On the Trail of Taiwan’s Hakka

East-GateAs the train cruises toward the coast, the conurbation of greater Taipei dissipates into small towns and fields sandwiched between Taiwan’s mountainous interior and the sea. Soon enough Hsinchu hones into view, a city established by Hakka Chinese in the early 1700s. The Hakka are an interesting bunch. They’re not an ethnic minority per se, but a Han subgroup, sometimes referred to as “Chinese gypsies” because of their migratory heritage. They’re found in pockets throughout southern China and Southeast Asia and are known for their distinctive architecture, cuisine, and rituals; in Taiwan, they make up about 14 percent of the total population, concentrated mostly in and around the neighboring counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli. Which is where I’m headed. Having begun my career in China a decade ago with a rite-of-passage teaching gig in Huizhou, a Hakka town in Guangdong, I’m keen to get a taste of Hakka culture, Taiwan-style.

Hsinchu City, as it turns out, is a superficially modern place, made rich since the 1980s by a high-tech Science Park that is often dubbed Taiwan’s Silicon Valley. Nowadays, the city is known as much for its software as it is for its Hakka heritage, though the identikit high-rise suburbs accommodating the tech-heads have yet to fully eclipse the riches of Hsinchu’s past.

I disembark at Hsinchu Station, which is said to be the oldest transport hub in Taiwan; the Japanese built it in 1913 during their occupation of the island, when much of Taiwan’s formative industrialization took place. From here I advance on foot, heading northwest past the old moat—now a lively public garden—and well-preserved East Gate. This double-eaved portal is all that remains of the 19th-century city ramparts; today, it’s the centerpiece of a busy roundabout.

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