Remaking Zhushan: Ho Pei-jun's Recipe for Small-Town Renewal
Esther Tseng /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byPhil Newell
Ho Pei-jun, president and founder of Townway Cultural and Creative Corporation, started out with operating the “El Patio del Cielo” guesthouse in Nantou County’s Zhushan Township. From there he has gone on to organize work exchanges (in which people exchange labor or skills for accommodation), evening temple runs, and the “Guangdian Forum,” and has attracted young people to start businesses in Zhushan. Without relying on any government resources, he has transformed this little town, driving its development and creating a unique revitalization experience for rural areas and small towns in Taiwan. In fact, he has even exported his formula for “small-town renewal” overseas.
Strolling through a verdant bamboo forest, the light breezes that blow through the bamboo make a soughing sound. The poetic, meditative atmosphere calls to mind the fight scene in a bamboo forest in Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But this place is the Da’an Forest Road in Nantou’s Zhushan Township, which has the largest “sea of bamboo” in all of Taiwan. Ho Pei-jun often walks here as he thinks about Zhushan’s future.
Many tourists who sleep under the comfortable bed quilts at the El Patio del Cielo guesthouse are introduced to the Chen Yi quilt shop, where they can get cotton quilts handmade to order.
Zhushan, which means “bamboo mountain,” lives up to its name, having as much as 50‡60 square kilometers of bamboo forest. In the 1970s and 1980s it was a wholesale distribution center for Taiwanese bamboo as well as a bastion of bamboo product processing, and it earned a great deal of foreign exchange for Taiwan. However, it has a similar story of decline to other small Taiwanese towns that relied on traditional manufacturing: Factories have relocated to mainland China, bamboo products have been replaced by plastic or metal ones, the population is aging, and young people have moved away.
What can I do for society?
Ho Pei-jun, who was born in Nantou’s Shuili Township, happened upon an abandoned century-old three-sided residential compound at 800 meters altitude in Zhushan’s Da’an Village when he was studying at Chang Jung Christian University. Deeply concerned by the loss of local culture and armed with a sense of mission rarely seen among young people of his age, after finishing his military service Ho went everywhere looking for a loan to buy the place and convert it into a guesthouse, with the intention of “conserving a historic site.” Despite running into many brick walls he persevered, and finally convinced a bank manager to take his ideals on board and loan him NT$10 million.
Ho discovered that while the number of tourists coming to Zhushan was on the rise, the local resident population had declined sharply, from 80,000 to 50,000. The bus station formerly operated by the Taixi Bus Company, a landmark in the town center, had closed down for lack of passengers, and was threatened with demolition. Thereafter, Ho’s mission in life turned from renovating a derelict homestead to revitalizing a disused bus station and a declining town.
Ho Pei-jun and bamboo artist Su Su-jen used 5500 bamboo strips to transform the upstairs space in the old Zhushan Bus Station into the town’s hippest restaurant. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Adopting a new “hometown”
To give visitors to Zhushan a place to stay overnight and enable them to experience the sights and feel of the township, Ho used his homestay as a base from which to link up with old shops selling local products. He “transformed the guesthouse into an IKEA,” so that people can buy the things they enjoy there. For example, guests who appreciate the warmth and comfort of the pure cotton bed quilts are directed to the Chen Yi quilt shop, established 70 years ago and Zhushan’s only remaining handmade quilt shop, where they can order handmade cotton quilts. The guesthouse also serves rice snacks, and introduces consumers to the Chiming Mifu grain shop to purchase them.
In 2010 Ho founded Townway Cultural and Creative Corporation and proposed his project to “make tourists into sociologists.” He rented a four-story building with two shopfronts for NT$7000 per month to attract young people with creativity and talent to come and “exchange skills for accommodation.” He also founded the “Guangdian Gathering Place,” a platform for sharing and exchanging experience, where he has regularly held classes and forums, discussing with shop owners and farmers from Zhushan how to market local agricultural products and find opportunities for development.
