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
Photo: Richard Saunders
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.
Photo: Richard Saunders
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.
Photo: Richard Saunders
DASI’S PAST GLORY REVEALED
Reminders of this past glory can be seen to this day throughout the town in its older houses, some of which have beautiful, elaborately carved facades. Indeed, the best-known of several “old streets” in Dasi, Heping Street (和平街), is associated with an even more famous local family from the same period. Lin Ben-yuan (林本源), who was responsible for Taiwan’s finest surviving Qing dynasty house and garden, the Lin Family Garden (林家花園) in New Taipei City’s Banqiao District (板橋), owned house number 67. In it, the head of the family stayed while collecting rent from his tenants. Look out for the stone carving in the shape of abacus on the roof.
Dasi’s grandest old pile, the Lee Teng-fang Mansion, is a traditional Hakka, three-winged construction, guarded at the front by the semi-circular Moon Pool and a whitewashed wall of mud brick. The pool, like similar examples on the island of Kinmen (金門), helps improve the fengshui of the compound, and would have also been a source of water in the event of fire.
Photo: Richard Saunders
Entering through the main gate, inside is a huge, open courtyard where the children would once have been allowed to play. Conspicuous are the two stone bases that once supported flag poles from which Lee’s flag of office would flutter, as if anyone entering this grand residence needed reminding of the family’s exulted status. Through another gate in a second, inner wall (this time of red brick), the entrance to the house stands opposite, across a smaller inner courtyard, where rice would once have been dried.
After such an elaborate approach, the house at first looks surprisingly small and low, but walk inside, and this first structure is revealed as simply an entrance building. Behind lies a warren of corridors, chambers, larger rooms and courtyards. Most of the rooms stand empty, although there are a few bits of furniture including a couple of uncomfortable-looking beds and some kitchen implements.
However the highlight of the house, both inside and out, is the decoration and carving. The graceful swallowtail roof blades and the relief decoration on the outside walls in the shape of lucky auspicious objects such as bats, pineapples and peaches, catch the eye even before entering the complex of buildings. Inside are countless beautiful carvings in wood and sandstone, plus painting and calligraphy of great quality.
Richard Saunders is a classical pianist and writer who has lived in Taiwan since 1993. He’s the founder of a local hiking group, Taipei Hikers, and is the author of six books about Taiwan, including Taiwan 101 and Taipei Escapes. Visit his Web site at www.taiwanoffthebeatentrack.com
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