Oyster Shells And Breakwaters: Taiwan’s Fishing Villages

An oyster farmer at work at Wanggong. Photo: Steven Crook

Fresh seafood with a side of history and local customs is served up in sleepy hamlets around Taiwan’s coastline.

Taiwan’s spectacular mountain scenery is widely appreciated. But with the exception of a few places in the north and the east, the island’s coastline doesn’t receive a great deal of admiration.

Much of the seashore is flat, hot, and surprisingly distant from urban centers. Of major cities, only Keelung and Kaohsiung show real maritime character. It is as if, in their eagerness to convert untilled land into rice fields, most of the Fujianese and Hakka migrants who reached the island during the Qing Dynasty turned their backs on the ocean as soon as they disembarked.

The Han pioneers who arrived before the Dutch occupation (1624-1662) were mainly seafarers, and few of them regarded Taiwan as a permanent home. They repeatedly crossed the Taiwan Strait to trade with the island’s indigenous inhabitants, engage in piracy, or pursue schools of grey mullet. For at least 400 years, gourmets in China (until 1949) and Taiwan (since the late Qing era) have been paying good prices for mullet roe sourced from spawning grounds off the island’s southwestern coast.

Many of the earliest Han settlements still exist, albeit under different names or subsumed by newer communities. Qihou (旗後) at the northern end of Qijin Island (旗津島) in Kaohsiung was one of the first places occupied year-round. In the alleyways, you can still find houses made of coral, granite, or wood. But it’s no longer a true fishing village; Qijin’s trawlers now moor 3.5 kilometers away, near the YM Museum of Marine Exploration Kaohsiung (陽明高雄海洋探索館).

Other fishing villages with almost as much history have been swept from the map. Hongmaogang (紅毛港) was leveled in 2007 to make way for the Port of Kao-hsiung Intercontinental Container Terminal. On a tiny sliver of land set aside for the Hongmaogang Cultural Park (紅毛港文化園區), visitors can get an idea of just how characterful that village was. 

Few of Taiwan’s fishing communities are as picturesque as old Hongmaogang – but this does not stop droves of Taipei residents from spending an hour in their cars to get to Fuji Fishing Harbor (富基漁港) in New Taipei’s Shimen District (石門區) or to Zhuwei (竹圍), which is close to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

They go because they love seafood. They understand that the catch begins to deteriorate the moment it is taken from the ocean, and they believe that no-frills harborside eateries offer superior value compared to swankier downtown establishments. Rather than keep fish and crustaceans alive in aquarium-type tanks, many of these places display the day’s culinary prospects outdoors in plastic tubs linked by hoses.

Getting food out of the sea and into those tubs is far from simple, and at busier fishing ports casual visitors are likely to witness boats being repainted, nets being repaired and folded, and other ancillary work. You do not have to be a seafood aficionado to find such sights engrossing.

According to the Council of Agriculture’s Fisheries Agency, there are 225 fishing harbors in Taiwan and its outlying islands, and they vary massively in size and activity.

Qianzhen Fishing Port (前鎮漁港) in Kaohsiung, a key facility for the oceanic fishing industry, is where large vessels fitted with cutting-edge fish-tracking technology and ultra-low temperature freezing equipment are based. Taiwan ranks first in the world for Pacific saury production, second for tuna, and third for squid. Some of this seafood is exported, but much of it goes through the market adjacent to Qianzhen Fishing Port. The market is at its busiest between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.

A fishing vessel equipped with powerful lights for catching squid. Photo: Steven Crook

At the other end of the spectrum is Xinlan (新蘭) in Taitung County’s Donghe Township (東河鄉). “Xinlan is a sleepy little place with the most turquoise water I’ve ever seen in Taiwan,” says John Groot, a Canadian who has walked approximately 1,200 kilometers all the way around Taiwan in stretches over several years. Groot describes Xinlan as “flanked by beautiful white sand beaches and adorned with coconut palms.” 

Boats moored in the turquoise water of Xinlan, a fishing village in Taitung County on Taiwan’s southeastern coast. Photo: John Groot

In terms of fleet size and volumes handled, Yilan County’s leading fishing center is Nanfangao (南方澳). However, Daxi (大溪) in the county’s Toucheng Township (頭城) made a more positive impression on Groot during his trek.

