Reawakening Nanfang’ao: A Fishing Harbor’s Cultural Star Rises


2017 / October

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

An old fishing harbor that is nearing its centennial, Nan­fang’ao is at a crossroads. Like a setting sun, its former glory once reflected gorgeous colors against the clouds as it sank into the horizon. The night sky brought the joys of new growth. Now, as dawn arrives with a rising tide lapping against the shore, we awaken to find this harbor town bathed in an entirely new light.


Located in Yi­lan County’s Su’ao Township, Nan­fang’ao is a pearl at the edge of the Pacific. It was the first modern fishing harbor constructed in Taiwan, and its outstanding natural conditions have kept fishermen loyal to it.

Since its establishment in 1923, Nan­fang’ao has consistently ranked among Taiwan’s fishing harbors with the largest hauls, including 99% of the island’s mackerel. The deep Ryu­kyu Trench conveniently ends just offshore. It functions like a freight elevator, lifting and disgorging the rich marine bounty of the Ku­ro­shio Current. The schools of fish that migrate right past the harbor engage in feeding frenzies here.

These ideal natural conditions—the stuff of fisher­men’s dreams—have supported consistently large hauls of fish. A century ago, the town attracted fishermen from all over to put down roots. Cai Yuan­long, chairman of the Su’ao Fishermen’s Association, notes with pride, “In its heyday, Nan­fang’ao had the highest population density in Taiwan.”

A new image for a new century

With smaller catches and the contraction of the area’s once thriving coral industry, Nan­fang’ao’s population has been in steady decline over recent years. Its mottled old houses bear silent witness to the passage of time and the changing local fortunes. Although the bustle and hubbub of the boomtown are long gone, fishing boats can still fill the harbor, moored in tight rows.

On a fall afternoon with a gentle sea breeze, the dappled light dances across the water’s surface. By piles of stretched-out fishing nets at the edge of the harbor, deckhands with weathered faces drip sweat as they meticulously mend frays and tears.

Sporadically, fishing boats return to unload their hauls, and the deckhands and auctioneers, cigarettes dangling from their lips, strike up conversations with the old captains as they unhurriedly await the arrival of trucks to take the fish from the harbor. Yet amid this languid atmosphere, change is brewing. Nan­fang’ao, a coastal town blessed with great natural beauty, is getting an image makeover.

“It’s like I’m in a race against time, because chairmen serve for only four years,” says Cai Yuan­long, who took the reins as the 19th chairman of the Su’ao Fishermen’s Association in April. “The exhaustion of fish stocks would be a disaster for mankind. In the future, we’ll have to show our love for the earth by firmly implementing environmental protections.” He has a mental blueprint for an environmentally minded Greater Nan­fang’ao. His plan starts with a focus on resolving the traffic congestion experienced locally on holidays, and then turns to raising economic efficiency.

Electric cars will help to reduce emissions, and the construction of a mackerel processing plant will turn the area’s ample and varied catch throughout the year into a variety of foodstuffs. That should help to moderate the impact of fish price swings and increase fishermen’s incomes. Pointing to the Zhu Dayu Culture Museum with its wide assortment of processed foods for sale, he proudly notes, “Everyone who has tried our products gives them a thumbs-up. I’m confident that we can promote and market them to the outside.”

There will also be a mackerel museum, which will document the brilliant history of the fishing harbor. “Connecting industry with culture is a future development goal for Nan­fang’ao.” Cai is quite certain that this is the direction the harbor needs to be taking at its centennial. Only by treasuring and documenting local history and culture, as well as promoting fun and in-depth tours, can the area attract tourists from all over to stop and explore.

From ocean current to global fame

Mackerel fishing has been an economic lifeline for Nanfang’ao. But the truth is that mackerel hauls have declined by one-third over the last decade. The fish are also averaging only two-thirds their former size. And the roes, once quite plump, are strikingly smaller too. To people in the know, these are warning signs that point clearly to overfishing. Fish stocks desperately need to recover. Consequently, strong calls are being made for the adoption of environmentally friendly fishing techniques, so that egg-bearing fish can peacefully propagate and the ocean’s bounty can continually replenish itself.

