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Thursday, May 12, 2011

New traditions

Though it may be hard to believe from the poor-quality photograph above (taken in poor lighting on an overcast afternoon), these are pretty flowers. What you are looking at are the blossoms of the t'úng​ 桐 tree, an annual floral event that happens at this time of year in central T'ái​wān​ 台灣. A important part of the culture of the Hakka people 客家, Taiwanese poets of centuries past penned odes to the beauty of the t'úng blossom 桐花, while groups of people would gather under the trees when the flowers were in full bloom, to drink tea and engage in merriment…

…or so the tourist authorities would have you believe. In actuality, until about ten years ago, few people gave much thought to the humble t'úng blossom. The trees had always been there, but they hardly registered on the radars of most Taiwanese. What changed was that in the early part of this century (around the year 2002), the government implemented a five-day work week. This, in turn, triggered a leisure boom among the local populace. With the standard litany of sightseeing spots having been exhausted long ago, there was suddenly a demand for new places to visit, and new things to do, on the weekends. Some bright mind (or minds) took note of the beautiful t'úng trees flowering every April or May, and conjured up an image of the white blossoms that had fallen to the ground looking like a carpet of snow. On this island of almost-perpetual warm weather, snow is of great interest, and it wasn’t long before the tour buses and family cars descended on those areas blessed (or cursed?) with numerous t'úng trees. And, thus, a new tradition was born.

The above picture was taken on Tuesday afternoon in the hills of the Tà​k'ēng​ area 大坑風景區, but THE place to see the t'úng blossoms has to be Sān​'ì 三義​, in Miáo​lì​ County 苗栗縣. Sān​'ì itself has greatly benefited from the five-day work week. There was a time when the town was known only for its wood sculptures (and sculptors), and people would go there to browse in the shops, and perhaps come home with a nice souvenir. Back then, the disused Shèng​hsīng​ train station 勝興車站 was just that – an abandoned stop on a discontinued rail line that no one gave much thought to. At the turn of this century, when my wife and I first started seeing each other, she took me to Shèng​hsīng. I recall there being only a couple of restaurants and very few (if any) souvenir stands. It may have been possible that that we were the only two visitors there that afternoon. In any case, it was definitely a far cry from the present day, when even on weekdays, you can find a lot of people walking around, and doing what Taiwanese tourists do best – taking pictures of themselves, eating high-calorie snack foods and buying tacky souvenirs. If you go on weekends, be prepared – words like “circus” or “zoo” can’t begin to describe the way in which this part of Sān​'ì has “benefited” from the ongoing leisure boom.

(BTW, I was so intent on photographing the t'úng blossoms that I failed to notice the huge Formosan macaque [T'ái​wān mí​hóu​] 台灣獼猴​ sitting on a branch in that very tree…until it jumped over to the next tree, leaping with a loud crash, before disappearing into the forest before I had a chance to point the camera at it. A pheasant scurrying along the ground a few minutes earlier also eluded my attempts to get a picture of it. I’m not destined to be a nature photographer.)

Just when you think you’ve seen all the reminders of the past around here, something else pops up from history’s dusty drawer. While walking around the area near Sān​mín​ Road 三民路 in T'ái​chūng​ 臺中 this evening in search of a tea stand, I passed this building, which looked to date from the Japanese period 台灣日治時期. It turns out it did. According to a plaque on the outside, upon its erection in 1921, it served as the site of the Department of Food, part of the Bureau of Agriculture and Business in the Taiwan Governor’s 台灣總督府「台湾総督府」 Office. These days, the building is still a functioning government location, acting as the T'ái​chūng branch of the Council of Agriculture 行政院農業委員會. Kudos go out to those who not only elected to keep the structure intact, but to maintain it as an active workplace, as opposed to a dusty museum.

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