Chiayi: Visiting the City of “Commendable Righteousness”

The effigy of the City God at Cheng Huang Temple. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

The opening of the National Palace Museum branch in nearby Taibao is bringing more tourists to the area.

Until recently, when tourists made their way to Chiayi City it was usually as a stopover on the way to or from the mountains of the scenic Alishan region nearby. But as of this year there is another good reason to visit Chiayi: the long-awaited opening of the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (NPM). Rather than simply provide additional exhibition space for the world-renowned NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch’s stated mission is to be “a world-class museum of Asian art and culture.”

According to the original plan, the museum was to have been designed by U.S. architect Antoine Predock and be completed by 2008. But Predock quit the project before construction began. He was eventually replaced by Kris Yao (姚仁喜), a Taiwanese architect best known for Yilan’s Lanyang Museum. Another deadline came and went in 2012, but Yao’s edifice – which some compare to a giant black slug – was given a soft opening on December 28 last year.

The 62-meter-high Chiayi Tower features an observation deck on the 10th floor.
The 62-meter-high Chiayi Tower features an observation deck on the 10th floor. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

The Southern Branch offers five permanent exhibitions, among them a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi, and a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art are played (none has English subtitles).

Far more engaging are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, in which you will learn that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink, and on Buddhist artifacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and call to mind the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.

Of the temporary exhibitions, the most remarkable continues until October 12 this year. “Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection” features dozens of lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other items fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread. Some originated from Mughal India or the Ottoman Empire, and were gifted to Qing Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who then had poetry inscribed on many of the bowls and plates.

The lotus pond at Hinoki Village, which consists of 28 wooden Japanese-era bungalows. (Photo: Rich Matheson)
The lotus pond at Hinoki Village, which consists of 28 wooden Japanese-era bungalows. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

While the Southern Branch has an excellent selection of three-dimensional objets d’art, there are few paintings or documents among current exhibits. For details of forthcoming exhibitions, see

Access to the museum is limited to those who make online reservations in advance. The standard admission price is NT$250, but until June 30 residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they hold ROC citizenship. Opening hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday.

The southern branch is located in Chiayi County’s Taibao City. Every half hour, a shuttle bus connects the museum with the Chiayi HSR Station, 4.6 kilometers away (NT$24 one way). The museum’s bus stop is 530 meters from the entrance and the parking lots are not much closer, so however they arrive, visitors get a good look at the 70-hectare grounds before stepping inside. In a few years, when the trees have grown a bit, the surroundings should look magnificent.

If you need help getting from the bus stop or car park to the door of the museum, ask at the visitors center to be taken by golf cart (NT$50 per person). At the same spot, you can rent a bicycle (NT$100 for the whole day).

Other attractions

More unusual is the ceramics collection in the basement of the Cultural Affairs Bureau building between the museum and the main road. The Koji Pottery Museum (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tue.-Sun.; free admission) is a good introduction to the gorgeous art form that is sometimes called Cochin ware, and which is a key element of Taiwanese temple decoration.

A specimen from the Koji Pottery Museum. (Photo: Rich Matheson)
A specimen from the Koji Pottery Museum. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

Unfortunately, the municipal museum says little about Chiayi’s past. The city’s written history begins in the 1640s, when Dutch East India Company officials passed through an aboriginal village hereabouts. The Dutch – who are said to have later created Lantan, the two-square-kilometer scenic body of water in the city’s eastern suburbs – spelled the village’s name Tilaossen. Fujianese settlers called it Tirosen, and rendered it in characters which Mandarin speakers pronounce Zhuluoshan (諸羅山).

Because Zhuluoshan’s inhabitants successfully resisted the anti-Qing rebel army led by Lin Shuang-wen in 1786, Emperor Qianlong rewarded them with a more distinguished place name: 嘉義 (Jiayi/Chiayi in Mandarin, Kagi in both Taiwanese and Japanese), meaning “commendable righteousness.”

