Last weekend I visited Hsinchu City 新竹市 and rented a scooter to visit some of the more distant areas from the central train station. Along the way my attention was drawn to this traditional home on the margins of the north side of town. Hsinchu, like most other cities in Taiwan 台灣, is gradually replacing its agricultural frontier with modern subdevelopments, but this home has somehow escaped the wave of demolition that obviously swept through most of the rest of the area. The man in the picture had little to say before returning to his garden. Apparently the abandoned house beyond is a hundred years old—but anything more about its history will remain a mystery for now.
Several months ago, after researching and writing a piece about the Qingkunshen Fan-Shaped Saltern 青鯤鯓扇形鹽田 of Tainan 台南, I ventured out to Lukang 鹿港 in search of the Lukang Saltworks 鹿港鹽場, a Japanese colonial era saltern that shut down in the 1960s. Whereas there are several good resources outlining the history of southern Taiwan’s salt industry I found nothing similar for anything north of the Zhuóshuǐ River 濁水溪, the traditional dividing line between north and south Taiwan 台灣. Turning to Google Maps I browsed satellite imagery for evidence of salt evaporation ponds (here is a historic photo of one of Lukang’s salt fields to give you an idea of what I was looking for). I soon noticed a street by the name of Yánchéng Lane 鹽埕巷, literally “Salt Yard Lane”, as well as several sites with grid-like structures obscured by overgrowth. When the opportunity arose to borrow a scooter in the area I jumped at the chance to put this cartographic sleuthing to the test. Was there any chance I’d find some relic of an industry that vanished half a century ago?
After spending a day riding around Pingtung City I was ready to hit the road again. With no specific destination in mind—only an intention to head in the direction of Hengchun 恆春, far to the south—I checked out of the vintage homestay I lodged at the previous night, stopped at Eske Place Coffee House for a delicious and healthy vegetarian breakfast, changed into cycling wear, and exited the city to the east. I knew almost nothing about where I was headed or what I might see on the third day of my south Taiwan ride in 2015. I only had one stop planned in advance: a hospital in Chaozhou 潮州 rumoured to be abandoned. I didn’t know it at the time but I would spend almost the entire day riding through the historic Hakka belt of Pingtung 屏東.
I briefly visited Meinong 美濃 in July of 2014 while cycling around southern Taiwan 台灣. I hadn’t done any planning prior to arrival and knew nothing of what I was getting myself into nor what sights I should have made an effort to see. I was navigating almost exclusively by instinct, riding in whatever direction seemed interesting, simply to see what was there. Gathered here are several of my photos from a few uninformed hours in this bucolic rural township in Kaohsiung 高雄.
Recently I have experienced a novel physical sensation: bee sting, or something like it. Last week while riding a scooter through the hazy agricultural fields of Mingjian 名間 in the western part of Nantou 南投 I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my exposed leg. I impulsively reached down to brush something aside—possibly the body of an insect—before glancing down to dislodge a small, black object that might have been a stinger.
I say “might” because my recollection of the sequence of events should be considered suspect. Everything happened so quickly that I can’t really be sure if the aforementioned events actually took place. It is, after all, a very human trait to manufacture narratives from fragmentary data in memory, and even skeptics like myself are subject to such things. It might have also been a wasp or hornet or something else entirely—perhaps a piece of grit or glass from the road?
At any rate, the bite or sting or whatever it was soon became so painful that I had to pull to the roadside to take a closer look at what was going on. I haven’t been stung before but members of my family are extremely allergic to bees and I worried that I might have a serious problem to contend with out on these obscure country roads. I’m the sort of guy who goes to get a cavity filled without anesthetic so I can handle pain—but this was absolutely excruciating.
Not having any better plan I continued north along highway 139乙 and made the ascent to the Bagua Plateau 八卦台地 (also the Bagua Mountain Range 八卦山脈) in search of a convenience store where I could at least slap a bandage on whatever it was as the wind whipping across the wound greatly exacerbated the pain. Before long I had it dealt with—and thanks to the magic of endorphins the pain became far more manageable and I made it back to Taichung 台中 in time.
Now, more than a week later, I’ve cycled through a number of unusual symptoms, and the wound remains an angry red bullseye the size of my palm, hot to touch and itchy as fuck. I’m not worried about going to the doctor or anything—my interest in posting this is mainly to recount an experience unusual for me. I’ve never been stung by a bee, or have I? Probably maybe, but possibly not. Yet another uncertainty that will be compacted over time, like memory, into something more prosaic, a simple “yes”, if only to spare others the needless complexity of my internal skeptic.
This is what all betel nut booths in Taiwan 台灣 should look like. Betel nut, if you don’t know, is a scourge on the landscape, a public health nuisance, and the cause of unsightly stains on the ground wherever you go. It is a USD$1 billion dollar crop, the second most important in Taiwan after rice, and consumed by about 10% of the population.
I went out on a road trip through rural Chiayi 嘉義 in May 2014. It was one of those days where you couldn’t be certain what the weather might do next. The mountains to the east were shrouded in thick tangles of dark, roiling clouds, always looking like they might break off and sweep across the western plains at any moment. Thankfully, this was as bad as it got—a light sun shower out on backcountry roads. If you look closely you might even see the faint streak of raindrops as they fall to earth.
Areca palm plantations are commonly found in the foothills of western Taiwan 台灣. These palms are cultivated for the Areca nut, which is combined with Betel leaf and various other ingredients (usually slaked lime and sometimes chewing tobacco) to produce what is commonly known as “betel nut”, or bīnláng 檳榔, a stimulant popular among blue-collar workers. This carcinogenic concoction is chewed, producing a distinctive blood red discoloration of the teeth and gums, and typically spit out onto the street.
I have been working very hard these last few weeks—a little too hard, at times. To break the monotony of laying code every day I elected to go for a proper ride yesterday. Since moving to Tainan City 台南市 I haven’t gone on any long rides whatsoever—so I geared up for a day on the road, preparing for almost any eventuality. I had several destinations in mind such as the badlands to the east of the city but struck out to the north on a whim, intending to make it to at least Chiayi City 嘉義市 by sundown.
On the sixth day of my round-the-island bicycle trip I set out across the Chianan plain, a desolate expanse of countryside littered with rice paddies, fish farms, salt pans, the occasional factory or industrial plant, and small, unremarkable settlements. My destination was Budai 布袋, a fishing town in Chiayi 嘉義, where I planned to catch a ferry to Penghu 澎湖, a group of picturesque islands in the Taiwan Strait, the following day.