Tourism boost for ancestral hometown of Taiwan's next president

Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral home in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan. ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING

After the sole beluga whale wistfully toying with a float at the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium, and beaches where films such as Life Of Pi and Cape No. 7 were filmed, there was just one more tourist attraction in south Taiwan we had to hit: a small two-storey house.

Our 13-month-old daughter was long overdue for her nap and was cranky. But, we told her, hang on in there. After all, we are visiting the ancestral home of Ms Tsai Ing-wen.

Taiwan's next President wasn't in, of course.

But a woman selling organic black beans and green pumpkin seeds was. Bulky coaches nuzzle their way through narrow lanes more used to the light treading of village cats. Minutes after we arrived, one bus disgorged some 30 excited elderly folk from Taichung, central Taiwan.

"Of course we had to come and see this house. She is our next President, you know," said retired accountant Chung Yu, 65.

With a month to go before the May 20 inauguration of Ms Tsai as Taiwan's fourth elected President and first woman leader, the fishing village of Fenggang in Pingtung county - a 1.5-hour drive from Kaohsiung at the southern-most tip of Taiwan - has become an improbable tourist attraction.

Its links to Ms Tsai are from the past. While her father and grandfather lived at 109 Li Long Lu, she herself was born in the capital of Taipei where her father moved to at age 19 and later becoming a wealthy businessman, though she visited Pingtung intermittently during her childhood years.

Still, that has not deterred the villagers from turning the century-old house into a veritable shrine to Ms Tsai.

Above its front door, they hung a wooden plaque: "President Tsai Ing-wen's ancestral residence".

Inside, a framed print of Ms Tsai and vice-president elect Chen Chien-jen was hung next to a black-and-white photo of Ms Tsai's grandparents, of Hakka and aboriginal descent.

Along with organic farm produce, tourists can buy Tsai Ing-wen memorabilia - caps, mugs, dolls, books and hemp bags.

Our driver told us that since Jan 16, when Ms Tsai won 56.12 per cent of the votes, the number of visitors spiked considerably. At its peak, it could see 1,000 visitors a day. Plans are afoot to build a carpark which can accommodate 250 vehicles and a recreation centre.

Township head Hung Chi-neng told local media he hoped Ms Tsai's presidency would boost tourism, commercial development and jobs in the rural township, known for its mangoes, onions and fish seedlings.

"We hope that this rural, poor and often neglected township will draw attention," he told Central News Agency.

The fervent wish for economic dividends from a Tsai presidency is hardly confined to the village. Throughout the island, embattled by downturns and let down by ineffectual governance and warring politicians, Taiwanese are warily hoping that life will get better under a new leader.

For this little village, the ticket is the new president's familial links.

The affection is returned. In the final crucial week of campaigning before Election Day, Ms Tsai kickstarted what she calls "the most crucial lap" there.

Praying at the village temple, she delivered an appeal: "Send a girl from Pingtung into the presidency".

xueying@sph.com.sg