After an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, the colonial authorities reorganized the city, giving it the straight but narrow roads it has today. The following year, work started on the narrow-gauge railroad that eventually reached Alishan.

Large-scale logging around Alishan was halted in the 1960s, but the impact of the timber trade on the city remains very visible. The pond outside the Cultural Affairs Bureau is far older than the building; red cypress trunks from the mountains were kept in it so they would not crack or warp in the heat of the lowlands.

All over Taiwan, individual wooden bungalows from the Japanese era or just after have been restored and repurposed. What makes Hinoki Village (also known as Cypress Forest Life Village) unique is the scale of the project. The village comprises 28 buildings, most of which were dormitories for forest-management officials and their families. The most elegant, however, is a 1914 cream-colored former clubhouse with Tudor architectural elements. The village does not have much historic atmosphere, but it is photogenic and a good place to stop for a coffee.

A string of minor attractions are located between Hinoki Village and the Chiayi TRA Railway Station, 1.6 kilometers away. At the time of writing, the Chiayi Lumber Factory was closed for renovation, and the Chiayi Motive Power Wood Sculpture Museum – a former power station – was between exhibitions. The narrow-gauge rolling stock on display at Alishan Garage Park will appeal to rail enthusiasts, and Beimen Station’s wood-walled, tile-roofed ticket office/waiting room looks as quaint as ever.

The quaint Beimen Station is a 10 minute walk from the old Chiaiyi Prison. (Photo: Rich Matheson)
The quaint Beimen Station is a 10 minute walk from the old Chiaiyi Prison. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

Beimen Station is less than 10 minutes’ walk from the former Chiayi Prison (140 Weixin Road; Tel. (05) 276-9574; open Wed.-Sun.; free admission). Between 1922 and 1994, this jail held up to 300 male convicts, plus 30 women in segregated facilities. Inmates were held in three wings arranged so the corridors could be surveilled by a single officer from his desk. The main doors (made of yellow cypress from Alishan), the workshops in which convicts labored, and the bathhouse where they washed have all been preserved.

Visitors can only enter at certain times (9:30 and 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.) and must stay close to the guide. Call (05) 276-9574 in advance and it may be possible to arrange an English-language tour.

Among the facts often related by the guides are that male staff, including the warden himself, were forbidden from entering the women’s section; and that inmates trying to escape over the wall often hurt themselves jumping down on the other side. Some limped around the corner to St. Martin de Porres Hospital (founded in 1966 using money donated by American Catholics), where they were treated before being returned to the prison.

The city’s liveliest religious site is Cheng Huang Temple (168 Wufeng North Rd.; open 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily), which was founded exactly 300 years ago. As its name suggests, the main deity here is the city god, Chenghuangye, and his effigy is in the very center on the first floor. The temple was important enough to escape the ravages of the Kominka Movement in the late 1930s; that campaign by the Japanese authorities to “Nipponify” its colony resulted in the demolition or conversion to secular use of at least 60 shrines in Chiayi. Among the 600-plus icons inside Cheng Huang Temple are representations of Matsu and Guanyin, as well as heaven’s matchmaker: the Old Man Under the Moon.

In the Beizihtou Botanical Garden, look for the fruit of the "Happiness Tree." (Photo: Rich Matheson)
In the Beizihtou Botanical Garden, look for the fruit of the “Happiness Tree.” (Photo: Rich Matheson)

Beizihtou Botanical Garden (managed by the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, is adored by birdwatchers but gets few other visitors, despite having such arboreal wonders as Garcinia subelliptica and Canaga odorata. The former, sometimes called the Happiness Tree, bears a fruit resembling the satsuma and is related to the mangosteen, but its leaves are more valuable. In the Taiwan of yore they were used to produce a yellowish dye. The latter is called the Perfume Tree. Stand downwind and you will notice a pleasant fragrance.

