Here be dragons
We were in a traditional world. A visitor from Tapei quietly told me there were no women owners of tea plantations - 'That would be absolutely impossible.' Over a dinner of a chicken impaled and roasted on a spike, its head still attached, with fiddlehead ferns and whole sprouting peanuts, the owner of the plantation put a different angle to me: 'Picking tea - it's women's work - it always has been. Men only do it when they can't find other work. Women like to talk among themselves about women's subjects.' It all sounded rather jolly, but, as in other areas of endeavour, young people were moving away, to be replaced by immigrants, and most of the Taiwanese women picking tea were elderly. In the fields, a walnut face under a conical coolie hat gazed at the foreign visitor. The traditional way of life was still making a good living for the owners up here: to win first prize in a tea competition could mean that the tea fetches half a million Taiwanese dollars a kilo (£10,500).
Elsewhere, traditional ways of life, still beautifully and scrupulously pursued, seemed to be under threat. Lukang is a town rich in culture; the sumptuous decorative overload of its Taoist temples attracts worshippers praying for good luck, business success or marriage. Around them, craftsmen still work. In woodcarver Li Bing-Gui's workshop, a magnificent gilded dragon altarpiece sat waiting to be transported to the village of Kaoshong. He explained to me that its extraordinary fluid effects were worked in the hardest of woods - he was proud of his technical feat - before telling me his story. 'I'm the fifth generation of woodcarvers in my family. My father worked much more in the temples - most of my clients are private art collectors. We've inherited Chinese skills - my family came from the mainland. But in China there is no market for my work. Thirty years ago, concrete construction started to take the place of wood. So there are no skills to pass on.' Did he see any future for his craft? 'Well, my son's learning the trade - he's my only apprentice. The market's got smaller.'
Shi Shun-Rong, a maker of papier-maché lion heads just round the corner, had followed a different path. 'My family were in the garment trade. I betrayed the family business.' All around, the fantasy of the toothed and bearded lions gaped, waiting to be picked up and danced with; the shop was a riot of clashing colours. 'The paper's made of horse shit,' he explained demurely before confirming what others said. 'The tradition [of making lions by hand] has disappeared from mainland China.'
And yet the Dragon Boat Festival and the races are enormously popular. In Lukang itself, though the races take place along an unprepossessing stretch of river by a noisy motorway, large crowds gathered to cheer and stuff themselves. Stalls selling a panoply of Taiwanese food at its weirdest and most intimidating had set up camp. Why do the racers take part in it? 'Money,' a member of a team from a girls' school told me, with the prospect of 50,000 Taiwanese dollars (£1,000) before her. Some intimidatingly fit students had a different view: 'Employers like to see it on a CV,' they said. A team from a civil service department were clutching a huge trophy, though on investigation they had only won sixth place. 'For the reputation of the department,' they told me soberly. Was there no pleasure in rowing? They looked at each other, and then at me, in puzzlement. Would they row, I asked the students, if the boats were simple rowing boats like the ones raced in at the Olympics. 'Oh, we're not up to that standard,' they told me, not understanding that I was asking about their sense of tradition. I felt very European.