 “Daxi’s fishing harbor is at its best when ships are unloading fish during market hours,” he says. “It’s lively, merry chaos: boats docking, hoisting cargoes of seafood  from shrimp to sharks – onto the quay, vendors grabbing them and setting up stalls, buyers buying, men and women calling out loudly, fish being hacked up on the cement floor and put into tubs of ice. It’s great fun to see!”

Similar scenes can be enjoyed at Kezai-liao (蚵仔寮), a 20-minute drive north of the Kaohsiung High-Speed Railway Station. Whenever a fishing boat sails into the small harbor, egrets take up position on the stern and wait for bycatch to be thrown over the side.

For very young visitors, the harborside ice factory is perhaps the greatest attraction. Workers drag meter-long cuboids of ice from within and push them onto a special lift. These blocks are then tipped one at a time into a crusher that generates a frightening amount of noise. Several seconds later, pieces of frozen water – some as small as coins, some as big as golf balls – begin to fly out of a chute. In the process, the man whose job it is to swap tubs as they fill up gets showered with flecks of ice.     

Kezailiao’s fish market has been given its own building within meters of the dock. The vendors here sell both ready-to-eat items and fresh seafood you can take home and cook. The best time to come is late morning to early afternoon on weekends.

Remnants of the past

Tourists more interested in glimpsing the past than satisfying their stomachs should head 1.5 kilometers north to the cluster of old houses that surrounds Chikan Ancient Well (赤崁古井),  said to have been used by local families since before 1740. Despite being less than 100 meters from the Taiwan Strait, it was appreciated as a source of unusually clean water.

Much of the neighborhood is in ruins, and its forlorn yet photogenic appearance reminds many visitors of semi-abandoned villages in Penghu County. Some buildings have walls made of coral rag or mud bricks covered with square tiles. 

Among the homes that predate World War II, only one has more than a single story. Catastrophic cracking afflicts this empty wreck, located at 82 Chikan West Road. The crest at top-center on the facade bears the surname Liu (劉).

A mixture of Western and Chinese architectural styles are on display at the Chikan Liu Family Old House in Kezailiao, near Kaohsiung. Photo: Steven Crook

The Liu clan were (and may still be) an important family hereabouts, judging not only by the height of this building, but also by the grandeur of the three-sided, single-story home at 30 Chikan West Road. If you ask a local person how to get to Chikan Liu Family Old House (赤崁劉家古厝), you will be directed to number 30, not number 82.

Even though it is not open to the public, from the street you should be able to see the combination of Western and Chinese architectural styles that makes this well-preserved 1920s building quite special. The owner may let you into the courtyard, from which you can appreciate the unusual and elegant porte-cochère or covered entranceway.

As in many other places in Taiwan, the seashore here is buried beneath hundreds of interlocked concrete tetrapods. These ugly objects are said to reduce the destructive force of waves by causing water to flow around them, rather than battering against them, but some experts think they do more harm than good.

Right by the sea, what is misleadingly called Chikan Lighthouse (赤崁燈塔) has been redecorated. If it looks a good bit shorter than other lighthouses around Taiwan’s coast, there is a good reason: it was never a lighthouse. In the past, a beacon (like those at the end of breakwaters) shone here, but this concrete cylinder was actually built in the 1950s as a watchtower.

The “lighthouse” is popular with tourists, but Kezailiao’s most Instagrammed spot is just outside the post office. Atop the mailboxes, cute yellow and pink fiberglass octopi wearing mail carriers’ caps beckon to passersby.

In recent years, Wanggong Fishing Port (王功漁港) in Changhua County has been heavily promoted by both the local government and the Tourism Bureau. Thanks to Expressway 61 and regular buses from Taichung and Lukang, getting there is quite straightforward.

The Royal Arch Bridge, a government-funded addition to the landscape, is a good spot from which to enjoy the sunset. Looking north from the mouth of Hougang Creek (後港溪) directly south of the bridge, the docks and Fangyuan Lighthouse (芳苑燈塔) dominate the foreground. Farther in the distance are oyster beds, clusters of mangroves, and wind turbines.

