About an hour outside of Taipei, Taiwan, I was smitten (smitten, I tell you) by the historic mountain town of Jiufen.
Pedestrian streets paved with stone, glowing paper lanterns, teahouses with vine-covered patios and twinkling views of the Pacific…it’s enough to make you fall in love all over again, a really long way from home.
In the mountains above the winding sprawl of New Taipei City, Jiufen was an extremely isolated place ’til gold was found in them thar hills, way back in the 1890s. Jiufen then boomed into a civilized version of an Old West saloon town for the gold mining operation in nearby Fu-Shan. When the gold dried up back in the ’50s, though, Jiufen fell into a long, slow decline — like high school friendships in the days before Facebook.
Sad to think of the town neglected like the lonely gold mine itself, which sits abandoned way back down the mountain, windowless and slick with moss; the Fu-Shan mine now feels like an advertisement for The World Without Us.
Jiufen only bounced back after 1989, when it gained attention as the setting for A City of Sadness, a film which aired one of Chinese-occupied Taiwan’s dirtiest pieces of laundry. In 1945, after the Japanese lost World War II and were forced to abandon their 50-year occupation of Taiwan, a faction of Chinese nationalists (the Kuomintang) who’d been expelled from the Communist Chinese mainland were uneasily installed into Taiwan’s power vacuum by the United Nations. The Kuomintang quickly got to work repressing Taiwanese resistance to their regime, and on February 28, 1947, a small instance of Taiwanese rebellion sparked a series of violent uprisings across the country. The Chinese republic’s military stepped in and took over, rounding up and executing thousands of Taiwanese citizens, squashing the Kuomintang, and beginning an uneasy and 40-year-long occupation of their own.
Public mention of the 228 Incident, as it came to be known, was scarce until the Republic of China’s regime ended in 1987.
But as I was saying….Jiufen. After A City of Sadness won acclaim, tourists started flocking to the town — only to find little there there. By the early ’90s, though, business was returning, streets had been strung with fairy lights and Chinese lanterns, and Jiufen had been re-styled as the vintage treasure it (quite possibly) once was.
Recently winding up the mountain from the coast, I passed creeks and coppery rocks, a web of waterfalls and jumbles of houses stacked like tree-lined games of Tetris. I was on a big ol’ bus, a common way to reach the mountaintop, but the narrow, hairpin turns along the road made it a less than relaxing journey. Taking note of traffic accident memorials along the way, I was tempted to high-five or even hug my driver for his efforts. Instead, I restrained myself and went with a simple, “Xie xie.” (Pronounced jhee jhee, this means “thank you” in Mandarin.)
Having arrived safely at the Jiufen stop, I climbed down from the bus, ambled over to the lookout point above an ornate community temple, and sighed all over the Pacific Ocean. The jagged rocks here made me think that hundreds of years’ worth of Taiwanese watercolor paintings might just be onto something.
Ducking into the pedestrian streets of Jiufen, the evening sky narrowed to a dusky ribbon between a multi-story sandwich of corrugated roofs and unlit apartments. These romantic warrens of small lanes, steep stairs and dangling lanterns inspired scenes of the (gorgeous and deeply inscrutable) Japanese animated movie Spirited Away – but I wanted to stay right where I was.
With halogen lights blazing in almost every storefront, it was clear that at 7pm the business day was still far from over. There’s almost everything imaginable for sale here, from dumplings to sex toys, and unlike the jam-packed, flashy night markets in Taiwan’s large cities, I was comforted by the sense of containment and smaller crowds. A notorious non-shopper when I travel, I even bought a cheap pair of fabulous coral-beaded hoop earrings that say, “Yeah, that’s right — I went to Taiwan. And it was amazing.”
All shopping aside, you could eat your way from one end of town to the other, and I certainly wouldn’t stop you. I saw approximately 37 things I’d never seen before, and approximately 23 things I’d actually be tempted to try.
The only thing missing for me? A hand to hold. Jiufen is an ideal place to stroll with your someone, discovering strange and wonderful snacks, poring over shelves of random tchotchkes…and ducking into shadowy corners.
When you’re ready to sit down, head to the upstairs deck of the (No.20, Shuchi Road). Meals here are fresh and lovely, with lots of veggies and attention to detail, but really? I’d go back just for the sweets and oolong tea.
Tea service here was a warm and elaborate ceremony of cup-rinsing and re-steeping, and I don’t feel it’s important to share how many delicate, chewy mochi and mung bean cookies I actually ate. After what had been a long hot summer day, I closed my eyes to savor a ruffling night breeze, then opened them to a long string of pearly lights across the ocean.
Not too shabby for a first date, Jiufen. Hope we can go out again sometime.
For tips on getting to Jiufen, check out this Wikitravel post.
My visit to Jiufen and the Ah Mei Teahouse
was sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau,
but all observations and opinions are my own.