Sun, Jan 16, 2000 - Page 19 News List

Taiwan Travel: After the gold rush

Today Chiufen is an artsy-crafty retreat from downtown Taipei. Its glory days as a bustling gold town are barely remembered

By Chris Taylor  /  STAFF REPORTER

Chiufen's picturesque laddered streets have made it a famous getaway from the concrete of downtown Taipei.


Tseng Shui-chih, the curator and owner of Chiufen's Gold Museum, ushers me over to peer into the small bowl he holds in his hand. For the last half an hour he has been grinding grit and silt and washing the results on a slat of wood. Inside the bowl is caked with dark mud, but the mud glitters with tiny stars.

"Gold!" he hisses.

Not that there's any more gold in them there hills. Chiufen might be a ghost town today if nostalgia hadn't reclaimed it. Before the 1890s, locals claim that just nine families lived up in these hills northeast of Taipei. And hence the name -- "nine parts" -- a reference to shopping trips for provisions undertaken in turn by each of the families and then divided nine ways.

It was the discovery of the sparkling stars in the sand by local women who used the sediment that washed down from the hills to scour their cooking woks that kick-started the tiny town's fortunes. By the mid-1930s, Chiufen was known as "Little Shanghai," a place of bright lights, windfalls and desperate toil. A decade later the gold was gone and so were the lights.

And so Chiufen might have remained, forgotten, had not Taiwan's headlong rush into prosperity created a longing for the past that that same rush was obliterating.

Locals claim that Chiufen first captured urban Taiwan's attention when it was featured in a Mr Brown television advertisement in the 1980s. But the movie makers also had their eye on the place, with its picturesque laddered streets and antique homes, at around the same time. Finally it was Hou Hsiao-hsien who, in 1989, clinched Chiufen's status as one of Taiwan's top-billed memory-lane travel destinations when he made it the setting of his groundbreaking art-house portrayal of Taiwan's 228 incident, City of Sadness.

The movie is remembered in the name of a tea shop on the main laddered street that climbs up from the main road where buses drop off residents and visitors. And tea houses are mostly what Chiufen is about these days. Tea houses and arts and crafts. Oh yes, and that quintessential Taiwanese passion: street snacks -- in this case variations on the sticky-rice bun known in Taiwanese as muaji.

It's a curious feeling to wander the narrow streets of Chiufen in the tow of ambling groups of tourists from the city. There's a sense of dislocation, as if you have found yourself cast somehow between the medieval bustle of Kathmandu and the arts and crafts nostalgia of an English village. The hawkers call out from stands, selling their sticky-rice creations, and the crafts shops sell Buddhas, incense and fingered back-scratchers. There's a sense that somehow the history that created this picturesque town has been forgotten according to the imperatives of commerce: the tea shops sell overpriced coffee and tea and uninspired meals; the gift shops jostle with souvenirs that might come from anywhere in Taiwan; and the Chiufen art gallery turns out to be a venue for the sale of for the most part kitsch work of local potters.

By all means take in a coffee or a tea -- some of the tea shops have splendid veranda views of the snaking alleys below; others sport views of the surrounding hills. And by all means buy some pottery or some local sticky rice.

But the real joys of Chiufen are a walk through the narrow streets up to the look-out that offers views of the wooded hills, an occasional temple or pagoda peeking out of the greenery, and, in the distance, the sparkling sea Fulong Bay, an ant-size fishing boat chugging out of the harbor, a faint chalk line of spume following in its wake; or a strenuous walk up the path that snakes along the shoulder of Mt Keelung, offering superlative views of the northeast coast; or a visit to the Gold Museum.

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