Yanchao's Jinshan Community –a Hidden Gem Waiting to be Discovered
◎English translation: Peng Hsin-yi
◎Photos by Lin Yu-hung, Hou Ya-ting
Jinshan Community in Yanchao District is known for having some of Kaohsiung's most famous natural wonders, among them Jiguan (Cockscomb) Mountain, the badlands around New Taiyang Valley, and the mud volcanoes at New Yangnyu Lake and Wushanding. It is also a site of cultural heritage, as there is a complete neighborhood full of intact three-sided courtyard houses. In addition, Jinshan is an energetic neighborhood where the elderly participate in all kinds of community activities, such as Gran's Rice Cake Squad. It is heartwarming seeing these grandmothers add a touch of color and fun to mundane daily life. A visit to Jinshan is always fulfilling no matter what your focus, and you will always want to come back and experience more.
Surrounded by hillocks, Jinshan Community appears to be an isolated paradise, but it took a great deal of hard work to achieve the beauty we now see. According to the village's elected chief, Mr. Lin Shun-fu, around ten years ago the residents started a community movement which organized all kinds of activities. One aim was to get people to do something together outside of their very busy farming lives. Gradually, neighbors became friends.
"It means a lot more to people when they accomplish something together" says Mr. Lin. In fact, people in Jinshan Community have accomplished quite a lot, including the legendary Jinshan Elementary School construction project. In 1958, the locals recognized the importance of education and unanimously decided to build an elementary school for the neighborhood. Back in those days, no heavy machinery was available, so the whole village dug, shoveled, and carried dirt away by sheer determination and manpower. They carved out the land that was needed from the side of a mountain. Half a century later, members of the community are still as close to each another as ever.
These days, the stars of the community are the members of Gran's Rice Cake Squad, a group of grandmothers aged 66 to 90. Working together, they make rice cakes for the entire community during major holidays such as Lunar New Year. What is more, each year when Jinshan Elementary School celebrates its anniversary, the squad calls on all of its members, 40 to 50 grandmothers and grandfathers, to go to the campus and make rice cakes for the teachers and students. It is the way they show their love for the community's only school. Tradition is passed down from one generation to another through the flavor and taste of these rice cakes, and they have become part of the very being of every child who attends the school.
If you visit Jinshan Community on a normal day, your initial impression that life here is slow may quickly be replaced by an appreciation of the energy which buzzes beneath the surface. These days, a lot of senior citizens take literacy classes. Meanwhile, a few members of Gran's Rice Cake Squad gather at Grandma Lai Lin-sheng's home, to make a fresh batch of "red turtle" cakes. Grandma Lai's home has the kind of traditional brick cooking-range that is essential to making rice cakes. Grandma Lai is also a student in the literacy class, but sometimes asks for special leave from the instructor so she can join the cake-making party. Creating such cakes is a very elaborate process, and that is why they are usually made only for holidays such as Lunar New Year. These days, very few homes still have traditional brick ranges, but thanks to the support of the squad, concocting these treats has become easier and more fun.
According to the grandmas, "red turtle" cakes are relatively easy to make, but it is nearly impossible to learn how just by watching a demonstration. If you ask them what the secret is, the only answer you get is "experience." The team works together with practiced harmony. Sticky rice powder is kneaded into dough while another person toasts ground peanuts for the filling. Meanwhile, another member of the squad fills the readied dough. On the other side of the kitchen, a roaring fire is burning in the stove, warming up the steamer for the cakes. As they work, the grandmas chat, and discuss their recent appearances in a movie! When asked what roles they played, they all stop their work and pretend to be motionless in their chairs. In a dramatic fashion, they answer, "We were refugees!" and all burst out laughing.
While chatting and laughing, the grandmas' hands never stop moving. One after another, filled pieces of dough are pressed in a mold, out of which come flat rice-cakes bearing turtle-shell patterns. Each cake is placed on a banana leaf and then steamed. Once in a while, the steamer is opened so the grandmas can check how the glossy red-colored cakes are doing. They look especially enticing with clouds of white steam swirling around them. When the red-turtle rice cakes are ready, Grandma Lai sends some to her classmates in the literacy class. The elderly students say coming to class is one of the happiest things in their lives. The residents' sense of kinship is the community's most precious treasure.
Jinshan Community is also rich in physical heritage. It has a block entirely consisting of well-preserved three-sided courtyard houses, a sight rarely seen these days. These houses have withstood the trial of time. They carry themselves with an elegant grace that comes from another era. Most of them are still occupied; in fact, the only mom-and-pop grocery store, Jin 30, is located here. Walking through this neighborhood is like stepping back to an era when traditional culture was still a very active part of everyday life.
In Jinshan, you may see a charcoal-maker busy taking chunks of charcoal out of the kiln, while the fragrance of starfruit hanging from the tree in the courtyard of a nearby house envelops you. The Chen Residence is one of the better known old houses here; six longan trees have stood guard beside it for well over a century. Summertime is when the community's Delonix regia trees blossom; the fiercely red flowers surround the old houses. The natural elements in this neighborhood serve as ever changing decorations, giving a different impression to visitors each time they come.
While in Jinshan, one cannot help but noticing the famous landmark, Jiguan Mountain. So named because it resembles a cockscomb, the top –called Cilin Peak –can be reached via a hiking trail. It is a very enjoyable walk made all the more worthwhile because of the unique landscape along the trail. Tropical trees grow on chunks of coral, and two trees have grown into each other and formed an H-shape, prompting locals to bestow the nickname "Husband and Wife Tree."
The simplicity of the Jinshan impresses visitors. Those who come here are received like children returning home, rather than as strangers. Your memories of Jinshan's appearance may fade, but you will remember forever the warmth of the welcome you receive.