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FYI SOUTH Magazine, August 2003. VOL.3 ISSUE 8

Cover Story:


By David Oakley

      Among the Westerners who have left a mark on southern Taiwan, few stand out more than a Spanish Dominican priest, Fernando Sainz, who not only founded two of southern Taiwan's finest churches, but also played a timely role in the protection of the Makatau people.

      When the Spanish and the Dutch came to Taiwan in the 17th century, the plains of southwest Taiwan were populated by Siraya and Makatau tribespeople. The aborigines proved ready converts to Christianity, yet found themselves progressively usurped from their land by subsequent waves of settlers from the Chinese mainland.

      After arriving at Kaohsiung in May 1859, Sainz quickly lost his traveling companion, and soon found himself sleeping alone on the beach. Eventually, sheer perseverance saw him obtain the land upon which today's Holy Rosary Cathedral now stands on WuFu Third Road.

      Sainz's mission to succor Christian families led him to travel east to the Makatau settlement of Bankimcheng (now better known as Wanchin), at the foot of the Central Mountain Range, to where the Makatau had been pushed by Hakka and Minnan immigrants. The Makatau embraced Father Sainz as a protector, and accepted his teachings, allowing the mission at Bankimcheng to be founded in 1861.

     Sainz traveled frequently between Kaohsiung and Wanchin, often at night, and skirting the towns to avoid robbery or worse. He broke his journey at the little mission of Kaoakhi, half a day on foot from Kaohsiung and two hours before Wanchin. By retracing Sainz's steps today one can learn more about Taiwan's history and enjoy some very particular sights.


      The route out of Kaohsiung skirts the airport and crosses the Kaoping River on the new Provincial Highway No. 88. The highway arrives in Pingtung County at Shepi Village, whose fertile soil was long occupied by the Siraya people. Today, the Siraya seem to have been wholly assimilated into the Minnan population.

      Skirting Wandan on Provincial Highway No. 27, and taking County Road No. 189 towards Chaojou, one soon crosses the Ailiao River. Before the Japanese built the massive dykes at Shuimen, the Ailiao River was one of the most dangerous in the region. The first village beyond the river is Kaoakhi, where nothing seems to remain of the little mission that had to be rebuilt three times after being destroyed in the 1860s and 1870s by xenophobic mobs.

     In Kaoakhi, County Highway No. 82 branches towards Jutian, passing betel-nut orchards, and into Hakka country. Deviating a little from Father Sainz's path, at Jutian one can head north towards Meiho on Provincial Highway No. 1 to understand more about the Hakka and the power of water.


      In Meiho there is a Tseng clan house which, though modest, is a very rare example of a U-shaped layout which shows both the defensive structure of the Hakka roundhouse as well as a geomantic focus on the ancestral shrine. Other Hakka sites can be found with the help of the friendly Pingtung Plains Cultural Association office, just north of the gas station as one enters Meiho, at 88 HsuehJen Road; Tel: (08) 769-0095.

      The lane beside the Tseng family home leads off across the Dunggang River toward Ssukuo and Wukuo, and on to Wanchin. The word "ditch" in the village names of Ssukuo ("four ditch") and Wukuo ("five ditch") refers to the irrigation channels dug in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Hakka that tended to marginalize the Makatau and led to fierce struggles over water rights between the two groups. It was to secure an irrigation source that the Dominicans purchased greater land holdings around Wanchin, ensuring both the self-sufficiency of the community and the church? dominance over their lives.

     Continuing on to Wukuo, one finds a village dominated by the clan house of the Liu family, which dates from 1864. The tablet beside the porch relates that the family is directly descended from the Han emperor of 2,000 years ago and implies that the Hakka were political refugees in Taiwan, not economic migrants. The swallowtail roof over the porch and central shrine reflect the Mandarin status of the family, which held extensive properties prior to land reform.


      From Wukuo it is but a short way to Wanchin, nestled beneath the imposing mountain fasts of the Paiwan. The basilica has been extensively restored and rebuilt over the years; only the main walls remain of the 1869 structure. Above the portal is the stone tablet by which the Qing emperor conferred imperial protection on the church and its congregation.

     Eighty percent of Wanchin's people are Catholic; most are Makatau. Much of the year this cluster of humble dwellings is a sleepy place, but on the second Sunday each December, at the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and at Christmas, thousands converge on the village from all over Taiwan.

      At the end of a journey, one's thoughts turn to food. Excellent Hakka-style noodles can be found in front of the basilica gates--this is appropriate, now that ethnic enmity is history. For a larger repast, an excellent choice is to head back to Wanluan to sample its famous pork leg.

      Wanchin has parishes in the mountain districts, such as one at Laiyi, in Paiwan territory. If you wish to extend your trip beyond Wanchin, Laiyi makes for very pleasant exploring.

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