Like Beizihtou, Chiayi Arboretum was established during the early years of Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. At 8.3 hectares, it is nearly twice the size of Beizihtou. Almost all the trails are shaded, and the canopy is impressively dense thanks to a range of tree species, including teak, mahogany, and hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii Sweet).

Chiayi Park, adjacent to the arboretum, includes a few notable structures. Near the bland Confucius Temple is the 62-meter-high Chiayi Tower (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wed.-Fri.; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sat.). If the weather is clear, buy a ticket for the tenth-floor observatory (NT$50 for adults; NT$25 for children). The Shinto shrine that once stood here was demolished long ago, but the shrine’s former office survives in the form of the Chiayi City Historical Relic Data Museum (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wed.-Sun.; free admission). The displays inside are unlikely to engross you, but the sublime exterior is perhaps the city’s single most beautiful spectacle.

The old Chiayi Prison held up to 300 male convicts. (Photo: Rich Matheson)
The old Chiayi Prison held up to 300 male convicts. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

Getting to and around Chiayi City

Freeways 1 and 3 are equally convenient, and parking near tourist attractions in the city is not too difficult. Chiayi’s high-speed railway station is famously remote, but from the station there are fairly frequent buses to the downtown and to the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (see below).

Those who reach the city by public transportation should plan on using taxis or walking, as local buses are scarce. Alternatively, rent a car or borrow a bicycle from the information counter at the back of the Chiayi TRA Railway Station (free with deposit photo ID).

The City and the Artist

Which city has two botanical gardens compared to Taipei’s one, a reservoir said to have been dug by the Dutch in the 17th century, and Taiwan’s only Japanese colonial-era former jail open to the public? If your answer is Chiayi, you almost certainly live there.

Chiayi is the hometown of Chen Cheng-po, Taiwan’s first artist to win fame beyond the island. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

The city (population: 271,000) is surrounded by but is administratively separate from Chiayi County. Whereas the county stretches from abandoned saltpans on the coast to the western slopes of Yushan (Jade Mountain – Taiwan’s tallest peak), Chiayi City covers a mere 60 square kilometers. It has no shoreline, and no point is more than 99.4 meters above sea level.

Chiayi is also the hometown of the first Taiwanese artist to win fame beyond the island. In 1926, Chen Cheng-po (陳澄波, 1895-1947) became the first Taiwanese painter to have a work included in Japan’s most prestigious art exhibition. Chen’s works, which embody both Chinese landscape-painting conventions and aspects of Modernism, continue to be very popular. His 1935 Sunset at Danshui fetched US$6.5 million when auctioned in 2007.

But these days Chen is remembered as much for the way he died as for his artistic achievements. He was a member of Chiayi’s city council when the February 28 Incident erupted in 1947. With other local leaders, he approached Nationalist Army units, hoping to begin negotiations. But he and three others were immediately arrested, and on March 25 they were marched to the train station and shot dead. The military authorities forbade their families from collecting the corpses immediately, and the remains of Chen and the others were left to decompose on the street for several days. Surprisingly, there is nothing at the station – not even a simple plaque – to memorialize this grisly event.

Chiayi asfds adfs (Photo: Rich Matheson).
Chen was not only a talented artist but a politician as well. (Photo: Rich Matheson)

Tourists need not go out of their way to see Chen’s paintings. Reproductions have been set on steel easels at various points around the city, including several in the park across the road from the small Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum (228-12 Guohua St.; Tel. (05) 222-4525; open 9 a.m. to midday and 1-5 p.m., Mon.-Fri.; free admission).

The front section of the Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum displays duplicates of more than 30 of Chen’s paintings, along with bilingual commentaries. The back room is given over to Chinese-language information about the 2-28 Incident in Chiayi.

Chen Cheng-po also makes an appearance at the Chiayi Municipal Museum (275 Zhongxiao Road;; Tel. (05) 278-0303; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tue.-Sun.; free admission), where visitors will also find some interesting fossils and a great deal of geological information.