The story of the paper umbrella in Meinong is one of those little-great Taiwanese stories.
The art of this handmade Chinese umbrella came to Meinong, a small Hakka town in Southern Taiwan about 100 hundred years ago. A local businessman bought a whole oil-paper umbrella workshop in Guangdong and moved the activity, including the artisans, to Meinong.
Oil-paper umbrellas were used for daily life (they are really waterproof) and also as wedding gifts amongst the thrifty Hakka.
Decorated Meinong paper umbrella began to be exported in Japan. Persimmon oil was (and is) used to give the golden-bronze color.
At the top, Meinung had several workshops producing 20,000 parasols each year. But in the 60's Taiwan industry began to mass-produce much more durable nylon umbrellas and Meinong workshops declined.
Two concurrent events in 1970's saved Meinong paper umbrella from extinction:
So Meinong oil-paper parasols became collectors and decorative items and in this way survived until now.
Umbrellas are a symbol of good luck for Hakka people. The Hakka word for paper has the same sound as the word for child. So umbrellas are traditionally part of the dowry as auspicious for having many children.
More, the Chinese character for umbrella represents a groups of people under a shelter so, again, it may symbolize many children or unity under one roof. Also, "round" (the shape of the open parasol) sounds similar to "satisfaction, completeness" in Hakka.
It is quite amusing that giving an umbrella as a gift is, instead, a big no-no in Chinese mainstream culture. In Mandarin the word for umbrella sounds similar to "separate", so giving an umbrella to a person means you want to break the relationship.
I will write more about the Taiwanese Hakka as this website grows. A brief explanation is anyway needed here.
The Hakka are a linguistic and cultural minority among the Han Chinese. They speak a kind of musical language quite similar to Mandarin (Hakka people actually claim their language is the real original Chinese language).
Hakka are named "kejiaren" - the guests - by the other Han. They have a reputation for being conservative, thrifty and hard workers. But an impressive number of VIPs in the Chinese society are Hakka.
Most of Chinese Hakka live in Guangdong province, from where the Taiwanese Hakka migrated in the XVIII-XIX century. Taiwanese Hakka now count as 15% of Taiwan population.
It is quite a long process and a small family workshop, as the one shown in the video, can make only 2, maximum 3, parasols per day.
First of all the bamboo must be soaked in water for at least one month in order to remove the sugar content - in order to avoid the bamboo to become rotten. Then the craftsman:
After some further finishing the oil paper umbrella is dried under the sun.
Oil Paper Umbrellas in a Workshop in Meinong
Outside Meinong you can find two spots "all-in-one", with shops, souvenirs, food and also of course paper parasols. They are favored by bus tours and they are much less authentic than the workshops listed above:
In all these places the price for a paper umbrella, depending on the size, ranges from 400 to 2000 NTD.
In 1736 Hakka settlers, leaded by two brothers named Lin, drove the aborigines out to the mountains and founded the walled town of Meinong.
Nowadays 95% of Meinong inhabitants are still Hakka. The main industry in Meinong was tobacco but this business has declined a few years ago. Meinong is an unusually quiet town today, compared to other Taiwanese cities.
Take a stroll in the old city enter
Actually Meinong township is made of several different settlements, with stretches of countryside between them. The old city center itself is tiny, quiet and definitively rustic. If you have a car you can easily park it at the east side (Dongmen) where the old street begins and walk around.
Dongmen means "East Gate". The old gate, originally built in the XVIII century, is still a landmark of the town.
From Dongmen you can walk along Yong-An Road (Old Street). The place is not touristic at all. There are several traditional houses and courtyards along Yong-An Road, some in very good conditions, some quite shabby, some even abandoned.
On the right, at the number 177, you will find the Lin family old mansion. From the street you can catch a glimpse of the antechambers, different rooms where the outsiders, depending on their rank or closeness with the family, were received.
Just a few meters further, on the left side, Jin Xing Hang Clothing shop has been making and selling traditional Hakka garments from 1932. We had the pleasure to meet the 100 years old owner and local celebrity, Mr. Xie Jing Lai, still working in his shop!
The choice is quite wide, from the traditional blue Hakka blouses and clothes for 1000-2000 NTD to doormats for 350 NTD .... The shop can prepare tailored Hakka dresses.
Visit the Hakka Museum
This new and very good museum is located 1.5 km northeast of the city center. Several good bilingual displays explain the main points about Hakka people and their culture.
Some video illustrate Hakka folk music and stories. Artifacts are showed, including a tobacco curing shed (as i said tobacco was the most important source of wealth in Meinong until recent years). Definitively a place not to be missed in Meinong.
Explore the countryside
This probably is the most interesting to do in Meinong. The countryside is lush and quiet, with small wooded mountains and rows of coconut palms.
There are still some tobacco fields but especially rice paddies, banana, radish ... (wonderful bananas, eat them if you have the chance!). And many three sided traditional houses, quite a few kept in good conditions.
The area is noticeably tidier than the average Taiwanese countryside. The countryside deserves to be explored on the secondary roads, the roads are sometimes quite narrow, so a bicycle is the best choice.
Actually there are seven different biking itineraries, each with a different color code. Maps and bicycles can be obtained at the home-stays.
Watch butterflies in the Yellow Butterfly Valley
There are some nice home-stays in Meinung, the tourist guidebooks especially recommend:
Both are in the area of the Hakka Museum and provide bicycles. Pick up at the bus station can be arranged.
The Meinong Traditional Hakka Restaurant is recommended by the travel gudebooks and i recommend it too. We ate 4 hearty dishes of Hakka cuisine for 580 NTD (Jhongshan Rd., 362 - Sec 1, almost opposite to the Meinong Prosperity Paper Umbrella Store).
By car is quite easy:
From the Yanchao Interchange on the Freeway n.3 just follow the National Highway 10 (Kaohsiung Branch) to its end at Cishan, then follow the road signs to Meinong.
Garrett Clarke has also other beautiful pictures about Taiwan on his website www.garretmclarke.com