Despite the best efforts of local leaders, and the redirection of central-government spending to Taiwan’s south, it sometimes feels as if Pingtung County is sinking into irrelevance.
Between 1985 and this year, the number of people living there fell by nearly an eighth to 801,000. Pingtung residents now account for less than 3.5 percent of Taiwan’s population, compared to 4.7 percent in the early 1980s. Owing to its shrinking electorate, the county was stripped of one of its three legislative seats before the 2020 election.
Pingtung natives express their pessimism via an idiom: “At the end of the line, all is languid” (站尾包衰).
Photo: Steven Crook
However, if you don’t live there, Pingtung’s relative lack of development has its upsides.
The roads are seldom jammed, and many villages retain a traditional appearance. Certain customs are better preserved here than elsewhere. In private households and in ancestral temples shared with kinsfolk, Pingtung families continue to honor lineages established in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Hakka and Holo settlers pushed out from the coast to the foothills.
Some of these shrines are open to the public, and one of the most alluring and authentic is a few hundred meters east of Provincial Highway 3 in Jiuru Township (九如).
Photo: Steven Crook
The Gong Family Ancient House (龔家古厝) is within walking distance of Fanshe (番社) bus stop, which itself is linked to Pingtung Bus Terminal (next to Pingtung’s TRA station) by the #8216, #8217, #8218 and #8220 services. Finding the house isn’t especially easy, but if you ask for directions, you’ll get there without too much trouble.
There are no set opening days or hours. The front gate is usually unlocked during daylight.
The house has served as a venue for cultural events, and one wing bears a sign for the Pingtung County Holo Culture and Art Association (屏東縣閩南文化藝術協會). There was no exhibition at the time of my visit, but a lady in her sixties, there to offer incense at the shrine in the central chamber of the back building, graciously encouraged me to look around and take as many photos as I wished.
Photo: Steven Crook
Construction of the Gong Family Ancient House began circa 1912. Since then, the lady told me, it’s been repaired several times due to typhoon and earthquake damage. No conventional cement was used in its construction. Instead, the stone walls incorporate lime mortar.
In my opinion, the present condition of this gorgeous edifice hits a sweet-spot: The antiquity is obvious, but the deterioration isn’t yet depressing. The various decorations and motifs (which include cranes, dragons and phoenixes) retain much of their original clarity.
Most of the complex’s 30 rooms are kept locked. Even so, a connoisseur of art and architecture could happily spend an hour here.
Photo: Steven Crook
Twenty minutes’ drive south of the Gong Family Ancient House, in the northern part of Pingtung City, the Chonglan Hsiao Family Shrine (崇蘭蕭氏家廟) is the beautiful legacy of an influential local family.
The Hsiao (蕭) clan of Chonglan migrated from China’s Guangdong province, arriving in Taiwan around 1740. There’s no apparent connection between them and a family with the same surname who left their mark on Pingtung County’s Jiadong Township (佳冬) — see “The town of mansions and ruins” in the Jan. 18, 2019 edition of this newspaper.
Like the Gong family in Jiuru, the Hsiaos of Chonglan prospered thanks to their involvement in the sugar trade prior to the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule, and by reinvesting the profits in productive farmland. Nine members of the extended family (all males, of course) were lauded for success in Qing Dynasty-era imperial civil service examinations.
Photo: Steven Crook
The Chonglan Hsiao Family Shrine was founded in 1878. When it was dismantled and rebuilt in 1927, one of the craftsmen hired to decorate it was Chen Yu-feng (陳玉峰, 1900-1964), a leading temple artist of the 20th century.
The shrine is open from 9am to 5pm every day of the week, and there’s no admission charge. Parking a car nearby isn’t easy. Look for a spot on Boai Road (博愛路) and expect to walk a bit. Alternatively, catch a #513 bus from Pingtung Bus Terminal to Eco Park (環保公園), about 100m from the Hsiao shrine.
There’s no need to take a bus to Tseng’s Ancestral Hall (宗聖公祠), as it’s just 700m from Pingtung TRA Station, south of the elevated tracks.
