-by Ernie Diaz
It might be tomorrow, or another generation away, but sooner or later we’ll stop hearing “boom” and “bubble” as buzzwords to describe China. One may hope for stability then. One may hope for the sky to rain hamburgers, as well.
To what do we turn, to gauge the crater left once China’s boom is over, the vacuum once the bubble pops? Smaller booms and bubbles, of course. Might as well make it field research, and check out one of those phenomena so common to China – the hidden hill town, close to major urban centers but a world away.
Taiwan (“China’s 23rd province, Mr. Big Brother, sir.”) has a treasure chest full of such towns, so close to Taipei one wonders that they are not wall-to-wall betel nut girls and 7-11s. CEX fully owns its mistake in giving Taiwan such short shrift; like a sow with only so many teats, we tend to stint on our attention to runts, even one as precocious as Taiwan.
But in the matter of boom towns, we’ll turn our attention to Taiwan’s Jiufen, “Nine Pieces,” so named for the isolation of the town’s original nine families. Whenever a Jiufen villager troubled to clamber down to civilization for supplies, he was more or less constrained to bring back nine pieces or portions of whatever he secured, to share out under the laws of Confucian fair play.
Confucius got blown away by the boom, a gold rush that commenced in 1893 and didn’t peter entirely out until the early 1970s. In a Chinese minute (a year, give or take) Jiufen’s nine families were dealing with thousands of prospectors, not as bearded or bandy-legged as 49ers, but just as committed to ripping gold out of the hills, devil take the hindmost.
Who knows what boost the flagging Qing empire might have got out of Jiufen, but alas Formosa went to Japan at the conclusion of their first war, in 1895. Wouldn’t ya know it, the Taiwanese took to the hated invader like Patty Hearsts to a Symbionese Liberation Army. Japan quickly took Taiwan into the Industrial Age, and in response Taiwanese took to giving themselves Japanese names and practicing Shinto.
Even in the shadow of the metastasizing Japanese Empire, Jiufen boomed, especially in the 1930s, when global instability sent gold prices soaring. Bars, restaurants and hotels roared into the night, muffling the non-stop rumble of the mines. No western-style shoot outs in this boom town, run shop-tight by Japanese proxies who forbad rebellious horseplay. Rather, Jiufen’s monikers ran inevitably to “Little Shanghai” and “Little Hong Kong.” WWII only added oomph to the boom, with plenty of fresh allied POWs to work to death in the mines.
The ore started running scarce in the 1960s, and tricled to a full stop by 1971. Jiufen turned ghost town, almost perfectly preserved despite regular typhoons, thanks to solid Japanese construction principles. For twenty years Jiufen lay fallow, an object lesson in what a gold boom looks like when the noise dies down.
Jiufen’s second boom came in the form of tourism, set off from a most unlikely source. In 1989, Hsiao-Hsien Hou City won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion with A City of Sadness, the first Chinese film to garner the prize. A City of Sadness was also the first film to deal with the big skeleton rattling about in Taiwan’s little closet, 38 years of martial law under the Kuomintang Party. That’s right, the Taiwanese most definitely didn’t welcome Chiang Kai-shek and the gang as liberators from their half-century of oppressed modernization. Especially unwelcome was the rampant corruption of the KMT, who made up for their mainland losses by dispossessing, disenfranchising, and generally dissing the locals as though they were defeated Japanese.
A City of Sadness deals uncompromisingly with the devastating effects of the KMT’s “White Terror” reign on one family, whose youngest son flees to Jiufen to escape government persecution. The movie focused millions of Chinese eyes on Jiufen, and brought thousands of visitors enchanted by the little town, elegant and cozy as a kimono, draped on a mountain bristling with ogrish mining ghost bunkers.
So now more than a million now come yearly, not to find gold, but rather bringing it, in exchange for what? There’s an old theater, a couple of obligatory temples, a mining museum. Ooh! A really steep staircase where many key scenes from A City of Sadness were shot. Punters galore linger on those stairs, partly because you can’t even see the bottom from the top, quite a climb.
You can lodge at the Prince Guest House, or at least pause to get an eyeful of the sedate cypress majesty joined together so that Hirohito might deign to tarry a night (he didn’t, choosing instead to pass the night in nearby Keelung.)
And of course, the two items for which a traveler far from home will always trade his gold mindless of its true value: food and tchotckes. Taro balls, taro balls everywhere: fried, boiled, floating in your tea so you can’t even hydrate without a taro ball menacing your gullet. The trinkets are put together with somewhat less skill than the balls. But you don’t visit Jiufen for what you can buy, so much as for what you feel.
Just as in Lijiang, booming from tourism itself, something about the twisting, precipitous lanes, the houses built for both civility and the terrain, in imitable style. And then the colossal mining buildings, the balconies holding a nonchalant handful of snackers, hanging hundreds of feet over nothingness. What’s it all bring to mind? That’s right – Spirited Away, the only anime movie worth a damn if you’ve greater mental maturity than a fifteen-year-old. Miyazaki saw in Jiufen a place between and beyond worlds.