A Refreshing Seafood Farm Experience in Yunlin
TEXT / DANA TER
PHOTOS / RAY CHANG
At the Bon Bon Fresh fish farm, located close to the Hukou Wetlands in southwestern Yunlin County, visitors can immerse themselves in a traditional way of life by fishing, bamboo rafting, and digging into a scrumptious barbecue.
When I moved back to Taiwan in 2014, I was in search of wild, primitive experiences, be it eating flying squirrel in a small Hualien County mountain community or surfing off a deserted beach next to a driftwood guitar-making factory in Taitung County. Yunlin was not at the top of my list, due to stereotype descriptions declaring it rural and dull, with nothing to offer but flatlands and farms.
Flash forward to 2019, and the night before a Travelin Taiwan visit to Yunlin’s Bon Bon Fresh fish farm. Things seem to be offto an amusing start when owner Lin Chung-hsiung calls to remind our contingentof three to bring a change of clothes lest we stumble and fall into the waterwhile fishing. “Thank you for visiting,” he says. “Yunlin doesn’t get muchcoverage at all!”
One of the least developed counties in Taiwan,Yunlin is about 80 percent flat land and has mild winters, which make it idealfor growing tropical fruits such as papaya and pomelo and cereal/vegetable cropssuch as corn and sweet potato.
However, our gastronomic exploration target for thistrip is more of the crustacean variety – we’re headed to the southern coastalarea of Kouhu Township, which is home to several wetlands, including the HukouWetlands. Once fertile farmland belonging to the Taisugar company, this areabecame marshy due to encroaching seawater following a major typhoon in 1986.The Hukou Wetlands now spans 200 hectares, and is home to a wide variety of migratorybirds. Close to the wetlands you will find many a fish farm where tilapia andother fish, as well as oysters, clams, and shrimp, are raised in manmade ponds.One of these farms is the place we are going to visit.
We pull into Bon Bon Fresh, a place with a seeminglyendless grid of fish ponds encircled by grassy walkways. The smell of saltwaterand shucked oyster shells is raw and enticing, which I take as a sign of anadventurous stay ahead. There is no time for niceties – after a quick bathroombreak, Mr. Lin, a tan, pudgy man in black slippers, puffing on a cigarette,hands each of us a long bamboo fishing pole and we’re off to one of the ponds.Our mission: catch our own lunch.
As Lin shows us how to hook the bait – just drive thehook right through the body of a shrimp – he tells us the interesting storyabout how he ended up running this fish and oyster operation. Like many locals,he left Yunlin in search of better opportunities in the big city, and workedfor years as an interior designer in Taipei. However, also like many, he becamedisillusioned with the 9-to-5 office lifestyle.
Lin missed being outdoors, and decided to return toYunlin. Having grown up fishing in his home village, over 10 years ago he starteda seafood business, the seafood restaurant Bon Bon Fresh, which has grown intoa chain with branches around Taiwan. In the initial years he did most of thework himself, including driving a large truck to deliver seafood harvested fromYunlin’s wetlands to his own and other seafood restaurants around the island.
By the time I have finally managed to wind my linearound my fishing pole, I see that one of my friends has already caught hersecond medium-sized tilapia. She douses it with a bottle of water, then tossesit in a bucket. Lin continues: “My family thought I was nuts when I moved backto become a fish and oyster farmer.” He chuckles, and gazes out at theblue-green expanse. A couple of seagulls have landed near us, and appear to be watchingus curiously. It’s a wonderful, sunny day, with blue skies and temperatures ofaround 32 degrees Celsius.
The farm still derives most of its income fromsupplying seafood to restaurants, including oysters, clams, prawns, and fish –for instance, it delivers about 20 big buckets of oysters to restaurants everyday – but over the years Lin has since put together a small team to help withthat. Today he spends most of his days teaching visitors like us how to fish,and educating them on Yunlin’s agriculture and ecosystems.
I finally give up on my attempt at fishing, and tryanother activity on offer at the farm – rowing a bamboo raft on a fish pond. Surprisingly,it’s easier than I had imagined, the process being similar to standuppaddleboarding. “The schoolchildren who visit us love it!” Lin exclaimsencouragingly. I stick a bamboo oar into the black-sand bottom of the pond, whichfeels more like mud, and it creates a small whirlpool that makes some of thesmaller fish scatter.
It’s now almost afternoon, and we decide to giveoyster collecting – another popular fun activity at the farm – a miss, havingalready built up an appetite for lunch. Luckily, Lin and his nephew haveprepared a feast of freshly-harvested oysters, clams, and shrimps to barbecue,so we drive over to the farm’s “restaurant,” operated out of the driveway ofthe Lin family home.
Here, we unstack and set up plastic stools arounda little grill under a bamboo shelter and refresh ourselves with iced green teaas Lin barbecues the seafood, a process that involves quite a bit of cracklingand spitting. In the neighboring driveway, an elderly man and woman areshucking oysters that have been spread across a large wooden table.
Lin hands us disposable wooden chopsticks, whichwe use to pry open the hot oysters and clams. It’s not the tidiest process, butthe meat tastes excellent, juicy and naturally sweet, needing no sauce or otherflavoring. Lin’s nephew has brought out a big white bucket to toss our shellsin. I proceed to peel prawns and, looking at my slow progress, Lin offers topeel them for me, doing so deftly and shoveling the shells into the bucketquickly. The prawns are fat and succulent, and the tilapias we caught earlier arejust as delicious. Sauce-free once again seems to be the best option.
“It’s quite a different experience than eatingseafood at a fine-dining restaurant,” Lin remarks as we use the outdoor hose torinse our hands. “After years of eating fresh seafood in Yunlin, I can’t goback to more upscale seafood restaurants. There’s always too much unnecessarypreparation, too much sauce!”
It doesn’t get more farm-to-table than this, I am thinking to myself, just as Lin surprises us with a grand finale – tuji (according to Lin, chicken released early in its life to roam about for one month, then caught and raised in a cage) or free-range chicken, its neck contorted, and its little head slumped lifelessly to one side. Lin skillfully debones the chicken, barbecues it and cuts it up with a huge knife. We dig in with our chopsticks, relishing the meat, which is thick and naturally sweet.
After we’ve eaten our fill there’s still much meatleft. So naturally, Lin sends us to his mother to ask for a paper plate.“Sorry, my leg isn’t good,” he apologizes. He places the remaining chicken meaton the plate, wraps it in a plastic bag, and sends us on our way back home.This is true southern hospitality.
Chicken strapped safely in the back seat, we driveabout five minutes to the Hukou Wetlands. A better-known wetland in Yunlin is Chenglong,venue for the Chenglong Wetlands International Environmental Art Project, anannual event that brings artists from around the world to the site each springto create art that raises environmental awareness.
The Hukou Wetlands is just as breathtaking, however, and we’re the only people here on a weekday afternoon, making it more serene. There is a feast of narrow, muddy passageways to explore. We spot two pieces of installation art rising from the marsh water that have been made to look like fishermen’s nets, and serve as resting posts for seagulls. In the distance, patches of grass poke out from the water, looking like little green islands.
Largely free of mass-market tourist frills andgimmicks, Yunlin is a place to go for introspection. It’s possible to spendhours just gazing out into its southeast wetlands breathing in the salty airand watching seagulls swoop. Far from being dull, our trip has been the perfectmix of untouched nature, exceptionally fresh seafood, and genuine hospitality.
There is no public transport to the farm, but it is a convenient half-hour taxi ride from Chiayi’s high-speed rail station, which is a 1.5hr high-speed rail ride from Taipei.