I’d forgotten my boots, and I hadn’t anticipated such clear weather, so I’d not brought a hat. But I was willing to risk sunburn and wet feet to get a proper look at this part of the southwest coast.
Photos online had triggered my curiosity about Chiayi County’s Shoudao (壽島). As is true for many toponyms, a literal translation of Shoudao (“Longevity Island”) would be misleading. In this case, it’d also be ironic. The inaccuracy is that only recently has part of it been an island, and then only when the tide is high. And the irony is that Shoudao’s days might well be numbered.
Shoudao lies less than 2km south of Baishueihu (白水湖), another place with an imprecise name. It means “Whitewater Lake,” yet there’s no lake. The landscape that surrounds this sleepy community is dominated by oyster beds.
Photo: Steven Crook
For the second time in a month, I’d parked my car by the long embankment between Shoudao and Baishueihu. The first visit had been an impulse detour while driving south on Expressway 61. Because the tide had been coming in, on that occasion I wasn’t able to set foot on the sandbar that provides many of the best photo opportunities.
This time around, I’d looked up tide times on the Central Weather Bureau’s Web site (www.cwb.gov.tw/eng/, click on “Marine,” then “Tidal Forecast”), and I’d brought a friend.
A coastguard patrol car was parked at the top of the ramp that leads down to the sandbar, so I asked if we could proceed. Having clarified the legality of what we wanted to do, we picked our way across soft mud and broken-up bamboo rafts without much difficulty.
Photo: Steven Crook
SALT PANS AND OYSTER SHELLS
The remains of half a dozen small brick-walled buildings, plus a largish shack with most of its roof but none of its walls, still stand on Shoudao. The utility poles that carried electricity to them still stand, but the wires have snapped or been cut.
At the time of my second visit, there were two temporary altars. One, sheltered by a tarpaulin, occupied part of the shack. The other was exposed to the elements, on a patch of gray grit that presumably stays dry even when the tide is high. I couldn’t tell which deity was the object of worship.
Photo: Steven Crook
To the best of my knowledge, none of the structures on Shoudao ever served as people’s homes. Rather, they were used to store equipment, or by patrolmen who kept an eye on the area’s salt pans. As recently as the 1960s, rural poverty ensured that salt theft was an ongoing problem.
Salt production ceased here decades ago, although it continued in nearby Budai (布袋) until Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002.
The striking amount of rubble mixed in with the silt (not to mention countless oyster shells, bits of bamboo and torn fishing nets) suggests other buildings stood hereabouts, but were undermined and broken apart by the sea.
Photo: Steven Crook
Some visitors see the ocean’s encroachment at Shoudao as evidence of rising sea levels. The truth is more complicated.
Taiwan’s coastline has been repeatedly deformed and reformed as typhoon-induced flooding has shifted massive amounts of silt. In particular, the Aug. 7, 1959 disaster severely damaged Shoudao. What’s more, over-extraction of groundwater (most of which goes to fish farms) throughout the southwest has caused the land to subside.
I might never have known about Shoudao were it not for pictures on social media, and the people who posted those images might never have known about it but for a recent made-in-Taiwan film.
Just as the 2008 smash-hit movie Cape No. 7 boosted tourism in and around Kenting National Park (墾丁國家公園), the 2020 romantic comedy My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節) can take credit for turning this previously obscure point on the coast into a popular sightseeing spot.
NOW THAT’S A TOILET
I’ve not seen My Missing Valentine, so I can’t be sure if the squat toilet that faces out to sea from the base of the embankment is in the movie or not. Either way, it’s perhaps the most Instagrammed plumbing fixture in the country.
The walls that once surrounded the toilet are long gone. At high tide, the white ceramic is flushed and washed by seawater — a good thing, as visitors have complained of approaching it to take photos, only to find it soiled by someone who couldn’t refuse nature’s call.
If I return to Shoudao, I’ll try to arrive late in the afternoon and enjoy the sunset. I doubt I’ll spend any time in Baishueihu itself. Unless you’ve a liking for piles of oyster shells, there’s not much to interest an outsider. Many of the shells are reused, deployed just offshore on bamboo frames, so oyster larvae carried in by the tide can attach themselves and begin growing.
Of the village’s three places of worship, Jiulongjiang Temple (九龍江廟) is perhaps the most attractive. The shrine was established around 1915 to honor Marshal Xu (徐元帥), who’s described as the 3,000-year-old third brother of the Jade Emperor (the chief deity of Taoism).
From the list of donors and management committee members inside the temple, I learned one thing about the community: If your surname isn’t Hsiao (蕭), it’s very likely to be Tsai (蔡).
Baishueihu and Shoudao lie within Dongshih Township (東石) in the northern part of Chiayi County. If you’ve come this far, consider also visiting Aogu Wetlands Forest Park (鰲鼓溼地森林園區) in the northern part of the township. For more information about Aogu, take a look at the Apr. 17, 2020 article (“Dry feet in the wetlands of southern Taiwan”) I wrote for this newspaper.
No public transportation serves Shoudao or Baishueihu, so you’ll need your own set of wheels. Once you reach Baishueihu, you’ll see Chinese-only signs pointing you toward Shoudao. On weekends and holidays, parking a car near Shoudao might be difficult. Confirm tide times if you want to get out onto the sandbar itself; bring sensible footwear that can survive a soaking, and choose clothes suitable for harsh winds (in winter) or very strong sunshine (in summer). Apart from the famous squat toilet, there’s no bathroom at Shoudao; if you need one, backtrack to the Jiulongjiang Temple in the center of Baishueihu.
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