Travel to Taiwan’s outlying archipelago Penghu — roughly an hour’s flight from Taipei — and you will be directed by local residents, tour guides and brochures to white sand beaches, seafood restaurants or the Twin Hearts Stone Reef (雙心石滬), a man-made rock formation once used as a weir for catching fish.
On the drive to these places, you will sometimes get a glimpse of something tourists often overlook — something from a little-known past squeezed between new, nondescript cement or brick buildings: old houses made of coral limestone.
But less and less are you likely to spot such a building, some of which are nearly a century old — and few islanders seem to care, local officials and preservationists say.
“Only Penghu has these homes. It’s very obvious there are fewer and fewer of these homes left,” said Cuei Lu-lu (崔石路石路), an official at the cultural relics division of the Penghu County Cultural Affairs Bureau (澎湖縣政府文化局).
Many of the coral houses are left to deteriorate by residents who have gone to mainland Taiwan for work. Those who remain want to build new houses rather than spend money restoring the old ones, Cuei said.
Still, a growing number of people with money, or nostalgic feelings, are attempting to save at least some of these unique structures. And the local government is trying to help.
The one-story coral houses typically consist of a narrow entrance joining two wings with bell-shaped roofs. The entrance opens to a large courtyard leading to the main hall. Colorful porcelain tiles painted with flowers, birds and scenes from ancient Chinese fairy tales adorn the walls. Windows are made from stone slabs — not to keep out the sun, but to block the fierce, howling winds this low-slung archipelago is notorious for.
‘A FEELING OF THE SEA’
Ancestors of today’s Penghu residents built their houses using materials from the ocean. Only a few rich families in this desolate string of islets could afford to import wood from China, Taiwan or Southeast Asia.
Families would venture to the coast during low tide and load ox-drawn carts with dead coral. It took many such trips to gather enough of the laogushi (石老石古石), or coral rock, to construct a home.
The limestone was then laid out in the sun for anywhere from a few months to two years to let the rock dry and become sufficiently desalinated.
“They gave one a feeling of the sea. They were dark inside, but they kept people warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” said Tsai Ting-chin (蔡丁進), a retired Penghu history teacher who remembered staying in one of the homes when he visited his grandparents.
The only study ever done on old homes in Penghu found about 2,000 coral houses left in 2002 to 2003, but the number is believed to be significantly lower now.
It can cost NT$1 million to repair one of the old homes, many of which have leaking or collapsing roofs. Indoor plumbing must be installed. Significant maintenance work is needed every 10 years.
“They’re pretty to look at but they’re not necessarily comfortable to live in,” said Sylvia Lyu (呂秀玫), a Taipei transplant to Penghu who operates the Sunrise Bed & Breakfast (菓葉觀日樓) hotel in Guoye village (菓葉村), where many of the homes can be seen.
For NT$1.5 million, residents can build a modern 30-ping house.
Government recognition of the need to protect the coral stone homes was not strong initially.