Who was the first person to photograph the mountainous areas of Kaohsiung? The answer is John Thomson, a 19th-century Scottish photographer.
Thomson arrived by boat in Takao (now Kaohsiung) in 1871. Accompanied by missionary Dr. James Laidlaw Maxwell, he made a 20-day journey from Takao Port to Taiwan Fucheng (now Tainan), and eastward to Jiasian, the Laonong River, what is now Liouguei District, and other destinations. He took 59 photos and made several notes during the excursion.
More than a century later, You Yong-fu, owner of Pumen Bookstore in Jiasian and a native of that town, stumbled across a photograph Thomson had taken of his hometown. That moment marked the start of an 18-year quest for knowledge.
The lives of Thompson and You Yong-fu converged in 2001, when You began to study literature and history relating to Jiasian. He came across the volume Old Photographs of Taiwan: Collection of the National Library of France, in which he noticed that one image was described as showing “the mountain stream between Jiasianpu and Laonong.”
You was stunned to find a photo that depicted the landscape of his hometown. What is more, the mention of a welcoming party of Pingpu (lowland indigenous) people in Thomson's notes intrigued You, so he began a “detective-style investigation” in which he sought to identify and compare the locations shown in each photo. During this process, he uncovered a plethora of heartfelt stories.
Eighteen years later, You published his book John Thomson Formosa. It carries readers back to the southern Taiwan of 150 years ago, revealing the lives of the Siraya and Taivoan Pingpu tribes.
Recreating Thomson's journey has not been easy since much of the cultural and geographic landscape has changed. In 2006, You set out on foot to explore Baiyun Waterfall Valley in Jiasian. However, when he returned to the valley for the seventh time in 2015, after a flood had destroyed manmade facilities and exposed original rock forms, he realized that the true shape of this spectacular valley had finally emerged.
Europe boasts various pilgrimage routes, while Japan has the Kumano Kodo network of trails. You Yong-fu is endeavoring to create a “Thomson-Maxwell Route” with Thomson's footsteps as the main axis. The tour connects local culture, ecology, homestays, and special dishes, leading travelers to learn more about Takao, Zuojhen in Tainan, and several places in Kaohsiung's rural interior, such as Mujha, Gouping, Shanlin, Jiasian, Laonong, and Liouguei.
You hopes that this cultural heritage path in Taiwan will shine a new light on Kaohsiung's mountainous areas, while helping to preserve the area's culture and history, and reverse depopulation trends.
For further information, visit the “Sunlight on Jiasianpu” website (https://puumen2727.pixnet.net/blog, Chinese only) or the “British Photographer Thomson Photographed Taiwan's Serial Cultural Heritage, 1871” Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/616069898415428/).