A confluence of politics and religion has left enduring marks on Tainan’s history and culture.
Tainan’s history and culture: tales of a red city
I often attribute colours to the places I visit, and Tainan to me is red for its vibrant sun, faded bricks, the bright red firecrackers that blast columns of smoke in temple squares, and of course, the countless monuments in the city that wear this passionate hue. As the birthplace of Taiwan, the colour red has everything to do with Tainan’s history and culture, its past and present.
Red seems to be a fitting colour to illustrate the city’s colonial past by the red-haired Dutch hongmaoren. Red symbolizes the turmoils and bloodsheds as cultures and regimes clashed. It also depicts the tears and blood of generations that fiercely protected and cultivated the land that we see today.
Tainan is a city full of stories, stories embedded in over 300 years of history and culture. Throughout the city, monuments tell of fascinating tales of sieges, conquests, and the way of life for early settlers. Read on for the top places that, in my opinion, best tell the stories.
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Anping Old Fort 安平古堡
The fort was originally named Fort Zeelandia, and served as a strategic trading post following the Dutch VOC’s arrival in 1624. It exported sought-after commodities such as deer hide and sugarcane. The fort not only stood testament to the ambitions of European empires during the Age of Exploration, it also saw the beginning of a 38-year reign of the Dutch over the region. Under the Dutch rule, Tainan saw much economic progress, and at the same time, upheavals from the aboriginals and Han settlers.
In 1662, Ming patriot and military leader Koxinga defeated the Dutch and ended their colonial rule. Thereafter, Koxinga established a government and renamed the fort after his hometown in mainland China, Anping, giving the fort a new identity that remains to this day.
Sadly, all that remains of the old fort today is a 70-metre wall. The wall was constructed using bricks and a mixture of glutinous rice, sugar, sand and seashells. However, visitors can take a guided tour to the adjacent memorial hall and see artifacts from the old days. Having changed hands and names several times, Anping Old Fort effectively tells the story of Tainan’s turbulent yet resilient past.
Former Tait & Co. Merchant House 英商德記洋行
At the end of Anping Old Street stands a house set apart by its colonial-style architecture. The former British merchant house traded opium, tea, camphor and sugar until the late 1800s. Under the Japanese government, it eventually ceased operation and was turned into a salt company. Today, its historical significance remains as a Class III historical building. It is also one of the few preserved buildings in Tainan with this distinct style of architecture. Furthermore, it is now a museum with artifacts and wax figures depicting the lives of the early inhabitants of Taiwan. Paying the museum a visit is a good way to learn about Tainan’s history and culture.
That said, most people come here for Anping Tree House, which is right around the back of the merchant house.
This was the warehouse that stored the goods of the merchant house before they were shipped off. With time, however, it was given a new, haunting transformation after decades of neglect and abandonment. Gradually, nature took over as thick banyan roots snaked all around the building and into every crevice. In place of the roof, the towering trees shade the ruin from the glaring sun.
When visited together with the merchant house, the irony is not lost. After the Dutch, the British, and the Japanese have each laid their claim to the same place, it is the native banyan trees that have flourished over time with enduring persistence.
Lu Er Men Tianhou Temple 北汕尾媽祖宮鹿耳門天后宮
One of the most fascinating facets of Tainan’s history and culture is religion. Across the city, hundreds of temples speak for the unwavering faith of the locals.
Lu Er Men, or the gate of the deer antler, refers to the intricate branching of waterways that reached the corners of early Tainan. It stands at an important juncture in history as the 1661 landing point for Koxinga and his troops to attack the Dutch colonizers.
Believing that their successful siege was in no small part due to the blessing of the benevolent sea goddess Mazu, a temple was erected following Koxinga’s takeover. The goddess was also central to the beliefs of the early settlers, as She safeguarded the journeys in and around the treacherous and often unpredictable water. Case in point, a violent flood in 1871 destroyed the original temple, displacing many of the religious objects, which were consequently salvaged and housed in nearby temples. Fast forward to today, the title for the legitimate Mazu temple is still up for debate.
