1999 / 10月
Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Scott Williams
Taiwan's Hakka are in the midst of a cultural crisis. People of many ethnicities have found that they tend to lose their ethnic identity in the city as both language and culture slip away. Hakka are no exception in this respect. However, now even Hakka remaining in rural communities are being struck by unavoidable changes to their way of life-the decline of agriculture, dwindling populations and urbanization.
Meinung and Liuchia are rural Hakka communities located in Kaohsiung and Hsinchu Counties, respectively. With a reservoir planned for Meinung and a high-speed rail station to be built at Liuchia, the crises confronting these two Hakka towns are more serious than most.
Viewed positively, a crisis can be a turning point. How are the people of Meinung and Liuchia confronting these potentially huge changes to their way of life?
"Seven or eight years ago, most people associated Meinung with bantiao [a wide, flat rice noodle], Hakka culture and the Chung Lee-ho Memorial," says Chang Cheng-yang, executive secretary of the Meinung People's Association. Now things are different; everyone knows the people of Meinung are opposed to the reservoir slated to be built in their community.
At the end of 1992, the town hall and various local organizations held their first hearings in Meinung on the construction of a reservoir. The next year, teachers and citizens involved in the cultural life of the town formed the Work Group Against the Reservoir. Over the last seven or eight years, the movement to preserve Meinung has gradually picked up steam. The town's citizens view the reservoir as the "exterminator" of Hakka culture-the reservoir is to be located directly above the village, so that if it were to collapse, the village would be flooded-and have sworn on their lives to stop it.
Out by the roots
Although the danger that the high-speed-rail station poses to Liuchia is not so obvious as that which the reservoir poses to Meinung, it will nonetheless have a very real impact on the environment and culture of the village. Chen Pan, a writer who grew up in Liuchia, says that the high-speed rail is not bringing urbanization to the village, but is instead pulling its traditional culture up by the roots.
More than 300 hectares of fields around Liuchia, currently inhabited by some 3,000 people, are to become part of the high-speed rail station's development zone. Around town, the response to this "development from out of the blue" varies from person to person.
"The high-speed rail is coming!" cheer some folks, enthusiastic because they will no longer have to till their fields. Instead, they can divide up their family lands, take the money and move on to other things.
Other people don't care. "It doesn't affect us young people," say Liu Fu-chou and Chen Yu-chih, a couple who work in Hsinchu and only come back to Liuchia on holidays to visit Liu's father. They don't live off the land, so the government buyout doesn't harm them in any way. In fact, the construction of a high-speed rail station here means that when they come home on holidays, they'll be able to enjoy the benefits that the new railway line will bring.
But some people are worried. If the government acquires their land, and their houses are torn down, their families will come apart. In general, this is the view of the elderly.
Now in his sixties, Liu Ping-yao has spent his life working the land. Without land, he loses the cornerstone of his life. In June, he tearfully tore down his old home, moving into a cargo container which he placed on the same site. So far, his life hasn't undergone much change. He still spends his days tending his fields, and chatting and playing chess with his neighbors. But he says, "Now when I plant my fields, I don't know if I'll be able to hold out until harvest time." The uncertainty Liu feels about an activity central to his way of life is shared by many in Liuchia these days.
A dying breed
Not only do the economies of both Meinung and Liuchia depend largely on agriculture, the lives and memories of their citizens are bounded by the fields.
"Feeling for the land doesn't grow out of looking at landscapes everyday. It comes from working together with it." Chung Yung-feng, director of the Meinung People's Association, says that the helpfuness and playfulness of the villagers are integral parts of his memories.
"I've worked in the fields since I was a child, so my feelings for the land are complicated." Chung Hsiu-mei, a member of the Meinung People's Association, says that farmers go to work when the sun comes up, and rest when it sets. They are at peace with the world, but they don't make much money, and it is difficult for them to move on to other professions.
There were once over 50,000 people in Meinung, but today only about 30,000 remain. The rapid decline in the town's population is in part due to young people moving away from the town to work.
Chung Mu-chin spent his whole life in Meinung teaching so he would be available to help his family with their tobacco and banana crops. Now 73, he still works in the fields every day. But Chung feels that Meinung has changed a great deal over the last few years. The most obvious change has been the decline of agriculture. Chung points out that many fields are overgrown. He explains that with the young people having gone away to work and incomes from farming being slight, many farmers have simply given up farming. They prefer to let their fields lie fallow, taking government assistance to seek non-farming work.
