Stretching southeast from Hsinchu, Hsinchu county is home to large numbers of Hakka people: though the ethnic group accounts for roughly fifteen percent of Taiwan’s population, eighty percent of Hsinchu claims Hakka ancestry. Beipu is the most famous Hakka town in north Taiwan, while the Yimin Temple near Xinpu is the centre of Hakka religious life on the island.
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Lying around 20km southeast of Hsinchu, just north of the Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area, the small town of BEIPU (北埔; běipŭ) is the centre of Hakka culture in north Taiwan, the counterpart of Meinong in the south. Though it’s a bit touristy these days, the compact area of old buildings and teahouses around Citian Temple has plenty of rustic charm, and it makes an easy excursion from Hsinchu or even Taipei.
Beipu’s tiny bus station is on Zhongzheng Road (中正路; zhōngzhèng lù), a short walk from the old part of town. Walk a few metres to Nanxing Street (南星街; nánxīngjiē) and turn right, passing some good places to try léichá, and on to the next junction with “old street” (aka Beipu Street; 北埔街; běipŭjiē), thick with touristy shops and food stalls. The shop on the corner is Lung Yuan Pastry Store (隆源餅行; lóngyuán bǐngháng), established in 1871 and maker of tasty sweet potato and taro cakes. Turn left here and head towards Citian Temple (慈天宮; cítiān gōng) at the end of “old street”, established in 1830 and the town’s main centre of worship. The Main Hall is dedicated to Guanyin, flanked by tablets on the right representing the sānguān dàdì (Three Great Emperor-Officials) and on the left, the sānshān guówáng (Three Mountain Kings), all Hakka favourites.
Beipu’s oldest and most appealing buildings are crammed into a relatively small area around the temple, a mixture of traditional red- and mud-brick Chinese houses, well worth exploring. To the south, the Zhongshu Tang (忠恕堂; zhōngshùtáng) built in 1922, is a charming Qing dynasty house with an unusual Baroque facade. Many of these houses are linked to the wealthy Jiang family – patriarch Jiang Xiou-nuan built the grand A-Hsin Jiang Residence (姜阿新宅; jiāng āxīn zhái) in the 1940s just to the north of the temple on Miaoqian Street (廟前街; miàoqiánjiē) in a blend of Western and Japanese styles. Like most of the buildings here, it’s still privately owned and closed to the public. Beyond here, on the corner of Zhongzheng Road is the traditional building known as Jinguangfu (金廣福; jīnguǎngfú), the old meeting hall built in the 1830s, and opposite, Tianshui Tang (天水堂; tiānshuǐtáng), a huge Chinese mansion still occupied by the Jiang family. Zhongzheng Road becomes a narrow alley east of here, containing some of the town’s most atmospheric teahouses.
Known as kèjiārén in Chinese (“guest families”, or hak-kâ ngin in the Hakka language), the Hakka (客家人) are an ethnic sub-group of the Han Chinese family, with their own language, customs and traditions. Originally from the northern Chinese provinces of Henan and Shanxi, Hakka people began coming to Taiwan in the seventeenth century and have since developed a particularly strong identity. At first, Hakka migrants settled in Taipei county and along the western plains, but by the nineteenth century they had moved to the areas in which they predominate today: the mountainous parts of Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli counties, and in the Kaohsiung-Pingdong area. Though few Hakka are farmers today, they’re still regarded as hard workers and have a reputation for producing some of the island’s top scholars and writers: famous Hakka people include ex-president Lee Teng-hui, Soong Mei-ling (Chiang Kai-shek’s wife) and film director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Mainland Chinese leaders Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping were also Hakka.
Hakka people subscribe to the same religious beliefs as other Chinese groups in Taiwan, but they also have their own special gods and festivals. The worship of the Yimin (義民; yìmín; mostly in north Taiwan) is unique to Taiwan, while the island also has around 145 temples dedicated to the Three Mountain Kings (三山國王; sānshān guówáng), protective spirits of the Hakka and a tradition that came from Guangdong.
The Council for Hakka Affairs was created by the government in 2001 to help preserve Hakka culture on the island, and to ensure its language survives: there are several dialects spoken in Taiwan, with sìxiàn being the most important, and the one you’ll hear on train announcements. Hakka TV (客家電視台; kèjiā diànshìtái), a 24-hour station, has been on air since 2003.
One of the most controversial of Taiwan’s traditional religious practices is the rearing of “God Pigs” (神豬; shénzhū) – unfortunate hogs that are fed to grotesque size, often so large they can no longer walk. The pigs are used as offerings to the gods – it’s a particularly Hakka custom, used mostly at the Yimin Festival when literally hundreds are sacrificed. Pigs are killed the day before, by knife, and the carcass stretched over a metal cage so that it looks disturbingly similar in size to a small bus. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out why animal rights activists get upset about this: cases of force-feeding, alleged ill-treatment and the relatively simplistic method of slaughter have led to increased calls for a ban over the years. Hakka groups say that it’s a traditional part of their culture and that the pigs are well cared for. While it’s true that the tradition of offering pigs goes back to the 1830s, the official “contest” to see who has the biggest and intensive, modern factory methods are relatively new; many pigs are actually bought by Hakka families at the end of the fattening process (which can take two years) when they already sport monstrous proportions.
Beipu is the best place in Taiwan to sample léichá (擂茶), or “ground tea”, a popular Hakka drink with origins in ancient China. Its modern incarnation is one hundred percent contemporary Taiwan however; a green tea mixed with a paste of peanuts, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. It’s delicious and very filling (it’s sometimes called “cereal tea”), but the twist is that you get to prepare it yourself. DIY sessions are offered at most of the teashops in town, and in general you are expected to at least have a go, the staff sometimes reluctant to pitch in. After a few minutes you’ll understand why; the raw ingredients are placed into a ceramic bowl and must be pounded into an oily paste with a giant wooden pestle, a process which takes a strong arm, or preferably, several. The tea is usually served with Hakka-style muaji (máshŭ in Mandarin), sticky rice rolled in ground peanuts.