Thursday, 18 October 2012

The journey that changed my life – Cycling Malaysia in 1987

As I write this, I am sheltering from a typhoon that is hurling wind and rain at the east coast of Taiwan. When it passes I shall attempt to complete my 2012 huan dao (“around island”) trip of more than 1,000 kilometers by bicycle. I did my first such route in 1992, the first year I came to the ROC. But both my living in Taiwan and my passion for cycling—which now exceeds more than 100,000 kilometers in over two dozen countries—derives from a biking holiday I took through Malaysia 25 years ago.

Actually, the story starts one year earlier, with my first visit to Asia, to Thailand in fact. Which was a great disappointment.

Do not misunderstand: I love Thailand, as I love Malaysia and Taiwan, and many other countries.

But I made a mistake—one made by many neophyte travelers—of following guidebooks to popular destinations, shopping districts and beach resorts. Although I had a good time, I was left wondering where my “Asian experience” was as I could have seen many of the same kind of things without leaving home.

So the following year I packed my bicycle and although I had never cycled further than to school or the local beach, decided to pedal through southern Thailand, the entire length of peninsular Malaysia and into Singapore—a little over 2,000 kilometers by the time I would finish—before flying home from Kuala Lumpur.

This could have been the most stupid thing I had ever done, but it turned out to be the smartest. And, as I say, it changed the direction of my life in more than one way.

I could still visit the tourist hotspots, but to get between them I had to pass through “real” towns and villages, converse with “real” local people, stay at small hotels frequented by truckers and salesmen, and eat the same food they ate. Despite my aching legs, back, arms and especially backside, I was instantly hooked.

At Alor Setar, I celebrated my arrival in Malaysia by having a can of Guinness. I was a pleasantly surprised to find beer easily available but far more surprised to find my favorite Irish stout was among the popular brands.

The next day I pressed on, however, and it was in Penang’s Georgetown that I fell unconditionally in love with Asia. I cannot say what it is I liked about the place, but ineffability is not an option for a writer, so I must try. Something about the mix of ethnicities perhaps, or at least the mix of foods available: Indian roti for my breakfast carbohydrates, Chinese noodles for lunchtime sustenance, and Malay meat dishes for my evening protein. Or the architecture of the old town, learning taiqi in the park at dawn, trying to master a few sentences of Bahasa Malay—not yet realising how widely used English was—and cycling to the beach in the late afternoon for a leisurely dip.

My planned two-day stay became two weeks, and even then it was hard to tear myself away. The next target was Tanah Rata around 1,500 meters up in the Cameron Highlands, for which I allowed four days.

I made it in two. One day saw me arrive late at night in Ipoh, the next, including a five-hour climb in a thunderstorm, brought me to Tanah Rata, a small town set among tea plantations at a very pleasant altitude. The manager of my guest house told me my timing was impeccable: early the next morning the Tamil Indian community would hold its Thaipusam festival in which believers allow themselves to be possessed by Hindu deities, have their flesh pierced with dozens or hundreds of hooks, before everyone parades 5 kilometers through the streets and then has a free meal at the local temple.

Naturally, flying downhill was fast and I made Kuala Lumpur before midnight, the first time I had ridden over 200 kilometers in one day. Time was running out even faster than my budgeted savings, however, and I soon had to return to the UK for work, so I left the capital to explore on subsequent visits.

I did manage brief stopovers in Malacca, where I was enchanted by its old town, and Muar, which is still a lovely sleepy port to this day.

From there the ride to Singapore was more or less a formality, though by now I knew bicycling, and Asia, would be permanent elements in my life, rather than just the one-off holiday I had planned.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

(the photos on this post are from a similar event in Butterworth in 2003)

The good, the bad, and the one regret – Cycling in Malaysian Borneo

FOR a step into the unknown, I can thoroughly recommend cycling from Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah, to Kuching, capital of Sarawak, some 1,300 kilometres to the southwest.

I say “some”, since when I tried to check the distance on Google maps, it wouldn’t offer a figure. Then I noticed why: the road from Sabah peters out in the hinterland near the Sabah-Sarawak border and then seems to resume near the Sarawak-Brunei border.

“No it doesn’t, don’t worry,” Thomas Fong, my Malaysian cycling buddy told me.

So I booked my return flight from Kuching, and was now committed to getting there within 16 days; 100 kilometers per day with a day or two for getting lost, resting or finding a bike shop to fix any mechanical malfunction.

Initially, everything went to plan if somewhat uneventful. I stayed at Beaufort in Sabah, and after surreally getting my passport stamped out of Malaysia and then stamped back into Malaysia at Lawas on the Sabah-Sarawak border—Sarawak, by far the largest state in the Malaysian federation, uniquely has its own passport control. Both towns had good food options, but as a vegetarian who lives in the Chinese-food-paradise of Taiwan, I ate Indian roti and curries at every opportunity on the first few days.

Next up was the Brunei double-decker sandwich. This is to be traversed, not eaten, however, as the highway between KK and Kuching crosses the independent state of Brunei not once but twice, rather like a Sarawak sandwich with a Brunei filling.

The first stretch, measuring about 30 kilometers across, is a bit bizarre: Since prices are significantly higher than in Malaysia, and with nowhere being more than a 15-kilometre drive away, there are no shops or restaurants on the main road.

Brunei also lacks alcohol sales, so Miri, its southwestern neighbour back across the border into Sarawak, is party town. I arrived on Friday evening and was lucky to get a room.

Leaving Miri I made my first mistake: I decided to take the quieter coast road to Bintulu around 200 kilometers away, rather than the “new road” further inland. “Quiet” meant there was only one store/restaurant and no hotels the entire way. I camped at the entrance to a plantation and had to flag down passing motorists for drinking water. Here, Malaysians proved themselves supremely generous and no more than two or three vehicles passed before a driver understood my gesticulations and stopped to quench my thirst.

