Visiting Taiwan – Experiencing Hakka Culture in Beipu

17 Oct
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Beipu Old Street (北埔老街)offers visitors a collection of local Hakka delicacies.

Although the vast majority of Taiwan’s population is Han Chinese (indigenous people make up only about 2% of the population) there are still many sub-divisions of this group living on the island.  One of the biggest groups is the Hakka people.  Hakka people represent about 20% of Taiwan’s population and although you will find them all around the island, the majority still live in the hills of Miaoli, Hsinchu and Kaohsiung Counties.  The Hakka people are believed to originally be from the Central Chinese mountains, but the emigrated south to the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, and from there some made their way to Taiwan.  Although, they are similar to the Hoklo people who make up 70% of Taiwan’s population, they also differ in many ways and have very distinct clothing, architecture and cuisine as well as their own language.

Beipu is located in the foothills of Eastern Hsinchu County and is the major Hakka town in the north of the island  (Meinong, in Kaohsiung county being the southern town) and has a population of around 97% Hakka.  The Hakka people first moved out to Beipu about 150 years ago as they were pushed away from the coastline  as the villages became over-populated.  This caused a great deal of friction with the indigenous people (the Saisiyat tribe) living in the area and the town of Beipu suffered many attacks.  This is one reason that nowadays the old part of the town resembles a maze, with narrow alleys that seem to lead round in circles confusing many a visiting tourist.  During the Japanese Occupation Era the town of Beipu prospered due to the presence of the nearby coal mines.  However this period of Beipu’s history was not entirely a happy one.  Suffering under the continuous oppression of the Japanese Colonialists , in 1907 a group of Hakka insurgents supported by members of the Saisiyat tribe killed 57 Japanese officers and their families in Beipu.  This was the first such armed resistance against Japanese rule and the retaliation from the Japanese was quick and brutal.  Over 100 Hakka were killed by Japanese soldiers over the following days, the majority of which being young males.

The Old Town Area

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Citian Temple, Beipu (北埔慈天宮) is a Daoist temple located in Hsinchu County and is a grade three listed historical building.

 

Despite the mixed fortunes of the town’s history, today it enjoys and flourishes in it’s status as northern Taiwan’s premier Hakka town.  The town has been steadily promoted in recent years, and with good reason, walking around the old part of the town many of the original buildings have been preserved or renovated (in keeping with their original look) and it provides a chance to see a kind of architecture not found anywhere else on the island.  This area is dotted with National and County Heritage Sites, some of which you are free to walk around – Ci Tian Temple, others require a booking in advance to organize a (highly recommended) tour.  It is possible to spend a few hours just walking through the narrow alleys and maze-like cobbled side streets around here.  Just behind the Ci Tian Temple is the legendary Ding Dong Bridge, which isn’t really much of a bridge at all.  It is a stone pathway that makes a ‘ding dong’ sound as you step on each paving stone – thus alerting the townspeople that someone was coming!

Ding Dong Bridge

Ding Dong Bridge, Beipu (北埔叮咚橋) The stone slabs were set up to make a 'ding dong' sound to alert people that intruders were coming.

Don’t follow the crowd (which there isn’t on weekdays) just find your own way and see what you can discover.  It is also worthwhile making your way toward the hill (Xiuluan hill) behind the town and following the signs for a pleasant walk through the forest.  There a also a few memorials located around here to celebrate the birth of the town and commemorate the Beipu Uprising.

Lei Tea

Lei Tea

Lei Tea, Beipu (北埔 擂茶) This delicious drink, now a Hakka staple, was first drunk by soldiers in China during the Three Kingdoms Period.

When you feel the need for a rest, duck into one of the many traditional tea houses that a located everywhere around the edge of the old town.  You might be in for a surprise at these tea houses because they won’t be serving green tea or oolong, the tea of choice in this area is called ‘lei’ tea.  The word ‘lei’ in Chinese means ‘to grind’ and that is exactly how this tea is made – by grinding together tea leaves with herbs, seeds, nuts and grains.  The result is a thick powdery liquid, the taste depends on your choice of ingredients, but the consistency is not unlike a slightly watery porridge.  The drink is said to have first been made during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, when Zhang Fei (a military general) was leading his troops into battle.  His troops were exhausted, so he turned to a herb doctor for help.  The doctor ground down tea leaves, ginger, rice and then boiled it with water to make it into a drink.  The drink strengthened the weak soldiers by providing them with a great source of energy and ‘lei’ tea was born.

