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

Fri, Feb 09, 2018 - Page 13

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.

A few doors further west along Heping Street, the Liu Family Shrine (劉氏家廟) is perhaps the most beautiful of the three old buildings along this street.

Several other fine old buildings are dotted around town, a couple of which are still being repaired, and have disappeared under a sea of scaffolding and corrugated iron rain roofing, but Sinpu’s finest example of traditional architecture lies splendidly restored four kilometers west, on Route 14. Just after passing under the raised tracks of the high-speed railway, the Liu House (劉厝) is easily missed, set-back from the road down a short drive. It’s a very fine Minnan-style sanheyuan and, unusually, it’s open to the public.

YIMIN TEMPLE

A further two kilometers west, the area’s most famous attraction, Sinpu-Fangliao Yimin Temple (新竹縣新埔枋寮義民廟) stands set back from Route 14 behind an imposing temple gate. The current temple is neither especially large nor old, but it’s the site, each year, of one of Taiwan’s more imposing traditional ceremonies, and the biggest Hakka celebration of the year, in honor of the “righteous citizens” for whom the temple was built.

Held on the 20th day of the seventh lunar month (alongside Ghost Festival rituals) the ceremony commemorates a Hakka uprising in 1721 against oppressive Han Chinese authorities. The dead from the uprising were buried on the site where the temple now stands, and the collective tomb can be seen behind the main building.

IF YOU GO

Sinpu is served by bus 5621 from Hsinchu, which passes both Yimin Temple and the Liu House on the way.

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.