Hualien – Peril in Paradise

In search of the simple life, I found in Hualien an environment more complex – and fragile – than I had ever imagined.

One day in the midsummer of 2011, I found myself directing a 15-ton truck full of the junk of a partial lifetime through narrow and unmarked roads amid the rice fields of Shoufeng Township in Hualien County. This was to be my new home. When I told people that I was relocating from Taipei to Hualien, they would become expansive about the beauty of the place, some even calling it Taiwan’s last Eden.

I was not in search of Eden, which was fortunate, because it was not what I found.

What I did find was something profoundly complicated, a place both more attractive and less benign than I would ever have expected or imagined. As someone who had worked for over a decade in the news media, focusing on food and travel, it was the ultimate reality check.

My wife and I, together with our five-year-old daughter and one small schnauzer were embarking on a new life. We had found an old house, abandoned for over a decade, sitting on a plot of land with just enough space for a lawn, a large kitchen, four or five spacious rooms, and a vegetable garden. What it didn’t have was running water, proper sewerage, dependable garbage collection or reliable Internet access. We had one neighbor, an old farmer who regarded us with great suspicion.

The writer's house amid the paddy fields and ponds of Shoufeng, with the Central Mountain Range in the background.
The writer’s house amid the paddy fields and ponds of Shoufeng, with the Central Mountain Range in the background.

I had lived in cities most of my life, and when asked the reason for my relocation from Taipei, generally gave some vague and ill-thought-out pap about getting back to nature or leading a simpler life. The weeds running wild in our recently planted garden and the hordes of insects that assaulted the window screens of our new house were our first introduction to nature. The blocked drains, water seepage and incorrectly installed wiring were a reminder that the relaxed, carefree attitudes associated with Hualien had real, annoying, and expensive consequences.

It was a steep learning curve as we tried to get our household up and running, and I found myself quickly cast in the role of (rather inept) handyman. We had come to Hualien ready to embrace the environmental ideal of clean, sustainable living, but we also wanted a reasonable level of comfort for ourselves and the people who came to stay with us (we had unformed ideas of running a “family-style” guesthouse).

We quickly found that this was a difficult balancing act.

The dawn light over the garden is one of the joys of life in Hualien.
The dawn light over the garden is one of the joys of life in Hualien.

Worlds within worlds

With the decline of agriculture as Taiwan’s economic mainstay, the lack of development along the east coast has led to depopulation as young people head to the cities of the west coast to find work. In the last five years, there has been a move in the opposite direction, with people from the city coveting the cleaner, more peaceful and relaxed lifestyle of Hualien.

Some of these are well-heeled retirees who are prepared to invest a considerable sum of money in building their life of comfort in the countryside. Elegant, even palatial, houses increasingly dot the landscape, often notable for their high fences and the occasional presence of security cameras. Another group that seeks to find their dream in Hualien are younger, poorer and more driven by ideology than a desire for personal comfort. They come with the ambition to reinvigorate Taiwan’s great agricultural heritage through natural husbandry of the land. They are followers of many and various environmentally friendly agricultural philosophies that aim for sustainable cultivation of “natural” produce. Their struggles to produce a viable crop are much derided by local farmers, many of whom are more than happy to fall back on an ample, and often subsidized, armory of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Expecting to engage with a single Hualien community with similar or at least sympathetic aims, I instead found the divisions among inhabitants deep and sometimes antagonistic. Among the immigrants, the well-heeled retirees I found too indifferent to the wellbeing of the land and people around them, and the ideological farmers too willing to sacrifice elegance and comfort for a higher cause. Locals were primarily concerned with making a living, and had little time for environmental sentimentality, but enjoyed the economic windfall from the new inward investment.

In the months before we arrived, the work of reconstructing the old house had already hinted at some of the challenges we would face. It went forward slowly with many setbacks as we tried to overcome our own limited knowledge of “green” construction as well as the deep-seated prejudices of local tradesmen, who did not take kindly to being told how to do their job. We pored over ideas to create a cooling airflow through the house. Our local foreman could see no reason for these odd design ideas in an age of air conditioning. It must be said that many guests who have subsequently come to stay do in fact close all the windows and turn on the air conditioning even on the coolest nights when the fresh evening breeze is one of Hualien’s greatest delights.

A little bit of luxury; a bathtub looks across the fields at the Central Mountain Range.
A little bit of luxury; a bathtub looks across the fields at the Central Mountain Range.

As we gradually built up our relationship with locals, with other immigrants, and with our guests, we were forced to confront our own expectations. One realization was a rueful acknowledgement of the many problems that a reasonably well-run city solves for its inhabitants, or at least allows them to take for granted. Long arguments about water filtration (some people were for using water from nearby mountain streams, while others maintained the excellence of local groundwater properly filtered, while still others claimed that you could not be sure of quality unless you bought water from a certified water station), correct garbage disposal (a fondness for burning or dumping trash on vacant land had us up in arms when we discovered workmen on our property using these methods, but we only managed to arrange weekly trash collection by collaring the local garbage truck driver and making personal arrangements after the local authorities declined to help), and many other issues, both major and minor, seriously challenged our commitment to living in Hualien.

Shared troubles

Many of our problems stemmed from our own naivety and were shared by many new “immigrants” to Hualien. It was not long after our arrival here that my wife became active among the community of “northerners” who share many of the same aspirations and struggle with similar problems. The attitudes expressed about local Hualien people are not always cordial, and while relations are generally friendly, I suspect there is an equal rancor on the part of locals at uppity professionals from the big city.

