Have you watched “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” on AXN? If you haven’t done so, wait no further! You have to watch it if you are a big fan of Taiwan travel, or into heritage, history, culture and food, especially Hakka culture. In my earlier article, Trek into “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” on AXN and discover Taiwan’s Best-Kept Secrets, I introduced and shared about this amazing program that resonates deep inside me, as a travel photographer and writer, also as someone who is into history, heritage and cultural documentation. An opportunity came onboard to interview Danny Wen and Chris Stowers, I grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Now, I would like to present to all of you – An Interview with Danny Wen and Chris Stowers of “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” – Part One
Before I proceed further, let me give you a recap. “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” is a one-hour Docutainment Special that chronicles the Hakka trail of Taiwan, both a cultural and industrial link to the world. This one-hour Docutainment Special is hosted by British photographer, Chris Stowers and award-winning Taiwanese food and travel writer, Danny Wen Shi-Kai.
Now, let us begin trekking deeper and further into the “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” through An Interview with Danny Wen and Chris Stowers of “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” – Part One
From Danny Wen
Qn: What made you want to join the “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” as a host?
Ans: 一開始聽到要拍攝「樟之細路的秘密」時，我其實興趣不大。以為又要拍一部從「現有的文字歷史」轉為影像的紀錄片。我覺得臺灣已經太多這類型的紀錄片了，而且我一直覺得過去很多紀錄片形式太過雷同，文字歷史的依據也不夠能說服我，視野上有些狹隘，還有些是政治意味濃厚和過多的刻意，最無法引起我興趣的，則是人文的溫度不夠。後來當製作人告訴我，這是一部從「路」的角度出發，紀錄樟樹和茶葉產業，以及不同族群文化在時代背景下相處與融合的紀錄片。不探討歷史的對錯和真偽，重視的是行路人的「觀點」和「發現」。重點是，沒有制式的框架和教條式的內容，而是完全由我和Chris 兩人真實走訪古道，在沒有預設腳本下，從我們兩人不一樣文化背景和視野，自然去發現和重擊出新鮮的或是被隱藏的故事。這樣的觀點打動了我，我也想讓更多台灣以外的朋友們認識我的家鄉台灣和客家文化，所以我答應參與這個拍攝計畫。
When I first heard that I was going to shoot “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail”, my interest was meek. I thought I was going to make another documentary that changed from “existing written history” to video. I thought that there were many similar documentaries in Taiwan, and the historical context were lacking to convince me, or that the vision is pale or politically inclined. The lack of human warmth doesn’t arouse my interest. But the producer pitched to me that this is a documentary from the perspective of the “trail” which records the camphor tree and the tea industry, as well as the coexistence and integration of different ethnic cultures through the times. Instead of discussing what went right and wrong in history and its authenticity, the emphasis of the show focused on the “views” and “discoveries” of its people and those who have travelled past the trail. Most importantly, as there was no standard framework or dogmatic content, it was entirely up to Chris and I to visit the ancient road. Without a pre-set script, we naturally discovered stories from our different cultural background and perspective. This perspective moved me, and I also wanted to let more friends outside Taiwan know of my hometown in Taiwan and the Hakka culture, which is why I agreed to participate in this project.
Qn: How do you see the loss of traditional culture, heritage and history in a modern world today, swamped by social media and new era of living? How can passionate people like you be the change for your generation and role models for the younger generation, not just in Taiwan, for other countries as well?
反過來說，你讓他們覺得這些傳統文化跟他是有關的、有連結性的，再進一步讓他們去發現「好玩」和「成就感」，並鼓勵他們善用社群網路去展現他們所發現的傳統文化美好，又或是另一個不同視野，創造不同的話題，進而讓他們覺得自己很棒，也為自己的文化感到驕傲，這樣的連鎖反應，更容易帶動新生代對傳統文化的好奇以及學習和珍惜！至少，這三年來，我在我自己以年輕學生為主要聽眾族群的廣播節目「Hakka Follow Me」，我用這一套方式，很成功的讓更多的大學同學們開始認識客家文化，發現客家文化和喜歡客家文化，進而參與更多的客家文化相關活！
That’s a good question. The social development brought about by globalization and the internet generation seems to be moving forward hand in hand, but in fact it has also caused the problem of excessive “homogenization”! When all the city’s appearance and pop culture become identical, we also lose the so-called “individuality” and “uniqueness”, and more importantly “my individuality and story”. In my journey to pursue my own Hakka culture, I deeply feel that “discovery” and “identification” are the most important things. If traditional culture tells young people that you “must” or “should”, it will cause a greater backlash and make them flee further.