Luckily for us, we arrived just as a religious ceremony was taking place in front of the grand, imposing court. The procession banged their cymbals while firecrackers blared and shrouded the clear sky. Seemingly oblivious to the noises around him, the shaman paced around in a trance, waving his spiky baton about as though conveying a message from the goddess Herself.
Partly frightened by the deafening noises and partly in awe, we looked on.
Chihkan Tower 赤崁樓
The single most important landmark in all of Tainan, Chihkan Tower is the epitome of the red hue in Tainan.
Chihkan Tower is hard to miss at the heart of the city and centre of Tainan’s history and culture. It was once named Fort Provintia by the Dutch, who constructed it in 1653. However, the locals didn’t care much for the name. Instead, they nicknamed it fanzailou or hongmaolou (tower of the red-haired savages), showing their distaste for their Dutch colonizers. After the Dutch ceded to Koxinga, this historical site became the governor’s house, and even served as a hospital during the Japanese Occupation. Over time, the building fell beyond repair and was given a complete makeover. Today it houses Haisheng Temple, Wengchang Pavilion and Penghu College, a popular spot for scholars seeking blessings in their academic endeavours.
Legends abound at Chihkan Tower. In particular, many believed that there was an underground tunnel that connected it to its sister fort, Fort Zeelandia. However, this was later proven untrue.
Puji Temple 普濟殿
Puji Temple is best known for its Chinese New Year celebrations, where thousands of lanterns are strung into a colourful kaleidoscope over the narrow streets of the temple. For a time, the small temple is filled with tourists and well-wishers who colour the sky with their sincerest wishes.
Puji Temple has been granting wishes since the beginning of its 300-year history. So-called Phoenix City, Puji Temple was constructed at the centre of Tainan. According to feng shui, the central location of the temple was believed to have the effect of binding the mystical creature to the city, thereby granting its residents prosperity and good fortune.
It was a March afternoon when we visited. All was quiet as we rode our bicycles into the courtyard. Yellow lanterns with red tushes adorned the ceilings of the small but ornate temple. Inside the temple is a statue of the dark-complexioned Holy King. The story goes that He sacrificed His life drinking from a poisonous water source, effectively warning fellow villagers as the poison spread across his face. What would one wish for in the presence of the Holy King?
I asked for a prayer card and wrote my message. Tied with a red satin ribbon, my prayer card joined hundreds of others in one corner of the courtyard, some strung on strings, some tied to the branches of an ancient tree. They swayed gently in the breeze, as though being carried to life.
Bicycling around the city, a red-brick gate compelled us to enter and check it out. Turns out this is one of the four remaining gates in the city dating back to the Qing Dynasty. Built in 1835, the gate was named Dui for one of the characters in the Eight Trigrams of feng shui. The gate is west-facing for prosperity. Beyond the gate was once water that connected travellers and merchants all the way to Anping. Hard to believe now, but this narrow gate, jammed in between a mammoth of a tree and old, concrete houses, was one of the most important gateways that also kept the residents of the city safe from pirates.
Now completely transformed with paved, narrow roads that lead to trendy shops, it was hard to tell anymore where history ended and a new chapter began.
Sicao Green Tunnel 四草綠色隧道
Dubbed the Little Amazon of Taiwan, this wetland and canal is popular for its scenic boat rides and ecological experience.
Sicao refers to the four plants– loop-root mangrove, white-flowered black mangrove, white mangrove, and Kandelia obovata– that make up the mangrove forest along the canal. The canals trace back to when the shallow waters carried bamboo rafts laden with salt and sugar to other parts of Taiwan. Along the way, the mangrove that makes up the namesake sicao form a lush green tunnel that shades our bamboo-hat covered heads at a head-brushing height. The sunlight peeps through the dense green, and dances in the iridescent water. The guided boat ride (Mandarin guide only) also takes us to remnants of historical sites, such as a tax bureau dating back to the Qing Dynasty, and Fort Zeeburg. However, upon further research, the accuracy of the dates and locations of these sites are up for debate.