(photo by Kent Chuang)
Taiwan Provincial Highway 26 is a coastal road that circumnavigates the Hengchun Peninsula. Cycling along it, on one side you see the bright blue sky merging into the ocean, while on the other there are towering green mountain ridges. When you ride into small towns and wander around, it feels like opening an unread page in Taiwan’s history. Multiple ethnic groups have interacted in this area, leaving behind precious historical relics and stories.
This cycling trip starts off in the old walled city of Hengchun. The city wall was built in the 1870s under Qing-Dynasty rule. Its four gates are all still standing, along with large sections of the old wall, making this Taiwan’s best-preserved walled town. Local residents always use the terms “inside the wall” and “outside the wall” to explain to each other the locations they are headed for or to give outsiders directions. Although this old structure looks a little run down, it still greatly influences the lives of people today.
The young people of Lishan Eco
As we ride along the streets near the West Gate, one storefront grabs our attention: Lishan Eco Company’s “PingTung Life Shop.” The store is a base for community ecotourism. It mainly sells local agricultural products and unique gift and souvenir items from the Hengchun Peninsula, and travelers looking to arrange a tour can also make inquiries here. Taiwan Panorama visited in 2016 and interviewed Lishan Eco’s founder, Miles Lin, looking back over his entrepreneurial path and introducing his brick-and-mortar shop.
Founded in 2012, Lishan Eco has been deeply involved in local community development for over 15 years, and thus far has trained 133 community guides. The number of travelers has increased from a few dozen people a year to several thousand today. “Looking at the annual revenue for the Sheding Community alone, last year it exceeded NT$3 million. All that money goes into the community, providing a livelihood for many residents and young people who have returned to their hometown,” says Lin.
Chen Jyun Rong, who is in charge of training local residents, says that the community guides are mostly between 40 and 65 years of age. They have a lot of experiences to share, and training courses taught by university professors have given them additional expert knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The team at Lishan Eco not only trains the older generation of residents, but also works with them on creative projects, reinterpreting time-honored cultural heritage through the perspective of youth. Lin points to the example of Hengchun folk songs. “They are about life in the past. When our ancestors moved to Taiwan, life was very hard, so they relieved stress by playing the yueqin [a plucked string instrument]. But people listening today cannot easily understand the sorrowful lyrics of these folk songs.” That is why team member Yu Yang Shin Ping adapted the folk songs and formed a band with elderly local women, and together they have played the yueqin at Hengchun’s “Hear Here” world music festival.
The building of Hengchun
For our next stop, we head to the West Gate in search of the history of Hengchun after the construction of the city wall.
We ask Nian Jicheng, an expert in local history and culture, to tell us about the history of the old walled town of Hengchun and to serve as our guide to surrounding local attractions. Nian’s workshop is called “Langqiao” in Chinese, a transliteration of the old Paiwan indigenous name for Hengchun, which was known in Dutch Formosa as “Longkiau.” Nian looks at this land from an indigenous point of view rather than from the Han Chinese perspective.
During the Qing Dynasty, Langqiao was at first considered by the imperial court to be outside its effective jurisdiction. But after foreign armed forces undertook punitive expeditions against local indigenous people following the Rover and Mudan incidents of 1867 and 1871, the Qing court began to realize the area’s importance, and set up a county government to administer it. Dispatched as an imperial envoy, Viceroy Shen Baozhen changed the name to Hengchun, which means “perpetual spring,” because he found the weather to be spring-like all year round. This new name not only reflected the fact that Hengchun was getting newfound attention from the government, it also symbolized the beginning of a major influx of Han Chinese culture.
Nian Jicheng takes out an old book and compares a map in it with the local topography. He explains with gusto: “The reason they built a fortress in Hengchun was that it had good fengshui! Behind it is Mt. Santai, to the left is Longluan Lake, on the right is Mt. Hutou, and straight ahead there is the protective screen of Mt. Xiping.” Inside the walled town lived the authorities of the day, while outside it were the ordinary people.
When we ask Nian why he is so keen on Hengchun history, he says with a laugh: “I can’t help it! I know too many stories!” Many years ago, he discovered a stack of black-and-white photos in his mother’s nightstand, and being curious by nature, he began to invest time in researching the history of the Hengchun Peninsula in order to recapture this period in history. Through his investigations he found that the people in the photos were Taiwanese who had been drafted to serve in Southeast Asia and the Pacific during World War II, when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. They were lined up in ranks in front of Hengchun’s former assembly hall, and one of them was his mother's former husband. Nian’s stepfather was a lighthouse keeper at the Eluanbi Lighthouse, so Nian heard many stories about the surrounding area. Gaining an in-depth understanding of the peninsula’s history naturally became his mission in life.
