Footsteps Through Old Hsinchu

Visitors eager to get a glimpse of the Taiwan of yore can easily devote an entire day to Lukang and at least two days to Tainan. Lukang, a small town on the west coast, in its 18th-century heyday was one of the island’s foremost centers of trade, while Tainan was Taiwan’s capital for over 200 years.

But those who enjoy quaint urban backdrops and timeworn yet elegant architecture should also make a stop in Hsinchu, 70 kilometers southwest of Taipei. The majority of tourists bypass this city of 445,000 people, largely because Hsinchu has been a victim of its non-tourism success.

The city’s association with Taiwan’s high-tech industries is so strong that details of its long history and descriptions of its attractions tend to be obscured by the latest business headlines. Every C-level executive in the Asia Pacific has heard of the Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park and the semiconductor fabs and optoelectronics companies based there. Few of those executives, however, are aware that over the past three centuries Hsinchu has been shaped by a mingling of Fujianese, Hakka, indigenous, and Japanese influences.

Hsinchu’s history extends back at least 400 years. Early pioneers from the Chinese province of Fujian called the settlement Tek-kham, meaning “bamboo barricade.” Yet there was no barricade. Rather, Tek-kham is likely a place name of indigenous derivation, possibly from the word for “seashore” in the language of the Taokas people, Hsinchu’s first settlers.

Hakka immigrants from southern China were also among the area’s early settlers. A scion of one Hakka clan, Zheng Yong-xi, in 1823 became the first Taiwan-born candidate to succeed in the highest-level imperial examination for scholar-bureaucrats. This earned him and his family massive prestige, which they utilized a few years later when lobbying the Qing court in Beijing for permission, which was granted in 1826, to build a 2.7-kilometer-long wall around the town.

In the late 1870s, Tek-kham was renamed Hsinchu (meaning “new bamboo”) and promoted to the status of a sub-prefectural capital. Soon after Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895, the island’s new rulers decided that the brick-and-stone defenses Zheng Yong-xi had considered necessary were impeding the town’s development. Except for one of the gates, they had the entire wall torn down.

Yingxi Old East Gate is now treasured as a symbol of Hsinchu. Like almost every point of interest in the city, it is less than a mile from the railway station, which itself is a 106-year-old baroque-gothic beauty. If you prefer to travel by high-speed train, the Liujia Branch Line makes getting between Hsinchu HSR Station and the downtown quick and easy.

Near the old gate, a section of what used to be the moat has been tidied up and beautified with banyan trees and flowerbeds. Wandering in a westerly direction from here, you will come across the Hsinchu Contemporary Art Gallery, Hsinchu City Hall, and the Hsinchu City Fire Museum, which is located in an old fire station. All three of these buildings are Japanese-era landmarks.

The art gallery boasts a gorgeous if tiny porch-like structure known as a porte-cochère or coach gate. The stucco-redbrick city hall is of similar vintage. More engaging than the displays inside the Fire Museum is the photogenic well outside, from which pre-World War II firefighters drew water before setting off to battle fires in precincts that lacked hydrants.

Continue westward and you enter a neighborhood that fascinates connoisseurs of the past.  Aiwen Street, Beimen Street, and Chengbei Street still feature many two-floor, colonial-era merchant houses, and several of them still contain traditional businesses.

Drying vermicelli

A five-courtyard mansion complex commissioned by Zheng Yong-xi in 1838 adds a touch of dilapidated magnificence to the northern end of Beimen Street. The mansion has never been formally opened to the public, but it is worth detouring here to see the exquisite wood and stone carvings that decorate the facade.

The mansion is somewhat forlorn, and as it may already be lunchtime you may wish to head to the city’s foremost cluster of snack stands for some Taiwanese-style comfort food. The 40-plus vendors who do business around Du Cheng Huang Temple serve a decent range of tasty foods, including two dishes for which Hsinchu is renowned: pork meatballs in clear soup (貢丸湯) and rice vermicelli (米粉).

Pork meatball and vermicelli

Du Cheng Huang Temple is dedicated to Cheng Huang Ye, “lord of the city walls and moat,” the deity believed to protect Hsinchu and its inhabitants. It has been the city’s busiest place of worship since the mid-18th century and contains effigies of Cheng Huang Ye, his wife and two sons, a fertility goddess, and several other divine personalities. As in many other city-god shrines, a huge iron abacus reminds people that the gods keep a tally of both their good deeds and their sins.

If you fancy nibbling on something during the bullet-train ride back to Taipei, cross the road in front of the temple to a bakery that has been in business since 1898.  International visitors are welcomed with English-language leaflets and free samples of the store’s signature product, a flaky pastry filled with ground pork and piquant green onions.

Greater Hsinchu has more than enough to occupy travelers who stay overnight. If you seek even more scenes of old Taiwan, pick up spare memory cards for your camera and make excursions to nearby Hukou and the inland town of Beipu.

An additional 24 hours in the city will also give you time to explore its markets. The Central Market occupies a maze of alleyways behind Du Cheng Huang Temple. Walk past the fortunetellers and you will find yourself among butchers, grocers, and tiny shops offering tailoring services.

The ocean is less than seven kilometers from the city center, and what Hsinchu promotes as the 17-kilometer Coastline Scenic Area stretches from the old fishing settlement of Nanliao in the city’s north to the boundary with Miaoli County to the south. Many tourists enjoy exploring the coastline on rented bicycles. During wintertime, birdwatchers come here to see Kentish plovers, Saunders’s gulls, and other species.

When planning your trip to Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website for all kinds of useful information. The 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765) is toll-free within Taiwan. For more information about Hsinchu, visit the Hsinchu City Government’s travel website. The visitor information centers inside Hsinchu railway station and at Liujia Station (next to the high-speed rail station) can answer questions and provide free maps and leaflets in various languages.

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