One can’t help but be taken with Huazhai (花宅). I was hit with one of those whatchamacallit shudders, somewhere between frisson and ASMR, as I crept through the ruins on the south side of the village just after dawn last month.
Everything I’ve ever read (Jared Diamond, John Hemming’s Conquest of the Incas) on how civilizations make do with what’s at their disposal came flooding into my head as I studied the craggy basalt and coral walls of these fractured abodes. What kind of lives had those hardy, maritime pioneers lived here, more than three centuries ago? With the resource-poor Pescadores subject to typhoons, battering winds and perennial raids by pirates, it must have been tough.
Huazhai lies on the east coast halfway up the titchy islet of Wangan (望安) in the South Sea of the Penghu (澎湖) archipelago. When then President Chiang Ching-kuo visited in the early 1970s, he sagely noted that the village was sandwiched between a couple of others, thought long and hard, and came up with a new name: Zhongshe (中社) – the Middle Village.
The locals murmured assent, waited for Chiang-lite to do one, and then promptly went back to calling it Huazai (花宅) – the Flower Residence1 The old name comes from the village having been fringed by several hills, which locals thought resembled petals, a mound in the centre serving as the stamen.
I’ve mentioned before that trees are few and far between in Penghu. Good quality stone was also not readily available in many places. Early Han settlers here showed the impressive improvisational skills that you find in so many societies around the world where natural resources were limited.
The walls of the ruins are composed largely of coral, held together with mud and lime. The newer and more affluent-looking houses, especially the Tzeng ancestral home (see below) are conspicuous for employing more basalt and brickwork. Read more about the building techniques here. According to most sources, the ruined buildings were originally ofthe Sanheyuan style, typical of South Fujian and Taiwan – that is, a three-sided open courtyard with a central building usuathough in many cases it is not easy to grasp the original layout. The Tzeng home as it stands is certainly not in that style.
The village is mentioned in Qing annals as far back as 1699 but is probably somewhat older than that (I’ve yet to come across a definitive date). Some of the ruined buildings are, then, easily more than 300 years old (though still not meritorious of the “ancient” designation that you see on the signposts and which is bandied about in Taiwan for anything approaching the 100-year mark).
The restored abodes on the main lane are what draw the tourists and the Tzeng family ancestral home is the centrepiece. After rambling through the ruins for about half an hour, I made for the main lane and met a young woman pottering about around the courtyard of the Tzeng house, setting up her souvenir stall in preparation for the hordes that would descend a couple of hours later.
The great-granddaughter of the Tzeng who had the abode built on the site in 1919, Ms. Tzeng had grown up in Kaohsiung and returned to help her mum maintain the place. From what I can determine, it was unoccupied for several years after the first serious restoration work took place in 2002.
Confusingly, Ms. Tzeng told me the house was itself “three or four hundred years old.” Perhaps there was a building on the site before great-granddad took over, but she couldn’t tell me who, if anyone, had been there before that.
The building is undeniably attractive; the brick window-grates in the shape of the character for the family surname – great granddad’s design – are a standout feature. On balance, though I was far more touched by the skeletal remains that greeted me at the village edge.
The Tzengs have been at the forefront of pushing to have Huazai protected as a heritage. In 2004, the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based NPO put these ruins on its watch list, finally spurring the government into recognising them as a cultural relic the following year.
Restoration work is currently afoot (though proceeding slowly) and plans are apparently in the offing to set some of the old houses up as coffee and souvenir shops and the like. I can understand it – it makes sense for the local economy, but if I had my way, the old degenerates would remain in their state of disrepair, a spine-tingling testament to an era that would otherwise be very hard for me to conjure up.