Some of the young people who have swapped their skills for accommodation have gone on to make micro-movies about Zhushan, create travel maps for the town, and produce woven-bamboo QR codes for shops. TV and other media reports on Townway have promoted these old shops, with their added cultural and creative elements, to the public.
As part of Townway Cultural and Creative Corporation’s work exchange program, woven bamboo QR codes were made for Zhushan shops, creating points of interest for visitors to the town.
Creativity in culture, travel and farming
The night in Zhushan is quiet and still. Almost every family is watching a TV drama series, and as we glance into homes as we cycle along the road, we can follow the plot. To relieve stress, Ho Pei-jun goes for evening runs with Lin Jia-hong, who came home to take over the family business, and the two men chat as they run. Their conversation often revolves around a quite serious topic: What can be done to revive the waning bamboo crafts industry?
Lin Jia-hong is the third-generation boss at Yuantai Bamboo Crafts. His family history is a microcosm of the rise and fall of the bamboo industry in Zhushan. The first generation made bamboo ear cleaners, while the second made knitting needles. They prospered for a while, but with the advent of knitting boards in 2005, production of knitting needles declined. Lin returned to take the reins of the family business in 2010. He experimented with technological upgrading and new forms of marketing, but met with little success in a shrinking market. Then, after securing reliable supplies of bamboo, in 2015 he put out a bamboo toothbrush and began to appeal to customers based on environmentalism and natural materials. He accompanied this with DIY craft experience classes, and now each year he sells 50‡60,000 toothbrushes. Beyond the factory he has also opened a brick-and-mortar shop, where some of the most popular products include bamboo drinking straws and travel cups. Continuing to develop bamboo products for daily life is Lin’s way of reviving this sunset industry.
Lin Jia-hong, who returned to Zhushan to take over the family business, is giving new life to the bamboo industry by making products such as toothbrushes, drinking straws and travel cups from bamboo.
At the Lai Far Blacksmith Shop, which has been in business for five generations, father and son are working together to preserve traditional blacksmithing techniques, by which they forge laminated steel blades and farm tools.
Zhushan bamboo shoots, harvested before dawn with the dew still on them.
Ho Pei-jun’s approach, on the other hand, was to found the Nantou County Bamboo Life Cultural Association, which was established in 2013. He brought back instructors to once again train people in bamboo crafts, such as making bamboo baskets and vases, and sought out enterprises interested in purchasing such products to negotiate sales contracts.
In 2015 Ho rented another disused space: the second-floor former employees’ dormitory of the old Zhushan Bus Station. He used 5,500 six-foot-long strips of bamboo to weave openwork false ceilings and pillar cladding for the dormitory, transforming it into a cultural space called “BeYoung Garden.” By the end of 2018, BeYoung Garden was serving dishes made using locally grown ingredients, including chicken in bamboo sauce, stewed pork with bamboo shoots, and mashed sweet potatoes. This is not only an example of Townway’s approach to revitalizing a space, it is also significant in terms of the re-emergence of bamboo crafts in Zhushan.
At present Townway is energetically promoting a farmers’ market in Zhushan. One of the farmers who takes part is Michael Lin, who left Zhushan after graduating high school, then returned home three years ago to be at the side of his father, who was in the final stages of cancer. After his father’s passing, Lin decided to retire from his career in mechanical engineering and remain in Zhushan to look after his 84-year-old mother. He began learning the basics of farming from the courses offered by the Farmers’ Academy of the Council of Agriculture, and then built the AOM Farm on his family property. In 2018 income from the farm began to stabilize. In particular he uses eco-friendly farming methods to cultivate baby corn on 6,000 square meters of land. Crisp and sweet, it can be harvested in reliable quantities each month.
The baby corn that Michael Lin cultivates using eco-friendly farming methods is crisp and sweet. Besides earning an income back on the farm, he is also able to fulfill his desire to be back home to take care of his mother.
