On the Trail of Taiwan’s Hakka

DestinAsian Just down the tracks from Taipei, the Taiwanese counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli provide a glimpse into the island’s rich Hakka culture.

As the train cruises toward the coast, the conurbation of greater Taipei dissipates into small towns and fields sandwiched between Taiwan’s mountainous interior and the sea. Soon enough Hsinchu hones into view, a city established by Hakka Chinese in the early 1700s. The Hakka are an interesting bunch. They’re not an ethnic minority per se, but a Han subgroup, sometimes referred to as “Chinese gypsies” because of their migratory heritage. They’re found in pockets throughout southern China and Southeast Asia and are known for their distinctive architecture, cuisine, and rituals; in Taiwan, they make up about 14 percent of the total population, concentrated mostly in and around the neighboring counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli. Which is where I’m headed. Having begun my career in China a decade ago with a rite-of-passage teaching gig in Huizhou, a Hakka town in Guangdong, I’m keen to get a taste of Hakka culture, Taiwan-style.

Overlooking the Zhonggang River Valley from peak of Lion’s Head Mountain. Photos by Thomas Bird.

Hsinchu City, as it turns out, is a superficially modern place, made rich since the 1980s by a high-tech Science Park that is often dubbed Taiwan’s Silicon Valley. Nowadays, the city is known as much for its software as it is for its Hakka heritage, though the identikit high-rise suburbs accommodating the tech-heads have yet to fully eclipse the riches of Hsinchu’s past.

I disembark at Hsinchu Station, which is said to be the oldest transport hub in Taiwan; the Japanese built it in 1913 during their occupation of the island, when much of Taiwan’s formative industrialization took place. From here I advance on foot, heading northwest past the old moat—now a lively public garden—and well-preserved East Gate. This double-eaved portal is all that remains of the 19th-century city ramparts; today, it’s the centerpiece of a busy roundabout.

Fortunately, Hsinchu is pedestrian-friendly, and soon enough I’ve ventured beyond the facade of downtown’s shopping malls and restaurants. Just north of the East Gate, I find a 1930s cinema that has been lovingly reimagined as a movie museum where old Taiwanese films are screened nightly for film buffs. There are plenty of other early-20th-century buildings to photograph too, notably the charming red-brick city hall.

I step deeper into the past along the evocative Qing-era arcades of Beimen Jie, the city’s ancient commercial drag. It is still lined with traditional medicine shops, an old puppet store, family shrines, and teahouses hawking the local specialty—Hakka cereal tea. But it’s the night market that proves the star attraction: a labyrinth of snack vendors hawking oyster omelets, pork meatballs, and rice noodles from the courtyard of Chenghuang Temple no less. In Taiwan, food and faith combine and it is sometimes hard to figure out which one is more esteemed.

The Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially known, has a reputation for maintaining many traditions long lost to the People’s Republic, and while I munch my way through a spring roll or two, a pair of performers don elaborate costumes and begin to parade before us as if they were city guardsmen protecting imperial Hsinchu from Japanese pirates. One wears a white mask; the other, a black mask. I recognize the latter to be a likeness of the City God, whose scary effigy occupies the principle shrine at Chenghuang, the most venerated of the city’s temples.

The ornate rooftop of Quanhua Temple—a Taoist temple of worship built on the flanks of Lion’s Head Mountain in 1900—and the adjacent Linggu Pagoda.

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