Author Jeffrey Schwab
Photographer Julien Huang
“There’s nothing like running at 5 am in the morning and stopping by an open air market to start the day off. The rising steam from the stand fresh noodle stand will wake you up and remind your soul that you are alive.”
Our guide for the day, Lu Wenjun（盧文鈞） stands before us and points to a stall that is vacant except for a gigantic plastic bag of handmade noodles. Mr. Lu sports glasses, a lean figure, a clean-shaven visage, and wears an ever-present bandana placed snugly on top of his smooth head as he takes us through the Guanxi（關西) township market. Located roughly 20km from Hsinchu high speed rail station, a visit to Guanxi provides the visitor with a magnifying glass of traditional Hakka Culture and hospitality.
Tired of the hustle and bustle of the rat race in Taipei, Mr. Lu has made it his mission to help reawaken the local vibe and shed light on cultural traditions since relocating to Guanxi. The shapes and imprints on the local delicacies are filled with symbolism and meaning, some shaped like hybrids between a peach and the Moon. The character longevity（壽） is imprinted onto its surface by using a wooden cooking implement that gives it the shape as well. Another snack is shaped like the shell of a tortoise.
Community, History, and Gathering
We pass various buildings that remind visitors of Taiwan’s colonial past under Japanese rule. Just down the street from the noodle stand is an abandoned movie theater. Mr. Lu tells us that it’s easy to know when you have visited a spot that used to be populated by coal miners during the colonial era, as there will often be a movie theater nearby to provide the exhausted workers with entertainment during their off time. We also pick up a coffee managed by two young Taiwanese at what is now called Posuo Coffee Studio, but was once the Police Chief Residence. Visitors can enjoy a quiet cup of coffee after taking off their shoes to rest on the tatami mats.
Mr. Lu takes us to the Guanxi Old Street, a much more toned down and organic version of what visitors to Taiwan may come to associate with “Old Streets.” Nowhere to be seen are the sausages, the ubiquitous stinky tofu, or knick-knacks. This old street is more of an integration of arts and residence. His own bookstore, Shi Dianzi 69 Organic Bookstore(石店子69有機書店) doesn’t have a single book for sale.
“Bookstores don’t make money. I wanted a place where people could gather, chat, and exchange ideas. Many who enter don’t even take books from the shelves.”
Mr. Lu is an active Youtuber, writer, event-organizer, and community-connector. He has helped arrange today’s itinerary filled with a loose confederation of local characters who are passionate about Hakka culture and community engagement. His recently published book tells the story of 17 “organic” bookstores across Taiwan that he loosely manages to form an alliance of the managers. Currently 10 shops are part of the alliance. “Organic” here implies natural cycles, and his bookstore appeals to people to share..Mr. Lu didn’t want to over-renovate the century old building, instead having the bookstore “organically” fit in and help revitalize the community, much as planting and caring for a tree might revitalize a garden or habitat. He hopes to integrate visitors as neighbors and create a network that grows a community passionate about local culture.
“It’s important for people to know where they come from. We can travel everywhere and check places off the list, but in the end, we need to understand and connect with our roots.”
A Scholar’s Lunch at Lo House 羅屋書院
Mr. Lu takes the group for a 15 minute walk down into the rice fields and valley. We stop by a blossoming field of Chinese Mesona (仙草), famed for the culinary products of Grass jelly tea （仙草茶）and Grass Jelly（仙草凍). 80% of Taiwan’s Chinese Mesona products come from this area.
We cross a short bridge and find ourselves at the doorstep to history, face to face with Steven Lo, the caretaker for the Lo Academy. Steven greets us at the gate and takes us into the Sanheyuan （三合院） courtyard. The wings of the courtyard buildings outstretch toward us like welcoming open arms. In the middle is the main hallway, featuring a spacious area with two circular tables laden with our upcoming lunch, a traditional Bando (辦桌) feast. Glutinous rice ball soup, freshly steamed shrimp, fried chicken, sauteed tofu with pork, and succulent glazed pork with pickled bamboo, among other dishes, fill the tables. All the guests are served glasses of locally produced grass jelly tea to balance out the meal.
Our host explains the significance behind this centuries old architecture and courtyard. The entire facade of the main hallway to at the entrance is a smorgasbord of culture related to Ancient literary classics, proverbs, and cultural lessons that are represented in intricate displays of hand-carved artistry and statuettes. Even the seemingly innocuous brick patterns on the walls have deep meaning, representing the Chinese character 萬 or 10,000. There are other stories and characters on couplets alongside the doorway that remind anyone who enters in this space to “love knowledge,” “seek improvement,” and “integrate the new with the old.”
This courtyard was used as an academy set up by the Lo family more than 200 years ago. The characters above the doorway to the main entrance remind the students of their roots in Jiangxi Province in China. One of the main binding aspects of the Hakka people is their shared history of mass migration and relocation. The families who eventually settled in Taiwan moved as a result of centuries of displacement from famine, war, and other disasters. The air in the courtyard is one that blows a breeze not just of space, but also of time. Our host, Steven, thoroughly explains the multiple layers of significance and hidden figures in the carvings (i.e. pumpkin carving bearing seeds, mice carvings representing fertility, and bats representing good fortune). Each carving carries a story, each character a reminder.
Another one of Steven’s missions in revitalizing the local community is to use the Lo Academy as a space for interactive learning and platform for local artisans, business owners, and performers to share their craft and flavor. During the last part of our visit in the Lo Academy, the owner of Natural Dye Studio (大自在工作坊), Mrs. Zeng, guides us through a short plant-dyeing technique that uses dye from local tree bark. We all choose paper cutting patterns prepared and supplied by Mrs. Zeng to imprint images on fabric bags. Simple workshops such as this one help to bring alive the culture and give visitors a chance to experience a traditional process for themselves.
A Poet’s Sendoff
The final stop for our Hakka Cultural tour is at Lai’s Home(賴在家) coffee studio and pottery workshop. The main attraction is the owner, Mr. Lai. Part artist, part tea-shop owner, and part philosopher, Mr. Lai gives off an air of ethnologist crossed with mad scientist. Prone to spontaneously spouting Hakka poetry and rhymes, this former banking professional turned artist would make an excellent contestant in a rap battle.
The first impression of the coffee shop and garden is the gigantic blooming passionfruit tree. Mr. Lai takes us on a tour of his hybrid coffee/pottery workshop, a hodgepodge of his artistic creations and works-in-progress. He has a habit for re-using material and shows us flooring made of corks, curtains made from hanging bamboo, walls made from discarded cinder blocks, and a table made from dried tissue paper and glue.
“When things have lost their use, I like to find a way to give new life and value.”
Because the Hakka people have had to historically relocate from place to place, much of their culture picks up and mixes elements from different locations. Mr. Lai’s workshop and art demonstrates the randomness of his planning that comes together in a beautiful synergy with local elements. Even the drinks that he serves are a crossover of botany and cultures–steeped leaves from a Taiwanese peppercorn tree for a wild tea that hits the spot.
As Mr. Lai pours from his handmade ceramic vessel under the warmth of the setting. Sun, his wife serves us tiramisu to help complete the afternoon. All of today’s events bring back my own memories from when I started my journey in China two decades ago in Jiangxi, the same province where the Hakka descendents from the Lo Academy came from. Today is not my first experience with Hakka culture, and as I drink Mr. Lai’s tea I’m reminded of the most lasting aspect from this group of displaced wanderers–an overwhelming sense of gratitude and ever-present hospitality. As the Sun sets, Mr. Lai breaks into more Hakkan rhymes, the steam rising from the wild tea almost in rhythmic unison to his recitation.