Sun and Southern Hospitality in Laid-back Kaohsiung

New cultural attractions combine with traditional sights to make a trip down south a refreshing change of pace for residents of the north.

For many expats, moving to Taipei means a slower pace of life. No rush-hour jostling on sidewalks or in the subway, patient pedestrians waiting at the side of empty roads for a green light to cross the street, and cycle paths for gentle meanders along the river.

But for residents of Kaohsiung, Taipei life means living in the “too fast” lane – too competitive, too highly pressured. Much better to live in the South, where the emphasis is less on competing and much more on eating and otherwise enjoying life.

Networks in Kaohsiung tend to be more close-knit. Here cousins and classmates from years earlier are still near enough for frequent get-togethers over ginger duck soup and beer. Kaohsiung residents are also highly welcoming, especially toward foreigners. If you speak a little Mandarin, people will be pleasantly astonished. If you utter a few words of Taiwanese, you will have a friend for life – and possibly a dinner invitation.

Those of us who don’t have the flexibility to move to Kaohsiung can still experience the warm hospitality of the southern Taiwanese for a few days. A city of warmer, sunnier climes is waiting – and without Taipei’s frequent rain (during Kaohsiung’s rainy season, a heavy shower will usually clear up within half an hour). Let’s explore.

Dragon And Tiger

Hop off the high-speed rail at Zuoying station and you’re already close to one of Kaohsiung’s most striking landmarks – the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas (龍虎塔) (open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), seven-story yellow towers guarded by a large painted dragon and tiger. Walk through the mouth of the dragon to enter and out through the mouth of the tiger to turn bad luck into good fortune.

The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas at Lotus Lake near Zuoying HSR station. Photo: Louise Watt

The pagodas sit on the edge of Lotus Lake, a stunning expanse of water that is at its most picturesque when it is reflecting the late afternoon sun or evening lights. It is well worth a walk or cycle around – a leisurely stroll will take a little under an hour, not counting time for visiting the pagodas and other temples that dot the lake.

These include Taiwan’s largest Confucius Temple (open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) on the north bank of the lake. The temple was built in 1976 when the city’s original homage to the famous teacher-philosopher, a structure dating back to 1684, had fallen into disrepair. The main Ta Cheng Palace hall is modeled on the one in Confucius’s hometown of Qufu in Shandong province. Inside, you can solemnly and silently recite a wish to the great philosopher and hang up a prayer card on a special board for maximum effect.

For an air-conditioned view of the lake, the Panna Cotta coffee shop next to the Confucius Temple serves Taiwan Alishan americanos and café lattes among other drinks and food.

River Of Love

Local residents love to say that it is much easier to get around in Kaohsiung than in Taipei, but this is only true if you have a car or motorbike. If you rely on public transport, there are just two subway lines, fed by a bus network. If you enjoy seeing the sites on foot, Kaohsiung may not be to your liking. Sidewalks are frequently the realm of parked motorbikes, cars, and large potted plants. Bicycle-sharing stations are not as common as in Taipei, and you rarely see people cycling.

But if you do fancy walking or cycling in the city center, a meander along part of the Love River (愛河) is a good place to start. The Love River is to Kaohsiung what the Thames is to London or the Seine to Paris, given its purported romantic associations. It runs through the city, and the once badly polluted river has been cleaned up – as well as spruced up in recent years with green spaces and cafes alongside it. There are daytime and evening boat and gondola rides.

A good walking-tour trail starts at the Love Boat ferry stop next to the 228 Peace Memorial Park (高雄市二二八和平紀念公園). Proceed south past the Kaohsiung Film Archive, which regularly shows movies, and follow the river around to the Pier 2 Arts Center (駁二藝術特區). What was an abandoned warehouse area has been converted into a collection of art galleries, museums, and quirky stores. It also has the VR Film Lab, where you can watch 360-degree award-winning virtual reality movies, or have fun with a friend in an interactive area flying (virtually) through the air on dinosaurs. No upper age limit, fortunately. 

University Beach

Another good place for a walk is National Sun Yat-Sen University, which can be conveniently accessed from the city center by means of a tunnel (中山大學隧道) through a mountain. Anyone can wander around the leafy campus, whose sights include a villa where Chiang Kai-shek stayed when he visited the south. Today the building is an arts and culture exhibition center, but relics remain, including Chiang’s 1949 Packard Eight car.

On the west side of the campus is something you don’t normally see at a university: a beach, with clear water and coral reefs. In the evening, students and couples head to the black sandy beach to watch the sun set. No swimming allowed. 

Bay Area

A view of Kaohsiung Harbor from the former British Consulate. Photo: Louise Watt

Further to the south in Sizihwan Bay (西子灣) is the former British Consulate at Takow (打狗英國領事館文化園區), built in 1879 to expand the country’s interests in Taiwan. The office, at the foot of a hill facing the port, was closed to the public for a century but now houses an exhibit explaining its history, assisted by old photographs and newspapers. Takow (literally “beat the dog,” probably of aboriginal derivation) was the name of the city for most of its history.

A short trail up the hill leads to the onetime Consul’s Residence, a red-brick building with a wooden veranda where he entertained guests. To the east you can see views of downtown Kaohsiung and the 85 Sky Tower skyscraper landmark, and to the west the Taiwan Strait.

The old Consul’s Residence in Sizihwan. Photo: Louise Watt

Inside is a café serving English Afternoon Tea for NT$630. While it doesn’t particularly resemble a traditional English afternoon tea, to get a table on weekends and holidays you may have to queue, which is very British. Try to get a table on the balcony facing the west so you can watch the sun set over the Taiwan Strait.

The consulate is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed for maintenance the third Monday of each month.

Close by is the Gushan Ferry Pier (鼓山輪渡站), where you can take a short ride to Cijin Island (旗津島), a small and narrow island that is worth a day or half-day trip. Besides the picturesque market selling all kinds of dried fish, the sights include the Cijin Bathing Beach (旗津海水浴場), Cihou Fort (旗後砲台) and Cihou Lighthouse (旗后燈塔), from which there are great views of the island and Kaohsiung’s harbor. In addition to seafood, try the traditional southern Taiwanese dish “cut tomato” (切番茄), whose special feature is a dip made with a thick soy sauce, sugar, and ginger paste. It is available in a number of restaurants on Miaoqian Road (廟前路), which is also bursting with snack stalls.

Before or after the ferry ride, enjoy a heaping plate of sliced mango or other fruit over shaved ice at one of the many snack shops in the neighborhood.

Mountain Sights

Longevity Mountain (Shoushan) (壽山) has various hiking trails, temples, and a zoo. For one of the best views, ask a taxi driver to take you up to the Martyrs Shrine (忠烈祠), and then walk down the steps in front to look out across the harbor toward Cijin Island and the sea. You can head down to National Sun Yat-Sen University from here via Wanshou Road.

On another part of the mountain known as Chaishan (柴山) is Shanhai Temple (山海宮), originally built to thank a god for watching over the worshippers in the mountains (山) and at sea (海). It was reconstructed in the 1980s. You can drive or ride a motorbike up Chaishan Road to get to the temple, where there is free parking. A steep road down to the right of the temple leads to restaurants and coffee shops where you can look out to sea and contemplate life, as well as steps down to a small black sandy beach if you’re feeling more energetic.

One of the views from Chaishan mountain, not far from Shanhai Temple. Photo: Louise Watt

Cultural Ambitions

In recent years, Kaohsiung has been trying to throw off its image as a polluted industrial city and become a regional magnet for culture-lovers. One of its crowning developments is the National Kaohsiung Theater for the Arts (Weiwuying) (衛武營國家藝術文化中心), a massive structure surrounded by parkland that for years was blocked off by the military. The inside plaza area has taken the thick trunks of banyan trees as inspiration, but it also feels a little like a spaceship. Weiwuying performances include music, drama, and dance. In the evenings, free movies are sometimes projected onto the structure itself, with deckchairs and headphones provided.

Construction continues on other major cultural projects. The Kaohsiung Music Center (高雄流行音樂中心) on the banks of the Love River is expected to open late this year. It aims to attract big-name domestic and international pop acts, and its indoor and outdoor spaces are designed to address Taiwan’s lack of medium-sized venues for musicians. 

The Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (高雄市立美術館) is undergoing a major refurbishment project and will have no exhibitions until January 2021.

Unexpectedly, one of the best places to see some contemporary art in Kaohsiung is in a metro station. The hub of Kaohsiung’s two lines, Formosa Boulevard Station (美麗島), offers a kaleidoscope of colors known as the Dome of Light. The ceiling mural on level B1 has 4,500 glass panels. It was designed by the same artist who created a glass dome for Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs.

Sweet History

Taiwan’s first modern sugar-processing plant, the Ciaotou Sugar Factory (橋頭糖廠), opened in 1902 and churned out products for almost 100 years. Now it is a museum where you can see inside the old factory and wander among Japanese-style offices and residences, as well as the trains that used to carry sugar cane. There is an art area and restaurants, and the site is a good outdoor attraction for children.

Temple Cave

Longquan Temple (龍泉寺), a Buddhist temple at the foot of Shoushan Mountain, contains a hidden treasure. In 1974, when workers from the Taiwan Cement Corporation were quarrying in the mountain, they found a cave considered to be more than a million years old. On entering, they were astonished to see a stalagmite that resembled the Bodhisattva Guanyin holding a baby. She is now to be found in one of Longquan’s buildings, standing in a second-floor room designed to look like a cave. The temple is open every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monkeys often roam around and some doors have latches to stop them from entering.

Eating

Make the most of the fresh fruit on sale from Kaohsiung and surrounding rural areas, including papaya, lychees, and “Japanese” bananas (the smaller ones).

The oldest and largest night market in Kaohsiung is Liuhe (六合夜市), in the center of the city next to the Formosa Boulevard metro station.

A stallholder grills sausages at Liuhe Night Market. Photo: Louise Watt

Even if you’re not usually a fan of hotpot, try the sour cabbage hotpot at Liu’s restaurant (劉家酸白菜火鍋創始店) (9 Jieshou Road, Zuoying, 左營區介壽路9號, with six other branches around the city). For Hakka food, head to 來來客家菜 (54/1 Zhengyan Road, Lingya District, 苓雅區正言路54號之1號). If you crave American food, the Chicago pizzas at The-303 Kitchen and Bar (422 Anji Street, Zuoying, 左營區安吉街422號) have been known to pull Taipei residents to Kaohsiung for the evening.

Finally, the city has many restaurants specializing in ginger duck soup and ginger chicken soup, such as the open-air 鳳山武慶薑母鴨 at 28 Wuqing 2nd Road (鳳山區武慶二路28號), where you can choose a goji and date sauce and add tofu and vegetables. With any luck, you will be taken there by your new Kaohsiung friends.

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