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September 25, 2017

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The Mangrove Forest of Hongmaogang

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.

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