“Daxi is a magical place.”
It was not my first time hearing this. But even as someone who grew up in Daxi (大溪), I had a hard time appreciating what exactly was so magical about my hometown. That was the question on my mind when I joined a day trip to Daxi organized by my friend Alysa Chiu, who leads a small group of volunteers working on cultural revival in the Taoyuan region, just south of Taipei.
Daxi is a small town tucked away along the upper reaches of the Dahan River, at the crossroads between the plains to the west, and sharp Hsuehshan Mountains to the east. Going north down the river, you will pass Sanxia before reaching the ports of Dadaocheng and Tamsui in Taipei. Southward will take you to Longtan and Beipu, important Hakka settlements along the foothills of northwestern Taiwan. Go past the Shihmen Reservoir, and you’ll immediately be in indigenous Atayal lands.
Of course, growing up, my world was much smaller. My house was a rather typical row house in an alleyway, with not much of a view to speak of. The traditional street market was a 10 minute walk away, and my elementary school was on the other side of a pedestrian bridge. While I don’t remember frolicking in the rice fields as a kid, I do remember things like a particular eatery with very crunchy fried pork chops, going to my friend’s house after school, and watching American TV shows like MacGuyver on Saturday nights. Needless to say, my life had very little to do with the grand histories or traditions of Daxi.
Except, my father would take me to “hike” an old mountain trail near my home. Paved with stone, it was a short but steep descent down to the riverbanks. I knew the trail was old—it passes by a bunker that was used as shelter from American B-2 bombings during World War II, and also the Taoyuan Canal, a 100 year old irrigation channel that actually tunnels through the mountains. To me at the time, they were simply markers on my life, covered in moss, shaded by the overgrowth of palms and ferns.
When I was ten years old, I traded the lush hills of Daxi for the skyscrapers of New York. It was not until another ten years before I returned and started rediscovering Taiwan for myself. I continued to visit Taiwan about once a year, and stayed in Daxi at night while hanging out with my friends in Taipei during the day. After walking the streets of New York, Tokyo, London, and Taipei, Daxi was nothing but a sleepy little town—“make sure you come home by 8 o’clock, or there will be no place open for dinner.” The place with the crunchy pork chop rice had closed shop many years ago.
But something about the place still pulls at me, and Alysa and I decided to take a group of friends to Daxi for a visit. For me, it was not just to “show my friends around town.” It was an opportunity to see my own past through the eyes of others.
It was a warm, sunny day. I arrived early at the Taoyuan High Speed Rail Station. It was only my second time there; it of course did not exist when I was small. I sat in the Mos Burger shop inside the station, and my late grandfather’s favorite hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” plays softly in the background. Looking outside the floor to ceiling glass window, I saw a few lonely residential high rises, and rows after rows of ads for new developments, named after cheesy Chinese puns. First impression: this was not even my own past, but it felt more like traveling somewhere new.
The rest of the day felt the same, as we toured Daxi’s old main street, filled with storefronts from the 1700s, still proudly displaying their intricate baroque stonework. We spent some time just relaxing in the old Gu residence, one of such shop-houses that had seen many uses and is now being renovated as a cultural site. We saw what was left of the Japanese-built Daxi Shrine–a base, and a utilitarian “observation deck” built over it, something that probably came straight of out of Big Brother’s playbook. We took pictures of statues of Chiang Kai-shek, the Republic of China’s long serving Generalissimo, bigger than life, even in death. We toured an old tea factory in the mountains that now also serves tea and other dishes for the crowd of tourists that come in.
Which brings me to what I really saw that day: tourists. People from other parts of the country, some from Japan or Korea, and large organized groups from China. When I saw the double-decker buses with their neon rainbow paint and the happy faces of people eating street snacks and taking selfies everywhere, the only thing I felt was bittersweet.
Actually, no, I felt sad.
Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that there exists commercial incentives to keep unearthing and preserving our heritage. Without tourism, even those reminders will soon be thrown in the trash.
But if all that is left right now is to take marketable reminders of our heritage and put them on display for others, then I am sure over time, those reminders themselves will be what is left of our heritage. The Daxi seen by the tourists was to me a foreign country, bearing little resemblance to the Daxi that was mine. I was a tourist in my own hometown—more precisely, a caricature of my hometown.
But aside from being a tourist spot with beautiful views and a rich history, what should Daxi be known for? A serene bedroom community for commuters? Land ripe for more high rise development? A tech startup hub? A world design capital? In a world where everyone is hand-cuffed to each other through the global supply chain, what are Daxi’s marching orders in the worldwide division of labor? What are Taoyuan’s? Taiwan’s?
I believe the Daxi that was mine is still alive and well, even today. There is a ten-year-old child living in Daxi right now, and when she grows up, she will have her own life markers to remember Daxi by. She may very well leave Daxi for a big city, to work in a cubicle in Taipei, or in a factory in Phnom Penh, or a lab in San Diego, but she will always be proud of being from Daxi. Not just because Daxi is known for making tasty tofu, but because Daxi’s life markers were responsible for teaching her the first lessons about the world.
Later in the evening, I would drive our own crew of tourists back to the train station. As we patiently waited in the clogged traffic leaving town, we pass by the Daxi Bridge, adorned in rainbow colored neon lights. “Reminds me of a cheap motel,” I said. Nothing magical about it; in fact it was gaudy to the extreme. Hidden across the street from the bridge, though, was the secret entrance to the old mountain trail.
“Daxi is a magical place,” someone whispered to me.
(Feature photo of tea served at Lovely Taiwan in Daxi, by Chieh-Ting Yeh)
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