The Mangrove Forest of Hongmaogang

Thursday, January 8, 2009
By Richard Saunders, Special to The China Post

The little Hsinchu (新竹) County settlement of Hongmaogang (紅毛港) consists of little more than a police station, a couple of houses and (on weekends) a line of snack stalls facing the Taiwan Strait. It's the kind of tiny coastal place that few visitors would ever visit intentionally; even the main coastal road, which passes close by, rises above the houses on the long, sleek white sweep of a flyover, bypassing the village entirely.

Yet the name of the village gives a clue to its role in one of the key events of Taiwan's history. Hongmaogang means 'port of the red haired ones.' The red-haired ones were the Dutch, who colonized Taiwan briefly in the 1600s, and it is said that the little harbor at Hongmaogang was the point at which they first landed on Taiwan, intent on establishing a convenient base from which to trade with mainland China.

Of course the Netherlanders were soon sent packing by Koxinga and his formidable Chinese army, but Hongmaogang continued to be an important and busy harbor for a considerable time after. Finally silt deposits caused the harbor to become too shallow for large boats to enter, and the trade went elsewhere, leaving Hongmaogang to become the quiet, forgotten backwater that it remains to this day.

Nowadays, apart from the name, there's nothing to remind us of those events over 350 years ago, and those interested in tracing the legacy of the Dutch in Taiwan are best heading to Hongmaocheng (紅毛城, the 'fort of the red-haired ones,' better known to Westerners as Fort San Domingo) at Danshui in Taipei County, or Fort Zeelandia in Tainan. Three things however bring local tourists and day-trippers to Hongmaogang at weekends: the fine fishing in the creek here, the marvelous sunset view from the shingle beach, and its large and unspoilt expanse of mangrove swamp.

Hongmaogang's most conspicuous asset is its expansive and glorious sweep of mangrove forest. The scant remnants of Taiwan's once extensive mangrove forests can be found in several estuaries along the island's west coast; two, for instance, can be found on the outskirts of Taipei, near Danshui (淡水) and across the river at Waziwei (挖仔尾), near Bali (八里).

However the mangrove forest at Hongmaogang, which can be explored by a network of wooden boardwalks and viewing towers, is both larger and more impressive than either of those far better-known examples. The mangroves here are of a different species from the smaller, scarcer variety found around the estuary of the Danshui River; these are like trees, growing to quite a respectable height in places; the green tunnel created by the spreading boughs makes for a cool retreat on a hot day.

Wandering the plank pathways makes for a relaxing and intriguing short walk, and on our visit one unseasonably hot, sunny day in early November, the main area of mangroves (in front of the police station, where there's a large car park) was quite busy with families milling around, tramping the walkways, or fishing for tiny, white crabs with bamboo poles which were conveniently being sold by an enterprising local hovering nearby.

A few minutes along the road beside the little river estuary towards the sea, however, another series of walkways across a second area of thick mangroves is far quieter. Follow the plank walk, and when it rejoins the narrow road at the far end, continue ahead for a few meters to Hongmaogang's beach.

Not many people choose to swim here, as the beach is of unappealing shingle, but there's a pleasant, long pedestrian promenade popular with strollers and locals with dogs to exercise, while most weekends around mid-afternoon, vendors selling coffee, soup, BBQ sausages and what-not stream in and set up their trailers to cater for the crowds that come here at dusk to enjoy a fantastic sunset over the Taiwan Strait.

One place the crowds never make it to is the neighboring hamlet of Fengkang (鳳坑村), a short walk beyond the southern extremity of the boardwalk across the mangrove swamp. The village is dotted with lovely old three-winged Hakka houses, sadly in various stages of dereliction, but it's not for the architecture but for its trees that the place is known.

The village is dotted with the distinctive, gnarled forms of over a hundred old Chinese Hackberry (朴樹) trees, which guidebooks proudly state is the largest number to be found in any single place in Taiwan. They're grown for their tiny globular fruit, which are a popular ingredient in Hakka cooking, but the trees themselves (some of which are two hundred years old) are striking, even beautiful, looking a little like outsize bonsai growing beside the road.

A short walk around the loose collection of old houses that forms the 'center' of the village will reveal plenty of these attractively wizened old things, but the real reason to come here is to enjoy one of northern Taiwan's quietest backwater areas. This place is as unspoilt and traditional as it gets in northern Taiwan.

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