FYI SOUTH Magazine, January 2003. VOL.3 ISSUE 1

Cover Story:


By Angelica Montgomery

      The importance of Hakka heritage to Meinung is obvious if you glance at a tour map of this famous Kaohsiung County town. Numerous cultural centers, shops and other attractions celebrate and exploit the long history of Taiwan's largest ethnic minority.

     Between 10 and 15 percent of Taiwan¡¦s people regard themselves as Hakka, but of Meinung's 50,000 residents, nearly 90 percent are Hakka. Their ancestors, drawn by the availability of fertile, well-watered land, began settling in the area during the first year of the reign of Qianlong, the Qing Dynasty emperor who ruled China from 1736 to 1796.

     Their history, from umbrellas to tobacco, music to ecology, is depicted in the expansive two-story Meinung Hakka Museum (some English-language pamplets refer to this place as the Kaohsiung County Meei-noog The Hakkas Museum).

     The museum provides a library and access to a database system for Hakka research. It also highlights significant points in Meinung's history. During the early era of settlement, conflicts with Minnan Taiwanese and aborigines were common, and led Meinung citizens to build walls and gates around the city.

     Unlike Minnan women, who would usually face the water when washing clothes in a stream, Hakka women did their laundry with their backs to the river, facing the bank, wary of invaders.

    Former President Lee Teng-hui is a Hakka; so was the late mainland Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Hakka people are widely respected for their work ethic and devotion to education. As part of a traditional regard for scholarship, paper was considered too valuable to be thrown away. Instead it was ritually burned, and a disused stove tower for this purpose still stands in Meinung. In the days of yore, waste paper would be burned in an annual public ceremony. The ashes were then thrown into the river that flows through the town.

     At one point nearly every Meinung home played some role in the labor-intensive tobacco harvest. The museum depicts the sheds used to dry the tobacco crop. These clever structures allowed the temperature to rise from 32¢XC to 73¢XC over eight days; the shed temperature could never be allowed to rise more than five degrees per day, or the tobacco would turn black. The people of Meinung harvested tobacco once a year, around the Lunar New Year. During this time, smoke would rise from tobacco sheds near almost every homestead.

    Hakka traditional song also has a connection to farm life. Songs often took the form of lyrical exchanges between the men and women working the fields. Hakka soceity was notably conservative, so the words passed between the men and women expressed emotion through innuendo and double-meanings.

     The museum also discusses the impact of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan on Meinung. Japanese police built a gate to the settlement, and used it to monitor and suppress the population. After the Japanese departed at the end of World War II, villagers tore down the Japanese east gate to erase this painful history, and built a new one which stands today.

     The Meinung Hakka Museum is open from 10 am to 4 pm Tuesday to Friday and 9 am to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday. It is closed on Mondays and national holidays. On weekends and important occasions, musicians perform in the museum courtyard.

     Down another one of Meinung¡¦s quite roads, the Lei Cha House Tea shop (see page 18) serves a Hakka tea that nobility enjoyed 1,000 years ago. Guests are invited to don traditional blue Hakka frocks and dine on "yen-yeh fan," tobacco-leaf rice (NT$ 50).

     In recent years Meinung has become synonymous with the making of painted umbrellas. This craft is actually a relatively recent introduction: In 1920 a Hakka businessman from Meinung visited mainland China, and after seeing the beauty of oil-paper umbrellas made there, decided to import the skill to Meinung. The Yuan Shiang Yuan Cultural Village, which contains shops selling hand-made pottery, works of art, Paiwan glass beads and other gifts, stocks some of the most celebrated umbrellas in Meinung.

    Visitors can see the oil-paper umbrellas in the process of being handmade. Each umbrella takes around four-and-a-half hours to make, and sells for between NT$600 and NT$1200, depending on its size. Umbrellas with a hand-painted image of a woman cost more than those with flowers or birds because of the extra detail required. According to Lin Hsiu-man, a third-generation umbrella maker, these works of art can be used for up to eight years, but require careful looking after.
Visitors with their own transportation should try to spend some time outside the town, where the fields are still tilled by Hakka farmers. If anything, Hakka culture and traditional architecture survives even better there than in downtown Meinung, and provides outsiders with an additional perspective on this enduring ethnic group.

     Since the opening of Freeway No. 10, which connects Kaohsiung City and Chishan, driving to Meinung has become much easier and quicker. If you do arrive from the Chishan direction, check out the YiMin Temple before heading into the downtown. Other attractions include Chungcheng Lake, close to the Meinung Hakka Museum, and the Shuanghsi Forest Area, several kilometers to the east.