At one end of Yong’an Old Street is the tall East Gate, telling of a time when watch towers were raised as protection against bandits, rebels, marauders from rival ethnic groups, indigenous warriors and, sometimes, government troops, always poorly paid and almost always unwelcome. Between gate and river is the 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 paper with writing was ritually burned and sent back to heaven, for it was heaven that had given the miracle of paper and written character to humankind in the first place.
The eye-caressing oilpaper umbrella is perhaps the most visually stunning memento you can take home from your Taiwan voyage of discovery. Featuring an intricate bamboo frame and translucent paper, each is a distinctive work of art painted with bold, colorful designs and lacquered. If actually used to stop the rain, they’ll last 10 years or more; if treated as an artwork, as done by almost all buyers today, they’ll last pretty much forever.
The secret of the art – along with a master craftsman that possessed it – were brought from Guangdong in the early 20th century by a Meinong businessman, the lacquer changed from dark-brown to yellow, and artistic designs were added later to what was a practical household item. The family is all-important to the Hakka, and the umbrella’s circular perfection symbolizes the “perfection” of family togetherness. They are traditional wedding gifts, for the pronunciation of “paper,” zhi, is similar to that for “sons,” zi. Such a gift promotes fecundity.
At local shops, an 8-inch umbrella should be NT$400 to NT$600, a 19-inch version NT$1,200 or more. Most handle overseas shipping. Yuan Xiang Yuan Cultural Village, on the town's southern outskirts, is a large and attractive souvenir mall with ample parking, a good range of umbrellas, and live demonstrations.
A more intimate experience can be had at Meinong k.c.s. Umbrella, a small workshop with a nationwide reputation located in the countryside in the rear of a traditional courtyard residence belonging to the Lin clan. At this shop, run by a kindly and calmingly gentle couple, Lin Rong-jun and Wu Jian-ying, you can have your umbrella made to order and can also DIY-decorate your own miniature umbrella for a few hundred NT dollars. The couple inherited the business from Lin’s father, and their grown son has just returned to the umbrella-making fold, making Mom and Dad, worried that this now rare and precious skill set is dying out, very happy.
Traditionally, isolated Hakka communities grew their own food, with few fresh vegetables available during cool winters. Preserved meats and pickled vegetables were thus common. Another differentiation was vegetables – chilli peppers, bitter melon, and so on – stuffed with minced meat. 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, stir-fried lightly to evince the most delicate flavors.
The heavy use of garlic, oils, and spices is avoided, as is the heavy use of lard that characterizes the Fujianese/Taiwanese style. The frugal Hakka have a dish for all animal parts; for example, pig’s intestine with ginger slices is a favorite.
The heavy labor of both men and women in field, mine, and forest – traditional Hakka industries – led to substantial salt loss, leading to extra-salty dishes. Most restaurants these days will hold back, on their own or on request.
Recommended is the Meinong Traditional Hakka Cuisine restaurant, spacious and filled with old-time Hakka household items. Be sure to try the wild lotus, which many locals report plucking from local Zhongzheng Lake when swimming as kids, and which has become popular nation-wide since the 1980s. Farms now circle the lake, workers submerged in water up to chest and neck.
Meinong Hakka Culture Museum
This young, attractive facility sits in open farm country, with big views all about. Its shape evoked Meinong’s tobacco-growing sheds, which stand in the hundreds, abandoned, throughout the area; there is a full-scale mock-up inside. Meinong was long synonymous with tobacco production, but the allowance of imports (tobacco and related products) in recent times resulted in a startlingly rapid demise. Some displays have English, there are free English-audio guides, and English tours are available with advance booking.
Take the High Speed Rail to Zuoying Station in Kaohsiung, or take the Taiwan Railway to Kaohsiung Station, then use the Kaohsiung Bus Meinong Route service (NT$148 one-way; 90 minutes; service 5:40 am to 10:10 pm; www.ksbus.com.tw). If driving, take National Freeway No. 10, which connects with both north-south national freeways, to the town of Qishan (Qishan District), then take Provincial Highway No. 28 east and turn left onto County Route No. 181. Meinong’s main town area is minutes away. Road signs have English.
Meinong Traditional Hakka Cuisine
Add: 362-5, Sec. 1, Zhongshan Rd., Meinong District, Kaohsiung City
Bei Huan Sui Yue
Add: 29, Daquan St., Taichung City
Tel: (07) 681-1156
Meinong k.c.s. Umbrella
Add: 47 Minquan Rd., Meinong District, Kaohsiung City
Tel: (07) 681-3247
Yuan Xiang Yuan Cultural Village
Add: 147, Sec. 1, Zhongxing Rd., Meinong District, Kaohsiung City
Tel: (07) 681-0888
Jin Xing Shop
Add: 177 Yong'an Rd., Meinong District, Kaohsiung City
Tel: (07) 681-1191
Meinong Hakka Culture Museum
Add: 49-3 Minzu Rd., Meinong District, Kaohsiung City
Tel: (07) 681-8338