The 37-year-old beacon might lack a long history, but it is the country’s tallest lighthouse. The 37.4-meter-tall concrete tower has a tapering octagonal shape and vertical black-and-white striped exterior. The grounds – but not the tower itself – are open to the public.

From the seawall between the lighthouse and the Taiwan Strait, you may well see oyster farmers coming and going, driving modified three-wheeled tractors to reach the bamboo stakes on which they raise the crustaceans. Oyster cultivation methods have not changed much since 1944, when a report on Taiwan’s fishing industry was prepared for the U.S. Navy, which was then contemplating invading and occupying Taiwan. 

According to the report, Taiwanese oyster farmers use “split bamboo stakes from 1 to 3 feet in length” for collection. “When the tide brings in oyster larvae, they become attached to old shells placed on the stakes. Nourished by microscopic creatures carried with every tide, the oysters grow until [they reach maturity] after 4 or 5 months.”

In Wanggong, oyster shucking is a cottage industry. Outside every third house, it seems, are baskets of empty shells. What to do with all these shells is a real problem, as Taiwan produces about 160,000 tonnes of them each year.

In the old days, oyster-shell ash was used as cement; not until the 1970s was it totally replaced by lime-based cements. Ground shells contain a small amount of nitrogen, and so can be used as fertilizer, but a far more lucrative solution has been identified by the Taiwan Sugar Corp.  working with the Industrial Technology Research Institute. Later this year, a purpose-built facility will begin extracting calcium carbonate from discarded shells for sale to pharmaceutical companies for use as a non-active ingredient in pills. The Taisugar website, which describes the venture as a “circular economy” project, says the plant will be able to handle up to 49,500 tonnes of shells annually.

Local Wanggong residents shuck oysters, the empty shells of which can be used to make fertilizer or a non-active ingredient in pills. Photo: Steven Crook

Contemplating preservation

If some of Taiwan’s fishing villages look drab and shabby, local weather and ocean conditions are partly to blame. Strong, salt-bearing winds corrode metal, tear out woodwork, and inhibit tree growth. The currents that used to propel unmanned wangchuan (“kings’ ships” or plague boats) across the Taiwan Strait – giving rise to the Wang Ye cult of burning a replica boat to ward off disease – now ensure that the coastline is littered with styrofoam buoys that worked themselves loose, plastic bottles, and other detritus.

Yet visitors and residents have certainly made matters worse, and not just by dropping trash. Coastal Taiwan has suffered its share of ugly architecture and overbuilding. Some fear that the fishing villages of Magang (馬崗) and Maoao (卯澳) in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District will soon lose their character if developers’ plans to build tourist facilities are allowed to proceed.

Magang is the country’s easternmost fishing village, while Maoao appears on a 2012 list of “Charming Fishing Harbors” published on the Fisheries Agency website. Others nominated by the agency include Badouzi (八斗子) in Keelung, the sizable town of Budai (布袋) in Chiayi County, Xuhai (旭海) in the part of Pingtung County that faces the Pacific, and Taoyuan’s Zhuwei. 

Both Magang and Maoao have a number of distinctive Qing-era stone houses. Last year, to thwart development plans, some Magang residents sought conservation status for these antique dwellings. However, a New Taipei City government committee turned down their application, arguing that, due to alterations and reconstruction, the houses and windbreak walls do not retain their original appearance, and that the village is not unique.

The controversy has prompted writers and activists to take a closer interest in Magang. Writing in May 2019, Hsu Hsiang-pi was intrigued by the village’s gender division of labor: “Adult men are responsible for fishing, while women mostly pick sea vegetables. Because these sea vegetables grow at some depth, the women must be able to dive to get them…Those who lack diving skills can only purchase and process the sea vegetables the divers bring back.”

Among traditional foodways you might see in Magang are the harvesting of lobsters and sea urchins, and the sun-bleaching of umutgasari (Gelidium amansii, a red algae found throughout Northeast Asia). To keep it from spoiling and to rid it of its fishy smell, umutgasari must be dried very soon after harvesting.

Depending on when you visit, you may find a vendor who turns local umutgasari into an agar-type dessert jelly. If you do, consider showing your support for tradition by buying a bowl or two.

One comment

  1. Thank you for these great stories! I would have greatly appreciated somemore photos though!

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