Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Highways & Byways: Jhutian and its leaning tower

The small community in Pingtung County provides a fascinating glimpse into Taiwan’s past — whether the ancestral halls built during the Qing Dynasty or the old train station erected during the Japanese colonial era

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The Japanese-era train station in Pingtung County’s Jhutian Township is now a tourist attraction.

Photo: Steven Crook

I know this isn’t the best way to begin an article in which I try to persuade people that a place is worth visiting, but I should be honest. Traveling on the train or driving on Freeway 3, I must have passed through Jhutian (竹田) a dozen times before it left any impression on me. This rural township in the heart of Pingtung County has no beaches or mountains. In between groves of betel nut, there are lemon orchards and fields in which adzuki beans are cultivated.

According to an ethnicity map in the Taiwan Hakka Museum (臺灣客家文化館) in Miaoli County, Jhutian is the only township in Pingtung where more than 70 percent of the population is Hakka. During the long reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙, 1661 to 1722), Hakka pioneers began reshaping the landscape to boost agricultural productivity.

Of the six local militias that protected Hakka settlements in southern Taiwan during the tumult of the 18th and 19th centuries, the one associated with Jhutian is said to be the oldest. In English, these self-defense groups are often referred to as the Liudui (六堆, literally “six heaps”). Jhutian was the “middle heap” (中堆).

Being flat — and thinly populated by the standards of Taiwan’s lowlands — Jhutian is perfect for exploring by pedal power. If you bring your own bike, be aware that you can detrain at Jhutian, but bicycles cannot be loaded there. When leaving, you’ll need to board at Xishi (西勢) or Chaozhou (潮州).

Bikes suitable for short-distance touring can be rented (NT$100/2 hours on weekends; all day on weekdays) from the coffee-and-souvenirs business that occupies the old railway station. The new station, which was opened in 2015, looms over the 1919 original. Like many stations constructed during the Japanese colonial period, the latter is a single-story structure that incorporates a good amount of wood.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

>> No express trains stop at Jhutian, but the town is served by two local trains per hour from dawn until late in the evening. Passengers transferring to or from an express can do so at Chaozhou (five minutes and NT$15 to the south) or at Pingtung (usually 14 minutes away; NT$16 one way).


A couple of minor relics stand preserved a few meters away: An old bathhouse; and, beside it, the well from which begrimed railway employees had to draw water before washing.

If you approach the town from the north, the first point of interest is the Zhang Wan-san Ancestral Shrine (張萬三祖祠). Chang Wan-san (張萬三) moved from China to Jhutian during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆, 1735 to 1796). According to the township office’s Web site, the hall in which he’s venerated by his descendants is open to the public. When I visited, however, it wasn’t possible to get on the grounds, let alone into the building. Even so, it’s a strikingly photogenic example of traditional architecture.

The Chang Wan-san Ancestral Shrine is near the northern end of Sanshan Road (三山路), the town’s most interesting thoroughfare. This road name, unique within Taiwan as far as I can tell, does not describe local topography (sanshan can be read as “three mountains”) but is instead a reference to the temple at number 63.

The Three Mountain Kings Temple (三山國王廟) is devoted to the spiritual rulers of three peaks in China. Non-Hakka seldom pray to this trio of deities, yet shrines that honor them can be found even in places like Changhua County’s Lukang (鹿港), where Hakka people are a small minority.

Numbers 144 to 168 have been assigned to parts of a residential compound belonging to the extended Chen (陳) family. Most of the subdivisions still have traditional tiled roofs, but one has sprouted a second floor. The state of the numbered sections gives an idea, perhaps, of how some branches of the family have prospered more than others, or which property owners now live far away and seldom return.

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