Twenty-some years ago, more than 2,200 hectares of land around Meinung was given over to the cultivation of tobacco. Today, tobacco is grown on only 900 or so hectares.
Tseng Fu-jen's four sons left Meinung for work in other towns. Even when they make their occasional visits home, they can't help in the fields because they can't stand the sun; as soon as they get out in it, they begin to burn. With no way to carry on farming, what's to become of Tseng's one-and-a-half hectares of land? "I just don't know," says the old farmer, shaking his head.
Meinung's farmers may be a dying breed, but the situation in Liuchia is worse still. Located in northern Hsinchu County, the jiujiang winter wind prevents farmers in Liuchia from switching to cash crops such as fruit and betelnut. While these options exist for the farmers of Meinung, Liuchia's farmers can only grow rice.
No longer a Hakka town
But even with farming becoming untenable, Meinung and Liuchia are not looking forward to the construction of the reservoir or the high-speed rail station.
"The day construction of the dam begins is the day Meinung ceases to exist," says Chang Cheng-yang.
Construction of the reservoir is certain to bring about the destruction of the simple Hakka way of life in Meinung. Huang Ting-sheng, assistant director of the Alliance Against the Reservoir (AAR), says that the threat that the construction poses to the safety of the people, families and property of Meinung has made residents afraid and caused some to even move away from their hometown. Once neighborhoods are destroyed, the local way of life will disappear too. Moreover, the construction of the reservoir isn't simply a one- or two-year project. Instead, it will require at least ten years and 4,000 foreign laborers. This will be a tremendous blow to Meinung's simple way of life.
In Liuchia, 3,000 people currently inhabit the high-speed rail development area. This figure contrasts sharply with the 45,000 residents planned for the new town to be located on the site once the station is complete.
The last Hakka Shangri-la
Meinung is the "right-flank militia" of the six Hakka militia of southern Taiwan. The town is widely recognized as having kept its traditional Hakka culture largely intact, and is sometimes referred to as "the last Hakka Shangri-la."
Chang Cheng-yang explains that this has occurred because more than 95% of the people living in Meinung are Hakka, and the town itself is cut off from the surrounding area by mountains and the Laonung River. This isolation has helped to slow the loss of traditional culture.
While Meinung has been something of a "stronghold," Liuchia is more of a "nexus"-a mostly Hakka center from which culture has moved outward. "Interesting and complex ethnic interactions have taken place here," says Chen Pan. The town was originally settled by six different Lin and Shan families. Each was of a different Hakka clan and came to Taiwan independently, but close interaction between different ethnic groups in the area led to the "Hakkanization" of some local Fujianese and aborigines.
Liuchia, located on the banks of the Touchien River, is surrounded by Hsinchu's best rice-growing land. The town is also the focal point of the Yimin ("Militiamen") faith in northern Taiwan. The Yimin Festival is celebrated every year on the 20th day of the seventh lunar month with a major ceremony. Sponsorship of this ceremony rotates annually among 15 towns in Hsinchu and Taoyuan Counties.
Like other Hakka towns, Meinung in the south and Liuchia in the north are being changed by the progress of urbanization.
"In Meinung, your field of view used to be bounded by mountains. But over the last few years the views of the mountains have been obstructed by a couple of tall office and apartment buildings which have sprung up," says Chang Cheng-yang. Chen Pan makes a similar comment on Liuchia's development, stating: "Now there are serious traffic jams at sunrise and sunset everyday on Liuchia's Chiahsing Road."
The high-speed rail as real estate
But Meinung and Liuchia differ from other Hakka towns in the major impact that the reservoir and high-speed rail station have had on land prices.
"The high-speed railway is transportation, but in Liuchia it is viewed as a real-estate asset." Chen Pan says that fields used to be measured in jia, a measure equal to about 0.97 hectares. Now, they are being measured in ping-about 3.3 square meters. Over the course of five years, the price of one ping of agricultural land in Liuchia has risen from NT$8,800 to NT$33,000, and it is expected to rise to as much as NT$200,000 in the future. For people who had to sell out and now want to buy new land, it has been a financial nightmare.