Taking the coast road also meant I missed the famous Niah Caves and national park, and instead spent two days cycling past palm oil plantations.

Bintulu also was not to my taste, so I pressed on and spent the night in Tatau. Little more than a bend in the road, it at least set me up within striking distance of Sibu.

On the map, Sibu looks much like Bintulu, but the two could hardly be different. Sibu is a staging post on the 563-kilometer-long Rajang River, connecting to Song and Kapit upstream in the jungle, only accessible by boat and not by road. I would have loved to jump aboard and gone on a real adventure, and this is exactly what I will do when I next return to Borneo.

Feeling that I had a day or two in hand, I cycled up to Lubok Antu. This unassuming town was a highlight of my trip, and were I not travelling by bicycle with its limited baggage capacity, I would have bought many indigenous handicrafts as they were on sale for use—and therefore at regular prices—rather than as tourist trinkets.

One night per town is my usual bicycle-touring rule, but Sri Aman, the next town, was so charming, and the river-view room so peaceful, that I immediately checked in for another night. Searching for a vegetarian dinner I met Joanne Sim and her husband, who invited me to a party for Sarawak workers to be held the next night.

The next day should have seen me arrive in Kuching, but I got distracted by a sign to the Indonesian border at Tebedu. Mistake number two. I rolled into town at 5:40, bought an ice-cream at the petrol station, only to be told there were no hotels in town. The police proved friendly, however, and I camped beside their station, then spent the evening in a bar with the police chief and his four buddies drinking Malaysian Guinness and imported Chinese lager.

The next day, I rolled gently down the hill to Kuching. The city of cats was a perfect end to my trip, and I spent the final two days of my trip exploring its downtown and environs. I still have little idea how far it is from Kota Kinabalu, however. I cycled about 2,000 kilometers in total, but that included several side trips. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

photos copyright Jiyue Publications

contact for publication rights

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Of Taiwan, Yet Not of Taiwan

Tracing the Rich History of Kinmen

By Mark Caltonhill

[first published in "Travel in Taiwan" 2010 (]

Whatever you do in Kinmen (and there is plenty to occupy visitors for days or even weeks), don’t call it part of Taiwan. While the local people are friendly and forgiving, they will gently point out that Kinmen, which is as close as 2 km from the mainland China coast but almost 230 km from Taiwan, was always and still is a part of China’s Fujian Province, albeit a part that is now under the jurisdiction of Taipei and not of Beijing.

Thus the island – actually an archipelago of two inhabited islands, Kinmen and Little Kinmen, and a number of small uninhabited ones — has a history entirely different from that of the island of Taiwan. This has colored its culture over the centuries and, as the Republic of China (ROC) and People’s Republic of China (PRC) draw closer with the post-Cold War thaw finally reaching East Asia, continues to do so.
For example, whereas Taiwan was a frontier territory in the 17th and 18th centuries to which Chinese immigrants fled to begin a new life, Kinmen was a part of the “older” China. Indeed, it later became a source of emigrants itself, a few of whom settled in the Penghu archipelago and Taiwan, many more of whom traveled to Japan, the Philippines, throughout Southeast Asia, and further afield. It is estimated that around half a million descendents of Kinmenese now live overseas, a figure that represents about 10 times the islands’ current population.
Their story, first as laborers and later as merchants, is told in detail (with good English translations) in a combined gallery and history museum housed in the old Jinshui Elementary School in Shuitou Village, located in the southwest of Kinmen’s main island. In fact, the whole of Shuitou – with its reconstructed mansions as well as the more rundown establishments – is like one large museum. This is because the fortunes made and either remitted or brought home by some of the expatriate sons of Kinmen account for the great profusion of traditional Fujianese-style upscale housing, often mixed with Baroque and other Western elements.

Stone lions have long been worshiped by local people to protect them and their crops from the strong winds

Another good place to stroll among these historic buildings is Shanhou Culture Village in Jinsha Township in the main island’s northeast. In fact several villages within the Kinmen National Park area, which encompasses a large portion of the two main islands, have been restored to their 19th- and early 20th-century glory using a “replace old with old” strategy, making a visit to Kinmen a unique step back in time almost unparalleled anywhere else in the ROC.
The northeast of the main island is its windiest area and thus has most of Kinmen’s iconic wind lions. These stone statues of varying size and design, some holding objects such as pens, balls or ribbons, have long been worshiped by local people to protect them and their crops from the strong winds. Sometimes there is one for a whole village, sometimes one per household. The Kinmen National Park administration regularly stages a fun event in which visitors buy a book and crayons and collect rubbings from a selection of lions, which they can then swap for a prize before leaving the island. In the days before the Chinese Civil War, Kinmen was known for its fishing and, less so, its agriculture. Today it is best-known in the region for its kaoliang (sorghum)-based alcohol and its artillery-shell knives. This change and these products are the result of yet another twist in the island’s history.

As the Chinese Civil War came to its stand-off conclusion in 1949, ROC forces relocated to Taiwan but managed to hold onto numerous islands just off the mainland China coast, including the Matsu group off the city of Fuzhou in northern Fujian and Kinmen off Xiamen in southern Fujian. Situated within sight of the coast and under a virtual state of siege, fishing became impossible in all but the most inshore island waters. Many local residents relocated to Taiwan, but for those who stayed a new livelihood was needed.
In what now must be seen as a stroke of genius, Kinmen-stationed General Hu Lian, originally from the sorghum-growing region of Shandong Province far off in northern China, recognized that the island’s soil and water were ideal for growing the grain and making traditional kaoliang liquor.