Much of the conflict stems from ideas about husbandry of the land and many immigrants come to Hualien to practice some form of “natural” agriculture. Different ideologies abound, but one thing that most cannot abide is the prolific use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides by locals to spur on and protect their crops. Even when used in moderation, the very whiff of chemicals can be a red rag to some, as was the case when relations between two of our neighbors, one a local resident who has been farming the land for 30 years, the other a couple down from Taipei with strong roots in organic and non-GM ideology, froze over.

A balcony view of the Coastal Mountain Range
A balcony view of the Coastal Mountain Range

The old farmer, with his neat rows of vegetables grown for himself and his family, had little understanding of the messy fields of weed-engulfed crops of his prosperous neighbor; they found his use of basic fertilizers and pesticides abhorrent. When the old man sprayed the raggedy edge of their property, grown thick with weeds, with weed killer, relations froze for the best part of a month, only gradually thawing as the inevitable need for cooperation between neighbors in the countryside made it impossible to continue the feud.

We too have taken many a gardening tip from the old man, who still cannot hide a deprecating smile when he sees our diminutive “organic” vegetables. For all that, we regularly exchange the excess of our harvests with friends and neighbors, a winter melon or a bundle of eggplant serving as a social lubricant even among people who cannot agree on much about farming or anything else. It is one of the expressions of community that I find most delightful.

And then there is the beauty of the great outdoors, the mist shrouded mountains before breakfast and the cool spring breeze on a summer evening. This too serves to soothe the troubled mind. Most of the time, at least.

And so, amid the occasional feuding and general good will, we got on with our business of making a small family guesthouse and became more comfortable with the environment around us. With the spring, the chatter of birds is all around, and our two locally acquired dogs like nothing better than chasing out the pheasants and ducks that nestle in the long grass between the rice paddy. During the summer nights, fireflies can be seen roaming, and occasionally various types of field mice, some quite large, scurrying about the grassy verge. There are also a fair share of less welcome inhabitants, from the hordes of mosquitoes that infest the air during the evening, occasional snakes, and farm workers who leave their bento boxes littered by the side of the paddy fields they work.

Chatting with Jiang Yu-bao, an organic farmer in our neighborhood who gave up his lucrative career in technology to revive the family farm, what we see now is just a fraction of the rich wildlife that he experienced as a child in Hualien. He talks wistfully of crabs in the irrigation canals and eels in the flooded fields. The irrigation canals still carry clear water, and I see local farm kids and day laborers drench themselves in the water on hot summer days. Much as I would like to emulate them, there are fears of unseen dangers. It is sad when clear water can give rise to such fear, and the bags of fertilizer discarded by the fields after use give me ample cause for concern.

There is no time more beautiful than just before the rice harvest, when the fields are a deep green tinged with yellow. This is also a time when bird nets are erected and poisons laid, so that amid the rich beauty are the occasional crucified bird or a litter of carcasses between the fields. While the presence of death in the countryside shouldn’t be that surprising, I cannot help but find this sort of hidden slaughter distressing.

The flooded fields of newly planted paddy with Carp Mountain in the background.
The flooded fields of newly planted paddy with Carp Mountain in the background.

The threat from the north

For all these environmental concerns, Shoufeng still offers the kind of vistas that are the stuff of dreams for people living in Taiwan’s big cities. Looking out over the mist-shrouded Carp Mountain can be like having a classic Chinese ink wash painting hung in full size before you.

This natural environment has a powerful capacity to absorb the depredations of humanity, so despite everything done to it so far, it remains amazingly beautiful.

A neighbor comes to see what's going on as a government surveyor marks out the property.
A neighbor comes to see what’s going on as a government surveyor marks out the property.

We, along with many of the immigrant community in Hualien, look with trepidation at the rampant development of Yilan, and hope that it is not replicated here. On the other hand, there are many here who can’t wait for the financial boom that such development will bring. Some look to the example of Taitung to the south, where the building of a tourism infrastructure seems to be taking place a little more thoughtfully, but that might be simply because they do not face the mouthwatering temptations of the Suhua Highway Improvement Project, which is a rigged lottery where many people stand to earn massive profits through land speculation.

The desire to make Hualien attractive to mass tourism seems to be in danger of destroying the very things that make this rural landscape so appealing to the growing class of discerning tourists who want to find unique places to visit. As the owner of a guesthouse that has little choice but to flaunt its home-style credentials in the face of the influx of luxury establishments, it is probably not my place to criticize the expenditure of millions of New Taiwan Dollars on sumptuous Bali-style villas or Mediterranean bungalows, but I cannot help but feel that these establishments don’t necessarily build the kind of infrastructure or local identity that Hualien so desperately needs.

Immigrants such as myself, and many others, are desperately eager to contribute to Hualien, and there are many “incomers” who have great knowledge and experience in the creative and business sectors, but without any developmental framework, it seems that while some have managed to create their little pieces of paradise, Hualien’s claim to be any kind of Eden seems to be going nowhere fast.

While we cheer individual success stories, it is hard to accept the increased development that seems ever in danger of overrunning Shoufeng. South of Hualien, the township of Ji-an has already been subsumed into Hualien City. Even as the threat looms ever larger, I continue to take pleasure in introducing visitors to some of the glorious produce grown by local farmers, and the web of walks and cycleways that show of the great beauty of Taiwan’s east coast in its many guises. It can only be hoped that individual effort will gradually build up to something more than the sum of its parts, and Hualien may yet be a place where dreams do come true.