Hundred Years of Taiwan Indigo and Keelung

LEE Jui-Tsung[1]

Nuaan-Nuaan (Warmth), this special name for a place has long caught my attention. However, it was not until 1996 that I first set foot on Nuaan-Nuaan. During that time, I was teaching at a university in Hsin-Chu and was working on the ecological investigation and landscape planning of the Si-Shih Reservoir commissioned by our department which can be thought of as the first cultural landscape investigation project in Taiwan. When investigating the plant plots, we found Dachin (Assam indigo), the raw material for making mud indigo, in the forest. Later, in search of Chin Xue (stone tanks) used to produce mud indigo, my assistant and I traveled all over the headstream watersheds but failed to find any remains of it. In 2003, Ms. Ling-Hsiang CHEN and I co-taught a “DaChin Indigo Dyeing” class at the Keelung Community College, I supposed the students from which can still remember that we collected Dachin and produced mud indigo near the Dong-Shih-Kun village during that semester.

At the end of March in 2009, we visited the Chin Xue at the Go-Shan Kiln, following the lead of Ms. Bao-tsaai Huang. As we removed the bushes and weeds around, we waited to see whether this Chin Xue came in the traditional two-round-one-square style or were some adjustments and corrections made according to the terrain? After clearing up the site, we found another round pit. This is a three-round-one-square Chin Xue. Possibly, it started out in the traditional two-round-one-square style, and by adding a round soaking tank next to it, forming the L-shaped layout. All in all, this is a very special set of Chin Xue. This set of Chin Xue, the Dachin communities nearby and the old houses all speak to the association between Dachin planting and Chin Xue operations. The diameter of the soaking tank is 2.7 meters, and due to deposit of dirt, its depth is now only 0.7 meter; the precipitation tank was 3.1-meter long, 2.5-meter wide, 1-meter deep at the present time.

As to the search for dyeing works, we have found that the Shuen-Huh shop on Nuaan-Nuaan Street used to be a custom-house. Its owner earned a lot of money and became the wealthiest person in town. As there was an arc-shaped stone seen in the shop, we think that before the rise of the tea industry, the Shuen-Huh shop could have prospered from shipping and selling Taiwan indigo and running the dyeing works. This dyeing works connecting with Dachin and Chin Xue from Dong-Shih-Kun River and Si-Shih-Kun River, formed the local indigo industry. It is as if we were seeing a scene from a hundred years ago, when the Shuen-Huh Dyeing Works was polishing the dyed fabrics, sailboats parking along the riverbanks, basket after basket of mud indigo being shouldered on board which would be sold in Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai in China at last. The time was perhaps at the middle of the nineteenth century, around 1870.

In the early twentieth century, the Taiwan indigo industry in Juei-Faang District, Keelung Fort and Nuaan-Nuaan Street, Shih-Ding Fort gradually declined. Places that once grew Dachin switched to grow tea one after another. Eventually, they all disappeared. The Taiwan indigo industry not only showed the footprints of the pioneers reaching so deep into the rural mountains, but also clearly demonstrated how the shipping on the Keelung River interlocked the long and complicated transportation routes of old trails in the mountain areas. This definitely is a topic worth thorough exploration.

The locals of Dong-Shih-Kun River area mostly recognize Dachin but rarely have they seen Chin Xue used to produce indigo. If asked about the process of turning Dachin into mud indigo, almost no one knows. Such a condition is, in fact, a very good humanity subject, because it explains how an industry or a skill is roughly perceived, ignored, or even misunderstood, forgot, and vanished. The residents on Nuaan-Nuaan Street have hardly heard of dyeing works, Chin Xue, Dachin, not to mention the process of setting up an indigo vat, dyeing fabric and polishing dyed fabric. As far as the Taiwan indigo industry is concerned, at the industrial technology level, the operating techniques and the key tricks were most easily forgotten with nothing left, because they were held in the hands of a few specific persons. At the agricultural production level, as the planting and supply of raw materials was easy to teach and tell, and the manpower involved and invested was more extensive, the preservation of group memory was easier to achieve. According to my interviews and field investigations, I boldly infer that the disappearance of the Taiwan indigo industry started with the stop of dyed fabric production. Painted fabric had replaced indigo dyeing fabric. Next, the dyeing works were closed, the indigo vats abandoned, dyeing fabric and polishing dyed fabric stopping, and then Chin Xue was disused, mud indigo no longer produced and transported. In the end, Dachin was discarded and even completely forgotten.

We hope, beginning with Keelung, to help every place in Taiwan to discover its own Dachin, Chin Xue and dyeing works, which recorded the vivid past of our ancestors. In recent year, there have also been some local forces at the headstream of Dong-Shih-Kun River beginning their attempts to revive the Taiwan indigo industry, which is a good start. Through constant tracing and investigations, and integrating all the figures, sites, old trails and ferry points, we can eventually reconstruct the Taiwan indigo cultural map that we once had.

[1] Adjunct Associate Professor of the Graduate Institute of Architecture and Historic Preservation, Taipei National University of the Arts; Director-general of the Taiwan Indigo Dyeing Society.

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