Hakka Cuisine

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Hakka Cuisine, Beipu (客家菜) 板條 bantiao (Flat Noodles), 碳烤鹹豬肉 Salty Pork, 珂家豆腐 (Hakka Tofu)

In addition to the many tea houses that line the streets of Beipu there are also countless Hakka restaurants, too.  They do vary in quality from inedible to incredible so be careful when choosing somewhere.  There are many on the main street, but it would pay to have a look around the maze of streets in the old part of town and find somewhere with a bit more character, too.  Finding somewhere good is well worth it as the Hakka cuisine available here is so much better than the bland excuse they serve as Hakka food in most restaurants in Taipei.  Be warned though, Hakka cuisine is very salty – I’m told this is because they would work outside all day in the heat and sweat profusely so they would need the excess salt in their diet to help them absorb fluids more efficiently.   Very few of the restaurants have English menus (and those that do, don’t make a great deal of sense) so it is worth looking around to see what others are eating first!  A few suggestions –

板條 ‘ban tiao’ – a kind of flat noodle cooked with pork, garlic and onions

碳烤鹹豬肉 ‘tan kao xian zhu rou’ – Barbecued Salty Pork

梅干爌肉 ‘mei gan kuang rou’ –  Pork belly with dried plums

客家小炒 ‘ke jia chao cai’ – A traditional Hakka stir-fry, usually with onions, Chinese chives and assorted seafood

Wuzhishan (Five Finger Mountain)

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Sacred Cave, Wuzhishan (仙洞,五指山) Joss sticks and ghost money were burning by this shrine carved into the mountainside.

After that meal you will probably want to get some exercise and burn off a few of those calories.  An excellent place for this is the nearby mountain trail of Wuzhishan or Five Finger Mountain.  There is a local road that leads up from the the town to the entrance to the trail.  The road is sign posted all the way in English and Chinese.  On the way you will pass by the rather dilapidated Beipu Cold Springs.  The water doesn’t look particularly clean and I wouldn’t recommend bathing in it despite the supposed health benefits the spring water has.  However, the spring is located by a beautiful stream with a man-made waterfall that is an excellent spot to cool off on a hot day.  Just before you reach the trail entrance you will come across a series of bizarre looking temples that are worth a visit, but even better is the view of Beipu and surrounding area that can be seen from the view point opposite the temples.

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Sacred Cave, Wuzhishan

The Wuzhishan trail takes about 3-4 hours to complete in a circular route and reaches a height of over 1000 metres above  sea level.  If that sounds too much, then you take an hour walk up to ‘Thumb Mountain’ or a little ten minute stroll down a trail from the temples that takes you to a small cave cut into the rock called ‘xian dong’ or sacred cave.  The forest round here is really beautiful, especially around fall when the leaves begin to change to a brownish red color.

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Wuzhishan Forest Trail, Beipu (五指山步道) The forest, mainly comprises of pine trees and the much sought after camphor trees.

More Information

Beipu Map

Beipu Map - A map in Chinese of the attractions around Beipu, Hsinchu County.

To get to Beipu by public transport from Taipei, first take the 1820 bus (King bus 國光客運)  from Taipei Bus Station to Zhudong (about 1.5 hours) then transfer to the 5627 bus (Hsinchu 新竹客運)to Beipu this should only take about 20 minutes.

You can ride a scooter there from Taipei, it only takes about 2 hours (straight down the number 3) and then it makes things a lot easier if you want to visit Wuzhishan.

More information on Hakka Culture

Other nearby attractions include Green World, Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area, Neiwan and Nanzhuang.

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5 Responses to “Visiting Taiwan – Experiencing Hakka Culture in Beipu”

  1. Fili October 17, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    Terrific photos, great writeup.
    Haven’t been to Beipo, yet. 😛

    Twitted.

    • Phil October 17, 2010 at 6:57 am #

      Man, that was a quick reply!

      It is certainly worth a visit sometime. There seems to be a lot of things in that area that are worth an explore.

  2. Daz October 17, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Nice post buddy. I love the photos. What effect or processing did you do on them? They have nice colors and shading.

    This place looks very nice for a day walking around. I will try to get there on one of my days off on Thursdays. 🙂

    • Phil October 17, 2010 at 11:30 am #

      Thanks mate. I have never really used anything to edit my photos before so I just thought I would try it out. I think I might have overdone it with some of them.

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  1. Northern Taiwan « Taiwan Stories - October 21, 2010

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