Other vendors at the farmers’ market include organic tea farmer Chen Yilong, who has held organic certification for over a decade; farmer Chen Shourong, who harvests his spring bamboo shoots before dawn, when they are still wet with dew; and Su Lianqi, whose sweet potatoes are made all the sweeter, and firmer to the bite, by the wide differences in Zhushan’s day- and nighttime temperatures.
In his efforts to attract entrepreneurs to Zhushan, one day when Ho Pei-jun was driving through neighboring Linnei Township in Yunlin County and saw Vannesa Chu selling mantou steamed buns from a roadside stand, he promptly invited her to relocate to Zhushan, a suggestion she acted on by opening a shop there. She takes part in activities at the Guangdian Gathering Place and is following Townway’s approach to reviving this small town, using Zhushan sweet potatoes and other local ingredients to make her steamed buns. Others located close to Townway’s base include Chen Sifan, who makes soap by hand, Chiu Ping-chang, second-generation owner of a bamboo supply firm, and the painter Mon, together forming a cluster of young entrepreneurs.
Exporting the Taiwan experience
Whether it be Lin Jia-hong, who returned to Zhushan to take over his family business, Michael Lin, who retired and started a second life there, or Vannesa Chu, who relocated there, thanks to Townway’s initiatives they are all creating business and job opportunities in this little town. Moreover, through street runs and other activities Townway has drawn in the entire community, driving its revival. Isn’t this precisely the meaning and value of regional revitalization? Faced with the decline and aging of the local population, local citizens and enterprises are taking it upon themselves to develop the local economy, attracting jobseekers, entrepreneurs, and retirees back to Zhushan, and thus giving the town a new lease on life. They really are achieving the goal of “creativity + innovation + entrepreneurship = revitalization.”
Vannesa Chu, who moved to Zhushan from Yunlin, uses Zhushan sweet potatoes in her steamed buns, giving the buns strong local character.
The Executive Yuan has declared 2019 to be “Regional Revitalization Year One.” Ho Pei-jun defines “regional revitalization” as “building an environment in which localities can develop sustainably, and giving localities core operating capabilities.”
Ho Pei-jun’s approach to regional revitalization is not only flourishing in Taiwan; he has also been invited to Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong to deliver some of the more than 100 lectures he gives each year, dazzling audiences with the revelation that there is a small town in Taiwan where development is based on such profound thinking. In particular, with the mainland Chinese government promoting its top-down “rural revitalization strategy,” Zhushan’s example is attracting mainland businesses and rural political leaders to visit Taiwan on fact-finding tours, or even to send personnel to Zhushan for training.
Young entrepreneur Chen Sifan (left) makes handmade soap in the shape of winter bamboo shoots, while craftsman Chiu Ping-chang makes cultural and creative products from split bamboo. Both are creating craft products that highlight Zhushan’s distinctive local characteristics.
Everyone is a Zhushan person
In order to transform outsiders into “Zhushan people,” Ho Pei-jun has also come up with the idea of “digital revitalization.” Any visitor who comes to Zhushan can contribute to the town on some way. By scanning a QR code, people can register as “digital townspeople,” and after depositing money in a virtual wallet, make payments using the guangbi—Zhushan’s own virtual currency. Through blockchain technology, a record can be kept of consumer’s shopping behavior. This is significant for supporting local small farmers, bamboo craft producers, and cultural and creative enterprises. In the future these data can be used as reference material for local governance.
Ho Pei-jun has courageously put his dreams into practice, and over the last 14 years has transformed a dilapidated old house, an old bus station, and even the entire town of Zhushan. He says: “All difficulties are sources of sustenance, and every challenge or learning experience provides a great opportunity to transform one’s situation.” It is like the bamboo plants in the forest, which grow by only three centimeters in the first three years, but starting in the fourth year rise by 30 cm per year.
Illustrator Mon sees Zhushan as a place where people help and care about each other. You can see her paintings on the town’s streets.
Like other declining townships in Taiwan, Zhushan hopes to achieve a rebirth by attracting entrepreneurs, job opportunities, and retirees.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama