Jiufen (九份), Mist, mystery, and spirited away

Jiufen is a small town in the northeast of Taiwan. It is a well-known tourist destination and well-accessible from Taipei, which made it our very first weekend trip after settling down on the island three months earlier.

The city got its name (“nine portions”) from the nine family who originally settled here in the early year of the Qing Dynasty (early 17th century). It was insignificant for a long time, until workmen discovered gold in the area at the end of the 19th century, resulting in a gold rush that lead to the village’s development. Acting as a POW camp during the Japanese occupation during World War II, the mine was finally shut down in 1971, setting the city back into slumber.

Two cultural events set Jiufen back on the tourist maps of Taiwan. The first, more domestic was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movie A City of Sadness on Taiwan’s February 28th incident during the White Terror era. (See this article on my trip to Chiayi and its 228-history.) Jiufen nostalgic streets and the international acclaim of the movie opened the city for tourists from other parts of Taiwan. The second cultural artifact was Studio Ghibli’s anime movie Spirited Away, which resembled the area around Jiufen, leading to many Japanese tourists visiting the area.

During our visit in early April 2021, the city was not only ghostly but also slightly ghastly, with thick rain clouds hanging closely over the landscape. The hunchbacked hills offered a wide outlook towards the misty sea. What looked like a dense cover of buildings from afar turned out to be hundreds of graves overlooking the bay, as is quite common in Taiwan.

Still, the city regained its charm at night, as its lights and lanterns summoned the idea of more gentle ghosts and spirits than those of rain, mist, and clouds.