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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A grave oversight 清明節

By a coincidence in the calendar, Easter and Tom Sweeping Day fell on a Sunday and a Monday, respectively, this year, resulting in a three-day weekend. For those not in the know, Tomb Sweeping Day is the occasion on which Taiwanese descend on cemeteries en masse in order to tidy up the graves of their ancestors. Seeing as many people are genuinely scared of going to graveyards, for most folks this is the only time of the year to visit the dear departed. As you might imagine, there is a lot of cleaning up to do, with 365 days' worth of weeds to be pulled up and burned, and the fires sometimes getting out of control. Getting down and dirty isn't my idea of spending a restful holiday, but fortunately for me, Tomb Sweeping Day is one local custom I've been exempted from. My father-in-law's ancestors are all buried in China, and having gotten married, my wife is now out of her family, and therefore not obliged to tend to her mother's deceased relatives.

Being out of the family doesn't mean Pamela is ostracized, and so we decided to spend the holiday by visiting her relatives in her hometown of Hsiluo 西螺. Leaving our home on Sunday morning and picking up my mother-in-law en route, we eschewed the presumably crowded freeways and made for Hsiluo by way of highways and county roads. It took a little longer to get there, of course, but driving on the back roads not only avoided the traffic jams, but really made me appreciate just how breathtakingly ugly the smaller cities and towns on Taiwan's west coast truly are!

In contrast to the architectural eyesores we passed on the way there (and back again the following day), upon arrival in Hsiluo, we paid a visit to my wife's junior high school. Without a doubt, Tungnan Junior High 東南國中 has to be the most attractive school of secondary education I've ever laid eyes upon. Hilton D. Bell Junior High School in Garden Grove, CA, certainly wasn't landscaped with carp-filled ponds and flower gardens:

Following that pleasant surprise, we drove into downtown Hsiluo to visit the "sights". First up was Fuhsing Temple 福興宮, dating from 1717 and one of the stops on the annual gangster-controlled Tachia Matsu Pilgrimage:

(The weather was continually overcast and hazy this weekend, which might explain the lousy colors of the pictures I've posted here)

Next up was Yanp'ing Old Street 延平路. There are those poor souls who, having resided in Taiwan for far too long, insist that Hsiluo is a Hidden Gem because of the old buildings here, and even my Japanese-language guidebook lists it as a tourist sight...


...but unless you're a serious student of architecture, or need to stop in Hsiluo for the night while on the way to somewhere else and have some time to kill, there is no reason to go out of your way to pay a visit. There are only a handful of structures, none of which are particularly beautiful or outstanding (despite what the Japanese guide says), but at least they still function as real businesses and homes, and not as souvenir shops or tea houses catering to the tourist trade, as has been the case in too many of Taiwan's other Old Streets. Things could change, however - in an ominous sign, work was being done to the sidewalk on one stretch of the street. The Liong Choan building pictured below dates from 1935:

For Pamela, the real reason to visit the downtown area was to buy some Chienpao 煎包 - "cabbage cake" is how my significant other describes it. The blue truck that makes and sells them is always swarming with customers, and it takes a while for your order to get filled. Amber took this photo of me killing time with a green tea while Pamela stood around and patiently waited for her number to be called:

What does one do on a Sunday night in an urban township like Hsiluo? Go to the night market, of course, which is what we did after dinner, guided by one of my sisters-in-law. The market was far larger than any of the ones here in Fengyuan 豐原, and Amber enjoyed the rides and games. After a while, though, I got a little tired of the constant collisions of elbows, and it was with some relief that we made our way back to Pamela's sister's house, where we spent the night.

We had a somewhat fitful night, due to Amber's coughing (she has a slight cold), constant shifting of positions (at one point her feet found their way onto my throat) and habit of gnashing her teeth while sleeping. None of this was the fault of the house, of course, the interior of which is one of the nicest I've ever seen in Taiwan. Spacious rooms, wood flooring, even a tastefully done rock garden - my sister-in-law's house certainly puts our all-too-typical Taiwanese apartment of white tile floors and dirty white walls to shame.

After eating out for breakfast, we paid a couple of social calls to some of Pamela's relatives. We first visited a couple of her cousins, who live in an old, traditional house:

Then it was off to an uncle's home, where we had lunch, and Amber had a lot of fun taking the family's hyperactive poodle Pudding for a walk past the rice fields:

And that was how we spent our Tomb Sweeping Day weekend. Pamela's relatives are, without exception, extremely nice people who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. I'm proud to be related to them.

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