Miaoli’s White Elephants

In November last year, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je added a new term to Taiwanese Mandarin: “Miaolization” (苗栗化). Commenting on the tendency of some local government leaders to borrow heavily, Ko said several cities and counties were in danger of ending up in straits as dire as those of Miaoli County.

The previous month, just after the Control Yuan had impeached former Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung on charges of severe negligence of duty, the Taipei Times reported that the county government’s total debts had reached NT$67.6 billion (then US$2.15 billion). During Liu’s nine years and five days in office, the amount Miaoli County owed to others more than tripled.

The October 2015 issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS reported that Liu had “spent extravagantly….At the start of his term, Liu spent NT$1.2 billion (US$37 million) to renovate the county government building, plan a high-speed rail zone, and expropriate large quantities of land for new development.” Under his watch, spending on fireworks and concerts was more than double that of the NT$100 million (US$3.1 million) budget for school lunches.

Unlike the Aozihdi Forest Park (凹子底森林公園), the sprawling and popular green space which some say the Kaohsiung City government should sell off to pay down some of its debts, several of the infrastructure projects initiated during Liu’s period in office seem not to bring much joy to people’s lives.

In his October 12, 2015 Taipei Times article (“Miaoli: The county that debt built”) Aaron Wytze Wilson describes Yingtsai Academy (英才書院) as nearly empty and not worth the NT$50 admission fee. Fourteen months later, this writer dropped by this landmark, an elegant yet utterly antiseptic recreation of a Qing Dynasty academy, and found himself in complete agreement. There is very little to see or do inside. It lacks the historic ambiance that surrounds authentic shuyuan like the Xingxian Tutorial Academy (興賢書院) in Yuanlin City, Changhua County. Located between the Miaoli HSR Station and Houlong TRA Station, it is too far from either for most train-riding tourists to walk.

The 1,385-ping Hakka Roundhouse (客家圓樓) unveiled by the county government in late 2014 has the advantage of being within walking distance of both the HSR and Fengfu TRA stations, but there is little else to recommend this NT$120 million white elephant. It is not even a proper replica of the famous circular Hakka tulou (土樓) in mainland China, the windows being much larger than those on the original structures in Fujian, and the walls far thinner. Rather than remain open to the elements, the courtyard has been glassed over to create an atrium.

Admission to the roundhouse costs NT$30, and like Yingtsai Academy it is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition rooms on the second and third floors explicate Hakka agricultural and culinary practices. There are farm tools, traditional cots, and a mockup of an old-style kitchen/dining room. You can learn how fucai – the pickled mustard greens that are a distinctive feature of Hakka dishes in Taiwan – is made. If you can read Chinese, that is. Visitors will find more English on the official website than in the building itself.

One project in the same part of the county does not charge admission while bringing tangible benefits. Qingshui Corridor (親水廊道) is lined with willows and home to a reported 111 aquatic plant species. Wandering beside this 2.6-kilometer-long eco-engineered waterway on a quiet weekday morning, this writer spotted hundreds of fish and more than a dozen sizable waterbirds. On weekends during the warmer months, there are surely more human than avian visitors.