As part of the high-speed rail's land acquisition, Liuchia's landowners are entitled to receive money and an amount of land equal to 40% of their original holdings as compensation for their land. Unfortunately, the money they receive is only sufficient to buy a little more land; it is not enough to build a new home. As a result, many locals are predicting that one-third of local residents will end up moving away.
In Meinung, on the other hand, property prices have been plummeting.
Huang Mei-ying says that homes bought two years ago can't even be sold for a one-million-dollar loss today. A four-story, 50-ping home that originally cost NT$10 million attracts no buyers even at a discount of several million.
The angry farmer of Lungtu
Faced with the construction of a reservoir which might wipe out Meinung, and after years of effort by the Meinung People's Association to create an awareness of their own culture, the people of Meinung are fighting back.
Chung Hsiu-mei says that the association has spent three years slowly making the people of the town understand that this expensive reservoir, to which their town and its culture are being sacrificed, is being built for the benefit of just a few industries.
The slogans seen and heard around town range from "Save Meinung, oppose the reservoir" and "Good men and women oppose the reservoir to preserve the environment for their grandchildren" to "If the reservoir can be built, then shit can be eaten." Everyone in Meinung, young or old, male or female, intellectual or farmer, has something to say on the issue.
Tseng Fu-jen, whose formal education was limited to only a few years of primary school, likes to stay on top of events when he's not at work in his fields, and he frequently submits pieces to Meinung's own Moonlit Mountain Magazine. In one of these pieces, entitled "The Angry Farmer of Lungtu," he expresses his view of the reservoir project: "Our children and grandchildren's futures are becoming more and more hazy. Conscience and morality have disappeared into the Pacific Ocean. We've suffered too much, now we must take up arms."
In "taking up arms," Yang Chien-chang, a retired teacher and member of the Alliance Against the Reservoir, has put on a headband and traveled to the Legislative Yuan to protest. "I've cried while demonstrating," exclaims the old man.
Chang Cheng-yang says, "Most of the people of Meinung are farmers. They are conservative people. Those fields are their world." He says that once the anti-reservoir movement got started, the local people's perspective on public affairs and their understanding of water resources underwent a sea change.
Once townspeople got involved in the movement, their natural Hakka stubbornness and their love of the land were very helpful.
Sung Chi-hsiung, executive director of the AAR, says, "Birds leave their homes only when they have to. People are the same." Sung explains that his family came to Taiwan 12 generations ago and has been living in Meinung for 240-some years. "This is my home. I will not give it up without a fight!"
Women and young people join in
The movement has also had some unexpected results. "The opposition to the reservoir has made local women more aware of their power." Chung Hsiu-mei says that because the women of the town used to wash clothes on the banks of the river, they have a very direct appreciation of the water.
In the early days of the movement, women were always in the front lines during trips to the Legislative Yuan. When the AAR conducted house-to-house surveys, it was women who did the legwork. "Women are the movement's foundation," says Chung.
Young people have gotten involved too. Chang Shu-chun, a third year student in the English Department at Tamkang University, says that whenever her fellow Meinung citizens travel to the Legislative Yuan to demonstrate, she shows her support by joining them there.
Chang Wei-tsai, a junior at Taipei Medical College, chuckles, "I've raised my standing among my classmates by participating in the anti-reservoir movement." Chang says that his generation generally has an unclear sense of its ethnic identity. As such, when it sees one of its own who is willing to demonstrate to protect his hometown, it views that person with new respect.
Others are moved when they see young people willing to give up their careers in order to return to their hometown and join the opposition movement. Chang Cheng-yang is a good case in point.
In the wake of 1988's "Return Our Mother Tongue" movement, Hakka student associations began appearing at many schools. Chang Cheng-yang joined one of these in his junior year at college. "It was only after joining a Hakka student association that I realized how much of a stranger I was to Hakka culture. I didn't even know there were other dialects of Hakka. I knew virtually nothing about Meinung, to say nothing of other Hakka areas of Taiwan."
"Young people from rural areas are not allowed to go back to their hometowns." Chang says that this idea is especially strong among the Hakka. Young people who return home are viewed as having been unable to make the grade in the outside world. This is particularly true of a young person like Chang, who is the eldest son and studies at the prestigious National Taiwan University. Neither his mother nor his other relatives were able to accept his giving up a high-paying job to return home and participate in the opposition movement. But Chang explains: "We don't just bear the burden of having a career; we must also carry on the torch for the older generation."
