Culture and Countryside
A Visit to Yilan, Home of Taiwan Literary Great Huang Chun-ming
Text: Joe Henley
Photos: Maggie Song
Many visitors to Yilan come for the beaches, the hot springs, and the natural surroundings. But the county also has much in store for culture vultures. Head to the area around Yilan Railway Station, for example, to learn more about one of Taiwan’s greatest contemporary writers.
Though less than an hour away from Taipei via the much-tunneled National Freeway 5, Yilan is a world removed from the fast pace of big-city life. Yilan City is home to less than 100,000 people, and the surrounding countryside is framed by a backdrop of green-blanketed mountains to north, west, and south and the steel-blue Pacific to the east.
The city sits on the Lanyang Plain, on which most residents of the county reside. This is the second-largest expanse of flat land in the country, covered for the most part with a patchwork of rice paddies and fields. The county is home to charming small towns as well, such as Jiaoxi, known for its hot springs, and Luodong, famed for its night market, a mecca for Taiwanese foodies. There is also the beautiful black-sand Wai’ao Beach, with modest waves suitable for beginner- to intermediate-level surfers.
Yilan, home to members of the Kavalan and Atayal tribes, has a multifaceted culture. Native traditions are today being brought back to prominence following long-term efforts to stamp them out by the dominant majority. Despite this multifaceted culture, however, Yilan is a place where the local identity is resolutely Taiwanese, thanks in part to artists and writers such as Huang Chun-ming, who have taken it upon themselves to observe and record what it truly means to be called Taiwan ren(ren means “person/people”).
The Writer: Huang Chun-ming
Throughout the literary world, there are authors who are inextricably tied to certain places and times. In the case of Yilan, writer Huang Chun-ming will forever be associated with the east coast region's simple, laid-back lifestyle and the changing face of the county, and of Taiwan as a whole, from the 1960s onward.
Huang was born in the Yilan town of Luodong in 1935, and when his writing career began in earnest in the late 1950s and early '60s, he became known for his at times tragic and sometimes humorous stories about the lives of ordinary Taiwanese in his hometown. These continue to endear him to readers at home and abroad to this day. Though at first hailed as one of the leaders of the "nativist" literature movement focused heavily on the lives of rural people, he has come to write of city life as well.
Western authors such as Hemingway, Twain, and Faulkner have had a heavy influence on Huang's writing style, along with Chinese authors such as Shen Cong-wen and the Russian great Anton Chekhov. Over the course of his storied career, Huang has written novels and children's books, and delved into theater and television. Through it all he has never lost his love of telling stories that revolve around small-town life, focusing on the small eccentricities and minutiae that comprise the at times elusive Taiwanese identity he strives to illuminate. A tour of Yilan City offers a glimpse into the world of one of Taiwan's foremost literary minds.
Yilan Railway Station
For most, this will be the starting point for a tour of Yilan City. Just to the right when exiting the station is Yilan Hangkou. In Huang Chun-ming's early days, these warehouses, completed less than a decade before he was born, were used to store goods headed up and down along the east-coast railway. Today the warehouses have been converted into art galleries, a large secondhand bookstore, performance spaces for dance troupes and musical groups, and bars/restaurants selling everything from traditional Taiwanese fare to western staples.
Across the street from the railway station stand the tall metallic trees of the Diudiutong Forest, a dreamlike amalgamation of sculpture and painting designed by Taiwanese artist Jimmy Liao, known to most in Taiwan simply by his first name. Look up towards the top of the geometric green trees and you'll see a train hanging from the glass rooftop, with the words “Starry, Starry Night” painted along its side. The paint job is reminiscent of the famed painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. The name of the park comes from an old Taiwanese children's song, the “Diudiutong” Mandarin onomatopoeia for the sound raindrops make as they splash against the steel sides of an old steam engine. The installation is fitting, seeing as how it is the railway that firmly opened long-isolated Yilan up to the other side of Taiwan.