The Alangyi Historic Trail runs from Daren in Taitung County to Xuhai in Pingtung. It follows one of the few sections of coast in Taiwan where there has been no highway development. (photo by Kent Chuang)
An ecoguide to Sheding Park
We ride our bicycles along Highway 26 to Sheding Nature Park, where we join in a community ecotour.
When Lai Yongyuan, known to travelers as “Dr. Lai,” introduces plants in the nature park, he connects them to his life experiences, in order to create a bridge between his audience and the plants. For urban dwellers like ourselves, it is like entering a wonderland, as we ooh and ah at every flower and tree around us. Particularly impressive is the journey through the rift valley formed of coral stone, where we witness the scenery produced by movements of the earth’s crust some 300,000 to 500,000 years ago.
“Is that the footprint of a Formosan sika deer?” A tourist with his head lowered, closely examining a print left in the mud, hopes he will be able to see a deer. We follow the tracks and discover that the footprints disappear into the woods. Just when the group feels disappointed, Lai leads us to another wooded area, where two sika are sticking their heads out and looking straight at us. Surprised and delighted, the group cheers, but very quietly, in order not to startle them.
A crab surveyor at Jialeshui
After riding south to Eluanbi Lighthouse, our road turns north toward Jialeshui, where we stop off at the beach to admire the stars. There we encounter a man wearing a headlamp, with long tongs in one hand and a bucket in the other, searching all around with his head lowered. When we step forward to ask him what he is doing, we notice that there is a crab printed on his clothing. His name is Ku Ching-fang, and he is a land crab surveyor.
In the past, he was a hunter of birds of prey, and was proud of his accurate marksmanship. He was also a major headache for the staff of the Kenting National Park Administration, who would hear his shots, but could never catch him. Later, Ku learned that his family was very worried about him being caught, and his daughter had very mixed feelings about what he did after learning about ecological conservation in school. As a result, he put aside his rifle and gave up hunting.
When first making the transition, Ku still felt an itchy trigger finger. But after going through an internal struggle, he overcame his desire to hunt and decided to become an ecological volunteer. Over the past few years he has traveled with scholars to Australia’s Christmas Island, where he exchanged ideas with local researchers and learned the ecological conservation techniques they use. Having gone from “bird killer” to “crab guardian angel,” he is now completely dedicated to surveying and protecting the land crabs of Manzhou Township, and a graduate student even named a new species after him—Parasesarma kui—in recognition of his indefatigable work.
Cultural diversity on the East Coast
There is a historic path in Manzhou Township, called the Mancha Ancient Trail because it runs between Manzhou and Chashan. In days gone by Seqalu indigenous people would use this trail to go to the coast to catch fish, and in the era of Japanese rule, young students attending classes to learn Japanese also followed this path, so it is also called the “Fishing Road” or the “Student Road.”
The Manzhou Japanese language school was the first of 14 such schools set up around Taiwan during the era of Japanese rule. Also, at that time the head of Kōshon Chō (as the local Hengchun government was known in Japanese) was Sagara Nagatsuna, former president of Okinawa Teacher Training College. These facts reveal how determined the Japanese government was to indoctrinate the indigenous peoples of the area.
Bearing down on the pedals of our bikes, we press on northward to the indigenous community of Macaran (Chinese name Xuhai) to explore local indigenous culture.
Pan Chengqing, the head of the Xuhai Community Development Association, says: “In the winter a lot of cyclists come here to soak in the hot springs. At only NT$150 per visit, it’s very cheap.” In 1887, Jagarushi Guri Bunkiet, a Seqalu chief, took the British adventurer George Taylor to Taitung, and along the route they stumbled upon the Xuhai Hot Spring emerging from gaps in the rock. Later on residents put up a structure here and a hot spring area took shape. Pan Chengqing recalls that because the hot spring was located near the primary school, mothers would always tell their children to wash up there before coming home. Some students would rub shampoo into their hair before leaving home in the mornings so they could jump into the water to wash themselves right after school.
For our last stop we head to the Alangyi Historic Trail. Guided by local resident Rang Rang, we enter the trail at Daren Township in Taitung. Before heading up into the mountains, we first must traverse a 750-meter-long shingle beach, with waves from the Pacific Ocean continually slapping against the shore and their booming sounds filling the air. Rang Rang says that depending on the season, the waves will shape the rocks in different ways, and the trash floating in the sea will be carried onto different places along the beach.
After about an hour on the uphill trail, we finally reach the peak. Looking down, we see two sea turtles floating in the azure ocean, and Rang Rang quips: “It’s pretty hard to take an ugly photo from here!”
Looking out over the magnificent ocean, we think of the history and stories we have heard over the past few days. We suddenly realize that the Hengchun Peninsula is beautiful not only because of its mountains and sea, but also because of the collective memories left behind by the interactions between multiple ethnic groups. It is these precious cultures that have created the unique charm of this piece of land.