Bastions of Hakka Culture in Southern Taiwan

Southwestern Taiwan is a strong-hold of traditional Taiwanese culture. Many people in this region still speak “Minnanhua,” the local Chinese dialect also known as Taiwanese, in preference to Mandarin. Yet at the same time, the southwest has a corridor of Hakka settlements stretching nearly 50 kilometers from north to south.

Taiwanese society is a multiethnic tapestry, and few elements of it are more fascinating than the Hakka minority. Like Minnan dialect speakers, they trace their ancestry back to China. A distinct subgroup within the Han people, their unique language and customs crystallized as they moved en masse from central China to the south in a series of migrations between 1,600 and 400 years ago. During the long reign of Kangxi (1661–1722), the Qing emperor who oversaw the incorporation of Taiwan into his empire in 1684, Hakka families began migrating to the island. Now, around one in seven Taiwanese identifies himself or herself as Hakka.

Adept at converting foothill wilderness into productive farmland, many Hakka pioneers settled in what are now Kaohsiung City and Pingtung County. The Hakka belt runs from Jiaxian in Greater Kaohsiung all the way to Ping-tung’s coast, and nowhere is it far from the Central Mountain Range.

Travelers dependent on public transportation can explore the south’s Hakka belt by taking a train from Kaohsiung to the town of Zhutian in Pingtung County, a trip of less than 45 minutes. Those arriving by car or motorcycle will find plenty of parking spaces.

Zhutian’s original railway station has been preserved alongside the elevated 2015 structure that replaced it. The 1919 station is modest but quite appealing. As with many buildings that date from the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule, the foundations and walls are concrete until knee height, but almost everything above – with the exception of the tiles on the roof – is wood. A smaller yet equally historic building a few meters away used to be the railway employees’ bathhouse. Before washing, they had to draw water from the adjacent well.

Zhutian Rail Station

Bicycles can be rented from the coffee-and-souvenirs shop inside the old station building. The town is so compact that within minutes you can be out among farms growing adzuki beans, betel nuts, and lemons.

Pedaling or walking to the Tiaodi Village Words-Worshipping Oblation Furnace is recommended. Located about two kilometers southwest of the train station, this relic was built so that local residents could uphold a tradition that existed in many Han communities, but which appears to have been especially strong in Hakka areas.

Tiaodi Village Words-Worshipping Oblation Furance

Showing their profound reverence for learning and literacy, villagers gathered up any paper on which words had been written or printed. These scraps were then carried in special baskets to a dedicated site and solemnly consigned to the flames. The tower-like furnace at Tiaodi (built around 1930 and about six meters high) is no longer used for this purpose, but it still makes for good photographs.

Zhutian’s most interesting street is Sanshan Road, which gets its name from the temple at number 63. The Sanshan or Three Mountain Kings Temple is devoted to a trio of deities seldom worshipped by non-Hakka people.

Sanshang Temple

Numbers 144 to 168 on Sanshan Road together form a sprawling residential compound which belongs to a clan sharing a common surname. With the passing of generations, ownership has been divided and subdivided. Some parts have been modernized, while others remain prime examples of vernacular architecture. The chamber at the very center of the compound houses the clan’s ancestor shrine.

No railway line serves Meinong in greater Kaohsiung, but buses are frequent and convenient. Unlike Zhutian, Meinong is well and truly on the tourist map, so international visitors may prefer to arrive on a quiet weekday, rather than a busy weekend.

Meinong’s written history began in 1735, when a pair of brothers surnamed Lim led a band of pioneers to settle this well-watered district. Over time, the population grew to 40,000 people. It is said that even now 90% of them are Hakka.

In the early part of the 20th century, the making of hand-painted oil-paper parasols became a local industry. Long before souvenir-hunting tourists discovered them, these gorgeous umbrellas were popular gifts for newlyweds. Auspiciously, the Hakka word for paper sounds like the word for children. Also, the word used to describe a parasol’s roundness has the same pronunciation as the one for completeness, so these items came to symbolize family unity.

The town’s souvenir shops stock parasols of various sizes, often decorated with images of birds and flowers. Painted-to-order versions can be completed in about a week for shipping direct to your home. Traditional blue ladies’ tunics are another keepsake.

The Meinong Hakka Museum introduces the town’s history and culture. The building’s unusual shape was inspired by the hundreds of tobacco-curing sheds that once dotted the landscape in the area. Tobacco farming powered the local economy between the 1930s and the 1990s, and several disused curing barns are still standing.

Tobacco curing

Taiwanese people will tell you that when you go to Meinong, you should enjoy bantiao. These thick white noodles are highly traditional in that they are made from local rice flour. In contrast, most of the noodles eaten in Taiwan in the past half century have been made from imported wheat. Fried with slivers of pork and carrot, or boiled and served in a soup with a little meat and a few greens, a portion of bantiao goes down very well after a morning spent exploring this quaint little town and its bucolic hinterland.

Another common dish in Meinong (and Hakka restaurants islandwide) is kejia xiaochao, a stir-fry that brings together pork, squid, and dried tofu. If you find you enjoy the Hakka cuisine, you can learn more about it – and even try to recreate some delicacies at home – by going onto the multilingual website of the Council of Hakka Affairs. On the various “Food & Recipes” webpages, you will find instructions for more than a dozen dishes. The Council is a Cabinet-level agency that promotes Hakka culture and language, and its website contains a great deal of interesting English-language information about Hakka history and festivals.

To learn more about Zhutian and other parts of Pingtung County, go to the Pingtung Official Travel Guide. Meinong is one of the places covered by the Kaohsiung City Government Tourism Bureau Travel Site. For additional information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).

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