The involvement of these young people not only makes the opposition to the reservoir a movement which encompasses all segments of Meinung society, it also brings the hope of revitalization to a town in decline.
One way to do so is to revitalize the town's tobacco curing barns.
Meinung began cultivating tobacco during the Japanese occupation. Curing barns were then used to fire-cure tobacco, but a dozen or so years ago tobacco curing technology changed, and computers were brought in to control the process. The old curing barns have gradually slid into obsolescence, but they remain an interesting architectural feature of the area, and Meinung has nearly 1,000 of them.
Speaking on cultural preservation, the Meinung People's Association's Chung Yung-feng says that such preservation has no set form, and that it is of necessity closely connected with a society's way of life. In the case of the curing barns, preserving the space merely preserves the surface, whereas the important things are the spirit that permeates the barns and the interaction that takes place inside.
One curing barn has become something of a "neighborhood recording studio." Recording in a high-ceilinged brick curing barn gives music an unusual sound. The studio has gotten many townspeople involved-more than 100 participated in the recording and production of "Let's Yodel," a CD collection of recordings of Hakka yodeling.
In another instance, an abandoned curing barn has been turned into a pottery studio and classroom.
Chung Chien-chih is one of those young people who have returned home to make a career for themselves. Three years ago, Chung began making pottery and teaching pottery classes in a curing barn which had belonged to his great grandfather and was located at the base of the Lungtu ridge. This not only put the long-derelict curing barn to use again, but also gave Chung a means of making a living in Meinung.
When Chung returned to Meinung, his family had protested, frequently wondering aloud, "Can you earn a living here?" But Chung has carved out a niche for himself, and is now experimenting with ways of shading this newly created cottage industry with more local color. For example, he has created his own glazes incorporating the ash from burned rice plants, and made an earthenware plate incorporating the ash of tobacco leaves.
While the revitalization of the curing barns and the creation of new industries open up new possibilities for Meinung, it is the passing on of traditional culture to the children that gives people the most hope for the future of their town.
The young people of the College and University Students' Association of Meinung are involved in this latter activity, coming home every winter and summer vacation to lead the Blue-Winged Pitta Children's Life-Camp. The camp teaches fourth- and fifth-grade children about the Hakka culture of Meinung. For example, the college students lead the children on strolls through the older streets of the town and show them the traditional blue clothing of the Hakka. These college students also act as mentors to children of the town who are preparing to go off to universities or junior colleges for the first time.
Chang Wei-tsai says, "This opportunity grew out of the opposition to the reservoir. We are the first group of young people to be asked to come back home." Chang points out that today's children entertain themselves differently than his generation did: "We played in the fields when we were kids. Children today watch TV and play video games. Their childhood is completely removed from the soil." Chang feels that Life-Camp activities are a good thing in that they get the kids outside and doing things on the land in and around Meinung.
The sun sets on the "New Tile House"
While confidence and activity reign at Meinung, full realization of their predicament has not yet come to the people of Liuchia. The people of the town either seem to feel that they should "go with the flow" by accepting the high-speed rail station, or they simply don't know how to respond.
"It's too late for any response," says Chen Pan. "Not yet knowing Liuchia in a cultural sense, how can we judge whether it should be sacrificed?" Chen says that public works planning has never taken local points of view into consideration. The value and meaning of the culture of Liuchia was never seriously addressed.
The Lin family's "New Tile House" was built almost two centuries ago, and is the oldest family compound in the Liuchia high-speed rail development area. The high-speed rail plan originally called for the ancestral shrine and some of the defensive walls to be preserved as a park, but local residents and the Lin family are not satisfied with this solution and have been protesting to the agency in charge of the high-speed rail in the hope of persuading it to preserve the entire compound.
Sadly, regardless of whether the site is turned into a park or the entire compound is preserved, all those residing at the compound will have to move. The New Tile House will never be the same.
"Who will light the incense in the ancestral shrine after everyone has left?" asks 81-year-old Lin Jeng-huang. He points out that there are over 20 households-more than 100 people-currently living at the compound. These people do not yet know where they will move.
