The surface of the water is smoking hot. The air, filled with a sulfurous fragrance. Spa cottages scatter up and down the hills of the Tatun (大屯) active volcano group just minutes north of downtown Taipei.
Welcome to Beitou (北投), the home of the Shaman, the ancestral lands of Austronesian and Han settlements.
Beitou is a phonetic translation from Pataauw, meaning “Shaman” in the language of the Ketagalan Austronesian people. The Shaman is one who attends to the psychical and spiritual wellness of his/her own tribe. The Ketagalan is one of the widespread plain aborigines in northern Taiwan, especially in the Taipei Basin. From northern Taoyuan to Keelung, many names of the local places, such as Beitou, are phonetic transliterations from Ketagalan, and could prove these sites were once the whereabouts of Ketagalan settlements.
Even though the Ketagalan had primitive commerce with China thousands of years ago, it was not until Ino Kanori (伊能嘉矩), a Japanese anthropologist, that the local inhabitants were categorized and researched, as part of the Japanese colonization policy in the early 20th century. (Some anthropologists claim that Ino’s research overlooks the linguistic ambivalence and complexity among tribal communities (社).)
There has not yet been widely agreed-upon reasons why the Ketagalan named this thermal and spiritual valley Pataauw. Some believe the sulfurous scent added to the mysterious nature of the place, while some others believe Pataauw to be a ritual site. Approximately 12 kilometers from Beitou, some archaeologists discovered stone monuments, which could be a relic altar for the Ketagalan. Within decades of foreign settlements by Han and other peoples, the Ketagalan, same as other plain aborigines, were acculturated.
To uncover more about Beitou, I spoke with Peng Ling (彭凌), a Ketagalan researcher, and herself a Ketagalan descendant. She suggests that I visit the Beitou Presbyterian Church and Bao-de Temple [保德宮]. The Presbyterian Church was built by Rev. Dr. William Gauld in 1912. Following his predecessor, Rev. Dr. George Leslie Mackay, Dr. Gauld fulfilled his Protestant mission and set up the first Presbyterian Church with help from the local Chen family (one of the biggest families from the Han settlements in Beitou) in 1912. Many of the Ketagalan then became members of the Presbyterian Church, and some even later became pastors themselves.
The Bao-de Temple is another example of the confluence of the Ketagalan with later settlers. The land god (土地公) statue in the temple represents both sides: the Taoism from the Han culture, and the animistic religion from the Ketagalan. On the back of the statue is marked “ping-pu-she”(平埔社, or “plain aborigine community”). Peng told me that her maternal lineage could be a mix of Han and Ketagalan. She had a Ketagalan grandmother and a maternal grandfather from the Chen family. Since the Ketagalan heritage is matriarchal and the Han is patriarchal, laws and social norms favoring the fathers sped up the assimilation of the Ketagalan culture.
But does the past of Beitou speak to its future? I interviewed Huang Chong You (黃崇祐), a lecturer involved with local community projects. He took me on a tour of “Old Beito”. Along the Tamshui River that flows through Taipei, there once lay the Danbei Trail (淡北古道), a Qing period highway for trade and commerce. The trail started from Shipai (石牌) to Tamshui port, transporting local goods, like sulfur, from mines in Beitou. By the way, the Beitou mines (北投石) are also famous for an essential radioactive element, radium.
Around the trail dwells Han and Ketagalan settlements. The Chen family is one of the overlords of the Han settlements, and is still influential with local public affairs today. “Many of the local elites are from the Chen family,” Huang told me. Near the Beitou MRT Station is the shrine of the Chen family. It is not hard to imagine the local influence of the Chen family, seeing that its familial shrine is located at the heart of the economic and religious life. Behind the shrine is something called “Scholar Alley” (學仔內). Inside Scholar Alley, there were private schools and public bureaus, resolving trade disputes during the Qing Dynasty.
Next to the Chen family shrine are Japanese-style townhouses (街屋). The confluence of Han settlements from the Qing period with the Japanese occurs just on this one street. There is the distinction between new and old Beitou: The neighborhood from New Beitou MRT station is tourism hotspots for outsiders, while the old Beitou is living area for locals.
During the Japanese colonial period, the area of new Beitou was for hot springs tourism. In the beginning, many luxurious spa resorts opened, serving high officials from Japan. Kayama Inn (佳山飯店), now the Beitou Museum, was one of the most expensive spa resorts at that time. With both popular and luxurious private spa resorts, public spa plazas were built to satisfy the ever more visitors who come seeking the healing powers of Beitou’s hot springs. Also at that time, an entertainment service economy, such as geishas, was introduced to Beitou.
In the 1960s after the Chinese Nationalists replaced Japan as the ruler, Beitou became a mass production site for the nascent Taiwanese film industry, but the hot springs still provided a retreat for the city dwellers of Taipei. Huang told me that at the time, motorcycle shuttles shifted among resorts with geishas, singers, and entertainers. Today, even though the entertainment business has faded away, the shuttle motorcyclists are still running errands for the local communities.
Unfortunately, like many places in Taipei, these reminders of history are fighting with their last breaths against urban redevelopment. The Scholar Alley and the Chen Family Shrine are all facing the fate of being replaced by high rise condominiums.
Beitou, like the Shaman she is named after, has woven divergent cultural settlements together in a crisscrossed fabric of history and community. What I learned from Ms. Peng and Mr. Huang is that even when I learn a little bit more from Beitou, she tells me of more mysteries, waiting to be explored. The Shaman whispers: “There are still too many overlooked stories to tell.”
(Feature photo of “Thermal Valley, Beitou”, Kuan-Wei Wu)
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