Today, the distillery near the island’s center – Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Inc. – produces around 24 million liters of 38 percent and 58 percent liquor annually, generating around NT$12 billion in sales for local and national coffers, and making Kinmen one of only two counties in the ROC not in debt to the central government, according to information provided at the distillery’s visitor center.
Those sightseers with a taste for culinary tourism may also try the island’s famous “imperial tribute candy” at the sales center of the nearby Sheng Zu Food & Beverage Corp., where they can watch a dozen modern takes on the classic recipe being made by hand. The original flavor is peanut, however, and clearly Kinmen’s soils are suited to that crop too, as it is found in fields and smallholdings everywhere and can be seen drying on the courtyards in front of people’s homes. While in the countryside, also look out for the cows. They might not be a big deal to Westerners, but for Taiwanese used to water buffalo, the “yellow” cattle of Kinmen are quite unusual. Old-timers still use their beasts for plowing and other heavy work, and out of respect and gratitude do not eat beef. Younger people, however, now keep herds commercially, and beef jerky is another Kinmen specialty. Naturally, one of the most popular flavors is kaoliang beef jerky. One final culinary-related must-see is Master Wu’s Chin Ho Li Steel Knife Factory.

Third-generation knife maker Wu Tseng-dong is often to be found in his factory/showroom, and will hand-make a knife tailored to a visitor’s needs if not busy. His family started off making agricultural tools, but switched to knives after the infamous PRC shelling of Kinmen that began on August 23, 1958. Over the next 44 days around 500,000 artillery shells rained down, and perhaps the same number – though many contained propaganda materials and not explosives – over the next 20 years. Wu’s father and other blacksmiths found the shells’ steel to be good for high-quality knives for kitchen and other uses, and Wu first helped out after school before taking over the family business. Taken back to Taiwan proper by soldiers stationed on the island, the knives, as well as Wu’s factory, soon became a firm item on tourists’ itineraries.

The islands’ key location and role in the six-decade stand-off between the ROC and PRC is the most recent historical event coloring Kinmen’s culture. This has also provided innumerable visitor options not available elsewhere. Favorites include the propaganda broadcasting station at Mashan, the closest tip of northeast Kinmen island to China. Here, singer Teresa Teng and others once did live broadcasts over enormous loudspeakers to PRC citizens just two kilometers away, extolling the virtues of life in Free China.
Mashan also has fortifications and short tunnels. But for better examples of this, the extensive tunnels at Qionglin in the center of Kinmen island along the coast (which was the PRC People’s Liberation Army’s ideal point of attack) are well worth the NT$10 entrance fee. These tunnels were largely dug out and fortified by local residents themselves, using military-supplied cement, so they could move around in relative safety and therefore continue their lives as normally as possible even while under attack.

Wu Chin Ho’s father and other blacksmiths found the shells’ steel to be good for high-quality knives for kitchen and other uses

For an introduction to military fortifications, Yongshi Fort on Little Kinmen, the other inhabited island, is recommended. Here are gun emplacements, an arsenal, dormitories, officers’ rooms, kitchen facilities, and tank emplacements, all underground and all connected by miles of tunnels. Visitors may even ride their bicycles through the tunnel from Yongshi Fort to the nearby Tiehan Fort if circumnavigating Little Kinmen by bicycle.

That the ROC still retains Kinmen (as well as Matsu) shows the success of these fortifications. In this it has done better than Koxinga, who held these islands and the nearby archipelago islands controlled by the PRC for years as a base to resist and harass the new Manchurian Qing dynasty based in Beijing in the 17th century, but who ultimately had to retreat further, to Taiwan, starting a new chapter in that island’s history. Today’s topic has been Kinmen’s history, and hopefully the people of this now peaceful archipelago will forgive their story appearing in a magazine called “Travel in Taiwan” — the name “Travel in Taiwan, Matsu, and Kinmen” would be just a bit too much of a mouthful. 

photos copyright Travel in Taiwan 2010
text copyright Travel in Taiwan and Jiyue Publications 2010,2012

Aboriginal murals on the Wulai road

series of legend murals

including this first with biblical imagery
(or is this an element from Atayal legend too?)

sun-shooting legend

monkey-agriculture legend???

photos copyright Jiyue Publications 2012

Guns and Roses: Wanhua Makes a Comeback

The popular film Monga has revived interest in the oldest district in Taipei, home to some of the city’s major sightseeing spots.


Derived from an aboriginal word Vanka referring to the canoes with which indigenous people brought sweet potatoes, charcoal, and other produce downriver to sell to Chinese settlers, it was adapted as Manga (艋舺; literally “small boat”) in Minnan. These characters meant nothing to the Japanese when they took over Taiwan in 1895, so they used the similarly pronounced Manka (萬華; literally “Ten Thousand Flowers”), and these characters were preserved by the incoming ROC administration from 1945, but using the Mandarin pronunciation Wanhua. Hence none of the original characters, meaning, or pronunciation was preserved.

The river was the heart of this district, the earliest part of Taipei inhabited by Han Chinese, but today is largely hidden behind high levees. A good place to start a visit is at the Taipei City Wholesale Fish Market (531 Wanda Road) near the river, where more than 100 tons of fresh fish are auctioned before dawn each day. Smaller quantities can be bought at the retail stalls next door, and there are a couple of restaurants selling cooked fish. Less bloody, the No.1 Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market nearby is also worth a look.

By the 1730s, Manga was the main center of trade in northern Taiwan, the origin of Taipei City, as well as its major port. This dominant role continued until silting of the river led to Manga’s decline. Another perhaps more important cause was the frequent fighting among ethnic subgroups who had migrated from Jinjiang (晉江), Hui’an (惠安), Nan’an (南安) and Tong’an (同安) in Fujian Province. These clashes finally led to a mass exodus of the losers, who then established Dadaocheng (大稻埕) as a rival wharf further downstream (at the end of today’s MinSheng West Road).

Manga’s Qingshui Zushi Temple (清水祖師廟), first built in 1787, was razed during such fighting in 1853, only to be rebuilt in 1867. Largely overshadowed by its larger neighbor Longshan Temple (龍山寺), its sleepy, restaurant-sided courtyard offers a glimpse of times gone by. It would probably not look very different from when Canadian George MacKay first came in 1872. One of the most successful missionaries in the entire China region, he nevertheless had great difficulty “taking” Manga. In his book From Far Formosa, MacKay spells it as Bang-kah, nicknames it “the Gibraltar of heathenism in North Formosa,” and says that its estimated population of around 45,000 made it the largest and most important city in northern Taiwan.