Baiguo Tree Red Brick House
This café, exhibition space, art gallery, and reading room is Huang Chun-ming's Yilan legacy. He opened it in 2012, in a space right beside the Diudiutong Forest. The interior of the red-brick building has the atmosphere of the city's lush surroundings, with warm hardwood features. On a rope tree, visitors have affixed well-wishes for the much-loved author. Paintings done by the writer himself adorn the walls. There are books by Huang available to peruse, too, as you enjoy a cup of coffee or tea along with a light snack; from time to time talks and presentations are given by local artists, and classic films such as Breakfast at Tiffany's screened in the evening. Sadly, ill health has prevented Huang from making appearances of late. But even if he can't be there in body, he very much inhabits the place in spirit. (www.facebook.com/wonderfultree)
Memorial Hall of Founding of Yilan Administration
When Huang Chun-ming was born in 1935, Taiwan was under the colonial rule of the Japanese. Here you'll find preserved remains from that era, in the form of traditional Japanese houses in which Japanese government officials once lived. Take your shoes off at the door of the main residence and step inside. You can then walk between rooms on the roka, wooden-floor passageways between rooms that are separated by fusuma, sliding doors made of wood and paper. Each room is filled with information pertaining to Yilan City's colonial-era history; English translation of this info is still pending. In any case, for non-Chinese speakers it's still possible to glean what the city looked like in the early half of the 20th century through the pictures and models. Surrounding the homes are tranquil ponds and zen gardens, along with camphor trees a hundred years old or more. Take a walk along the stone walkway circumnavigating the grounds, bask in the serenity, and soak up the history. Tickets for adults are NT$30. (memorial.e-land.gov.tw)
Yilan Literature Museum
Next to the memorial hall is a place with a name that is misleading. Though this colonial-era building once was a museum, it now has a coffee shop, serving up the ubiquitous pick-me-up along with teas and light snacks on traditional low tables sitting atop tatami mats. Here you can sit on the floor Japanese-style and look out through floor-to-ceiling windows at the landscaped grounds, enjoying an unobstructed view of this dash of countryside in the heart of the city. (literature.ilccb.gov.tw [Chinese])
Yang Shi-fang Memorial Museum
The education of those who have come to represent Yilan’s humble earthbound identity, such as Huang Chun-ming, is owed to figures such as Qing Dynasty scholar Yang Shi-fang, who dedicated his life to the region’s cultural and educational development. Inside the building raised as a memorial to him, at the corner of Jiucheng N. Rd. and Bixia Street, is information related to his life; but this place is mostly about continuing his commitment to Yilan by showcasing the best the creative community has to offer, through painting and literary exhibitions and the like. Next door to the small museum (which at this point lacks English information as well) is Bixia Temple, which Yang Shi-fang helped establish.
E-Wang Community and Guangda Lane
Yang Shi-fang Memorial Museum is in the E-Wang Community, a place where, for multiple generations, skilled artisans have lived and worked in industries ranging from textiles to metal works to the carving and painting of religious icons and making of traditional food staples. To locate Guangda Lane, a narrow artery leading to their homes and workshops, look for the streetside mural on Jiucheng Street with playful caricatures of each of the neighborhood's artists. On the wall lining the lane, the history of the neighborhood is played out in murals and carvings, taking visitors on a journey from when the enclave was established, about 200 years ago, to the present day. These are the very people Huang Chun-ming has sought to represent in his work, and taking a peek into their daily lives is like cracking open one of his books to read one of his many engrossing tales.
Getting There and Getting Around
The fastest train from Taipei to Yilan takes just over 1 hour (Puyuma Express; NT$140 one way). Alternatively, Kamalan Bus (www.kamalan.com.tw) runs coaches regularly from Taipei Bus Station (adjacent to Taipei Railway Station on Chengde Road), which take less than an hour to reach Yilan City (NT$129). Capital Bus (www.capital-bus.com.tw) offers the Capital Star bus service between Taipei City Hall Bus Station and Yilan City, which also takes about one hour and costs NT$120. All places introduced in this article are within walking distance of Yilan Railway Station.
English and Chinese
|Baiguo Tree Red Brick House||百果樹紅磚屋|
|Jiucheng N. Rd.||舊城北路|
|Memorial Hall of Founzing of Yilan Administration||宜蘭設治紀念館|
|Yang Shi-fang Memorial Museum||楊士芳紀念館|
|Yilan Literature Museum||宜蘭文學館|