In July of 2017 some determined environmentalists, including Chen Jia­feng and Li Hou-­tsung, paddled canoes along a mackerel migration path with banners declaring “mackerels come home.” Starting from Nan­fang’ao, they courageously entered the Ku­ro­shio Current, reaching Japan’s Ishi­gaki Island 40 hours later.

Self-powered, this magnificent feat was nonetheless aided by modern technology, with electronic equipment ensuring the boats’ safety as they completed the historic journey. The trip by private citizens garnered reports in Japanese media, bringing international attention to Nan­­fang’ao’s proud slogan: “homeland of mackerel.” The hope is that the endeavor, however small in scale, can encourage conservation efforts that will help mackerel populations migrating on the Ku­ro­shio Current to quickly regain their previous vitality.

Revival: A view to the future

The Yi­lan County Government, the Su’ao Township Office, the Su’ao Fishermen’s Association and other bodies are placing emphasis on the future development of this century-old fishing harbor, outlining a series of steps aimed at fostering “seas full of mackerel; blue, clear seawater; and first-hand understanding of the sea.” The overarching goal is to revive the fortunes of this jewel of a harbor.

The sources of income for Nan­fang­ao’s fishing industry vary by the season. Mackerel, mahi-mahi, marlin, shark, and tuna all make their marks at different times of the year. As the catch varies, so too do the boats and techniques. The wide variety of specialized gear and techniques is fascinating.

But if these fishing methods are to continue to be part of local life, there is a need for a constant supply of new recruits, for younger fishermen who are willing to brave fierce weather as they hone their skills. “Catching fish isn’t like driving a car, where gaining a license is all you need to hit the road. Without three to five years of training, fishermen will often come back to port empty handed, leaving the ship’s owner with nothing but a bill for fuel,” explains Liao Da­qing, owner of the Nan­fang’ao Culture and History Studio. It’s important that experienced fishermen, who are walking repositories of fishing knowledge, can pass along the wisdom they have acquired over a lifetime.

In recent years, local government leaders have continually launched efforts to clean and dredge the harbor, but it is hard to prevent sediment from accumulating. “If you ask why the water in this channel is so clear, the answer is that flowing water was the source.” Liao quotes that famous line of the Song-Dynasty Neo-Confucianist scholar Zhu Xi (1130‡1200) to emphasize that the only true cure for harbor sedimentation is the free flow of water. Just to the south of Basin 2 of the fishing harbor is ­Neipi Beach, which faces the open ocean. If several culverts could be constructed there, they could bring in seawater, which could serve to naturally flush away the accumulated sediment. With water freely flowing, the harbor could stay clean and clear year round.

Mackerel Culture Festival

The 2017 Mackerel Culture Festival will be celebrated in Nan­fang’ao on October 7 and 8. There will be a rich assortment of folk activities aimed at expressing gratitude to the gods. The gold and coral Mazu in the ­Jin’an Temple and the gold and jade Mazus in the Nan­tian Temple will serve as guardian deities, welcoming the fish-themed floats as they parade by. This year is the 20th anniversary of the festival’s founding, and the All-Japan Mackerel Association has been invited to attend. That group in turn has extended an invitation for representatives of Nan­fang’ao to visit Japan’s mackerel festival in November. The two sides are thus building a strong friendship. This year’s celebration in Nan­fang’ao will also feature cultural exhibits and experiential activities, as well as, of course, much seafood to gorge on. All will serve to show off Nan­fang’ao’s intoxicating charms.

Nanfang’ao’s beauty lies in its unique melding of nature and culture. If you visit the town early in the morning and stand on the kilometer-long ­Neipi Beach at dawn, you will notice the light reddening like the face of a blushing young girl. The rosy clouds and glorious hues permeating the sky at that time of day offer a gorgeous, ever-changing vista that has long attracted photographers and has earned the town a reputation as a paradise for painters. It’s a view that will forever hold people’s attention.

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