“The citizens of Bang-kah, old and young, are daily toiling for money, money – cash, cash,” he noted in his journal of 1875. “They are materialistic, superstitious dollar-seekers. At every visit, when passing through their streets we are maligned, jeered at, and abused. Hundreds of children run ahead, yelling with derisive shouts; others follow, pelting us with orange-peel, mud, and rotten eggs. For hatred to foreigners, for pride, swaggering ignorance, and conceit, for superstitious, sensual, haughty, double-faced wickedness, Bang-kah takes the palm.”

Today foreigners are warmly welcomed, though even the main tourist sights (Longshan Temple, Snake Alley, Xinmending, etc.) are not overrun with outsiders and the atmosphere is thoroughly local. Longshan, for example, is a typical working temple, where Manga residents go to supplicate and thank their favorite deities. Ostensibly a Buddhist place of worship, since the main deity worshiped is the Bodhisattva Guanyin, in reality it is typical of mixed temples with numerous other figures honored in smaller shrines to the rear.

Ghost money and herbs

XiYuan Road on the temple’s west side has many stores specializing in religious paraphernalia. Selling everyday items such as ghost money, divination tools, and statues, as well as high art and more bizarre items such as weapons used by jitong (乩童; “divination boys”) for self-harm when possessed by spirits, they are good places for visitors to search for more unusual souvenirs.

Along the east side of the temple is “herb lane,” worth exploring for vegetation used in cooking and herbal cures.

In front of Longhsan Temple is a large open plaza. This is an ideal place to learn about traditional life in contemporary Taipei. Members of the local community, most of them elderly males, gather here all day long to pass the time, make friends, and enjoy themselves, and the side streets are filled with small cheap eateries. One store of unusual interest is the secondhand bookshop, antique bazaar, and café at No. 152, Lane 4, GuangZhou Street, one of the nearest things Manga has to a museum.

Another museum-like venture is the government-backed development of Bopiliao (剝皮寮), a short street of old buildings, one block further east near the junction of GuangZhou Street and KangDing Road. Still a work in progress, it already throngs with local sightseers because it was featured in Niu’s Monga. With official support, many of the small houses along what is said to have been the district’s main street in very early times have been renovated and contain exhibitions of history, art, and local culture. Although there is not yet much in the way of English information, it is still a good place to take pictures and buy souvenirs.

Back on the square, buskers entertain crowds, experts pick lottery numbers for hopeful gamblers, people dance and play Chinese chess, monks beg, and streetwalkers and their pimps approach potential customers.

Although prostitution has officially been stopped, it seems to be tolerated in Manga, where the predominantly elderly women operate openly and there are still STD clinics behind the temple. The showcase platform of this “colorful” slice of local culture, HuaXi Street (華西街; nicknamed “Snake Alley”) further east, which had open displays of snakes, turtles, and apes, and one of the city’s major red-light districts along adjacent alleys, has largely been cleaned up. This is probably due to tourist dollars as much as government edict: the sanitized market now specializes in seafood snacks and foot massages as much as snake blood and happy endings. There are many temples in the district, and many temple activities. Of particular note is that each year in November or December (the 22nd and 23rd days of the 10th lunar month), the Qingshan Temple (青山宮) at 218 GuiYang Street Sec. 2 organizes one of Taipei’s most spectacular street parades, with statues of deities from nearby temples brought to celebrate the King of Qingshan’s birthday. Beyond the bright lights and camera crews, this is also an event that will have changed little since MacKay’s time.

Uniforms and costumes

From a transportation hub based on the river, Manga developed into a center of trade. In addition to the fishing and agricultural products sold in its markets, it was particularly known for its textile and clothing businesses. While these have largely gone elsewhere (mainly to China and Southeast Asia), there are still a few reminders to be seen and enjoyed. Two curiosities in the otherwise quiet Hanzhong Street area are the trade outfitters and fancy dress shops. The former provide uniforms for everyone from shop staff to marching bands, while the latter stock costumes for private parties, trade shows, and cosplay events.

Far more obvious is the modish district of Ximending, Taiwan’s first pedestrian zone. Busy on weekday evenings, it is completely mobbed with young people on weekends, when record companies, cosmetic manufacturers, and others put on stage shows featuring established and up-and-coming music and television stars. Licensed buskers and street artists draw crowds in the wider car-free streets, while the back alleys leading toward KunMing Street are home to dozens of small independent designers selling clothing and accessories to Taipei’s counterculture youths. There are tattoo artists and body piercers as well as hair salons, manicurists, and masseurs. Street walls are covered in bright murals and graffiti, and the sound of skateboards echoes through the lanes above the chords of indie-music played on portable hifis.

The area is also popular with musicians making pop videos, and with local television and film makers. Of course, Niu was not the first mainstream director to make use of the area’s traditional atmosphere. Hou Hsiao-hsien also chose it for his 1986 film Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵) and Tsai Ming-liang used it in his 1992 Rebels of the Neon God (青少年哪吒).

Manga was once the entertainment center of Taipei, with numerous theaters doing good business on weekdays and weekends alike. Although many are gone, largely replaced by KTV centers, Ximending still has a range of movie houses showing mainstream and art movies, and is one of the main centers of activity during the annual Taipei International Film Festival.

One reversal of this cultural decline was the reopening of the Red House Theater (紅樓劇場) in 2002. This fine Japanese-era, Western-style building dating from 1908 was originally constructed as a market, but was converted to a theater by Shanghai émigrés in 1949. Now under city government control, it has handicraft stalls on the first floor, but regularly organizes performances upstairs.

