Journey of Memories

Cycling the Chianan Plain

2020 / March

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Phil Newell

Cycling through the Chianan Plain along Taiwan’s oldest highway—Provincial Highway 1—the places we pass are bastions of prosperity pioneered by our forebears: irrigation reservoirs, cattle markets, bust­ling districts around train stations…. This journey follows the central artery through the area known as “Taiwan’s granary,” the main source of food for this island. As our bicycles cross geographical latitudes, we also encounter stories from across the years.

This trip through the Chianan Plain will take a degree of determination and passion. It starts with the way we get on and off our bikes: We have to adopt the correct posture in order to reduce the risk of injury during our journey. But beyond this change in outward form, we must also get used to doing without Internet search engines to get to know the world, because there are many more, and more exciting, stories known to the local people than can be found online.

Chiayi: City of wood

Our journey in search of history begins in Chiayi, the “City of Wood.” Setting out from the Alishan Forest Railway’s Beimen Station, we seem to pass into the ­period when the lumber industry flourished, during the era of Japanese colonial rule.

If you want to learn about the history of Chiayi City, and especially the old buildings from the Japanese era, local historians recommend having Yu Kuo-hsin, owner of the Yushan Inn, as your guide. With many years of experience in this role, plus the fact that his business sits directly across from Beimen Station, Yu can expound with ease about railway history.

“In the past this inn was a brothel. When you looked in through the glass doors, everything was dark, and passers­by viewed it with disdain. I was the exception—I made a special point of introducing its story when I was guiding visitors to Chiayi. At first I didn’t dare do more than look at it from the outside, but I grew bolder on account of the number of people in the tour groups, and finally I walked in to have a glance around.” Yu made friends with the owner, and when he heard that the man wanted to rent the place out, his passion for history and old buildings was stirred up, and he began to seek out friends to invest with him as partners.

“Buildings are a microcosm of their era. This one bears countless traces of the different historical periods it has passed through. In fact, before it became a brothel, this structure was a hostel. In the past four trains a day stopped at Beimen Station. Some people took the train into the mountains to work in the lumber industry, while others rode from Zhuqi into downtown Chiayi to do business, so someone opened a hostel here to profit from this trade.” Yu believes that it is the background stories that give buildings their own unique feel.

Cycling around central Chiayi, there is certainly no shortage of affordable small eateries. But it is the businesses operating in refurbished old buildings that ­really grab our attention, and it seems that the trend for renovating old buildings has been continually growing. The Chiayi Cultural and Creative Industries Park, where renovation was completed in the last few years, was formerly the oldest distillery in Taiwan.

Wang Yuh Dun, a member of the video workshop “Chung Chung Film,” which is located in the park, intro­duces us to various unique businesses there. Chung Chung was founded by a group of recent ­university graduates, who use video to document the stories of their ­hometown of Chiayi, with a particular focus on young people who are striving to realize their dreams and have the courage to be innovative. They have made videos about a number of the businesses in the park, where people with ambitions in various fields—from floral arts and film­making to pastry making—have rented spaces in hopes that more people will see and support their dreams.

Jingliao’s “Dowry Street”

Leaving Chiayi City, we ride southeast on Provincial Highway 1, passing the Tropic of Cancer landmark and entering Taiwan’s tropical zone. After a while we cross into Tainan City, then turn right onto District Road 84 and head for Jingliao in Tainan’s rural Houbi District.

Widely known as “Dowry Street,” the streets of Jing­liao’s old commercial quarter are paved with red bricks and lined on both sides with low buildings. One of these is the 250-year-old Ruan Family House, also known as the Jing De Hsing Drug Store, whose exterior evokes the atmosphere of Qing-Dynasty Taiwan. On the same street is the former Huang Family Hostel, a stopover for business­men traveling between Chiayi and Tainan in the era of Japanese rule. Travelers would often stay the night here and continue their journeys the following day. Although the hostel went out of business in the 1950s, Huang Yong­quan, a great-grandson of its founder, still runs a homestay nearby and is also a local historian and guide.

Downtown Jingliao is not large in area, but it has many historic old shops. The Jincheng Bicycle Shop, founded in 1926, is run by Huang Yongquan’s father. The Fengchang Store, established in 1929, is owned by Huang Kunbin, winner of the Fourth Fine Rice Contest in 2006 and a central figure in the 2004 documentary film Let It Be. The Ruirong Timepiece Shop, which opened in 1946, has over 100 antique clocks in the store, which all sound off on the hour, forming a sort of mechanical symphony orchestra.

Huang Yongquan reminds one of a community chief as he guides us in visiting various old shops, enthusiastically telling the story of each shop while also inquiring after the health of the elderly craftsmen. Curious, we ask Huang whether his raspy voice is due to having guided too many tour groups lately. He responds with embarrassment: “That’s right. If you don’t speak loudly enough, the people at the rear can’t hear you. They’ll grumble, and in the future they won’t come back to Jingliao to visit.”

