Gongguan and Yuanli: Small and “Slow” Towns in Miaoli County

Cultural Landscapes – Rich and Colorful

TEXT / RICK CHARETTE
PHOTOS / CHEN CHENG-KUO


Enjoy a glimpse into the local rural environment with quiet and pleasant wanderings around two “Taiwan Small Town Ramble” destinations in hilly Miaoli County.

Considering the relatively small size of Taiwan, there is incredible terrain variation. Almost two-thirds are high hills and soaring mountains. In the center, over 200 peaks rise above 3,000 meters. Around the perimeter are flatlands made deeply fertile by the mineral-rich silts washed down from on high.

This terrain tapestry, in turn, has been a key in crafting the tremendous personality variation of the island’s towns and villages. This rich and colorful cultural landscape is being celebrated by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau with the 2019 Taiwan Small Town Ramble promotional campaign (feversocial.com/2019town/Home-6459; Chinese), sculpting a distinct “local town” tourism brand. Selections include “classic towns” of various counties and cities in Taiwan, “theme towns” recommended by various ministries – such as Hakka towns – indigenous tribal villages, and towns certified as slow-paced cities by Cittaslow International (www.cittaslow.org). The definition of “town” is expansive, encompassing administratively independent towns, former towns now absorbed as city districts, and neighborhoods or “old streets” long part of a larger urban agglomeration.

Miaoli countryside

In this issue we visit Miaoli County, renowned for its hilly terrain, a place where most towns arose centuries ago in the small pockets of fertile flatland between the hilly folds. Our two chosen destinations are Gongguan and Yuanli.

Gongguan

Old Farming Village Life and Products, Hakka Cuisine, Engineering Relics, and Oil-Drilling History

Situated in Miaoli’s central area, in its lower reaches before debouching into the Taiwan Strait, the meandering Houlong River has carved out a broad and long fertile valley between the hills. The small city of Miaoli, population just 90,000, sits on the plain along the river not far upstream from the mouth – the word itself, “Miaoli,” is a Chinese rendering of the word for “plain” in the language of the original indigenous inhabitants. Gongguan Township is at the valley head, where the river emerges abruptly from the mountains through a gorge.

Small town Miaoli

Gongguan was the last Miaoli plain area settled by Han Chinese, and attack from the hills by native warriors was long a threat. The residents of Shiqiang Village, on the river looking directly into the gorge, laboriously built a protective stone wall (i.e., “shiqiang”) 7m high and 6 deep using rounded river stones. Vestiges of this great wall, knocked down to 2m in an earth-shattering 1935 earthquake, are visible along the quiet streets and alleys. The village is also known for ceramics production, and visitors pass by a number of old red-brick studios and high-quality artworks depicting rural scenes on building walls. Another village icon is the Chinese jujube; local production originated on the great wall itself, with the prickly plants used as an extra attack deterrent.

Walking through Shiqiang Village I

Walking through Shiqiang Village II

Hilly Miaoli has a heavy Hakka population. Most ancestors of the Hakka, a Han Chinese minority with a distinct dialect and cultural expressions, came from the mountainous northeast of mainland China’s Guangdong Province. The well-known yet modest-price Full Love Noodles restaurant in Fuji Village to the east of Shiqiang serves classic Hakka fare. The interior décor is simple yet tasteful. Adding to the attractiveness of the wood-theme exterior are the rushing waters of the valley’s irrigation-channel system, carried down from the nearby hills for over a century. The best of the eatery’s best dishes are the bantiao noodles, stir-fried tofu with salted egg, and roast salty pork.

Bantiao noodles
Roasted salty pork

Full Love Noodles
(樂福麵店)
Add: No. 121, Fuji Village, Gongguan Township, Miaoli County
(苗栗縣公館鄉福基村121號)
Tel: (03) 722-4455
Website: www.facebook.com/FullLoveNoodles

Next door is the Gongguan Farmers’ Association Fuji Branch, housed in an airy smart-looking building of modernist mien. Its shelves are filled with score upon score of agricultural products, processed and not, that encapsulate the distinctions of Gongguan culture. Happily sampled on-site by the Travel in Taiwan team on the research trip for this article were mulberry and Chinese jujube ice-cream cones. Happily taken home were packaged Hakka-style mochi, taro-flavor noodles, jujube chocolate, jujube tea, and plum wine.

Farmer’s Market
Jujube chocolate

Up the gorge just a few kilometers from the entrance is the impossible-to-miss Chuhuangkeng Suspension Bridge, its pastel-red steel framework, contrasting sharply with the rich greens of the mountainsides and the browns and grays of the lower cliffs and mostly exposed riverbed, jumping out at the eye as the bridge leaps the river. Built by the Japanese in 1927 during the Japanese colonial period (1895~1945), between then and 1977 this was the only artery for vehicles to cross the gorge. Macaques use it for the same reason; if here in the early morning, watch for them playing high up in the cables.

Chuhuangkeng Suspension Bridge

The main local road snakes along the base on the gorge’s north side. On the south, just west of the suspension bridge, is the Taiwan Oil Field Exhibition Hall. It is located on the site of Taiwan’s first oil-drilling location, opened with the help of American engineers in 1861. The hall itself is a treat, with a variety of exhibits on Taiwan’s oil and natural-gas industry, but the big thrill is the “ghost complex” spread up the lower mountainside beside – old drilling platforms, workshops, and dormitories, a medical clinic, and even a section of steep-slope tram railway (good English explanatory signage). These facilities are located at the mouth of a short side valley where the trailhead of the 1.8km Chuhuangkeng Historic Trail is also located, taking walkers up to viewing pavilions with stupendous views of the gorge below and central mountains beyond.

