Beipu offers glimpse into hard-fought Hakka way of life
William C. Pao, TAIPEI, Taiwan, The China Post Monday, August 23, 2004, 12:00 am TWN
The Hakka form one of the major ethnic groups here in Taiwan and have developed a unique culture of their own. The town of Beipu boasts historical and cultural sites allowing visitors a taste of the Hakka way of life.
Beipu, located in the eastern part of Hsinchu County and about 40-minutes drive from the city of Hsinchu, is one of the three Hsinchu County towns by the edge of the Central Mountain Range. Beipu, Emei and Baoshan form the Greater Daai Area — the largest Hakka area in northern Taiwan. Beipu has a population of 10,514, of which 98 percent are Hakka. When people say "Beipu in the north and Meinong in the south" they are referring to the major Hakka communities in north and south Taiwan.
Beipu was first urbanized in the mid-19th century, when the Hakka, who had come from southern China, were forced to expand eastward towards the Central Mountain Range after towns and villages by the sea became overpopulated. During the migration, Hakka settlers had several clashes with the original inhabitants of the area — Saisiat aborigines — but eventually fought them off and pushed them further up into the mountains.
To protect the city from subsequent aborigine attacks, Beipu residents built strong, well-armed city walls. Streets in the city were laid out in a maze-like fashion to confuse invaders. The residents even built a special road leading up to the city gate that served as a surveillance mechanism.
Residents laid stone slabs on a sewer in such a way that some of the slabs would make a "ding dong" noise when stepped upon, and only the locals would know which ones would make the noise. This way, Beipu citizens would know instantly of any intrusion by outsiders. Today the "Ding Dong Bridge" is still a "must see" site for tourists.
During the Japanese occupation, Beipu was one of the wealthiest and most prosperous towns in northern Taiwan because of the coal mines. Bars, restaurants, hotels and what people today refer to as "illegal businesses" thrived, frequented by coal miners who faced death almost everyday and lived by a haphazard philosophy. But as the last of the coal mines shut down in the second half the 20th century, Beipu saw a migration of its youth to bigger towns and cities on the island.
Today Beipu has a robust tourism industry. The town boasts old streets lined with traditional markets, coffee shops and teahouses. Taking a walk through the old, maze-like streets is an enlightening experience as one will stop for a moment and admire things people in the past did to fend for themselves during times of extreme hardship.
For example, proprietors of houses nearly a century ago covered the exterior of their buildings with cow manure, rice husks and hay to beat the cold during wintertime in Hsinchu, which is famous for its strong, bitter winds. Today the so-called suoyiciang, or coir cape walls, can still be found on some of the houses.
A visit to Beipu would not be complete without seeing some of its historical sites. Several of them are estates formerly owned by the Jiang family, one of the biggest in the town. The Jiang dynasty began with Jiang Siou-nuan, who created several large businesses and made his family one of the wealthiest in the area. Today, two of the largest businesses in Hsinchu — the Hsinchu Bus Co. and Hsinchu International Bank — have ties to the Jiangs.
The Jiang A-sin Estate is one of the most famous mansions. Built in a baroque style, it was used as a reception hall for Jiang's Japanese and British clients. The property today belongs to the Taiwan Cooperative Bank. Tianshueitang, or Heaven Water Hall, is still occupied by the Jiang family. It is a typical traditional Hakka mansion in a horseshoe shape.
Jinguangfu, a joint venture of the Hakka from Guangdong and Fujian Provinces, is the only historic site in Hsinchu County with a Class One ranking. Built during the reign of Emperor Dao Guang (1821) in the Cing Dynasty, the building was used as a town hall and was a symbol of solidarity and togetherness among the various Hakka groups.
Cihtian Temple is the center of worship for the residents of Beipu. It enshrines the three main gods for the Hakka of southern China — Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), Sanguan Dadi and Sanshan Guowang. Meetings by village officials and various outdoor sports and theatrical performances are also held at the temple.
Beipu is easily accessible by rail and both the Sun Yat-sen and the Second Freeways. The Beipu line of the Taiwan Tour The bus program promoted by the Tourism Bureau has a daily service departing from Taoyuan and Hsinchu Rail Stations.