On the other hand, making them feel that these traditional cultures are related and connected to them, and to let them further discover “fun” and “sense of achievement”, will encourage them to make good use of social networks to show what they have learned. The discovered traditional culture will appear beautiful, even from another different perspective, as creating different topics will enable them to feel great and proud of their culture. Such a chain reaction is more likely to drive the new generation to be curious about traditional culture, and to learn and cherish! For the past three years, I have used this method in my own radio program “Hakka Follow Me”, which is aimed at young students. I have successfully made more college students understand and discover the Hakka culture and participate in more culture-related activities!
With the good response to creativity achieving great results, the radio program was noted for its significant value and honour, and I was presented with Taiwan’s prestigious “Golden Bell Awards Best Radio Host” and have been nominated in the past 2 years. As a result, I am often invited to talk about the Hakka culture or issues related to cultural inheritance at home or abroad. I will clearly say, “There are no classics, without tradition!” And any culture that wants to become a classic, must first be seen, known, and understood before we can have the opportunity for it to be respected, cherished, and preserved!
Qn: During this exploration and shooting of “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail”, are there any historical, heritage or cultural aspects of Hakka culture that left an impact on you? What are they and how has it impacted you?
Ans: 其實有好幾段故事都讓我很深刻。不過，如果只能挑一個，我會說是在台中的路段，我們跟著原著民泰雅族的長者Mr. Walis 一起在山丘上聊客家人和原住民被歷史忽略的融合關係和故事。特別是在大部份文字歷史都強調客家人和原住民長年為了土地爭奪而彼此互相衝突和械鬥。事實上，械鬥也不是唯一的方式，也不能長久的持續，這樣對雙方的傷害都非常的大。
In fact, there are quite a few stories that really impressed me. If I could only pick one, I would say that it was in Taichung where we followed Mr. Walis, the elder of the indigenous Atayal tribe, on the hills to chat about the fusion relationship and stories of Hakka and aborigines that have been ignored by history. Particularly in most of written history, the Hakka people and aboriginal people have been conflicting and fighting with each other for a long time over land. In fact, fighting is not the only way, nor can it last for a long time, but the damage to both sides is big.
因此，在衝突之外，他們試著攜手共同解決問題，而開始了兩個族群「和親」的共榮生活，在當時的樟之細路還被稱為「結婚之路」，都麼美好的族群融合故事，然後在現有的文字歷史裡，卻是很少被提及！當我們到Mr. Walis的家中，看見他阿婆的舊照片，發現她的臉上雖然畫著泰雅族傳統的紋面，但是她的樣貌和衣著，卻是傳統的客家婦女。讓我更震驚和開心的是，Mr.Walis說他身上也流有客家人的血液，他也是客家人！那種族群文化融合的美好，讓我當下好感動，差點就掉下了眼淚啊！ 關於歷史，我常說那只是參考依據，千萬不能盡信它！特別是當我旅行世界的越久，越是深的瞭解到它的真理。
Outside of the conflict, they tried to work together to solve their differences, and began a co-prosperity life of “harmony” between the two ethnic groups. At that time, the Raknus Selu Trail was also called “The Road to Marriage”, which was a beautiful story of ethnic integration which is rarely mentioned in written history. When we went to Mr. Walis’s house, we saw old photos of his grandmother, and found that although her face had traditional Atayal tattoos, her appearance and clothes were that of the traditional Hakka women. What makes me even more shocked and happy is that Mr. Walis said that he also has Hakka blood, and he is also a Hakka! The beauty of the fusion between the ethnic groups and cultures moved me so much that I almost shed tears! Regarding history, I often say that it is only a reference, but not always factual! The more I travel the world, the more deeply I understand its truth.
I often share my “Cube Theory” in my lectures, that when you stand still, the cube you see in front of you is a face, a square shape. However, when you get up and look at the same block from different angles and fields of view, you will find that the block in front of you is actually made up of six sides! Therefore, things cannot be known and understood with only one face, one angle, and one story.
Qn: Do you see a revival of interest in traditions, culture, history and heritage as people return back to their roots, in Taiwan and in other parts of the world?
Yes, I have seen a lot, and happy to know that more people are beginning to want to know and understand their own or other people’s traditional culture. Especially in Taiwan, more young people, or the third or fourth generation who have returned from abroad, choose to return to their hometown, and want to discover their own family stories, and even re-integrate with the old. After the beauty of traditional culture, a new culture develops. In addition, “not forgetting one’s roots” in traditional culture is the most solid central element. When combined with life, it becomes a new “opportunity” for the industry in terms of local development, and tourism. Additionally, I have seen this phenomenon continue to occur in Thailand and South Korea. Although it is currently a minority group, I can already see its potential to become a new trendy culture, and, especially for Western tourists, this is an attractive cultural lure.