Its reconstruction led to a wider change in local fortunes, and the pedestrian zone around the theater fills with café tables by day and pub seating at night. This is a center of Taipei’s LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, as can be identified by the leather trouser and underwear specialist stores – Manga’s latest take on the textile industry – interspersed among the cafés.

The rest of Manga, lying to the south of the now underground Taipei-to-Banqiao railway line, has its own attractions, but is largely residential. For locals, two of the highlights of living there are the spacious Youth Park and even more massive Riverside Park beneath the Huazhong Bridge to Yonghe.

Wanhua Railway Station offers access to the Longshan Temple area for visitors from outside the capital, though Taipei Main Station is within walking distance of Ximending. There are also MRT stations at Longshan Temple and Ximending, and ZhongHua Road is a main hub for bus services throughout the city and beyond.

Out-of-towners can also take advantage of the wide choice of hotels in the neighborhood, ranging from backstreet hovels to high-class establishments. Perhaps the ideal location for those wishing to connect with Manga’s past is one of the riverside hotels with windows offering views of the sunset across the waters that once swarmed with boats.

So what will you find in Manga? No guns, hopefully, though perhaps a few hints of gangs, and definitely a lady-of-the-night or two. And religion to be sure, food for certain, and maybe you will even fall in love with Taipei’s original conurbation.

Text and photos copyright Taiwan Business Topics and Jiyue Publications 2011/2012

Kinmen: From War Zone to Tourist Spot

A onetime battlefield just off the mainland coast, these islands are now attracting visitors from both Taiwan and China.


For an experience unlike any other in the ROC, make a trip to Kinmen; nowhere else is quite like this tiny archipelago of islands.

Located 230 kilometers from Taiwan proper but as little as two kilometers from the PRC coastline, Kinmen (once better known in the west as Quemoy) for most of the last half-century was as close as Taiwanese could get to mainland China. And then it was only in military uniform, since the archipelago of two inhabited islands and many uninhabited ones was long off-limits to civilian outsiders. Even most of the original residents had long ago fled Communist bombardments and the cultural isolation for the suburbs of Taipei and elsewhere in Taiwan.

Now open to tourists – including visitors from the mainland – and one of the initial gateways for travel to Fujian Province and beyond under the Three-Mini-Links, Kinmen (金門; pronounced “Jin-men”: the K comes from the same earlier romanization system that made Beijing into Peking) is something of a paradise and a paradox.

It is a paradox partly because, while it is resolutely part of the ROC, it has never been part of Taiwan. Rather, along with the islands of Matsu (馬祖), it is a tiny bit of Fujian Province still under ROC control. Moreover, just as its economy is heavily dependent on Chinese goods and Chinese tourists, even its birds, insects, and plants are more Chinese than Taiwanese. But it is even more of a paradox because although a million or so PRC bombs fell on the islands’ 134 square kilometers, its infrastructure was spared the more damaging urbanization and industrialization that affected Taiwan proper. As a result, it has a far higher proportion of historical buildings preserved.

Architecturally, therefore, Kinmen is fascinating. One absolute must, for all but the most transient of visitors, is to stay overnight in one of these properties, many of which date from the end or even middle of the 19th century and were built in traditional Fujian style. The grander buildings belonged to successful candidates in the imperial examinations, who then were sent elsewhere in China to hold official positions, sending back money to the clans that had supported their years of study. These buildings can be identified by the sweeping “swallow tail” roofs, distinct from the “horseback” structures of ordinary citizens.

Many of the “horseback” buildings are also quite substantial, since Kinmen was a key player in trade between China and the Chinese diaspora of Southeast Asia and beyond. Even those who could not afford to build a complete new house sometimes added an extra wing or extra story (traditionally Fujianese homes were single-storied). Exploring these architectural details, often executed in the latest fashions of the period, such as Baroque ideas brought back from abroad, is an attraction for visitors to even the smallest village in Kinmen. And with such newfound riches, the builders had to find ever more ingenious ways to protect the inhabitants from the pirates who still plundered the south China coast as they had for millennia, so there are high windowless walls, sniper nests, and hidden rooms to look for.

Some of these houses have been preserved by their first owners’ descendents, but many long ago fell into disrepair, especially after many residents moved to Taiwan to escape the salvos. It is primarily these latter structures that are now set up as restaurants, shops, museums, galleries, and above all as homestays, under an innovative, and initially controversial, program operated by the Kinmen National Park administration. The government organization pays for the renovation of private buildings in return for a 30-year lease on their use. Instead of operating the buildings itself, it puts them up for tender for local people (and occasional outsiders) to suggest projects for their use.

As a result of that program, tourists now have the chance to stay in a 19th century merchant’s home, renovated and refurbished in classical style, in the winding streets of Zhushan Village (珠山), or in dozens of similarly fascinating buildings. The cost is around NT$1,400 a night for two people, including traditional Kinmen breakfast (,

Another renovation project, located in the old Jinshui Elementary School in Shuitou Village (水頭), houses a museum explaining the way of life of Kinmen residents in former times, particularly those who went abroad for work, first as laborers and later as merchants. The information, presented in English as well as Chinese, includes the estimate that around half a million Kinmen descendents now live overseas, a figure about ten times the island’s current population.

So many properties have been renovated in Shuitou in southwest Kinmen that the whole village resembles one large outdoor museum. Another good place to view historic buildings is in the island’s northeast at the Shanhou Culture Village (山后民俗文化村) in Jinsha Township, but visitors will see stunning scenes wherever they travel.

Wind lion statues

While in the northeast, the windiest part of the island, take a look at Kinmen’s iconic wind lions (風獅爺). Stone statues of varying sizes and designs – some holding objects such as pens, balls, or ribbons; some freestanding and some bas-relief on the side of houses; sometimes one for each village and sometimes one per house, they are worshiped to this day by local people to protect themselves, their boats, and crops from the strong winds. No one seems to know their origins, but they are a unique feature of Kinmen, and as such are much collected in miniature as souvenirs by visitors.

