Meinong oil-paper umbrellas

Oil-paper umbrellas are one of Taiwan's most representative crafts. When it comes to this refined artifact, most people will immediately think of Meinong District. Although Meinong is not the only place in Taiwan where oil-paper umbrellas are made, oil-paper umbrellas of this region have become synonymous with its unique local culture.

Oil-paper umbrella

In the Hakka language, the word for "oil" sounds like the word for “have” and the word for "paper" sounds the same as the word for "son," so giving an oil-paper umbrella to your daughter for her dowry means wishing that she will give birth to a son soon. Because there are four characters for the word "person" in the Chinese character for "umbrella," an umbrella also represents wishes for "many children and many grandchildren" in the household. Having many children and grandchildren is the common wish of people in rural areas in early times. In the religious celebrations and processions of Hakka settlements, oil-paper umbrellas are usually placed on the holy palanquins, serving as a shelter, which symbolizes shielding people’s wishes from the sun and rain as well as evil spirits. It can be seen that oil-paper umbrellas played a very important role in the daily life of Hakka people in the early years. For people of Meinong, giving someone an umbrella signifies wishing that person auspiciousness and respecting the mutual friendship.

In Meinong, a small town which still retains the character of a traditional Hakka settlement, more than 80 percent of the population is Hakka. As far back as the Qing Dynasty, oil-paper umbrellas appeared in the lives of the local residents, but the techniques of making oil-paper umbrellas was not introduced until the time of Japanese rule. In 1924, Wu Zhen-xing (吳振興) and his assistant Lin A-gui (林阿貴), who had gone to China’s Chaozhou, Guangdong Province to learn how to make paper umbrellas, returned to Meinong, and brought back five Chinese paper umbrella masters to help them start their business.

From 1924 to 1960, the nearly 40 years can be seen as the most prosperous period of umbrella production in Meinong, with a total of 12 factories in business at the time. The factories were named after Guangdong, such as "Guang Zhen Xing (廣振興)", "Guang De Xing (廣德興)", "Guang Rong Xing (廣榮興)", and "Guang Mei Xing (廣美興)," in a gesture of remembering the origin of the umbrellas. In the 1960s, the Meinong paper umbrella industry had a glorious history, producing 20,000 umbrellas each year, with a production value of NT$40 million.

Meinong oil-paper umbrella industry

Beginning in the 1960s, as Taiwan actively sought to develop light industry, the mechanized production of plastic umbrellas became a key industry. In addition, due to the high wages in Japan in the ’60s, Japanese companies transferred umbrella-making technology to Taiwan, helping Taiwan's umbrella industry to generate NT$10 billion in export value in 1987. As Taiwan earned the reputation of "the kingdom of umbrellas" for making plastic umbrellas, the time-consuming and labor-intensive production of oil-paper umbrellas in Meinong forced many companies in this industry to close. The only remaining oil-paper umbrella manufacturer "Guang Jin Sheng (
廣進勝)" made only five or six umbrellas a day. It was barely enough to maintain the livelihood of its workers and enable them to transfer the skills to future generations. As a result, the paper umbrella industry in Meinong rapidly declined.

But in 1976, a report in the December issue of ECHO Magazine (漢聲雜誌) unexpectedly brought about a turnaround for Meinong’s paper umbrella industry that had already entered the twilight zone at the time. The process of oil-paper umbrella manufacturing was reported in great details, and the magazine presented the exquisite appearance of this traditional craft to the public, spreading the reputation of Meinong paper umbrellas far across the world.  The newly earned fame brought new international orders, reviving the sunset industry in the Hakka settlement.

Visitors are making paper umbrellas in Meinong

In 1984 and 1985, director Lin Fu-di (
林福地) filmed the TV series "Star Knows My Heart (星星知我心)", with the oil-paper umbrella factory Guang Rong Xing (廣榮興
) on the shore of Meinong Lake as the background, which aroused the enthusiasm of the audience for the umbrellas. The film also sparked a trend of sightseeing and tourism in Meinong, generating new interest not only in the town but also in the handicraft. The increased visibility of oil-paper umbrellas enabled the products to break away from being seen only for their practical use of shading people from sun and rain, and turned the making of oil-paper umbrellas into a local cultural industry with a high economic value.