In Western Europe, one of the most intriguing cultural developments of the past three decades has been the Slow Movement. What began as a reaction to the spread of fast-food restaurants grew into the global Slow Food Movement. Proponents of slow lifestyles have since applied similar philosophies to almost every facet of human existence. Living slow is not the same as renouncing ambition, they say. Rather, it’s a way to get more out of what you do, valuing each experience and savoring each moment, instead of thinking about what has to be done next.
On the face of it, Taiwan is not the kind of society where slow ideals might take root. Most Taiwanese people love bustle. In Mandarin, describing a place as renao (“hot and noisy”) is entirely positive. Night markets and temple parades are renao and eternally popular.
At the same time, as Taiwan’s economy matures and the population ages, more and more people are realizing that material wealth and immediate gratification do not guarantee long-term health and happiness. It is not unusual to hear of someone who has turned his or her back on an excellent career in finance or the high-tech sector, to return to the town where they grew up. These returnees are helping to revitalize some of Taiwan’s most appealing “slow” communities.
To date, four townships in Taiwan have been recognized as “slow cities” by Cittaslow International, the Italy-based alliance that now connects more than 200 communities in 30 countries and territories. The four are Sanyi and Nanzhuang in Miaoli County in Taiwan’s northwest, Dalin in the southern county of Chiayi, and Fenglin in east Taiwan’s Hualien County.
Since early 2017, the four have been sharing their expertise through the Cittaslow Taiwan Territorial Area Coordinating Committee. This grouping not only endeavors to promote the traditional products and cultures of the four towns, but also to boost their international profile, while helping other parts of Taiwan obtain Cittaslow accreditation.
There is no hard and fast definition of a slow city, yet according to the Cittaslow website, only towns with fewer than 50,000 residents may apply, and they should not be the seat of a county or regional government. The alliance seeks to identify and work with “strong communities that have made the choice to improve the quality of life for their inhabitants… towns where [people] are still curious of the old times.”
Candidate communities should have a wealth of “theaters, squares, cafes, workshops, restaurants and spiritual places…untouched landscapes and charming craftsmen,” says the Cittaslow manifesto. They should also be places “where people are still able to recognize the slow course of the seasons and genuine products respecting tastes, health and spontaneous customs.”
Fenglin (the first location in Taiwan to join Cittaslow) and Dalin have these characteristics in spades. The latter thrived throughout the 1950s, thanks to the proximity of three army bases and the sugar industry. At one point, sugar accounted for 73% of Taiwan exports. On their days off, sugar company employees and soldiers poured into the center of Dalin, spending money in shops, restaurants, and the five movie theaters.
By the early 1990s, however, the sugar industry was on its last legs, the army was downsizing, and the movie theaters were closing down, one by one. Thanks to local activists adept at the use of social media, in recent years one of these theaters has been revived as a venue for film screenings and other events.
At the same time, many of Dalin’s farmers have switched from growing sugar to rice, pineapples, and orchids. Fiber-rich bamboo shoots, many of which are grown pesticide-free, are another agricultural specialty. They can be enjoyed in soups and other dishes served at eateries throughout the township. The Dalin Farmers’ Association works with Nanhua University (located in the town) to promote local organic produce.
Fenglin is not only a slow-city pioneer within Taiwan, but also the past winner of a Cittaslow Local Economy Award for a range of projects that has brought the area’s food producers and local consumers closer together.
The Cittaslow website lauds Fenglin for introducing slow-food cookery courses in two local elementary schools, and highlights the availability of traditional foods such as tangyuan (grape-sized balls of glutinous rice flour boiled and served in a light syrup, typically eaten around the time of the winter solstice), pumpkin “cake,” and radish “cake.”
At the town’s Four Generations Farmers restaurant, no menus are provided. Instead, each dish that is served reflects the seasonal availability of produce and embodies the culinary creativity of the local family that operates this acclaimed eatery.
Fenglin makes an excellent base for a long-stay vacation. Trains to Hualien City take less than 45 minutes. For those keen to explore beyond the township’s boundaries by bicycle, a number of attractions lie within 20 kilometers.
One is Danong Dafu Forest Recreation Area. For much of the postwar period, this 1,250-hectare tract of land was covered with sugarcane plantations. Since 2001, it has been assiduously afforested. In addition to more than a million trees, the woodland features 20-plus plant species native to Taiwan. Yellow-throated martens and other wildlife have also been seen here.
During the sugar industry’s heyday, cane was processed at the Hualien Sugar Factory, 13 kilometers south of central Fenglin in Guangfu Township. The factory ceased operations more than 15 years ago, but it has been preserved and opened to the public. It has also acquired a reputation for delicious and unusual frozen treats. Some of the 30-odd flavors – among them azuki bean and taro – are seasonal. Many find the sugarcane-juice popsicles especially refreshing.
The tiny community of Lintianshan is even closer to Fenglin. After World War II, when Taiwan’s timber industry was in full swing, almost 400 families lived here. Several of the Japanese-style homes and offices have been renovated, and now house souvenir stores and historical displays.
For English-language information about Dalin, see the website. Fenglin lies within the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, and the area’s multilingual website has useful background information about the region. For general travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).