Banana Kingdom ─ Visiting Kaohsiung’s Qishan District
More often bypassed than visited, Qishan is used to being neglected by tourists rushing through en route to the Hakka district of Meinong or the religious center of Foguangshan. However, this bustling-yet-bucolic township – now officially part of the Greater Kaohsiung municipality – is not only charming, but can also rightfully claim to have played an important role in Taiwan's economic and agricultural history.
By Steven Crook
Qishan is synonymous with one crop – the banana. Amid the cornucopia of delicious fruits grown in Taiwan, these yellow-skinned delights are quite humble. They’re commonplace and inexpensive. When people want to make a gift of fruit, few opt for bananas. They’re more likely to buy perfect peaches, gorgeous grapes, or prestigious pitayas.
Half a century ago, Japanese consumers couldn't get enough of Qishan's bananas. Ninety percent of the bananas eaten in Japan were from Taiwan, and exports of the fruit generated a third of Taiwan's foreign-currency earnings. An entire section of the Port of Kaohsiung was dedicated to the fruit. The warehouses where they were kept cool before shipping, now known as Banana Pier (www.banana-pier.com.tw), have been revamped into a shopping-and-banqueting complex.
At the height of the boom, each banana tree generated as much income per year as a teacher earned in a month, and it's said that for every six bananas a farmer sold to Japan, he could buy a quality suit. Not that banana farmers made a habit of wearing fine garments – it's also said that even in their free time, while shopping or drinking with friends in the town of Qishan, bachelor farmers liked to wear their sap-stained work clothes. This wasn't due to any sense of thrift; they did so because everyone knew banana growing was lucrative, and advertising one's occupation was a surefire way to attract a wife.
Banana growing was lucrative, and advertising one's occupation was a surefire way to attract a wife
Arriving in Qishan on one of the frequent buses which link it with Kaohsiung’s high-speed railway station (40 minutes one way), Travel in Taiwan met up with members of the Zun-Huai Foundation, an NGO established in Qishan in 1995 to preserve and promote local culture, community sentiment, and ecology.
Zun-Huai has a small number of bicycles, which tourists are welcome to use (free for the first two hours) so they can explore the town in a fun and eco-friendly manner. Its office is a two-minute walk from Qishan’s South Bus Station. The foundation doesn’t currently organize any English-language activities, but this may change. Some of its younger workers speak English and are eager to help; getting in touch with the foundation ahead of time by telephone or e-mail is a good idea, whether you’re hoping for an in-depth tour or simply want to borrow a bike.
Among Zun-Huai’s core members are five young men who play music together under the name Youthbanana (youthbanana.blogspot.com). The band, which recently appeared on the same bill as Taiwanese pop-band kings Mayday, performs original Chinese- and Taiwanese-language rock songs which, they hope, will inspire young people to value local agriculture and pay greater attention to their communities and the environment.
Lao Wang, Youthbanana’s songwriter-keyboardist, points out that the average age of Qishan’s banana farmers is now over 60, and that very few young people consider a career in farming. The white hairs of two banana-growing veterans we met confirmed this: Lu Ming is 76, while Lu Chao-qun is 87.
Lu Chao-qun stands straight as a die, and scampers up ladders like a man half his age. He doesn’t wear glasses or use a hearing aid. Each morning he rides an old bicycle 14km from home to field. If more people could meet this walking advertisement for the farmer’s lifestyle, surely agriculture wouldn't lack for recruits.
As you’d expect, both men know a good banana when they see one. Peel that's a uniform color may look attractive, but Lu Ming points out that those with some black spots are invariably sweeter. Bananas harvested at the end of winter are the best, he goes on to say, as they are more flavorful and slightly chewy. Those grown in the summer, by contrast, are relatively watery and soft on account of the hot season's heavy rains.
Banana peel that's a uniform color may look attractive, but those bananas with some black spots are invariably sweeter
Qishan is especially suitable for growing bananas, Lu Ming explains, because the soil is sandy and so drains well. Until tall levees were built along its bank, the Qishan River flooded every few years, covering nearby fields with fresh, nutritious sediment. Bananas prefer temperatures of 25 to 30 degrees Celsius; Qishan never gets especially cold in wintertime, and during the summer rain-bearing winds beat back the heat.
However, the replenishing layers of silt are now a thing of the past, and banana leaf-spot disease (caused by a fungus) is a serious problem. The disease, which turns banana leaves yellow, doesn’t kill the plants – but farmers are only able to sell about half of the bananas that grow on affected trees, down from the 80 percent yield for healthy trees. Because of these difficulties, many of Qishan's farmers have turned to cucumbers, beans, and other crops.
To give city folk a taste of farming life and the satisfaction of nurturing something they can later eat, Zun-Huai has launched a DIY banana-growing program. Participants pay NT$3,000 for each tree they plant, but they get a third of this back in the form of gifts. A single tree can produce up to 50kg of bananas, so those who sign up can expect plenty of bananas to share with friends and relatives.
No pesticides are used on the plot set aside for this activity, and the only fertilizer applied to the soil is an organic concoction made from rice, peanut, sesame, and soybean.
The gifts include items made and sold by the NGO, such as a cake made from local beijiao bananas – the kind of bananas, a Cavendish variant, which accounted for most of Qishan’s exports during the industry’s heyday. The cake is made with minimal salt and sugar, and no artificial flavors. What’s labeled in Chinese and English as a banana beverage is in fact 8 to 12 percent alcohol; it can't be labeled as a wine or liquor for legal reasons. The malt cookies, also made with beijiao bananas, are satisfying without being cloyingly sweet.
Other banana-related products are also easy to find in Qishan. If your energy is flagging, try banana-flavored coffee (available hot or cold). To cool down, enjoy banana ice cream or banana shaved ice.
About the Banana
So what exactly are bananas? The banana plant is a herbaceous native of Southeast Asia which humans have been cultivating for thousands of years. Rich in fiber, potassium, vitamins B6 and C, and manganese, the fruit is as healthy as it is tasty.
Bananas are grown in more than 100 countries, most close to the equator, and in almost every county in Taiwan; the island’s banana groves are the world’s most northerly. Cavendish bananas – the long, bright-yellow fruit familiar to supermarket shoppers throughout the world – thrive in Taiwan’s climate, as do less-sweet, greenish plantains. The former made fortunes in Qishan; the latter are more suitable for cooking and the making of processed foods.
Until 1979, trains ran between Kaohsiung and Qishan. The tracks are long gone, but the old Qishan Railway Station, pale-blue and made of wood, has been preserved. The exhibit inside has some information about the railroad, as well as the local banana and sugar industries.
Anyone curious about the last should make a point of dropping by the Qishan Sugar Refinery, on the main road to Meinong. These days no sugar is produced there, but tourists can enjoy popsicles while their children clamber over disused locomotives.
Another attractive landmark is the Wudo Dojo. The original, built in 1934 as a place to learn martial arts, burned down in 1994. The current structure is a 2001 rebuild, an example of Japanese architecture in what is otherwise a neighborhood of pure Taiwanese character.