Taoyuan’s Daxi District

Where Tradition Is Up to Date

2020 / November

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell

When people talk of Daxi, the first things that come to mind are dried tofu, marin­ated until it is dark and glossy, and beautiful, heavy rosewood furni­ture. However, these past few years the little town has been redefining itself with “Daxi studies,” exuding a new vitality and charm that are attracting travelers from all over.

If you’ve read the comic The Summer Temple Fair, drawn by Daxi native Zuo Hsuan, then you are probably somewhat familiar with the birthday of the Holy Emperor Lord Guan (Guan Yu), an event which is known as a “second new year” for the people of Daxi. But when you attend in person, the experience still blows you away.

The long parade is composed of over 30 groups from shetou—local trade and community-based associations that organize temple procession troupes for Guan Yu’s birthday. Strident beiguan music is played on traditional Chinese instruments and the sound of firecrackers resounds to the skies. There are bright, gorgeous banners, and performers wear colorful clothing and makeup. Over 100 performers dressed up as enormous immortals slowly stroll through the venerable old quarter of Daxi. It’s hard to imagine that this is a normal working day! The streets are packed with people, including local residents, and even many Daxi natives who live elsewhere have taken time out to return home and celebrate together for two days and nights.

Walking with the gods

The birthday celebration and procession for Guan Yu at Puji Temple make up the most famous event in Daxi, and can be traced back more than a century to 1917, in the era of Japanese rule. It is said that believers organized them to thank Guan Yu for his protection. Because of the deity’s great prestige and reputation, the celebrations steadily became more organized, and believers formed shetou based on their professions or communities. Early on there were only a few major shetou, but the number has grown to about 31 today and is still expanding.

Thinking back to the plot of The Summer Temple Fair, the people of Daxi start preparing for the brief two days of activities months in advance. First, the head of each shetou sends out letters to members in early June. Not only do the members each have to know their jobs (playing beiguan, dancing with drums, or dressing up as household generals or princelings) and repeatedly rehearse after work, they also have to clean up and put in order the giant immortals costumes that have been gathering dust for a year.

The evening before Guan Yu’s birthday, the icons of the deities venerated by each shetou are carried out on palan­quins for “nighttime visits,” and finally converge on Puji Temple for the formal commencement of the birthday celebrations. The following day they will form a procession that tours the entire area, with a column of performance troupes and believers stretching out for ­several ­kilometers. The activity lasts all through the night, and for these two days the town doesn’t sleep.

At this time, looking out from the covered sidewalk, the street looks like a moving painter’s canvas. Each shetou comes up with creative ideas for the procession based on their history. The Xieyi group, which was mainly formed by wood products businesses, carries a large carpenter’s ink marker, while the Xing’an group, composed mainly of traders, hoists a large abacus on their shoulders. Because the deity worshipped by each shetou is different, the giant immortals that accompany them are also different. Various figures, from Zhou Cang, Guan Ping (Guan Yu’s eldest son), and Guan Feng (Guan Yu’s daughter), to the all-seeing Qianliyan and all-hearing Shunfeng’er, the Third Prince, and the Lord of the Moon appear in turns. Set off against the background of the vintage streets, they create a bustling and dreamlike scene.

Living in a historic town

There are old streets in many localities in Taiwan, with no shortage of baroque-inspired architecture and plenty of restaurants with authentic local foods and shops selling gifts and souvenir items. But Daxi’s old quarter, which got the town named as one of Taiwan’s “Top Ten Small Towns for Tourism” in 2012, definitely has its extraordinary aspects.

Let’s start the story from the beginning. Daxi developed relatively early on, and an old flagstone trail running from the banks of the Dahan River to the top of the cliff that marks the edge of the plateau on which the town is built bears witness to its prosperous past. At that time, before the construction of the Taoyuan irrigation canal further upstream, the river flowed with great power. The trail, built with stones from the river bed, was the main artery for transporting goods. Tea and camphor from Mt. Jiaoban were carried down to the dock and shipped downriver to Da­dao­cheng and Huwei (today’s Tamsui).

The place’s unique advantages attracted the Lin Benyuan family (then one of Taiwan’s five leading clans and today better known as the Banqiao Lins) to set up an enterprise in Daxi. The Lins hired a number of craftsmen from the Chinese mainland to relocate to Daxi, which, along with the convenience of river transportation, was the origin of the woodworking tradition in the town.

Times have changed, and Daxi’s woodworking industry has declined. But it’s worth noting that thanks to the town’s convenient location, its good local services, and the leisurely pace of life, there has not been large-scale popu­lation outflow from Daxi.