Other commonly bought items to take home include locally made knives and bottles of Kinmen kaoliang (高梁), a distilled liquor made predominantly from sorghum. Though the latter can be found in any supermarket throughout Taiwan, special designs of bottles and limited-quantity runs are only available at the distillery. Kaoliang is so synonymous with Kinmen in the minds of Taiwanese that most assume it was always made there, though in fact sorghum is a temperate grain, commonly grown in Shandong and other northern Chinese provinces.

When Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949, by sheer historical fluke they were left in possession of the Kinmen and Matsu groups of islands. (Another common misconception is that Chiang intentionally held this territory as a bridgehead for reinvading the mainland, but in truth, it was merely accidental that these were the last two positions from which he was retreating to Taiwan when the Korean War started and the U.S. Navy entered the Taiwan Strait to prevent any further advance by Mao’s Communists.)

As mentioned above, many local residents relocated to Taiwan proper, but for those who stayed, the traditional occupations of fishing and trading were no longer possible with the islands under a virtual state of siege. By a stroke of good fortune, one of the island’s senior officers, General Hu Lian, was originally from Shandong. He recognized that Kinmen’s soil and water were suited to growing sorghum and making kaoliang liquor.

According to information provided at the visitor center of the distillery – another must-see of any trip – the plant now produces around 24 million liters of 38% and 58% liquor, generating around NT$12 billion (about US$400 million) to national and local coffers, and making Kinmen one of only two counties in the ROC not in debt to the central government.

While in central Kinmen, another destination for those with a taste for culinary tourism is the Sheng Zu Food & Beverage Corp. (301 Boyu Rd., Sec.2, Jinning), famed for its production of “imperial tribute candy” (貢糖). Originally peanut flavored, it now comes in around a dozen modern variations on this classic recipe. The name is said to derive from the confection being so good that it was presented to the imperial court, and while this is perhaps legend – or more likely, PR – the quantities sold from the company’s gift shop suggest it at least satisfies the Taiwanese palate.

Peanuts grow well in Kinmen’s soil and can be seen growing in fields and drying in the courtyards in front of people’s homes. While in the countryside, look out for cows as well. For Taiwanese accustomed to water buffalo, these “yellow cattle” (黃牛) are quite unusual. Elderly farmers still use them for plowing and other heavy work, and out of respect and gratitude do not eat beef. Those of the younger generation, however, now keep herds commercially, and beef jerky (牛肉乾) has become another Kinmen specialty.

From swords to plowshares

A last culinary-related destination are Kinmen’s knife makers, who are renowned for using the steel from unexploded Communist artillery shells to manufacture high-quality kitchen equipment. Wu Tseng-dong of Maestro Wu’s Chin Ho Li (金合利) knife factory puts on a show for tourists and will hand-make a knife specifically to a visitor’s needs. His family started out making agricultural tools, but switched to knives after the PRC shelling of Kinmen began in earnest on August 23, 1958. Over the next 44 days, around half a million artillery rounds targeted the island, and roughly the same number fell again over the next two decades, though many of these later missiles contained propaganda materials rather than explosives. Wu’s father and other blacksmiths used the steel to make knives and sold them to soldiers stationed on the island. By word of mouth, they became famous throughout Taiwan for their high quality.

Signs of war are evident all around Kinmen: a tank stands corroding on a beach near the airport; “Danger - Mines” signs hang beside coastal paths on Leiyu (烈嶼), the second inhabited island, better known as Little Kinmen; a grenade-shaped monument stands beside the road; and near Guningtou Village (古寧頭), site of a major battle of 1949 when PRC soldiers landed on Kinmen, there is a temple dedicated to Regimental Commander Li Guang-qian (李光前). Li lost his life but led his troops to victory and is worshiped by local people as War Lord of Guningtou and guardian deity of Jinnin Town, where a road is also named in his honor.

Many former military sites are now war-tourism hot spots. These include the broadcasting station at Mashan (馬山) in northeast Kinmen, the closest point to mainland China, where singer Teresa Teng and others exalted the virtues of life in Free China over enormous loudspeakers to PRC citizens.

Mashan also has fortifications and short tunnels, but those built at Qionglin (瓊林) in the center of Kinmen, where the PLA was expected to attack, are more extensive and well worth the NT$10 ticket price. In fact, rather than having a military purpose, these tunnels were largely built by local residents so they could continue their lives as normally as possible even when under attack.

For military fortifications, head to Yongshi Fort (勇士堡) on Little Kinmen, where there are gun emplacements, an arsenal, dormitories, officers’ rooms, a kitchen and tank emplacements, all underground and all connected by miles of tunnels. Visitors can walk or ride bicycles through the tunnels to nearby Tiehan Fort (鐵漢堡).

So much for the historical and cultural attractions, most of which come under the administration of the National Park Service. But given the islands’ sparse population, there are also natural wonders to explore. Of especial interest are the birds, as these small islands offer permanent or temporary abode to around 300 species, compared with a total of around 500 for the whole of the ROC. The various woodland, marsh, beach, and agricultural habitats are suited to ospreys, storks, cormorants, lesser pied kingfishers, and falcated teals, among others, as well as such local favorites as the Tibetan hoopoe and blue-tailed bee eater.

Good places to see bee eaters feeding, mating, and teaching fledglings to fly are Tianpu Reservoir (田埔水庫) and Qingnian Nongzhuang (青年農莊) in Jinsha Township (金沙鎮) in eastern Kinmen.

Other bird-watching sites include the Shuangli Wetlands (雙鯉濕地) for kingfishers, waterfowl, and birds of prey; Lake Ci (慈湖) for cormorants; and Lingshui and Xi lakes (陵水湖, 西湖) and the Tiandun Sea Wall (田墩海堤) for oriental skylarks, oystercatchers, terns, and collared pratincoles.

Visitors will also see plenty of butterflies in season, but only the most fortunate will catch sight of Eurasian otters, which live in fresh water but may be active in shallow coastal waters after dark.