At the Taiwan Oil Field Exhibition Hall
Old oil pumping equipment
Old oil rig

Back on the main gorge road, just west of the suspension bridge is a narrow side road that leads up another small side valley, to the Luye Guan Yun Homestay. Built of wood in rustic Western cottage style, this is a popular day-tripper spot for afternoon tea (good coffees and smoothies too) and first-rate Hakka food. The views down the heavily wooded valley and across the face of the gorge from the spacious dining deck, white tung-tree blossoms floating through the air like oversized snowflakes, are delicious. There is both constant birdsong and sightings, the most colorful on Travel in Taiwan’s recent trip being Muller’s barbets, Formosan blue magpies, and black-throated tits.

Luye Guan Yun Homestay
Coffee and tung-tree blossoms
Muller’s barbet

Luye Guan Yun Homestay
(鹿野觀雲民宿)
Add: No. 35-11, Fude Village, Gongguan Township, Miaoli County
(苗栗縣公館鄉福德村35-11號)
Tel: (03) 723-9988

Yuanli

Old-Time Brick/Tile and Triangle-Rush Craft Production, Traditional Hakka Sanheyuan, Fishing Harbor Sunsets

Yuanli Township, in Miaoli’s southwest corner, was one of Miaoli’s earliest-settled areas. It lies on the north side of the wide plain at the mouth of the Da’an River, one of Taiwan’s major waterways, and has long been nicknamed “Miaoli’s granary.” Today the township is home to 3,000ha dedicated to rice, with organic-rice production a flourishing sub-sector. As will be seen, rush-weaving was also long an important local craft industry, today contributing primarily to the tourist trade.

The Yuanli Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall houses displays on how locals have crafted daily-use items from triangle rushes since the early 1800s. Indigenous women taught Han Chinese settlers how triangle-rush mats stayed cool to the touch in summer, and Han women later began producing bags, hats, and other items, most shipped to mainland China. During Taiwan’s period of Japanese colonial rule international exports grew substantially, with rush-woven products becoming Taiwan’s third-largest export category after sugar and rice in the 1920s~1930s.

Yuan-Li Country Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall
Woven items on display
Woven hat

Fine works created by local talent are sold at the hall’s gift shop. As well, check out the surrounding triangle-rush fields, and from the nearby lookout tower view a large paddy cleverly transformed into a classical Chinese “painting” by strategically growing rice plants of different colors.

“Field painting”

Yuanli Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall
(藺草文化館)
Add: No. 65, Weigong Rd., Yuanli Township, Miaoli County
(苗栗縣苑裡鎮為公路65號)
Tel: (037) 862-141
Website: www.yuanli.org.tw (Chinese)

Through much of the 20th century, Yuanli was also a key Taiwan brick and tile producer. This era ended with the advent of concrete, and in recent decades most brick operations on the island have been shuttered. The Jin Liang Shing (JLS) Brick Factory does not fit this mold, however. Founded in 1973, it thrives today, and it transformed itself into Taiwan’s only brick-and-tile-theme tourist factory in 2004. Guided tours commence with a video (English subtitles) on JLS and area production, where the hills provide premium grey-color clay. Visitors then inspect two well-preserved kilns, one a 162m-long behemoth, witness the firing process with overhead views into red-hot furnace interiors, and view a museum display of both old-time and modern bricks and tiles.

Entrance of Jin Liang Shing Brick Factory
Brick production

Jin Liang Shing (JLS) Brick Factory
(金良興觀光磚廠)
Add: No. 65, Weigong Rd., Yuanli Township, Miaoli County
(苗栗縣苑裡鎮山腳里錦山71之17號)
Tel: (037) 746-368
Website: www.jls-brick.com

Because it was among Miaoli’s earliest-settled areas and through the years has remained primarily rural, today’s Yuanli offers travelers a rich bounty of traditional Chinese sanheyuan, or three-sided courtyard residences. Dongli Jiafeng is one of Taiwan’s best-preserved complexes, and is frequently used as a TV-drama set. This is a Hakka-clan compound, most clearly indicated in the tri-tier wall design: white-painted upper tier symbolizing the senior generation’s white hair, middle-tier red tiles the hard-working middle generation’s blood (plus sweat and tears), lowest-tier rounded stones the hope for many children – i.e., “seeds.” This is a tourist-oriented attraction that has clan members still living here. Be sure to sample the tasty traditional snack treats baked and sold on-site.

Dongli Jiafeng Historic Residence
Old wine jars

Dongli Jiafeng Historic Residence
(東里家風古宅)
Add: No. 8-1, Neighborhood 2, Yuankengli, Yuanli Township, Miaoli County
(苗栗縣苑裡鎮苑坑裡2鄰8號之1)
Tel: (037) 853-158

Enjoy a glowing Taiwan Strait sunset at Yuanli Fishing Harbor, a tourist-oriented port where the star attractions are the Rainbow Bridge, fish market, seafood eateries, and breezy sea-view pavilions. The multicolored bridge, which sports a sleek and striking modernist design, is especially lovely at night with its many-hued lights on and the glowing solar orb behind. There’s a lively market auction each morn at 6am, and visitors can enjoy the fresh-catch results at the eateries, where fish-paste balls in soup is the signature dish.

More Information

For more information on all destinations above, including transportation and other practical information, there’s no better “home base” start-point than the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website, at taiwan.net.tw (Attractions section).

About the author

Rick Charette

A Canadian, Rick has been resident in Taiwan almost continually since 1988. His book, article, and other writings, on Asian and North American destinations and subjects—encompassing travel, culture, history, business/economics—have been published widely overseas and in Taiwan. He has worked with National Geographic, Michelin, APA Insight Guides, and other Western groups internationally, and with many local publishers and central/city/county government bodies in Taiwan. Rick also handles a wide range of editorial and translation (from Mandarin Chinese) projects.