Teahouses in the sky

By Kenny Mah
April 27, 2012

Hill-side houses, Jinguashi. – Pictures by CK Lim and Kenny MahHill-side houses, Jinguashi. – Pictures by CK Lim and Kenny MahTAIPEI, April 27 — Fancy travelling into a movie? That’s what some Taipei residents do to get away from the fast pace and grey buildings of the city in the weekends — they head to the coastal hill towns of Jinguashi and Jiufen in the north. So beautiful and idyllic are these towns that filmmakers from Hayao Miyazaki to Hou Hsiao-hsien have set their award-winning movies here.

Jinguashi and Jiufen used to be gold mining centres of Taiwan before the precious metal ran out in the 1950s. Both towns then became near-forgotten backwaters until Hou Hsiao-hsien filmed “A City of Sadness” in Jiufen, showcasing the old world charm of its small alleys and traditional teahouses.

Hou’s historic film went on to win the Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival and Jiufen’s retro splendour was thus rediscovered. Jinguashi eventually caught up with its neighbour after the completion of its Gold Ecological Park in 2004.

We decide to do as the locals would and embark on a day trip, first heading to Jinguashi for a morning stroll through its beautiful green hills before hitting the old shopping district of Jiufen for an unhurried afternoon tea with views of the sea.

Interior of the Four Joined Japanese-Style Residences, JinguashiInterior of the Four Joined Japanese-Style Residences, JinguashiThe Village of Gold

Walking up the slopes with old-fashioned hill houses perched precariously on one side, we first stop at a remnant of the Japanese occupation during WWII. The Four Joined Japanese-Style Residences are restored former Japanese quarters that offer a snapshot of how the families of the senior mine personnel lived once.

While the miners were mostly local Taiwanese, their supervisors were Japanese and as such these houses retained much of a traditional Japanese home’s design and functionality. From painted sliding walls to tatami mats, there’s a bit of their home country in every corner. Even the appliances such as clocks and small electrical table fans were specially imported from Japan.

For lunch, we drop by an alfresco café halfway up the hill, where there is an assortment of biandang (Taiwanese bento) available. I had a miner’s lunch — a box of steamed white rice, some pickled vegetables and a fried pork chop. Simple and hearty, this was originally a labourer’s lunch meant to fill the workers up with quick sustenance. Other biandang include crispy chicken thigh rice and pork lard rice.

Biandang (Taiwanese bento with rice, meat and pickled vegetables), JinguashiBiandang (Taiwanese bento with rice, meat and pickled vegetables), JinguashiThe proprietress of the lunch shop tells me I can take the bento box back as a souvenir. The box and the kerchief it was wrapped in reveals the map of the entire Jinguashi town when unfurled, complete with all the depleted gold mines of yore.

We continue our journey, following the abandoned railway tracks towards the gold mines. Soon we reach the Fifth Pit, which operated originally as the offices for the Taiwan Metal Mining Corp. Today, it functions as the entrance to the Museum of Gold. The first floor of the museum houses exhibitions of the gold mining tunnels, old mining equipment and transport systems; also featured is its use as a Japanese WWII prisoner camp.

The highlight of the museum is found on its second floor — a whopping 220kg 999 pure gold ingot, a world record as the museum guide proudly proclaims. He reminds us that the giant gold ingot is protected by all manner of security measures before jokingly asking if any of us would like to try and carry it home.

Teahouses and taro balls

After leaving the gold museum, it’s a quick bus ride downhill to Jiufen. The afternoon is best spent exploring the town’s old alleys and stopping at one of the traditional teahouses for tea while enjoying the view of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

We start by crossing the road from the bus station into the Historic Commercial District of Jiufen — a compact area of shops and teahouses nestled along Jishan and Shuchi Streets. Here we get glimpses of the coastal hills and the harbour even as we navigate the small alleys between the stores and cafés. Day visitors from Taipei come here to relive the past while hunting down the best teas and sampling local delicacies.

Top: The Historic Commercial District of Jiufen. Bottom: Making ba-wan, and taro balls, JiufenTop: The Historic Commercial District of Jiufen. Bottom: Making ba-wan, and taro balls, JiufenSome of Jiufen’s specialties include sticky mochi (glutinous rice cake), stinky tofu, colourful handmade lollipops and fresh fish balls. We tried ba-wan, a toothsome ball of translucent dough stuffed with pork, bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms, sliced into halves and served with a sweet and savoury sauce.

Another firm favourite amongst visitors are the taro balls (locally known as yuyuan), and locals claim that Grandma Lai’s Yuyuan at No. 143, Jishan Street does the best version. Similar to tangyuan (dumplings made during the winter solstice), these have no filling and are served in a hot or cold sweet soup filled with red adzuki beans, green mung beans and pieces of taro. The taro balls come in various shades of green, purple, white and yellow, making it a colourful dessert.

There are many traditional teahouses here, from the popular Jiufen Teahouse to the Sky Castle Teahouse (modelled after the Hayao Miyazaki animated film “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”). What draws visitors into these teahouses aside from their love of tea is usually the vintage décor and pleasant atmosphere. It’s a great place for Taipei-ites to escape the bustle of the city and chat the afternoon away while enjoying a pot of tea made from tea leaves unique to that particular teahouse.

We choose to have our tea upstairs, at the balcony. Though it’s still quite chilly this time of the year, the spectacular view of the hilly slopes and the sea makes it worth putting on an extra jacket. As our hot tea warms us up, we take in the breathtaking scenery and wonder if this is what it feels like, to live in a movie?

Jinguashi & Jiufen, Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan. Directions: From Taipei, take the Jiufen bus No. 1062 from Songshan station or Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station to Jiufen or Jinguashi. Alternatively, take the train north to Ruifang Station in Taipei; from Ruifang take the Keelung Transit bus from the Ruifang bus stop to Jiufen or Jinguashi.

* Kenny Mah believes in the good in people. He has been writing for over 10 years at Life for Beginners. (No, his hands aren’t tired. Yet.)

Teahouse with view of the sea and hills, JiufenTeahouse with view of the sea and hills, Jiufen