The horseshoe crab, once consumed as a delicacy or used as fertilizer, and their shells turned into ladles or hung on walls to repel evil, is now a protected species. This ancient creature, actually related to spiders and not a crab at all, has barely changed in hundreds of millions of years. Females come ashore in summer to lay eggs in the sand above the high tide line, and their offspring do not reach adulthood until about 14 years of age, making them highly susceptible to environmental stress. Their complete life cycle and Kinmen’s suitable habitats are introduced at the Horseshoe Visitor Center (2 Xihai Rd., Sec.1, Jincheng Township), and small crabs can be explored for at the nearby bay behind the Juguang Tower (莒光樓).

From there a causeway connects to the now uninhabited Chenggong Isle (建功嶼), previously a military base and earlier a leper colony, which faces the Chinese city of Xiamen (廈門) just 10 kilometers away.

One new inhabitant of this islet is a giant statue of Zheng Cheng-gong (鄭成功; also known as Koxinga), who used Kinmen as a base for several years before evicting the Dutch from Taiwan in 1661. Paid for by citizens of the PRC, the gift would seem to symbolize the fact that instead of fortifying against an attack by China, the islands are now welcoming a daily “invasion” of shoppers and sightseers from across the water. The numbers may well grow further if a current move to open Kinmen to gambling casinos proves successful.

Text and photos copyright Taiwan Business Topics and Jiyue Publications 2011/2012

A Day Trip to Yingge and Sanxia

Besides the museum and shops devoted to ceramics, “old streets,” and an exquisite temple, the area is ideal for hiking and cycling.


It is easy to zip past the Sanying (三鶯) interchange on National Highway No. 3 (the second north-south freeway) on one’s way to high-tech Hsinchu, the mountains of Nantou, or the island’s historical heart of Tainan. Easy, with all the new tower blocks stretching as far as the foothills, to pass off the twin towns of Sanxia and Yingge as nothing more than an outer ring of New Taipei City’s commuter belt, housing the latest generation of white-collar workers. But as a center of northern Taiwan’s “old tech,” and with their own forest-covered hills and plenty of historical traces, the two towns provide many reasons for inclusion on a list of must-see destinations during a stay in Taiwan. Indeed, at little more than half-an-hour by train or a couple of hours by bicycle from downtown Taipei, they are among the most visited tourist spots by locals and foreigners alike.

Moreover, with their “old streets” located just four kilometers apart, it is tempting to treat them as a single day-trip destination and quickly knock off their most famous attractions: the ceramic shops of Yingge and the intricately sculpted Qingshui Zushi Temple (清水祖師廟) of Sanxia. This would be a shame, however, as the towns (now “districts” 區 under the latest round of local government reorganization) deserve a more thorough exploration.

Yingge (鶯歌; literally “Oriole Song”) brings to mind the Chinese expression “Orioles sing and swallows dance” (鶯歌燕舞), which, with the idiomatic meaning of “rising prosperity,” is apt for this town, whose affluence based on ceramic manufacturing has made it stand out from 1805 to the present day. This industry, in turn, derived from the threefold convergence of raw material supply (clay), power source (coal, in next-door Sanxia), and mode of transportation (a broad-flowing river and later the railway) for shipping out finished goods.

In our post-railway age of transport by truck, in which rivers pose an obstacle rather than an opportunity, and especially with the River Dahan (大漢溪) reduced to a trickle following construction of the Shimen Dam upstream, it is difficult to imagine how important rivers once were in the economic life of northern and western Taiwan.

This significance is emphasized in an introduction to the town presented at the Yingge Ceramics Museum (鶯歌陶瓷博物館; 200 Wenhua Rd.; Other permanent displays introduce the history and uses of ceramics, from aboriginal “ancestor pots,” through the four centuries of Han Chinese traditions – kitchen utensils, toilets, roof decorations, temple artifacts, and much more – to modern high-tech applications.

The museum also has collections of ceramic art, and presents temporary exhibitions of prize-winning modern works. On weekends in workshops behind the museum, local and international artists in residence explain their latest pieces and help teach DIY techniques to first-come, first-admitted students (NT$50 for materials and NT$150 to have one’s masterpiece fired). Two gift shops sell souvenirs, and a café and a restaurant provide refreshments.

DIY training is also offered at numerous galleries along Yingge’s “Old Street” (sadly renovated in recent years to someone’s movie-set idea of what a historical street might resemble), which is actually a triangle of streets around Jianshanpu Road (尖山埔路) on the other side of the train tracks from the museum. This area is a good source of everything from cheap PRC imports and slightly imperfect Taiwanese made-for-export items at NT$10 and up, to high-end ceramic art valued in the millions of NT, as well as various other handicrafts in other media.

Places to eat

Traditional foods stands, tea shops, open-air restaurants, and street musicians create a holiday atmosphere on weekends, and the Taiwan Memorabilia shop at 13 Jianshanpu Rd. and the similarly retro-themed restaurant at No. 85, which claims to sell “Yingge’s Second-best Food,” take people back to the supposedly idyllic postwar decades.

While there are also a number of interesting stores between the two main tourist areas, probably the best reason to head into downtown Yingge is A-po’s Sushi (阿婆壽司; 63 Zhongzheng Rd.). Selling sushi for NT$35, miso soup at NT$15, and sliced pork, also NT$35, A-po’s is a 45-year-old institution famed (and much imitated) throughout Taiwan.

While Yingge has always been something of a one-ring circus, relying exclusively on pottery for its prosperity, Sanxia (三峽), on the other side of the Dahan River and freeway and stretching far into the foothills, had profitable coal, camphor, dyeing, and tea industries.

At first sight, the Sanxia Historical Relic Hall (三峽鎮歷史文物館; 18 Zhongshan Rd.) with its first-floor displays of amateur painting, is unpromising. But upstairs, even though there is very little English-language information, the introductions to the town’s history, and in particular the photos of old Sanxia and displays of tools and artifacts relating to the four industries, make it worth a visit. Located in the old town office, a Japanese-period building, the hall also organizes free guided tours of the town on weekends, albeit in Chinese.