All of Daxi is a museum

The foundation of the Daxi Wood Art Ecomuseum in 2015 marked a new milestone in the town’s development. The museum is housed in a group of renovated former Japanese police dormitory buildings along the clifftop overlooking the river.

The concept of the “ecomuseum” or “environmental museum” originated in Europe. Stepping inside the Wood Art Eco­museum you discover that unlike a typical museum, it does not have a huge, eye-catching exhibition space and clearly defined grounds; its buildings are low and scattered, and are not enclosed within a perimeter wall. Correspond­ingly, it aims to operate in a way that blends in with the local surround­ings, and invites community residents to get involved.

The museum’s role is no longer that of an authoritative institution looking down from an ivory tower, but rather a companion that assists in the process of cultural and historical reconstruction and in developing a sense of identity focused on local life and collective memories. “The key to environmental and cultural change should be people, so the work we focus on is all related to people, whether this be empowerment, exchanges, or paving the way for all kinds of possibilities,” says museum secretary Chen Pei-hsin. After several years of effort, local people can feel that little by little, Daxi is changing.

In its core missions of research and exhibitions, the museum has a strong focus on local culture. Through its outreach activities it has also attracted the participation of large numbers of Daxi residents who aspire to change their community. Some have begun to transform privately owned commercial or residential spaces into “street-­corner galleries,” or have independently organ­ized study partner­ships to interact with and learn from each other.

In the whole of Daxi District there are nearly 30 street-­corner galleries, such as the Sinnan 12 arts and crafts store, which is a renovated traditional residence. If visit­ors are ready to slow down a little and chat with the locals, they can hear some unique small-town stories.

From rosewood altars to designer furniture

Woodworking, Daxi’s most famous industry, can be traced back well over a century to the Qing Dynasty. In its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, there were two to three hundred businesses selling wood products in the town. But later, like many traditional craft industries, it could not compete with low-cost producers in mainland China and Southeast Asia. The increasingly widespread use of steel and plastic, and the advent of major furniture brands like Ikea, only hastened its decline. Today there are only a third as many wood products outlets in Daxi as when the industry was at its peak.

These are mainly small and medium-sized family enter­prises that have passed down through the genera­tions. Daxi has not given rise to any famous furniture brand names to rival those in the US, Europe, and Japan, yet its highly skilled craftspeople are still a precious asset of which local people are proud. Li Wangyu, founder of the Zhouyu Woodworking Company, asserts: “In terms of skills, we can compete with anyone in the world.”

Accordingly, woodworking businesses still in opera­tion in Daxi, especially those run by second- or third-­generation owners, are extremely active in trying to transform their industry. They want to carry forward the consummate skills inherited from the previous generations of craftsmen while at the same time making designer furniture to meet the needs of contemporary Taiwanese.

Li Wangyu, with a firm grasp of the skills and knowledge accumulated since his grandfather’s generation, decided six years ago to set up his own brand and founded Zhouyu Woodworking Company, with a focus on modern furniture. He has abandoned the heavy form and structure of traditional furniture, yet is doing his utmost to retain the traditions of Daxi’s solid-wood furniture and top-notch bespoke craftsmanship.

Whenever he receives an order for a custom-made piece, Li will discuss with the client in detail how they intend to use the furniture, and make adjustments accord­ingly. The items that his company produces are not varnished or painted; instead he uses a food-grade protect­ive oil, to enable customers to enjoy the experience of directly touching solid wood. He also shares with us various aspects of the meticulous production process, such as how the precision of a joint’s construction can deter­mine the durability of a piece of furniture. Another example is sliding doors, which must be made suitable for Taiwan’s hot, humid climate by leaving a gap between the frame and the door panels, so that the two-­layered panels can expand and contract without warping.

Thanks to the platform provided by the Wood Art Ecomuseum, second-generation woodworkers with similar thinking are able to support each other. Young craftsmen (including Li Wangyu) representing five different brands have organ­ized a study group that they call the Wood Creativity Nest. They not only share informa­tion but also boldly engage in exchanges with the outside world, in order to stimulate their creativity and seek vitality within tradition.

Carrying the burden of the glory days of the past, each step they take on the path of innovation and transformation is difficult. But for Daxi woodworking, whose fortunes have always been closely bound up with the lives of ordinary people, as long as those involved are willing to apply themselves steadfastly and gradually accumu­late experience, they will stand the test of time. Then they will surely reap the fruits of their labors, and live up to the famous name of Daxi.

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