Considering its special features — and the money the authorities spent on requisitioning and restoring it (NT$27 million from Pingtung County Government, followed by NT$72 million from the predecessor of the Ministry of Culture) — this 95-year-old landmark deserves to have more visitors than it seems to get.
The shrine honors members of a Hakka clan surnamed Tseng (曾). It’s open Tuesday to Sunday, from 9am to midday and 1:30pm to 5pm. Admission is free.
Inside the hall, I was fortunate to meet a volunteer who pointed out several details I might otherwise have missed. Some of the columns bear calligraphy in a style I’d never seen before; it’s said to have been inspired by the shape of bamboo leaves. The second-floor pavilions were designed to echo. Atop each pavilion, there’s a jaunty statuette.
You’d have to be blind to miss the lions atop the entrance gate. But not everyone notices the angles just below them.
From Tseng’s Ancestral Hall, it’s a short walk to two private residences owned by another notable local family.
The unoccupied and rapidly decaying building at 122 Siyou Road (自由路) was where Sylvia Lee Shu-teh (李淑德) spent part of her childhood and adult life.
Born in 1929, Lee is a US-educated violinist who spent decades nurturing talented musicians. For this reason, she’s been called “Taiwan’s godmother of the violin.”
The plot on which this 1930s house stands is so overgrown it’s now almost impossible to see the actual building. In addition to weather and neglect, it has reportedly suffered from pillaging.
On the other side of Renai Road (仁愛路), at 121 Siyou Road, Lee’s relatives built the grand yet forbidding three-story Dingchanghao Lee Abode (鼎昌號李宅). The surrounding wall is high and topped by barbed wire. The courtyard covers at least four times as much land as the house.
Completed some time between 1924 and 1932, it reflects Western architectural styles then popular in Taiwan and Japan. There’s talk of using government subsidies to repurpose it as a cultural/creative industries base — but last week, when I walked around the property’s perimeter, looking for good camera angles, I saw no evidence of that.
If there is a plan, it may be on hold until after November’s local elections. Returning to my car, I looked back toward the house and noticed a huge campaign banner on the wall that separates the property from Siyou Road. It promotes the candidature of a man who hopes to become Pingtung City’s next mayor.
His surname, of course, is Lee.
In the space of a few decades, Taiwan has changed from a place where characterful old buildings were thoughtlessly bulldozed to make space for wider roads or bigger homes, to a society much more likely to cherish physical reminders of the past. The authorities have poured money into restoration and renovation work. According to a Nov. 10, 2020 post on Tainan City Government’s Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage Web site, in the first nine months of 2020, the Ministry of Culture’s (MOC) Bureau of Cultural Heritage approved 13 such projects in the southern city, setting a total budget of NT$281.6 million.
June 27 to July 3 “The Sacred Tree (神木) is on fire!” Tseng Tian-lai (曾添來) didn’t believe it at first as it was pouring rain, but he sensed the urgency in the caller’s voice. The Alishan Forest Railway station master stepped out and saw smoke billowing from the direction of the beloved 3,000-year-old red cypress. The tree was struck by lightning in the afternoon of June 7, 1956, and a fierce blaze raged inside the eroded trunk, requiring nearly 200 people 20 hours to put it out. The authorities were especially nervous, according to a 1997 Liberty Times
Writing about environmental issues can be dispiriting, but the outlook isn’t entirely bleak. Here in Taiwan, in recent decades, public attitudes to the environment have certainly changed for the better — even if citizens’ daily behavior doesn’t always reflect the priorities they express in opinion surveys. In this country as elsewhere, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) make it easier for concerned citizens to support and participate in conservation work. Nonprofits have played a key role in several successful environmental projects, including the two profiled below. SOCIETY OF WILDERNESS AND SHUANGLIANPI Protection of habitats and natural ecosystems is a core objective of Society Of Wilderness
The second expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry of the US to Japan in 1854 sent ships to Formosa on the way back to the US to assess Keelung’s potential as a coaling station. Far-sighted, Perry recommended that the US establish a presence on Formosa, as Taiwan was then known. His suggestion went unheeded, but others were watching, few more closely than Prussia. The Prussians had wanted to follow up the Americans with an expedition of their own. In 1858, when William I became regent, the idea of entering the colonial race in the Far East began to take shape in the