Next door, down an alley to the left, is the Indigo Dyeing Center. This should be the first stop for those of a DIY inclination, since the blue-dyed articles take between one and three hours to dry. Prices range from NT$200 to make a purse and NT$250 for a handkerchief, to NT$450 for a scarf and NT$600 for a t-shirt. For those of lesser artistic skill, the center has a shop selling a wide range of traditional and modern clothing dyed in local style.

The town’s main attraction is, without doubt, the ZuShi Temple (祖師廟; 1 Changfu St.), whose every inch of stone and wood was exquisitely carved under the direction of locally born artist Li Mei-shu. More of his work can be seen at the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery (李梅樹紀念館; No.10, Lane 43, Zhong-hua Rd.), for which a “cleaning fee” of NT$100 is charged. Dating from 1769, when Fujianese immigrants brought incense from their parent temple and established branches all over Taiwan, the temple has been rebuilt three times, most recently from the ruins of the Second World War. So fine is the work by Li and his workers that it is now a place of pilgrimage for worshipers from the original temple in southern China.

Minquan Street (民權街), running westerly away from the temple plaza, is Sanxia’s “old street.” Almost every town and village in Taiwan with a couple of old buildings now promotes its “old street;” there are dozens in New Taipei City (nee Taipei County) alone. This is one of the best, however, and although it has been somewhat homogenized in line with the city’s tourism-promotion program, it still retains many original architectural features.

The store fronts are very similar to those in other towns, since they resulted from an earlier attempt to standardize dwellings starting in 1916 during the period of Japanese rule. Nicknamed bamboo houses because they are long and thin and divided into sections, the buildings stretch far back from the road. Usually only the front quarter is used as a shop and therefore can be seen by the public. For insight into a complete structure, usually with atrium, well, and mezzanine level, visitors may browse the antique shop at No. 59, or pay NT$20 for an even better example at the gallery in No. 96.

A great many properties are still private homes, often renting out the shop front. While there are some antique, souvenir, and memorabilia stores, increasingly these spaces are taken by traditional food sellers, and visitors can get quite full on free samples simply by walking up and down the short road. Yet more vendors take up position on weekends on the bridge leading away from the Zushi Temple, which is a hive of activity as most tour buses park on the opposite side.

Two sites of ethnological interest are the aboriginal encampment beneath the bridge connecting Yingge and Sanxia, and the Hakka museum. The first is a spontaneous development that grew up over a span of 30 years and is inhabited by indigenous people drawn to the area for work but unable to find affordable accommodation. The government has repeatedly tried to evict the squatters, but the area looks increasingly like a small village.

The second, the New Taipei City Hakka Museum (新北市客家文化園區; 239 Long En St.), is designed in the manner of the Hakka round houses in Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China. The extensive exhibitions introduce this famous architectural style known as “earth towers” (土樓), the various branches of Hakka language spoken in Taiwan, the main centers of Hakka population in Taiwan (although Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, and Pingtung counties are best known, there are around 680,000 Hakka living in New Taipei City, but they tend to be more assimilated into the Minnan and Mandarin communities both culturally and linguistically), Hakka life in early Taiwan, Hakka fashions, local tea production, Hakka religion – the Three Mountain Kings (三山王) are characteristically worshiped, the Yimin (義民) Festival on the 20th day of the 7th lunar month (at which Hakka celebrate their role as “Righteous People” in helping put down rebellions in Taiwan), and Hakka music, song, and opera.

Children can do DIY lantern and doll-making, and there is a restaurant specializing in classics such as Hakka stir fry (客家小炒) and “pounded tea” (擂茶), plus a shop selling souvenirs.

Enjoy the outdoors

For most visitors, all these attractions are usually more than enough for a day trip. Lovers of outdoor pursuits are encouraged to return, however, since this urban itinerary misses most of Sanxia. With an area of more than 190 square kilometers and forested mountains rising to 1,700 meters, but only around 100,000 residents, it is New Taipei City’s second-largest district and one of its least populated.

A short hike of about five kilometers takes visitors to Baiji’s (白雞) Xingxiu Temple (行修宮; 155 Baiji Rd.), whose quiet is in contrast to Zushi’s renao (“heat and noise”), perhaps because it is not Daoist, as it appears to be, but actually Confucian.

Further afield, the Dabao (大豹) Scenic Area down the No. 114 county highway, a route covered by the 807 bus, is popular with cyclists and ramblers, with dozens of marked trails leading from the valley bottom into the surrounding hills. Those looking for more gentle interaction with nature can head to the Man Yue Yuan National Forest Recreation Area (滿月圓國家森林遊樂區; 174-1 Youmu Neighborhood), which is famed for its autumnal maple trees, trails, and two waterfalls, for an NT$100 entry ticket. Accommodations are available at the Great Root

s Forestry Spa Resort (大板根森林溫泉渡假村; 80 Chajiao Neighborhood) from NT$5,000 a night upward. The Resort also has hot springs (NT$350 per person), a restaurant, and short trails. For a stiffer challenge, there is a full-day walk of about 20 kilometers through dense undergrowth and across countless steams from Xiongkong (熊空; “Bear Hollow”) at the end of the bus route, to Red River Valley (紅河谷) near Wulai, where swimming spots, hot springs, and a bus back to Taipei await. It is easy to imagine this as Atayal aborigine hunting grounds, which of course is what it was, and still perhaps is, as some hikers report seeing aborigines with homemade guns. (Richard Saunders’ book Taipei Day Trips has details of several hikes in this area).

Transportation to Yingge is by train, bus, or car, to Sanxia by bus or car. Alternatively, there are very pleasant bike paths on both the north and south banks of the Dahan River, the northern one continues after Yingge to Daxi (大溪) and beyond.