Salt was once one of the most important industries in Budai. The workers in salt fields were offering their sweat and hard work to the land and in return, the land would give them shiny snow-white salt. Thus people and the land have developed an intimate symbiotic relationship. But when sun-drying is now no match for modern ways to obtain salt and this method dies out in natural selection, how should the people conduct ‘dialogue’ with the land? Through interviews with an old salt worker Cai Liquan and with a local historian Cai Guiqiao, this article will attempt to put together the history and determine the future of the Budai salt industry.
The origins of Taiwanese sundried salt lie in Yancheng district of today’s Tainan. After Koxinga arrived to Taiwan in 1661, the Qing court has put a blockade on sea transport to and from Taiwan, so as to sever the relationship between Koxinga and common people. The supplies of edible salt in Taiwan, originally imported from Fujian, were sharply decreased. In order to gain self-sufficiency, a high rank Ming dynasty official in Taiwan, Chen Yonghua, taught the local people how to obtain sundried salt. Since then, ‘sundried salt’ gradually received an attention of the government and was soon transformed into a centrally controlled state-owned enterprise.
The first saltpan was established in Budai in 1784 (49th year of Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty). Developing until the early Japanese occupation era, while the whole island had 203 jia of saltpan surface, Budai alone had 87 jia, which accounts for around 2/5 of the total area. This once important local industry has experienced Japanese colonialism and later taking over the island by Kuomintang regime. In the end it was no match for the changing society and so the year 2001 draws a full stop, thus putting an end to the 217-year history.
Work closest to the Earth
11 years after abandoning the sun drying, it is hard to imagine that a group of hardworking people used to work in the midst of a snow-white saltpan. Only with a narration of an old salt worker can we project a fragment of the place’s history. Now 79 years old, the old salt worker called Cai Liquan was born during the Japanese occupation. Being only 10 he would already follow his elder brother to work in the saltpans. He worked in a unit which occupied a 2,5 jia field and apart from doing military service and 2 or 3 years of occasional jobs away, he spent his entire life working in a saltpan, up till its closure.
Salt industry is like farming – you depend heavily on the weather. Cai Liquan mentions that depending on time in the year, there is a different rhythm of work. Every year between June and August, during the rainy season, there is a ‘stop sun drying time’. September is the time when workers tidy up the field after the rainy season. Then from October till February of the following day there is a ‘little flood season’ and in March, April and May there is the “big flood season”. Because in spring the average rainfall is the lowest and the sunshine period long, water evaporates quickly, so it is the busy season for the salt industry.
Although sun-drying of salt is hard and very exhausting, comparing to other industries, it is a work that lets you connect with nature and the Earth the most. In the past Cai Liquan has tried doing other jobs, like selling fish in Kaohsiung or working in a Formosa Plastics factory, but all the worries and calculations that are a part of doing business, the boring standardized life of a factory worker, unhealthy work environment etc. – all these factors resulted in him choosing to give up. The old salt worker recalls this period: “Before I was selling fish, I went to work in a Formosa Plastics factory in Kaohsiung to make synthetic fabrics. The air in the factory was very bad, there was a heavy smell of chemicals and working there was really unpleasant. At the time my nose started having allergy symptoms, but after I returned back home to work in a saltpan, all these were gone without even using a medicine.”
To compare, “salt work only requires about 6 months of labor in a year. Although the labor is very intense, the work time is actually quite short and there is a lot of freedom. We often got up at 3 or 4 in the morning and at the time when the sun went out at 7 or 8 we were already done and resting. Then we would come out to do some short work in the afternoon. You could go start early and finish early or go late and finish late – there shifts were very flexible. On top of that, while being at work you could breathe the natural sea-breeze and bathe in the natural sun; those are the advantages of being a salt worker.
Original text by Yujun Chen
Excerpt translated from the Chinese by Witold Chudy
Video by Zijie Yang
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