🏮Chinese New Year Blessings @ Pingtung 屏東: The Place to Be!🏮

Pingtung: yes, it’s THE place to be for Chinese New Year (aka Lunar New Year / Spring Festival)! Everywhere is beautifully and creatively lit up with lanterns, and the temples and streets are busy. Although the pandemic has meant less travel than usual and the cancellation of many large events, there’s still plenty of things going on, and most people are wearing face-masks most of the time, and staying away from too many crowds….

It’s also THE place to be on normal days too ~ there’s so much to see, so much to do! Highlights include the Confucius Temple, and Xianmin Cultural Park – containing the old sugar factory and paper mill, both of which have been restored – it’s a good place to visit at night, and there’s street art all over!

Pingtung is Taiwan’s far distant SW county, famous for everything that northern Taiwan is not – meaning hot sunny days, mild nights, sandy beaches, coconut trees, fields of rice and fruit, high mountains, indigenous culture, Hakka villages, wide streets, a slow and unhurried pace of life – and of course its traffic lights!

Pingtung City has over 30 sets of animated traffic lights where the little green man is proposing to his girlfriend on the red light and they’re walking hand in hand on the green light. In 2018, they introduced another 30 or so sets of traffic lights where they’re expecting a baby, and walking along as a family. Such fun! Check out this Taipei Times article here all about it. All so appropriate for Valentine’s Day this past weekend. Pingtung is just such a romantic city!

I was there for Chinese New Year, from February 11-15, kindly invited by good friend, Ju-Zi 菊子 ~ she’s the very lively chair of the church council at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Pingtung. Ju-Zi took me on the train to visit Zhutian 竹田, home to mostly Hakka people, and famous for its historical train station from the Japanese era, and the coffee shop in the converted rice mill. It turns out that Zhutian is also the original home town of my good friend Mrs. Hsu – her childhood home has been restored and also converted into a coffee shop and museum. Her father was a member of Pingtung County Council and the family photo is on the front wall of the house. Really great to experience and soak up the Zhutian atmosphere!

St. Mark’s Church, Pingtung is small and very homely ~ the church members are just like a family, more so – in my opinion at least – than any other of our churches in the diocese. They are all so lovely – and so lively ~ there’s never a dull moment! The vicar is Rev. Joseph Wu 吳明龍牧師 – his wife and 2 children had come from Taipei for the festival; his son had even come all the way by motorbike! Ju-Zi invited them all to her home on Chinese New Year’s Eve for a delicious dinner ~ and me too. Thank you Ju-Zi!

St. Mark’s had a Thanksgiving Service on Friday, Chinese New Year’s Day, followed by a shared lunch and then an outing to a nearby forest. We also met up again for the Sunday Service on the third day of the festival, followed by lunch together and another trip out. One of the members is in a wheelchair – she came too, and the church members carried her up and down steps, ah she was so happy! And then a small group of church members came with me to Tainan to visit Bishop Lai and Mrs. Lai on Monday, on my way home to Taipei. Thank you! They are all so kind, friendly and very sociable!

One of the most popular places in Pingtung City in recent years is the former military dependents’ village, now known as Shengli Star Village (勝利星村), where the houses were mostly built in the 1930’s by the Japanese, but after World War II, they were used to house military families. As people moved out, so they were left to decay. They are now being restored, house by house, and converted into shops and restaurants. The place is humming with people!

The military personnel who lived in Shengli Village mostly came to Taiwan from Mainland China in 1949 ~ with Chiang Kai-Shek and the then government of the Republic of China (ROC), fleeing the advance of the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some of the military personnel were Episcopalians and the earliest origins of St. Mark’s Church lie here in Shengli Village, where one of the military families held the first services in their living room ~ yes, this is the actual house!

St. Mark’s Church was consecrated in December 1966, built not too far from Shengli Village, and many of the current church members were themselves brought up in military families. I asked them where they considered their families to be from, and the response was a wonderful mix of Taiwanese, Hakka and Mainland China, with many different Chinese provinces listed. Several said their father came from China, while their mother is from Taiwan. As they settled down in Taiwan, many of the military men from Mainland China married Taiwanese women. Quite a lot who came to Taiwan already had wives and children in Mainland China, but with no hope of being reunited, so they married again in Taiwan. This was also the case with Ju-Zi’s father. He came from the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang (Chekiang) 浙江, home province of Chiang Kai-Shek and many other notable people. As a military man, her father had left his wife and son in Mainland China, but with no chance of being reunited, so he was officially listed as ‘single’ and could get married again in Taiwan. This is Ju-Zi’s parents on their wedding day…

As the PLA advanced across Mainland China, so the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to Taiwan and to the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Chekiang Province in exile relocated its capital to the offshore islands of Dachen (Tachen) 大陳島, where many ROC military personnel were based – one of their last strongholds in Mainland China, along with the nearby small Yijianshan Islands 一江山島.

