Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Of grottoes and graves


A small population and an interesting history make Hsiao Liuchiu a great get-away.


Few of Taiwan's tourist destinations have the natural assets of Hsiao Liuchiu, (小琉球) a gem of an island that lies just a 20-minute boat ride south of Kaohsiung. Even fewer suffer the unique problem that prevents the residents here from developing their tourism infrastructure: On Hsiao Liuchiu, the dead have more say than the living.

A quick ride around the island reveals why: nearly every plot of "undeveloped" land has been taken up by graves. What's more, the nicer the plot -- with, say, a postcard view of the setting sun -- the more graves there are.

Liuchiu, as residents call it, is just 6.8km2 with a population of some 13,000 residing in eight villages. With just 10 surnames between them, they are keenly aware of just whose graves occupy their backyards. Most residents live on the northern side of the island near the harbor closest to Kaohsiung. The southern half of Liuchiu is mostly graves, interrupted by either an occasional village or one of the giant coral rock formations of which the island is composed.

The living and dead so closely cohabitate the island that it is, in fact, against the law. Regulations established by the Ministry of the Interior state that burials cannot take place within 500m of a residence. But on an island that is just 4,000m long and 2,000m across, obeying this law would be next to impossible.

"Liuchiu has two problems," said Chen Chen-hua (陳振華), who operates a seaside resort and campground, the island's newest tourist development, "All the young people go over there," he says pointing to Kaohsiung on the horizon, "and all the old people go over there," he says pointing to the south of the island.

Chen explains that the young people leave mostly for better job opportunities on Taiwan, but also to escape an island famous for its ghosts.

One of the main tourist attractions on Liuchiu is Black Spirit Cave (烏鬼洞), a sea-side park area made famous for its picturesque scenery and the story of what happened there centuries ago.

The story is carved in stone near the cave's entrance: "It was in 1661 (the 15th year of the Yong Li Ming Dynasty) national hero Koxinga (Cheng Chen-kung, 鄭成功), knighted as Yen Ping King, drove the Dutch and restored Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghu). During the Dutch escaping, some negroes were separated from their unit and arrived at this island. They lived in this cave. Some years later, a British boat with soldiers landed at the place northeast of the cave. As they were enjoying the scenery, those negroes robbed their food and other things, burned the boat and killed all the British. It was discovered by the British warship that they landed this island and sought the murderers while the negroes hid in the cave. In spite of many threats, they refused to surrender. Finally, the British burned the cave with oil. Then, all the negroes died there in the cave. Later it was named as the Black Spirit Cave, which means the cave in which the foreign negroes had lived before. ...."

The inscription ends with a nod to Liuchiu's tourism ambitions: "To add more beauty for this island and to meet the development of tourism, we rebuilt it in the form of public building and made it more enjoyable."

Scholars now believe that the "negroes" in the story were actually Siraya Aborigines, who were related to tribes that lived in the area that is now Pingtung County as far back as 3,000 years ago.

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