The air along the road that meanders in front of us is tinged with a hint of saltiness. You tend to think that this comes from the ocean to our left, driving down from Taipei along Taiwan’s atmospheric east coast. However, hidden beneath that briny smell of the ocean is a peculiar fragrance of charcoal fire. Stomachs grumbling, half starving from the small breakfast of shaobing youtiao (燒餅油條) we had back in Taipei we sniff around for the source of that smell.
We trace the smell to a shop selling charcoal grilled flying fish; some small, some large, some roasting in a dark oven blackened by smoke, and some drying under the sun. We buy some of each, plus a jar of preserved salty pork belly, all traditional foods of the aboriginals living in this area. The woman selling us these local delicacies is plump and cheerful, with the usual tanned skin and grubby teeth you expect from Formosan aboriginals caused by a lifetime of beetle-nut chewing. However, with her grey, coarse hair and half squinting eyes, trying to fend off the reflection of the sun against the glittering azure of the Pacific Ocean, she seemed almost beautiful.
This is en route Taiwan’s east coast, a thin strip of land hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the right and the Yushan Mountains to the left. Historically thought to be of little use to the majority Han Chinese who flocked to the island with Chiang Kai Shek’s army in 1949 (the KMTs 國民黨 were then dreaming of re-conquering China and hence habituated themselves mostly on the west coast, facing their enemy and homeland), this eastern part of the island has been left almost untouched for decades, allowing it to escape the havoc of modern civilization.
Driving further south we arrive at a nondescript restaurant for lunch in Hualian. This restaurant, if you can even call it that, comes with no signboard and no menu along Route 11’s Dagangkou Village. If not for Mr. “Spring” (an aboriginal who looked very much like he could have attended a Mister World pageant) who comes out to greet us, we will have easily mistaken this place for a derelict factory of some sort. Two bucolic wooden tables pared with blue plastic chairs sit sparingly in a worker’s shed that is to be our al fresco dining area. Nearby, Mr. Spring’s three young daughters and their cousins are playing on a straw mattress. There is nothing here to suggest that we might be having the meals of our lifetime, but just as we begin to harbour this thought, out come pieces of aboriginal smoked bacon, beautifully presented with a twig of flowered garlic. Then there is seaweed sitting on a bed of bamboo shoots, sea salt encrusted fish, baked jackfruit, and many more little surprises, all with the presentation of a Michelin restaurant - at the price of a pittance. We later learn that the name of this restaurant, “Urn, Lily, Spring” literally comes from the names of the elder daughter Atomo (meaning “Urn”), second daughter Arifowang (“Lily”) and the chef himself, Canglah (“Spring”).
From Hualian we then head straight down to Dulan in Taidong, an area recently made famous by the First Wife when she carried the bright red schoolbag of Dulan Middle School to see her daughter off at the airport in Taoyuan. However, those in the know will tell you that this area has actually long been the playground of anyone from literati and artists longing for serenity to delinquent teenagers and surfers escaping responsibility in the cities.
Our guesthouse here “Come Feel the Breeze Again” (再吹涼風) is an eco-lodge consisting of a handful of individual villas constructed on the principles of modest simplicity and respect for the environment. What “Come Feel the Breeze” lacks in luxury and style with its bare concrete walls, stainless steel roof and natural wooden interiors, it makes up for with dramatic ocean views, natural breeze (literally!) and the hospitality of its owner. We freshen up and head to a dinner party at the house of BK and Faye, a most interesting architect and restaurateur couple who splits their time between business operations in Taipei and architectural projects in Dulan. I am immediately arrested by the fully equipped open kitchen, the food going around the table and the cheerful conversation flowing amongst the dinner guests, many of whom have businesses in Taipei but were all somehow united in spirit by their love for this land. The house, designed by BK of course, is an architectural marvel in itself with exposed wooden beams and split level design, sitting comfortably on a 20 acre land complete with coconut trees and ocean view. It is easily the dream house of any.
After dinner we move on to the Sugar Factory in downtown Dulan, where local celebrity Uncle Long is performing, singing aboriginal folk music in his husky voice. By about 11pm the small café is jam-packed with locals, Dulan converts, and even a few foreigners, and the mood is ecstatic. Relaxed by Uncle Long’s mellow singing style, the crowds mingle, dancing, singing, and sipping beer. I sit back in my chair, beer in hand, smiling.
Few at the Sugar Factory tonight will know the historic tension between the aboriginals and the Chinese. For many years the aboriginals have been subject to oppression from the majority Han Chinese, very much like the situation in China today with Tibet and Xinjiang. The aboriginals, Austronesian peoples with a language system very similar to Filipino, are arguably not Chinese at all. However, they were forced to adopt a Chinese way of life, and as a result lagged behind in almost every aspect on a Chinese scale. Luckily, the situation is now changing with increased interest and effort from the majority in cultural preservation, and the scene tonight at the Sugar Factory is evidence of that.
Taiwan is still a long way away from genuine respect without patronization, but from what I saw along Route 11 so far, at least this journey has begun.