Qn: What would be your recommendations and tips for a short and concise travel adventure into the Raknus Selu Trail, for travellers who don’t have too much time on hand when they visit Taiwan?
Ans: 以交通便利性和客家文化象徵性來說，我會推薦樟之細路位於新竹關西的「渡南古道」。這裡就靠近關西最著名的客家古蹟「羅屋書院」，可以先了解傳統客家文化的生活樣貌和故事，也可以欣賞精美的建築工藝。而前面一片綠油油的稻田景色，則是最標準的客家鄉村生活景致。此外，關西還生產全世界品質最佳的「仙草茶」，也是客家最有代表性的民族植物！ 渡南古道並不長，難度也不高，可以很輕鬆的健行完成。而且，「千里步道協會」還經常在這裡舉行步道導覽和古法修復的活動。透過他們專業的解說，再加上可以一起參與古法修復步道的活動，這條路很容易得到滿足感和知識力！
For the convenience of transportation and the symbolism of Hakka culture, I would recommend the Raknus Selu Trail, the ” Dunan Historical Trail” located in Hsinchu County’s Guanxi Township, which is close to the most famous Hakka historical site in Guanxi, “Lo Family House”.
You can first understand the life and stories of traditional Hakka culture, and also appreciate the exquisite architectural craftsmanship. The green rice field scenery in front covers the most authentic Hakka village life scenery.
Guanxi Township also produces the best quality “Mesona Tea” in the world, which is also the most authentic ethnic plant of Hakka! Dunan Historical Trail is not long, and the difficulty of the trail is not high, and it can be completed easily through hiking.
The “Taiwan Thousand Miles Trail Association” often holds trail tours and historical trail restoration activities here in Guanxi Township. Through their professional presentations and organized activities of the ancient restoration trail, it is easy to gain satisfaction, knowledge and appreciation on this road!
From Chris Stowers
Qn: You met so many amazing people, experienced a wide range of Hakka history, heritage and cultural experiences, not to mention the amazing landscapes and natural beauty along the trail. How difficult is it for you to curate the photos for you to showcase “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” from your collection of photographs?
Ans: Shooting along a trail – especially one like the Raknus Selu, where your eyes are as keenly focused on the slippery rocks your boot is about to land on as they are searching for people or distant views – is a challenge. I am more of a cyclist than a hiker, so from the outset, I decided to pare down my photography equipment to the bare bones. Not only did that lighten my pack and make it more comfortable to carry, but it allowed a sort of freedom from choice: I could concentrate more on the actual nature and characters met, and not need to worry about which body, lens or lighting system I needed to set up.
Mentally, I was on the lookout for four main categories of photos – People, Landscapes/Nature, Culture and Cuisine. There was some overlap, obviously: a person eating a sumptuous meal in an ornate courtyard covers 3 of these 4 categories, at least. So, curation came down, inevitably, to personal preference, and ‘feel’ for the mood and message emanating from the subject and resultant image.
Danny and I were on the road for around 2 weeks making the film. During that time, I shot several thousand images. It would have been far more if we didn’t have so much walking to do! My habit was to make a daily selection of my favourite shots (of experiences, tastes and characters met) so as to keep on top of the work load whilst the memories of the day were still fresh. Thus, a sort of chronological order of images naturally emerged from the discipline. It was still heart-breaking though, as always, to discard so many pictures when making the final, tight edit!
The Raknus Selu Trail passes through some of the lushest and most breathtakingly beautiful scenery I have ever come across in Taiwan – partly this was due to observing more when slowed down to walking pace – and that came as an additional and pleasant surprise. The fact that much of the trail is now accessible to the public, and increasingly mapped-out, just adds to the experience, although, in hindsight, it was the toughest and least tamed sections we struggled through that I enjoyed the most.
Qn: What was your experiences like for you to photograph and document Hakka people, history, heritage and culture?
Ans: At the outset, I didn’t have any firm view of the distinction between Hakka culture and people, and that of Taiwanese in general. Friends would invite me to go eat Hakka food at restaurants in Taipei, and I’d visited Hakka communities in China in the past, so I was vaguely aware of this population and their migrations.
What came out immediately – and Danny is an enthusiastic ambassador for this himself – is the sense of history and place that dominates the Hakka experience. Whoever you ask will be able to count off on their fingers the number of generations they have been in Taiwan, and the town their ancestors originally hailed from in China, in many cases going back a dozen generations, or more. This sense of being part of a larger historical narrative, and the pride the Hakka have in their past and current achievements, is a special characteristic. It’s something that is largely lost now, where I come from.
On the surface, the Hakka people I met and photographed looked and dressed no differently than any other Taiwanese people, so the challenge was to somehow draw out the inner confidence and self-reliant nature that so defines them. The Hakka are proud hosts, and their generous hospitality along the Trail, along with a willingness to explain and display their way of life to us, was most noteworthy.
