Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Snow in April and May brings about youthful euphoria in Taiwan's Hakka communities

By Nancy T. Lu

“April snow” or “May snow,” depending on when the floral encounter takes place, sets the stage for romance or perhaps reminiscence of a once blossoming summer love. Magic is in the air, bringing back youthful euphoria. This is something to be experienced in many places where Hakka communities are found in Taiwan. Clusters of tung blossoms on trees covering hillsides drop to the ground to create fantastic floral beds, sometimes on roads stretching as far as the eyes can see.

Residents used to simply sweep away the white flowers. But nowadays they leave the flowers on the ground for they know that tourists are willing to travel for miles to take in the breathtaking floral sight. The flowers can be gathered and strung into a garland to crown a female’s dainty head.

The tung tree sometimes goes by the name of pawlonia. It is likewise called the phoenix tree. In Chinese folklore, the phoenix was said to have rested on the tree.

The more common male or staminate flower takes 36 hours to fully blossom from the time of pollination. The flower drops to the ground with all five petals intact. The female or pistillate bloom has bigger petals. It falls to the ground petal by petal. Then a fruit develops, ripens and finally shrivels, dropping to the ground after a total of about 150 days in September.

Back in 2002, the Council for Hakka Affairs saw the tung blossom season as full of tourism potential and embarked on involving local communities to get their act together to make visits to their far-flung areas worthwhile and memorable. Somehow, the hardworking men and women have been rewarded financially over the years for their entrepreneurial talent and skill.

Without a doubt, the picture-taking opportunities in many locations and sites in Miaoli County and Hsinchu County during the yearly tung blossom festival are comparable to what the cherry blossom festival in Japan has to offer.

Leisurely walks along paths cleared for such exercise can start in the townships with a bit of Hakka history and culture. The shops lining the main roads entice passersby with Hakka delicacies. Mealtime calls for sitting down to a hearty meal of typical meat and vegetable dishes. These are washed down with Hakka ground tea containing not just tea leaves but also sesame, peanut and rice.

The fresh side of pork, marinated first in soy sauce and other seasonings, then steamed on a bed of chopped as well as preserved plum vegetables at Hong Zao or Red Jujube Restaurant in Miaoli is worth stopping for lunch. Mei gan kou rou is a most typical Hakka recipe. It is relished with a white bun.

Fancy restaurants, which are accessible to private motorists, sometimes offer strictly vegetarian menus designed to appeal to individuals accustomed to high-end dining in Taipei. As many as 78 dining establishments around Taiwan are said to join the Hakka tung blossom celebration at this time of the year. Sanyi Township has lodging for travelers, too.

About an hour and a half from Taipei is Shishan Tourist Center in Emei, Hsinchu County. The Teng Ping Trail, a 45-minute stretch for the strolling party, starts here.

Those who like to do some walking for good health can actually take their pick of several tung blossom trails in Miaoli. There is even a tunnel for trekking along a railway built in 1905 but is no longer in use.

Xiexin Teahouse close to the Teng Ping Trail has tables out in the terrace for visitors to take in the sight of dropping tung blossoms while feasting on Hakka rice dumpling and peanut powder-covered mochi. Oriental beauty tea is served to help wash down the Hakka delicacies.

Sitting down to sip coffee in the terrace of Shangtian later in the day elsewhere in Miaoli County is relaxing for tourists. The coffee in a setting looking out to the tung tree cluster and the camphor woods is aromatic.

Operators of kilns lure visitors with do-it-yourself activities before the end of the day. An outsider can sit down and paint a ceramic chime, even drawing five-petal tung blossoms on it to bring home as souvenir from Xiao Gu Tao Yi, a ceramic workshop, in the tung blossom-covered countryside. Commercial products like the tea set with “May Snow” theme can also be bought at the site.

Sanyi Township is famous for woodcarving. The Sun Yi Duck Gem Box had for many years a really flourishing business producing handmade wooden ducks for export. Duck hunters in Europe in those days used them to entice the waterfowl. The environmental protection campaign in the 1990s, however, proved a setback for the business. The beautifully carved and painted ducks found a new market among collectors starting in 2002 though.

Hands-on dyeing lessons also appeal to city residents who find their way to Hakka communities. They learn to dye blue scarves with white floral patterns.

As many as 400 commercial products packaged beautifully have been developed, introducing the tung blossom as motif or accent, and these have been marketed in 92 outlets in Taipei County, Taoyuan County, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Taichung County, Changhua County, Yunlin County and Nantou County.

Hakka tofu cheese, tung flower fruit jelly, pickled mustard, rice food items, dried persimmons and herb tea called Mesona chenensis have found consumers’ acceptance. Traditional Hakka colors along with the tung blossom have been incorporated into fashion items from textiles to accessories with professional design expertise.

Tung blossoms even flavor pastries baked for selling especially during the tung flower season in April and May. Herbal tea takes the flower’s fragrance.

Motorists can easily drive from Taipei to Miaoli. Itineraries can include enjoying Taian spa and fruit picking in an orchard. One-day and two-day trips are possible.

All photographs were taken by Nancy T. Lu.

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