Meatball Soup isn’t soup!
Taking its name from a famous culinary specialty of Hsinchu, Meatball Soup is a publication put out by a dozen-some students majoring in different subjects at National Tsing Hua University. Getting out and doing fieldwork, they are uncovering some of this century-old city’s hidden treasures.
When you hear the word Hsinchu, what first pops into your mind? The Hsinchu Science Park or the City God Temple? Meatball soup with rice noodles maybe? Or do you simply draw a blank? Responses of this kind don’t satisfy a group of students at National Tsing Hua University.
In 2014, some dozen students from various departments at Tsing Hua, including Zhuang Zhongyuan, Wu Junwei, Huang Zheliang, and Xie Erting, decided to found the Kendama Studio as well as Meatball Soup, which aims to make people acquainted with “the Hsinchu that’s unknown to you.”
無聊中找樂趣，意外發現精彩The joy in accidental discovery
Every weekend, large groups of travelers gather in front of the bus station, waiting to return to Taipei. “Hsinchu is boring!” is a frequent lament of many students and workers who are transplants. But as far as the magazine’s editor-in-chief Zhuang Zhongyuan and his fellow staffers are concerned, “Hsinchu holds many interesting stories that have never been spotlighted.”
Zhuang admits that Hsinchu certainly lacks the urbanity of Taipei. If you want to listen to live music in Taipei, it’s easy. And if you want to hold a seminar or lecture on a cultural topic, you can quickly find experts and resources. Attempting the same in Hsinchu tends to be much more challenging. Yet precisely because Hsinchu lacks Taipei’s resources, these transplanted students have had to rely on their own initiative to uncover fascinating information about Hsinchu events and people, much of it unknown even to most locals.
For instance, when it comes to municipal zoos, most people only know the Taipei Zoo in Muzha and Kaohsiung’s Shoushan Zoo. Few people know that Hsinchu has Taiwan’s oldest zoo that is still operating at its original site. Unlike the Taipei and Kaohsiung zoos, which have moved several times, Hsinchu’s zoo has been in Hsinchu Park since it opened in 1936 during the Japanese era.
Apart from overlooked historic sites, there are also many people striving toward their dreams in various corners of the city. In the process of gathering local news, one editorial staffer came across the ardent street dancer Lin Junhan, who hopes to make Hsinchu an international city of dance. On most days he teaches dance at his studio, but he also invites dancers from Taipei to come down and give performances, and he actively participates in international dance competitions. Although sometimes regarded as a performing arts desert, Hsinchu is also the home base for Dance Exponent Five, a company of young dancers, which has built a rough-hewn performance space they call “The Iron Roof Theatre.”
“Hsinchu has so many untold stories,” says Zhuang. That realization triggered him to go a step further and consider the question: “What sort of urban life do modern people care about?” It wasn’t the first time he had reflected on the matter.
After enrolling in the university’s Interdisciplinary Program of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zhuang Zhongyuan took some elective courses in the university’s leadership program. With a curriculum that stressed social participation, he threw himself into activism over the KuoKuang Petrochemical and Jianshi Dam projects. Later he became a contributor to the social activist journal Radical. Every time he conducted fieldwork or participated in discussions at research seminars, he gained a deeper understanding of Hsinchu. He began to wonder: Why don’t even locals know much about Hsinchu?
老屋改造，新空間新串連Old home, new connections
In 2014 he founded the Kendama Studio and in 2015 he began publishing Meatball Soup. Both were group efforts aimed at finding answers to that question. At the beginning of this year, before the magazine had launched, Zhuang and his partners rented an old house on Beimen Street near the City God Temple. They called the house the Kendama Arcade.
Committed to “revival of the old city,” his partners had been determined to rent an old house. “At first they came up empty, but eventually discovered one. It had been a hardware store named Jinyuancheng.” Apart from pursuing urban revival through renovation, they also hoped to create a space that would foster face-to-face interaction within the community.
After Kendama opened, the first people to walk in were curious neighbors. They were followed by tourists exploring the area around the City God Temple. “A lot of people who didn’t know each other would sit down and discover they had connections or mutual acquaintances of some sort,” says Zhuang.
At Kendama you can find travel information, and you may happen upon lectures on Hsinchu-related topics.
Last year Kendama invited local youth groups to come in and help make tea drinks and brew beer from locally grown agricultural products. As part of a lecture series on Hsinchu design, Kendama invited various locally born architects who had moved away for their educations or work to discuss their thoughts about returning to Hsinchu to pursue architectural design.
At first Kendama staff thought the lecture series would attract only a specialized audience, but much to their surprise the lectures were all well attended. Previously, Kendama had invited former Hsinchu mayor James Tsai to lecture on the topic: “The Death and Life of the Great Street of Beimen,” which also attracted a large audience. “The overflow crowd spilled into the corridor,” says Zhuang.
《貢丸湯》，新竹人生活裡的不可或缺Essential tips for Hsinchu living
If Kendama is a base for activism, then Meatball Soup is another channel for Kendama to communicate with the outside world. Zhuang reveals that the name—cute, smart and redolent of Hsinchu—came out of extended discussions.
They considered names such as “city walker,” “beside the temple” and others that hewed closely to Hsinchu’s image as “the windy city.” Zhuang explains that “city walker” suggests the idea of exploring the city. Meanwhile, “beside the temple” was an allusion to the temples beside the four gates to the old city: Dongning Temple in the east, Tianhou Temple in the west, Zhulian Temple in the south, and Changhe Temple in the north. Right in the middle there’s the famous City God Temple. The temples large and small create a spatial grid that the people of Hsinchu use to navigate their city.
But eventually the team settled on “meatball soup” (gongwan tang), that famous Hsinchu delicacy. It plays an irreplaceable role in the daily lives of the city’s people. Zhuang explains that meatball soup isn’t a fancy dish that comes out at festivals and banquets, but rather comfort food that people seek on the spur of the moment when they’re tired and hungry. “Meatball soup is part and parcel of everyday life,” and since that also reflects their aspirations for the magazine, it was their ultimate choice.
On most days the editors, all still students, can only put spare moments into planning content. Hsinchu residents generally don’t know much about their own city’s past or what surrounds them, but the publication of Meatball Soup has brought unexpected feedback, revealing that there are still some “experts among the people.”
Zhuang explains that whenever they tackle a story connected to history, they get letters voicing differing opinions. The editors happily read the feedback. After all, Meatball Soup aims to foster a new “Kendama history of Hsinchu.” It aspires to ask city residents: “What about you? What is the Hsinchu that you know?”
“As local residents, each and every one, get a chance to describe their own Hsinchu stories,” says Zhuang, “then the authentic local history of the city will be uncovered one layer at a time.”