Final reflection – Joy of travelling is finding gems hidden in the crooks and crannies of a small town.
We were initially a bit horrified that we are going to be stuck in this little village with no internet access (we had to borrow the town’s chief computer for internet) for the next 7 weeks. I remember on the 2nd day after arriving in Neiwan, we made our way to Taipei city which took us 3 hours including waiting time for bus and trains. Mr Chang (張學義 ) understands that most people would want to visit Taipei where the city and tall skyscrapers are. However, he told us to give Neiwan a chance, to really explore the intricacies of this little town and experience the warmth of the locals here. Turns out, Neiwan more than anywhere else in Taiwan, gave me the most rewarding experience on this trip.
Whenever I walk the streets of Neiwan, I get overwhelmed by an Indescribable feeling of being connected to something larger than myself. Maybe it’s the community spirit, the way the locals seem to know each other, their generosity, and their eagerness to lend a helping hand that makes this place special. I love how close-knitted the community is. How a village ah ma would ask a stallholder how her son is doing and whether she is still getting the joint pains. I love the smiles of the locals and children on the sidewalk, the big black dogs, and the friendly policeman. It felt like home away from home, and I know that the memories here will still linger on, long after I have left this place.
Taiwan is rich in its history, art and cultures because of great efforts by the government and officials such as Mr Chang (張學義), in preserving the various language, customs and traditions of aboriginals and locals on the island. Neiwan is a successful example of such an attempt.
It is hard to come by a beautiful treasure like Neiwan. It has retained the architecture of the Japanese colonial times which can especially be seen from the famous cinema theatre on Neiwan’s old street. Home to a Hakka community, Neiwan is well-known for Hakka delicacies such as Lei Cha and Qi ba (mua chee), although due to influences from the Fujian and aboriginal groups living in neighbouring towns, most of any other Taiwanese street food can be found as well. Under the guidance of Mr Zhan, the locals have cleverly capitalized on the wild ginger flower grown locally, making Neiwan the only place in Taiwan selling wild ginger flower food products.
Today, Neiwan Old Street turns into a buzzling food street on weekends and there are an overwhelming number of fun-filled activities to occupy your day in the surrounding barbeque chalets, music cafés, funfairs and go-karting operators. Birthplace to the famous cartoonist Liu Hsing-chin, you see posters and replicas of comic characters Auntie (大嬸婆) and Third Uncle (阿三哥) all around Neiwan, making you feel as though you are in a comic strip village. Stay till 7pm and during the right season, and you get to witness the most amazing dance of fireflies in the mountains just behind Neiwan suspension bridge.
Having stayed in Neiwan for 7 weeks, I am more than convinced that if given half a day and a choice between Taipei and Neiwan, one should definitely come to Neiwan. The thrill of travelling is going on the path less travelled and discovering new places which the normal tourist wouldn’t dare venture or would generally give a miss. Neiwan gives you an experience like no other which is bound to exceed expectations ever imaginable. Be delightfully surprised again and again as you explore the miracles of this wonderful place in the northern part of Taiwan. The occasional handwritten road signs, mini tram, colourful candies, and freshly baked cookies, it is like Disneyland in a Chinese painting of mountains and rivers. So if you want spontaneous and endless fun in discovering an authentic Hakka culture, and be welcomed by the friendliest people on earth.. look no further than Neiwan
Born in 1934 to a farming family in a Hakka village in Hsichu country, Liu found his inspiration for drawing cartoons after witnessing a flyer dropped by a US bomber world war II and decided that cartoons could better than words, portray the meaning of events and daily livelihood of people and wildlife.
In the 1950s, primary school students in Hong Kong were infatuated with comics and there was a craze for comics on the supernatural powers. Many of these students skipped school to visit the comic stands and would even run away to the nearby mountains in seek of these supernatural powers. This cost the lives of many students who lost their way.
Seeing this, Liu grabbed the opportunity to create a comic book entitled “Fairy Tales” which relates a story about a boy so infatuated with comic books and their tales of supernatural powers that he decides to go into the mountains in seek of them. He ended up having to suffer much hardship and was finally found by his family. This book was very well received and he became famous overnight. Many parents bought the book for their children to read so as to remind them the dangers of being bewitched by fantasies. Building on to this success, Liu’s subsequent cartoons had a more educational aspect to them as they taught about filial piety and compassion. He created the much famed comic characters Big Auntie a clumsy spinster, who represents her mother, and Brother A-san, a country bumpkin, taking after himself. Most of his characters and comic tales were inspired by villagers from his hometown.
Liu did not perform well in school but was a natural genius and problem solver. He came up with simple solutions to everyday problems and had invented more than 300 devices and patented more than 138 of them in Taiwan the US.
Liu Hsing-ching and Neiwan
After his retirement in Florida in 1993, Liu’s comic helped to revive Neiwan, a mining village near his howntown. Liu licensed the village to use his comic characters for free. As a result, life size statues and street signs of Big Auntie & Brother A-san turned Neiwan into a comic strip village attracting droves of tourists in recent years. Liu also licensed several restaurants and street stalls to use Big Auntie and Brother A-san as their brand name and operators had to show that they are constantly providing quality product and service in order to renew this license.
A Comic and invention museum in Neiwan showcases Liu’s work and is a must-visit tourist attraction of the village. Life size comic characters in attractive-looking huts make a great place to snap beautiful photos. You can see many comic characters scribbled on the wooden walls of the museum and even in their toilets. (People in his time could not afford Pencils and paper and he had to draw on walls with charcoal instead). Below are some photos of this museum.
