Fri, Feb 09, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Off the Beaten Track: Historic Sinpu

Beautiful old houses, delicious food and one of Taiwan’s great folk festivals greet the visitor to this underrated township in Hsinchu County

By Richard Saunders  /  Contributing reporter

The Liu House is one of the finest traditional three-section compounds in Hsinchu County’s Sinpu Township, and is partially open to the public.

Photo: Richard Saunders

Arriving back in Taipei after spending Christmas at home in England, I was immediately struck by how much less cosmopolitan the city streets of Taipei are than those of London. Despite its small but vibrant expat community, modern, clean transport infrastructure and the mushrooming growth of impressive, Western-style tower blocks, Taiwan still feels very “Taiwanese.”

On a deeper level, though, the nation’s population really is quite a cosmopolitan one after all, from the original Aboriginal inhabitants to more recent settlers such as the soldiers who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), making it their home after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreat from China in 1949. Taiwan’s citizens really are an interesting mosaic of different traditions, cultures and even languages.

HAKKA TRADITIONS

The Hakka (客家), for instance, have their own language and cultural traditions, a distinct (and delicious) cuisine and their own TV channel. Explore the towns and villages of the northwest from Taoyuan to Miaoli counties, and you’ll soon find Hakka communities, traditional Hakka sanheyuan (三合院, traditional three-section compound) houses and, of course Hakka restaurants, selling bantiao noodles (粄條), meigan kourou (梅干扣肉, braised pork belly with pickled vegetables), Hakka stirfry and other classic Hakka dishes. You’ll also hear the distinctive tones of the Hakka language, which villagers generally prefer to use when talking to each other.

A couple of Hakka villages have become popular. The best-known is probably Beipu Township (北埔), which attracts crowds on sunny weekends, while more recently the picturesque Nanjhuang Township (南庄) has become a popular destination too. A notch or two below those in the popularity stakes, but if anything even more interesting, is the town of Sinpu Township (新埔).

Despite its name (which means “new village”), Sinpu has a relatively long history, and was already a commercial center during the early nineteenth century. Today it has a low-key atmosphere that’s very pleasant, and there’s plenty of historic and cultural interest to merit a visit.

The town is especially famous for its delicious dried persimmons, which are a Hakka specialty, and in season from about September to December, so at that time keep your eyes out for them drying in the sun in yards and open areas along the town’s back streets. Sinpu’s other famous edible delight is Hakka bantiao noodles; aim to have lunch at the famous Risheng Bantiao (日勝粄條), which serves various cheap but delicious dishes.

OLD STREET

The town’s main old street, Jhongjheng Road (中正路), the main road through town, has a couple of interesting buildings, especially the Japanese-era Guihuayuan (桂花園) and the Catholic church, built in a Western colonial style in 1955.

For the town’s older historical relics, try side roads such as Heping Street (和平街), which forks off Jhongjheng Road beside the town’s tiny bus station. Follow Heping Street on the right for a few minutes west past the morning market is Risheng Bantiao. It’s been popular for decades — photos on the wall proclaim it was a favorite of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and it’s packed at lunchtimes, even during the week, so arrive before noon to avoid a wait.

A few hundred meters west is the small Zhu Family Shrine (朱氏家廟), dating from 1846 and beautifully restored, while nearby is the fine Pan Mansion (潘宅), built in 1861. Across the road from the mansion steps lead down to a stone trough where, as at the more famous example in Nanjhuang, the town’s women once washed their clothes in the natural spring water. Recent development of this side of the street has put in new walkways and destroyed some of its former character, although the paths make it easier to get off the road and down to the stream.

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