In Ju-Zi’s words: on January 18, 1955, the Yijiangshan Islands were captured and the ROC army defeated. The people of the Dachen Islands were in great danger, and Chiang Kai-Shek, though reluctant to retreat, negotiated with the US government, who sent in the Seventh Fleet to evacuate everyone from the Dachen Islands to Taiwan. In total, 16,487 Dachen people were evacuated, starting to board on February 8, 1955, and landing at Keelung Port, Taiwan the next day, February 9 (apologies for any historical inaccuracies: check out the official Wikipedia version of these events here).

One of the people from the Dachen Islands to arrive in Keelung on February 9, 1955, was Ju-Zi’s mother, along with her mother and siblings, including a sister-in-law, a group of 7 in total. At the time of their arrival in Taiwan, Ju-Zi’s mother was 31; she had been married and given birth to 2 children in Dachen, but both children had died. So on arrival, she too was officially listed as ‘single’. At the time of the evacuation to Taiwan, she was staying with her mother, and so was evacuated along with the family group. In the rush of the emergency evacuation, and thinking this would be only a temporary move to Taiwan, so they brought little more than bedding and basic clothing with them. On arrival in Taiwan, they were initially housed in schools and government accommodation, until they were assigned more permanent homes.

Those homes were to be villages specially constructed for the Dachen people, over 30 such villages were built around Taiwan. Depending on their skills and previous work experience, so the Dachen people were assigned to villages – on the coast for fishermen, in rural areas for farmers, and in the cities for those with other skills. Ju-Zi’s grandmother and the rest of the family were in the fishing business, so they were assigned homes in Donggang, about 30 minutes drive from Pingtung. Ju-Zi’s mother had written that her skills were in sewing, especially making fishing nets, and she was assigned a newly-built house in Pingtung’s ‘Dachen New Village’. The photos below are of the village today, with the green sign 大陳新村 at one of the entrances. These days the village is sandwiched between a school, temple, park and Carrefour Supermarket, but the old alleys and narrow streets remain. Cars and motorbikes can just about get through some of the streets, but originally it was only possible for pedestrians -and maybe bicycles. As time has gone on, so most of the original Dachen arrivals have died or moved away, and their houses sold, renovated, remodeled or completely rebuilt. Only 6 of the original Dachen families remain, and it is the younger generations who live there; Ju-Zi’s mother is the last of her generation in the village, and one of only 3 left in the family group of 7 who originally came in 1955.

Today, Ju-Zi and her mother (now aged 97) still live in the same family house in Pingtung’s Dachen New Village. This is the house, with Ju-Zi putting up the red couplets for the New Year….

This is Ju-Zi and her mother….

Ju-Zi’s father was 12 years older than her mother, and when Ju-Zi was born (an only child), her mother was 38, and her father 50. This is the most wonderful family photo of the 3 of them at home….

The Dachen Islanders found it difficult to settle in Taiwan, mainly because of language. They could only speak their own Dachen language, few could speak any Mandarin Chinese, and certainly none could speak Hakka or Taiwanese. As a result, many found it difficult to find a job, and as opportunities came to move to the USA, so many set off to make their fortunes cooking Dachen food in New York’s China Town, where Dachen chefs had a big influence on US Chinese cuisine. Fortunately when Ju-Zi’s father and mother met – in Pingtung’s Dachen Village, where he was visiting a friend – they had enough common language (both being from the same Chinese province) to be able to communicate, and her father could also speak Mandarin Chinese, so he could find a good job. He was also the one who would go shopping for the family and handle all communications outside the home. This is Ju-Zi’s mother and grandmother on the left, and on the right – the family outside their house!

Ju-Zi herself is fluent in the Dachen language, Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese and with some English too. She spent most of her career as a tour guide, leading Taiwanese tour groups all over the world, mainly to Mainland China, Japan, SE Asia. After her father died 20 or so years ago, her mother was left alone, and found communication with Taiwan people almost impossible, as she has never learned either Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese. Some years ago she moved into a care home, but there was nobody there who could speak her language, and equally important, nobody there who could cook Dachen food. She was really miserable.

The first Christian in her family, Ju-Zi was first introduced to St. Mark’s Church and the Christian faith when she was 15, when she was invited by her classmate, Wen-Ping, daughter of Rev. Charles C. T. Chen, then vicar of St. Mark’s Church, to come to the church youth group. Of the 10 students invited, only Ju-Zi continued on; she became a Christian, was baptized and joined St. Mark’s Church. She has been a member ever since, with a short gap of a few years when she lived in Taipei and worshiped at Good Shepherd Church.

St. Mark’s Church, Pingtung

Five years ago, Ju-Zi’s mother was baptized by the then vicar of St. Mark’s Church, Rev. Joseph Ho. For the baptism, he spoke in Mandarin Chinese, and Ju-Zi translated everything into Dachen language for her mother. About that time too, Ju-Zi also made the decision that her mother could no longer continue living in the care home, and she would have to find a way to take care of her at home, with the help of a live-in caregiver. Ju-Zi also decided that she would have to learn to cook her mother’s Dachen food. Following her mother’s instructions as she sat nearby, she started from scratch, with 5-6 practice runs at each dish before her mother declared each one to be perfect! This is Ju-Zi in action….