This museum is opened by the same boss of the cinema theatre and all the collections inside belongs to him. Amazing!! Why? Because the boss looks really young like in his late 30s. Well to be fair, the stuff inside are not as old as in the prehistoric times. It’s the stuff which you grandparents might still have. Still it is a great place to see what your grandparents used in the past especially for Singaporeans in our pigeon-hole high rise flats, our grandparents might have already dumped most of them in favour for modern goods. Take for example my professor in his 50s. He has an iphone which I don’t have!
Kettles, pots and pans which you can still find in traditional Chinese restaurants today.
Matchboxes from the past. The shape is similar to the ones we have now just that he design on it is much more colourful and cartoon-like? think of bugs bunny cartoon. get the idea?
Rattan baskets which people bring to the wet markets to keep groceries and bring practically everywhere else as handbags. I like them. I see a lot of them in the hong kong dramas I watch.
Cookies and biscuit tins from the past. I think biscuits brands such as Hup Seng with a longer history and which cater to the older population still use metal tins now. But its interesting to see many of the different tin packagings which have phased out by now.
Bedroom and clothes of Chinese from traditional families. Red is frequently used because it’s an auspicious colour for the Chinese. The flower print you see on the bed, I think it’s only unique to the hakka culture. I see similar flower prints on curtains, cushions and tote bags all over Neiwan
Pull carts and makeshift stalls from the past. I think I still see these in Singapore hawker centres which want to create a more traditional and oriental ambience for their customers. An example is the Food republic in Vivo City. The picture on the left somehow makes me think of dim sum and har gaw ahah
Records from the past is huge and the picture on the right shows the layout of a typical shop in the old days. Look at the abacus and posters on the wall.
This museum also showcases the history of taiwan and the hakka community. it details the events which occurred during world war II and has real photograhs from the past as evidence.
This uncle here sells the best black sugar cake in the whole of Taiwan. He has recently won an award in a country-wide competition and has his black sugar cake listed in a book “2011 The Taiwan Hakka Specialty”. His shop is called “Mudan black sugar cake” in English. Mudan is his mother’s name.
There are a few stalls selling black sugar cake in Neiwan but you will definitely get the best quality one if you buy from him. Why do I say so? One day I noticed he wasn’t open for business when he was supposed to. I asked him about it and he told me that some people were drilling holes in the road outside his shop and the dust might land on his cakes. He said he is responsible for what his customers buy and would feel uneasy to continue selling the cakes in such condition. I was really surprised by his response. I mean I didn’t find the drilling problems actually because his cakes were wrapped in plastic were a distance away from the construction site. I guess he truly wants the best for his customers
Anyway, he believes that anyone can make good black sugar cake if they have the heart and commitment to do so and he is generous enough to share his secrets with us. He buys his rice from Miaoli because the quality of imported rice or rice from the North of Taipei tends to vary but he needed consistency in the quality of the grains in order to ensure that every cake turns out perfect after being cooked in predetermined temperature. He makes a fresh batch of cakes every morning which he sells all by the end of the day. Preparation begins the night as he has to soak the rice in water. He makes sure he leaves the rice overnight to that they have absorbed sufficient water. Next he uses the F-16 high speed grinding and separating machine to separate the grin and separate the rice I think haha. He then uses a white semi porous bag to squeeze the water out of the rice. This is the key to why his cakes are so good. Most shops will just use a large sieve to remove the water, but he wanted to retain the flavor of the rice threads I’m not sure what it is actual term but it’s the stuff you get after soaking rice in water for a long time. It has much similarity to the process of making beancurd (tofu hua). They also use a white semi porous cloth to sieve out the water. Another secret lies in the brown sugar. He stocks large quantities of brown sugar in his storeroom for months before use. He told us that the longer it is kept, the sweeter is will become. All I can say is that I’m truly amazed by his professionalism, dedication and commitment to making the best black sugar cake for his customers. It is a lot of work but he uses his heart in making every single one. You could tell by how he carries each and every of his cakes out like they were precious stones making sure that they are wrapped nicely and in perfect condition at all times. He is doing really well now. He makes and sells a huge quantity every day and sometimes he even has to turn away customers because they are all sold out before closing time.
This is a picture of his pet parrot and he chirps “Ni how! mu dan hei tang kao (Hi mudan black sugar cake)” out of the blue sometimes. How amusing!
Hakka of the Han Chinese family originally from the northern provinces of Henan and Shanxi in China, came to Taiwan in the 17th century settling in the northern mountainous areas of Taiwan – Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli & Kaoshiung-pingdong areas.
Neiwan is part of the Hengshan Township in Hsinchu. It is accessible by the Neiwan Branch Railway line – a smaller branch line operated by the Taiwan Railway administration which runs up the valley from Zhutong to Neiwan. Neiwan is well-known for its wild ginger flower and it is used in many of its delicacies. Cherry trees are in full bloom during January and February and Tong flowers, also known as “Snow of May” (五月雪) bloom in late spring.
Neiwan is also the birthplace of the famous cartoonist Liu Hsing-chin who is well-known for his creation of Auntie (大嬸婆) and Third Uncle (阿三哥) comic characters. These cartoon characters can be seen all around Neiwan on posters and shop signs.
On the way back to our homestay, we saw the roast pork stall still open. The owner doesn’t have a place to sleep so sleeps in his stall at night. He was packing up when we passed by and were surprised when he called out to us. He cooked us each a stick of roast pork with extra chilli (because we wanted it spicy) and even gave as a box of salad for breakfast tomorrow morning.