Residents of the compound received compensation at the end of April, and know that moving is unavoidable. Now the Lin family only asks that the land they are given in compensation not be too far away so they will be able to come visit the old compound frequently.
"My roots are here!" Looking at the mud brick house he built with his father when he was 27, septuagenarian Lin Huan-shui exclaims with tears in his eyes, "At my age, by the time I get used to living somewhere else, I'll have gone all moldy."
Chen Pan says, "The people of Meinung are aware that their town has value. Liuchia didn't have enough time. If realization of what we've lost strikes one day, we'll feel regret."
In the little time remaining before the station arrives, Chen Pan is rushing work on a magazine recording the life and culture of the town. Interestingly, his work has prompted revival of the "New Tile House Lin Family Flower Drum Troupe." "Flower drum" troupes typically played drums and performed acrobatics at temple ceremonies.
The Lin-family troupe was Liuchia's "vanguard." Disbanded years ago, it was reformed last year. Lin Huan-keng, the troupe's current leader, says that it was originally formed to celebrate Taiwan's recovery from Japan, but it was a little different from other such troupes in that it was composed entirely of men masquerading as women. The troupe's uproarious shows were wildly popular, and it was in great demand. The fame of the revived troupe has spread, and it is now invited to lend a hand whenever Hakka activities are being organized.
Making a new utopia
In May, the Legislative Yuan approved a budget outlay for the Meinung reservoir over the protests and pleading of the town's residents. Whither the opposition movement now? Chung Yung-feng claims, "Our path is clear." Chung states with conviction that the movement has prompted the people of Meinung to rebuild their town.
According to Liu Chao-neng, a member of the Blue-Winged Pitta Association, We were afraid that we might not know where to go with the movement once it had stopped the dam. Luckily, the protests have dragged on for quite a long time, and we've become deeply entrenched." According to Liu, "The people of Meinung have now internalized the movement as a philosophy of life."
Unhappy with the unaggressive Meinung People's Association, anti-reservoir activists formed the Alliance Against the Reservoir a little more than a year ago.
This year, on May 23, the formation of the "Six Militias Anti-Reservoir Volunteers" was announced at Enkung Temple in the village of Kaoshu. The group's charter states, "Learning from the spirit of the martyred militiamen of old, the compatriots of the six clans have linked arms, forming a group of volunteers who are fighting together to save Meinung, and in this way bringing glory to the righteous spirit of the six militias. . . ."
Seeing Meinung's people fighting on and Liuchia's silently enduring, one can't help but ask, "Are the Hakka people fated to wander the world? Where must the people of Meinung and Liuchia travel to find a new utopia?"
From another point of view, however, the reservoir and the high-speed rail station may have brought these two towns an opportunity for rebirth. Perhaps they are building a new Hakka utopia at this very moment.
While Meinung has long been one of the important Hakka towns of southern Taiwan, it took government plans for a reservoir at Meinung-and strong local opposition to that plan-to create a "Hakka consciousness" among the townsfolk.
A red plastic bag around the trunk of the "Great Uncle Tree" in Liuchia's Yikou neighborhood lets everyone know that "uncle" is no longer slated to "get the ax." Townspeople struggled for more than two years to persuade the government to grant an "imperial reprieve" to the tree, originally to be removed to make way for the high-speed rail station.
The high-speed rail plan has meant government acquisition of land and homes in Liuchia. Unfortunately, those who have been bought out will have to move away from Liuchia because the money they received is insufficient to buy new land and homes in the area. "FOR SALE" signs like the one in the picture are a now common sight in Liuchia.
The High-speed Rail Administration has agreed to preserve portions of the Lin family's "New Tile House" as a park. The Lin family, however, still hopes to persuade the government to preserve the entire compound, which is nearly 200 years old.
There are nearly 1,000 tobacco curing barns in the Meinung area. Once used to fire-cure tobacco, some have now been converted to other uses. The photo shows Lin Sheng-hsiang, the lead vocalist of the Chiaokung Group recording in curing barn No. 7 .
Liu Ping-yao's life revolves about his land. Although it has already been purchased for the high-speed rail project, construction has not yet begun and Liu continues to till the fields. When Liu's sons and their wives come to visit on holidays, they always take some of their father's organic veggies back home with them.