Taiwan’s southern half is a stronghold of Taiwanese Holo culture, and it’s where you’ll find the ancient former capital, Tainan, as well as Kaohsiung, a modern city. At the same time, the south has intriguing pockets of Hakka culture and tradition.
The Hakka are Taiwan’s largest ethnic minority. For the last several decades, Taiwan’s demographics have looked like this: The majority is descended from Chinese settlers who came from Fujian province between 150 and 400 years ago. Fewer than one in forty is of indigenous Austronesian origin. Around one in eight is regarded as a ‘mainlander’ or the offspring of ‘mainlanders’ – but this is a grab-all category for those whose families arrived after World War II. Among them are Muslims from China’s far west, ethnic Mongolians, and others who’ve very little in common with each other. Up to one in six, it’s said, is Hakka.
The Hakka are Han Chinese. They emerged as a distinct sub-ethnic group, speaking their own language and following their own customs, as they moved en masse from central China to the south in a series of migrations between 1,600 and 400 years ago. Because they’ve sometimes faced persecution and had to relocate often, some historians have dubbed them ‘China’s Jews’. And like Jews, they’re regarded as frugal hard workers and excellent students.
Most of Taiwan’s Hakka population lives in the northwest, but parts of the south have been dominated by Hakka since the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi (1661–1722). These towns and villages are near enough to Kaohsiung for day trips. This means they’re bustling with tourists on weekends but downright bucolic midweek; for this reason – and the fact that many restaurants take Mondays off – we at Life of Taiwan recommend outings to places like Meinong and Jiadong are scheduled for Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.
But before we talk about the area’s many architectural gems, let’s talk about the food!
Perhaps the most famous speciality in the south’s Hakka towns is Bantiao, thick white noodles are made from rice flour. (Most of the noodles eaten in Taiwan are made from imported wheat.) Typically fried with slivers of pork and carrot, or boiled and served in a soup with a little pork and a few greens, they go down well before or after exploring Meinong’s quaint neighborhoods.
Menus in Hakka restaurants usually also list Kejia Xiaochao (literally ‘Hakka stir fry’), a tasty blend of pork, squid and tofu. Common ingredients in Hakka cuisine are vinegar and sun-dried mustard leaves added to soups and fried dishes. People who worry about “food miles” will be glad to know that in rural Hakka eateries, much of what appears on your plate was grown nearby. Meinong’s farmers, for instance, grow black beans and vegetables in addition to rice. The adjacent town of Cishan (also spelled Qishan) is famed for its bananas.
If you really enjoy what you eat during your tour of South Taiwan’s Hakka enclaves, and want to recreate some the dishes at home, take a look at this section of the Council of Hakka Affairs website.
Because Hakka people are a substantial minority, in recent years they’ve been courted by both major political parties. The creation and funding of the Council of Hakka Affairs, a Cabinet-level agency which promotes Hakka culture and language, indicates the importance attached to this minority by the national leadership. The council’s website has a lot of English-language information about Hakka history, language and festivals.