Fri, Jun 15, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Off the BeatenTrack: Lee Teng Fang Mansion

One of Taiwan’s finest old houses stands in a sea of rice fields in Taoyuan’s Dasi District

By Richard Saunders  /  Contributing reporter

Once inside the two walls that guard the Lee Teng Fang Mansion in Taoyuan’s Dasi District, the building itself looks surprisingly modest, at least at first glance.

Photo: Richard Saunders

Driving along the narrow, dead-straight lane that leads through the fields from Dasi District (大溪) to Lee Teng Fang Mansion (李藤芳古厝), the town’s greatest historic relic, the countryside is strikingly quiet, even soporific. There’s little of the ugly factory development that scars the once pleasant farming countryside that stretches out on either side of Provincial Highway 3 as it crosses Taoyuan City on its way south. The astonishing development that has turned the neighboring town of Sansia (三峽) from a quiet, traditional town into almost a suburb of Taipei city thankfully hasn’t yet made it out this far.

Here, in the flat, fertile valley of the Dahan River (大漢溪), the landscape is gentle and undulating, the town is bordered on the south by pleasant wooded hills, and there’s no distant view, from here at least, of the mountains that pass the 2,000 meter mark less than 20km south. It’s an unusually gentle, agricultural landscape for this corner of Taiwan.

FIELDS OF FLOWERS AND RICE

Approaching the old house, the fields on either side of the lane are usually either a sea of brightly colored flowers, or green, gently swaying seed heads, depending upon the time of year. During a previous visit, just a few months ago, the fields were brimming with countless pink, orange, red and white cosmos flowers, attracting weekend crowds who come to see one of the “flower seas” (花海) that have become so popular in Taiwan in recent years.

On my second visit to the house early this month, the cosmos plants had been cleared and replaced with rice. This new crop, growing at a fast rate, has already pushed up a thick carpet of emerald-green shoots, and will soon be producing its far less showy but precious flowers, which are destined to turn into so many grains of rice.

Those fields of rice are, in a way, the reason for the existence of the fine old house, which rises out of them to the right. Just after passing the building a narrow side road leads to a parking area in front of it.

The rich, orange brickwork of the Lee Teng Fang Mansion has been designated a Grade Two historic landmark by the government and, according to the guide who showed us around, it is one of Taiwan’s top 10 historic houses. It’s certainly among the finest surviving examples of the nation’s Hakka sanheyuan (三合院), a residence consisting of structures surrounding a courtyard on three sides.

Built between 1860 and 1864, the house is a kind of symbol of prestige for the owner (after whom it is named), and partly commemorates his passing an important government examination. The success made him a high-ranking official, an achievement of such magnitude that the whole town was actually renamed in his honor. The town was later renamed once more, taking its present, more neutral name of Dasi in 1920.

It was because of that big river that the Lee family (and many other Hakka families) settled in Dasi in the first place, and eventually struck it rich. It’s hard to appreciate it from the sad, shallow watercourse that flows through the valley today, but a century or so ago the Dahan River was wide and deep, and provided an efficient and easy method for transporting the agricultural riches grown in the area (including camphor, tea, rice and vegetables) downstream to what is now Taipei. Many Hakka merchants such as the Lee family that traded in Dasi became exceedingly wealthy.

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