Published: October 13th 2011October 13th 2011
The archipelago known as Penghu (in English the Pescadores Islands) holds an important place in the history of Taiwan. Located almost exactly halfway between Taiwan and China in the Taiwan Strait, it occupies one of the most strategic trading points between Japan, China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Once held by the Dutch, it was then used as a Ming Chinese holdout for stationing troops, and later occupied by the Qing, French, Japanese, and finally the Guomindang.
However, the original occupants of Penghu were primarily fishermen, arriving there from mainland China as early as 8OOCE. Some of those early fishermen went on to Taiwan, becoming the island's first non-aboriginal settlers. Therefore, the Penghu islands have always acted as a series of stepping stones between mainland China and Taiwan.
While empires have come and gone, the underlying fishing culture of Penghu has remained a constant. The islands themselves are flat, dry, and windswept, with little more than cacti being harvested (which is eaten or used to make a vibrantly pink sweet beverage). It is the sea that is the primary source of sustenance.
The various islands of the archipelago are dotted with fishing villages, and the capital city, Magong, is
itself little more than an oversized fishing village. Navigating the islands by scooter, the visitor is greeted at every turn by racks of drying fish, squid, and their associated scents. Every bend on the coastline hosts a harbor or fishing dock, where heaps of boats bob away, their rows of lights lying dormant, waiting for post-dawn squid fishing expeditions. Tourists are even invited to join in on these mid-night adventures.
The importance of the sea is even evident in the island's temple architecture, with images and reliefs of giant crabs, lobsters, and other sea creatures perched among the usual plethora of folk deities and gods. In fact, the Penghu Islands have a higher number of temples per capita than anywhere else in Taiwan, which is in itself a reflection of the importance of the islands to various groups of people throughout history. Based on my observations, more new ones are going up than ever before, typically funded by organizations on mainland Taiwan. Therefore, the fishing culture of the Penghu Islands still holds its place in the heart of the Taiwanese people.
At the center of Magong lies the oldest temple in all of Taiwan, and it is instructive
to note that it was build in honor of Mazu, goddess of fishermen and the sea. Across the city at the Beichen market, rows of elderly women sit and sell their husband's catches from the early morn, as they have done since the time of the birth of Lin Mo Niang, the earthly form of Mazu.
With a lack of building materials in Penghu, but plenty of dead coral sitting about, the architects of past times have taken advantage of this abundant resource in the construction of their house walls and fences. All over the island you can spot shards of shell and hunks of coral in the details of the walls. Combined with the traditional Chinese layout of the structures, this makes for a captivating effect that is uniquely Penghu.
The best examples of this phenomena are located at the tiny village of Er Kan, on the eastern coast of Xi Yu Island. The inhabitants of the village have restored their homes into traditional tea shops, and visitors are welcomed inside to have a drink as they ponder the magnificent interiors. Only a stone's throw away from the village, Da Yi Temple boasts another sea-based feature: a
gaudy sea themed basement cavern below the temple's worshiping area that houses a dozen or so giant sea turtles.
If that isn't enough to make the visitor pause and scratch their heads, then perhaps the islands hottest souvenir item, giant dried puffer fish inflated and used as lamps, might do the trick.
I was curious to encounter the fishermen of the islands, to complete my experience of Penghu fishing culture. This came with difficulty, however, when I cruised the various docks of the Magong harbor as the dusk catches were coming in. I was greeted by a plethora of smiles and waves, from the peaks of mountains of fishing nets and from behind Styrofoam crates of fish innards. But the faces were too dark to be Taiwanese. Nope, they were all Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Filipino. It seems that these days, few Taiwanese care to get down to the stinky work.
However, Penghu is still Taiwan, and its culture is as heterogeneous as ever before. Its temples, seafood restaurants, tourist ships, and beaches throng with more Taiwanese people than ever before. With budget flight connections daily to Taipei City and other major centers in Taiwan, I invite other
visitors to step foot on to this once difficult to reach, but always strategically important destination. There you may find and experience Taiwan's ancient fishing culture, which is at the very roots of this island nation. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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