Qn: During this exploration and shooting of “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail”, are they any historical, heritage or cultural aspects of Hakka culture that left an impact on you? What are they and how has it impacted you?
Ans: Hakka culture, it soon became apparent to me, is not just some unchanging set of crusty traditional values; it is, instead, vibrant, confident, industrious and continuously adapting. I loved the fact that Hakka people all along the trail were so proud of their culture and food, and so eager to tell me all about it. They no longer hide – like they did in the past – that they are different from the rest of the Taiwanese population. To the contrary, they now celebrate that fact!
The term ‘Raknus’ is a composite of two words meaning ‘camphor’ in the language of the main Taiwan aboriginal tribes (the Atayal and the Sasaiyat) who co-exist along the trail with the Hakkas. ‘Selu’ is derived from the Hakka word for a small road. It is really positive that, not only have the different peoples living along the trail learned to get along and inter-marry, over the years, but that the cross-pollination of words and ideas extends even to the naming of the trail itself.
The Raknus Selu is a living trail. Evidence of that is found, for example, along the way at one of the few remaining camphor factories that still produce camphor oil, and the many cosmetic products infused with that oil. Although times were tough after the introduction of cheaper chemicals in the 1960s and 70s, the industry survived, and today is actually flourishing as people rediscover the benefits of healthy, natural products. So, camphor remains an integral part of the Raknus Selu experience.
Qn: You’ve travelled throughout Asia. Do you think the “Raknus Selu Trail” could attain the same level of international fame and status with other iconic trails around the world, such as the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan?
Ans: Over the course of 35 years I’ve been fortunate to travel and revisit over 70 countries, the vast majority of these were in Asia. So, I’ve come across some pretty amazing trails, in places like South Korea, for instance, where hiking as an occupation borders on religion! I’ve also crossed Borneo with a Dayak guide and no map. So, I’ve experienced many different conditions of trail, and the Raknus Selu, I’d say, ranks somewhere between the organised and the wild.
Although there are, in total, around 380kms of trail, these do not stretch in a single straight line. Many individual paths lead up to, and down from, the main spine of the trail from the individual valleys it crosses. It is key to remember the original purpose of the trail was commercial – to extract camphor wood and tea – and not for leisure.
Ultimately, I see the Raknus Selu as a sort of Taiwanese Appalachian Trail, in that it stretches far and travels through similar, loosely populated and heavily forested foothill regions, like its famed North American counterpart. Certainly, the Raknus Selu Trail could achieve iconic status in the future, though at the moment, I feel, a little more mapping and linking-up of the disparate sections needs to be done to avoid getting lost on the way (although getting ‘lost’ is always a great experience and tale to tell, once you are safely home again!). Fortunately, organisations like Taiwan’s Thousand Miles Trail Association, and many enthusiastic individual volunteers, are helping to make this a reality.
Qn: Are there any plans to publish a photo book or travel guidebook on the “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail”?
Ans: Actually, I was able to shoot all the photos for a book entitled “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” as we were walking it. The resultant images closely follow the specific sections of trail and people we met during the filming of the documentary. So not only was I photographing, but I was being filmed whilst photographing, which was a unique experience to say the least!
Limited copies of the book were printed, and some of these were presented to the media and dignitaries during the main press conference heralding the show, in Taipei on 14th September. Anyone interested in taking a look at the book should be able to access copies at libraries in – so far – Taiwan and Singapore.
A Big Thank You to Danny Wen and Chris Stowers!
I would like to sincerely thank Danny Wen and Chris Stowers for taking their precious time to answer my questions that I posed to them. I really appreciate their efforts, the in-depth sharing gave a lot more thoughts, views and perspectives into “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail”.
The answers that both Danny and Chris shared through the interview questions above, I sincerely hope that they would inspire and motivate people from all walks of life to relook again at our history, heritage, culture and food in a modern era and living swamped by social media consumption. You and me, we all can play a part in protecting and preserving our history, heritage, culture and food.
I would also like to give a shout out to White Label PR for facilitating this interview, thank you very much!
Stay tuned for Part Two of An Interview with Danny Wen and Chris Stowers of “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail”!
Catch “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” on AXN
In case you miss it, catch Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail across AXN Asia Networks and on AXN Asia YouTube channel! They premiered on 27th September 2022, remember to catch up and follow their history, heritage, culture, food and trekking adventures.
For more information on Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail, you can visit https://www.axn-asia.com/SecretsoftheRaknusSeluTrail
Watch the full clip here on YouTube! Also catch “Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail” Podcast on YouTube!
* Information and pictures courtesy of KC Global Media and White Label PR *