Our next stop is the Xinying Sugar Refinery, located near the railway station. We purchase some of those walnut-and-egg-yolk-flavored salty popsicles made exclus­ively by Taiwan Sugar Corporation and end our journey for the day.

The first family of Tainan

First thing next morning we head to the Liu Chi-hsiang Art Gallery and Memorial Hall in Tainan’s Liuying District. The roads along the way are mostly flat, so we have an easy ride and can enjoy the rural scenery amid the balmy January weather of Southern Taiwan. After passing the Chi Mei Hospital, we ride on for about five more minutes and then turn right onto District Road 110—the memorial hall is right ahead.

The first time we see the main building, we are drawn to its Western-style exterior and colors. Possessing a splendid entryway and extensive grounds, this is the former residence of the Liu clan, known in days gone by as the “first family of Tainan.” Clan members traveled widely in Europe and Japan, so the structure offers a diverse variety of cultural features, with its Western exter­ior, Japanese ele­ments, and Taiwanese-style construction.

Wearing a beige Western-style suit and square-framed glasses, Liu Chi-hsiang’s eldest son, Liu Kengi, speaks Taiwan­ese beautifully and his every movement and gesture emits an aura of gentility. Pointing to a corner of his father’s studio, located in a separate one-story building, he recalls the early layout of the place. “When I was small I was always skipping school to run off and catch crickets. In the past the fields were very beautiful and the river was so clean that you could drink straight out of it.” The lovely natural scenery of Liuying has imprinted itself deeply in the mind of Liu Kengi, just as it was in­cor­por­ated into the paintings of his father.

Leaving the studio, we enter the former residence of Liu Chi-hsiang, where we discover intact Taiwanese hall archi­tecture, and rooms displaying paintings from different stages of Liu’s career. Liu studied in Japan and France, after which he came back to Taiwan and settled in Tainan. One of the first ­generation of Taiwanese students to study in France, Liu produced a large number of internationally known art­works. In his later years he moved to Kaohsiung, where he founded a school of fine arts and taught students drawing and painting. Later, together with friends he formed the Southern Taiwan Art Association, which sponsors the well-known Nan-Pu Exhibition (“Southern Exhibition”).

Only with stories does one really exist

We hurry our pace as we head toward the former Shanhua Cattle Market—now a general market, but still bearing the old name—hoping to get there before the market closes and enjoy a bowl of authentic local beef soup. After more than an hour of hard pedaling, we finally reach our des­tina­tion. Along the two sides of the road there are a number of vendors displaying antiques, farm implements, and fruit. It is only after cycling for quite a distance that we finally see a market selling food off to the left.

There is already a long line in front of the 258 Beef Soup stall, with people’s voices rising and falling as they order. We hurriedly choose a place to sit and order bowls of steaming hot beef soup.

After eating our fill, we leave the market and pedal along County Road 178 to the Shanhua Brewery. There we turn left onto Provincial Highway 1 and after about an hour turn right onto County Road 171, which finally brings us to the Wushantou Reservoir.

The Wushantou Reservoir and the Chianan Irrigation System were built in the era of Japanese rule, and took ten years to complete. A tunnel was bored through the mountains to bring water to the reservoir, and the project increased the amount of land under irrigation from 5000 to 15,000 hectares. As a result the Chianan Plain became “Taiwan’s granary.”

The Wushantou Reservoir gives us the steepest climb of this journey. After entering the reservoir grounds, we must first cycle uphill for a stretch before reaching the embankment of the dam itself. Cycling along the top of the dam there is a sense of spaciousness all around, with the blue lake on one side and verdant forest on the other. As we ride, there is a strong wind directly in our faces. Going further onward, we see a bronze statue of the Japanese engineer Yoichi Hatta, who oversaw construction of the reservoir, with the grave of his wife Toyoki behind.

Our final stop is the GJ Taiwan Bookstore, located in downtown Tainan, which offers a large number of works on Taiwanese history. The founder, Prince Wang, believes that in general Taiwanese don’t know much about their own history, and memories about everything from heroic person­alities and outstanding artists of the past to the ori­gins of Taiwan’s industrial development have been lost.

Wang is amazed at the curiosity Taiwanese have about history. When he first opened his bookstore he assumed it would not make any money, but in fact it has attracted many customers, both visiting the store in person and making purchases online, and this support has enabled GJ Taiwan to remain in business.

“When people don’t recognize the things around them, they cannot identify with them or see their value.” This remark of Wang’s makes a fitting footnote to our ­cycling journey that has included so much of Taiwan’s history. If you don’t know the roles played in the past by these old shops and landmarks, you can’t understand the im­port­ance of preserving them.

If you want to see more of the beauty of Taiwan, then get on your bike and hit the road! You may very well find yourself riding along the lanes of Taiwan’s small towns and rural areas, stepping into shops where people don’t often set foot, and getting caught up in the stories of Taiwan’s history.

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