Cooking Dachen food for her mother each day and receiving her approval – and with her mother feeling so much happier, so Ju-Zi started to wonder if she could make a living this way. Having to stay home with her mother meant no more tour guiding and her mother had no pension, but she still needed some income. Maybe this was the way forward?

And so, through prayer and discernment, Ju-Zi had a vision of serving home-cooked Dachen meals to friends and guests – and so getting some income, but also through that, the chance to share her family story, and through that also, her Christian faith. She says that these days, so many people live alone – and they eat alone, and this would be such a great opportunity to bring people together, to enjoy each other’s company and to make friends. Plus too, cooking meals is very time-consuming, from buying the vegetables to preparing them all, and busy people in modern life have little time to enjoy authentic home cooking.

Amazing breakfasts made by Ju-Zi for me over Chinese New Year – well, three breakfasts over three days, to be precise….

Taking her mother out of the care home, and bringing her to live at home was a huge decision, and yet she went ahead in faith. Her mother is completely disabled, and can no longer talk, yet she thrives when she can eat her own food. So Ju-Zi’s vision was to build an extra room onto the side of the house, a very simple structure, built with a lot of DIY, decorated with second-hand everything collected from recycling stores, friends’ homes or wherever she could scavenge something as cheaply as possible. In that room, she would serve her guests delicious and authentic Dachen meals, and she would share the story of how this whole project came to be, why she was doing it, and how God had led her thus far.

Wouli garden

The name Ju-Zi chose was ‘Wouli’ which in Dachen language is the word for ‘home’. Initial progress was slow, she had no experience of construction, couldn’t negotiate with the workers, was cheated or had a misunderstanding with the builder and the money ran out sooner than expected, and instead she was left with a skeleton of a room of iron bars, the corner posts in place, but no walls or roof or furnishings, Her initial confidence quickly changed to frustration, but this pushed her to pray and to cast herself into the hands of Almighty God. She now says that without those major setbacks, she would not have experienced the grace and mercy of God in the way that she has, as she came to fully rely on him to accomplish what she had in mind.

Wouli today

Bishop David J. H. Lai and Bishop Lennon Y. R. Chang have both encouraged her to keep going and not lose heart, as has Rev. Joseph Wu and friends at St. Mark’s; in fact Wouli has been adopted and is partly supported by St. Mark’s as an outreach ministry. Ju-Zi has written an article for the diocesan magazine sharing her vision, and as a result, many of our church members across the diocese have been moved to help. Since then, through friends and contacts, Ju-Zi has collected and scavenged lots of roofing materials, corrugated iron sheeting, old windows, frames, furniture and, thanks be to God, the room is mostly complete, though she still has work to do on the garden and other buildings. Friends (and friends of friends) have written articles about her project and she has a steady stream of visitors phoning up to book meals. Over Chinese New Year, she could have taken bookings every day, but she took the week off instead. Many of the guests are people who themselves have vision and drive but lack the courage to do what Ju-Zi has done, and so they show their admiration by offering their help and expertise ~ gardening, DIY skills, cleaning, while others bring things that may be useful, a second-hand fan for the heat, kitchen equipment, even a fridge ~ everyone is welcome!

Wouli

A few months ago, Ju-Zi gained her Chinese cooking license, which will help considerably. She says she remains indebted to Rev. Joseph Wu, who was in shop management for many years before becoming a full-time vicar, and has given her much practical advice. It is important to state that Wouli is not run as a business as such, but guests do give a set amount per meal as a donation.

Early morning sun at Wouli

Ju-Zi invited us for the Chinese New Year’s Eve meal, and gave us an authentic Dachen meal – so delicious! Nian gao is a main staple, and is especially popular at New Year.

Ju-Zi’s vision does not just stop at serving meals, but extends to reading groups, environmental action, developing and sharing friendships, life experiences, and of course sharing the Christian faith with those who come. It’s kind of community-building from the grass roots upwards. Maybe one day it could even become residential, sharing lives together. Four friends, including Rev. Joseph Wu have just started meeting regularly on Mondays at Wouli for fellowship, and as a way to invite people to come along who may not feel happy about going to a church. Ju-Zi’s testimony is compelling, but she would be the first to say that rather it is God’s love, grace and mercy that are truly compelling!

‘福 Blessing’: Chinese New Year gift from St. Mark’s Church, containing 2 chocolate coins!

Praying for God’s blessing on Ju-Zi and her mother, and that Wouli will continue to go from strength to strength, becoming a place to share God’s peace, joy, hope and love ~ as well as good food and friendship!

6 thoughts on “🏮Chinese New Year Blessings @ Pingtung 屏東: The Place to Be!🏮”

  1. Thank you so much for the photos of my maternal grandpa’s home in Zhutian. They take me back to my childhood days when my sisters and I would be there during the holidays to be spoilt by our grandparents. Your photos are so elegant and make me proud of my grandpa’s care in preserving the structure. The property is rented out as an art coffee shop but is now owned by my mother’s younger brother. THANK YOU SO MUCH, Catherine!

  2. Dear Catherine,
    What a wonderful blog! I love Ju-Zi’s story – Such woman of faith and look what she has achieved!! AMAZING!! Thank you for sharing this story of encouragement and hope.

    Blessings
    Anne

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