The Charms of Rustic Tainan

Jingliao Old Street

Tainan is a tourist magnet that deserves every bit of attention it gets. In addition to a stupendous number of ancient shrines, the heart of the city boasts imposing landmarks from the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule, and a maze of alluring alleyways.

Even though the city lost its status as Taiwan’s administrative capital more than 130 years ago, it has continued to expand and subsume nearby countryside. Travelers approaching from the north by high-speed train will cross into the city’s Houbi District more than 45 kilometers north of Tainan’s magnificent Confucius Temple. If they glance out the window there, they can enjoy views of rich farmland and tidy villages.

Few international visitors give any thought to spending time in Houbi or the adjacent district of Yanshui. But they should, if they have an interest in the rural Taiwan that existed before industrialization, or in the modernized yet characterful countryside which produces much of the food they will enjoy during their trip.

The most seductive part of Houbi is a village called Jingliao, at the intersection of Local Road 82 and Local Road 85. Before the north-south railway was completed, it was an important way station for those making their way on foot or by oxcart between Tainan and Chiayi. Bypassed by major roads, the village spent decades as an agricultural backwater, until a 2005 documentary titled Let It Be shone a spotlight on the lives of some of its elderly residents.

The film’s depiction of traditional lifestyles struck a chord with Taiwanese people. Its Chinese-language title, Wumile, has been adopted as an alternative place name, and appears in the bilingual signs which direct cyclists through the surrounding countryside. But even if the documentary had never been made, Jingliao would surely be on the tourist map by now.

Along or very near Jingliao Old Street, there are at least a score of highly photogenic traditional houses. The best known of them is the Ruan Family Old House (also called the Jing De Hsing Drug Store), parts of which date from before 1795.

Despite remodeling and rebuilding every generation or two, it retains a great deal of wood. The one-and-a-half-story structure that stands today is delightfully timeworn and extremely photogenic. Before you step inside, look carefully at the woodcarvings and painted panels that face the street. When you enter, you will see the tools of the Chinese herbalist’s trade. There are mortars and pestles; vials, jars, and bottles; and sets of drawers labeled so the physician could quickly find what he needed. 

Three very different landmarks lie 400 meters east of the Old Street. Two are on the campus of Jingliao Elementary School, and both date from the Japanese colonial period. These superbly preserved, mainly wood structures now serve as the school auditorium and library.

Jingliao Elementary School

The other is Jingliao Holy Cross Church, designed in the 1950s by Gottfried Böhm, a German architect who won the Pritzker Prize in 1986. Its alloy-covered spire is not only taller than anything nearby, but also quite different in terms of color.

A truly exceptional Christian place of worship can be found in the heart of Yanshui. Holy Trinity Catholic Church is a splendid example of how Catholic chapels in Taiwan often resemble folk temples. Holy Trinity’s tiled roof, for instance, is not very different from those atop shrines devoted to popular religion. However, the true glory of this church lies within.

Holy Trinity Catholic Church

The images of the crucifixion have been thoroughly localized. Thanks to his bulbous forehead, drooping eyebrows, and white beard, the deity who looks down from the rear wall looks remarkably like the Chinese god of longevity. The Last Supper has been reimagined as a gathering of sages in which Christ and his apostles have Asian facial features, wear traditional Chinese clothes, and eat steamed buns with chopsticks.

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, Yanshui – now 16 kilometers from the coast – was one of Taiwan’s key harbors. Until sedimentation made it inaccessible, flat-bottomed boats carried goods and people upriver to the town. Qiaonan Old Street was the heart of this bustling entrepôt, and the thoroughfare retains a number of antiquated wood-framed buildings.

A short stroll away stands another relic of Yanshui’s mercantile past. The Octagonal Pavilion, the only surviving part of a large mansion built in the 1850s for a local sugar tycoon, is a sublime two-floor, eight-sided building. As with many other traditional buildings in Taiwan and China, no nails were used, the beams, windows and sills being connected by mortise and tenon.

Octagonal Pavillion

Yanshui may have been a backwater for the past century, but its name is familiar to people throughout Taiwan thanks to the Beehive Fireworks Festival. This event takes the enjoyment of pyrotechnics to an extreme. Like the running of the bulls in the Spanish town of Pamplona, those who attend the Beehive Festival should understand the risks they face and prepare carefully to minimize the danger.

Beehive Firework Festival

Thousands of bottle rockets are launched over and into the crowds on the streets. The event gets its name because these tiny projectiles, like angry bees, scream in every direction, ricochet off walls and houses, and sting any flesh left bare. Nothing like it happens anywhere else in the world. Festival veterans wear full-face motorcycle helmets and thick fireproof clothing, so they can stay on the frontline during bombardments, and experience a thrilling adrenaline rush.

The festival is a reenactment of a plague expulsion rite. Back in the late 19th-century, cholera ravaged Yanshui, and desperate townsfolk sought supernatural help. To drive out the evil spirits they blamed for the epidemic, they carried through the streets an effigy of Guan Gong, a deified general regarded as the god of brotherhood and righteousness. Along the way, they burned joss paper and let off firecrackers.

This exorcism by fire and noise apparently worked. The contagion receded, and Yanshui’s citizens continue to show their gratitude in the form of a rowdy nocturnal parade always held at the time of the Lantern Festival.

Yanshui and Houbi are respectively served by Brown Line and Yellow Line local buses; route and timetable details can be found here. For travel information in English and other languages about every part of Greater Tainan, see the city government’s Travel Tainan website.

For all kinds of information useful when planning a trip to Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website. The 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765) is toll-free within Taiwan. The visitor service centers at airports, high-speed railway stations, and other locations are happy to provide maps and leaflets and answer your questions.