Exploring Tainan’s Cosmopolitan Roots

Chikan Tower. Photo credit: Louise Watt

Not known for being a particularly international city, Tainan has nonetheless been influenced by foreigners for hundreds of years. Contemporary visitors can still see and experience a number of their lasting contributions.

It’s been almost 400 years since Dutch traders disembarked in present-day Tainan, kicking off a long history of foreign interaction and influence. In the centuries that followed, European and Japanese figures left their mark on the city with the construction of forts, buildings, and roads, as well as irrigation systems that made land more fertile. Foreign religious figures introduced romanized writing systems for indigenous and Taiwanese languages and Taiwan’s first newspaper. These aspects of the city’s past can still be glimpsed on a trip to Tainan today.

The Dutch Period

Those who set foot on Formosa in 1624 were from the Dutch East India Company, a government-backed military and commercial force that ran some of the world’s early supply chains. It established a base at Tainan for trading with China and Japan.

When they arrived, the Dutch built Fort Zeelandia, their defensive stronghold, on the coast in what is now Tainan’s Anping District. The oldest urban area in Taiwan, Anping today houses a museum dedicated to this period of the city’s history. In 1653, the Dutch moved their administrative center to a newly built Fort Provintia, better known as Chihkan Tower, which sits in the heart of today’s Tainan.

Chikan Tower and Fort Zeelandia, both built by the Dutch, were used for the defense and administration of Taiwan. Photo credit: Louise Watt

The Dutch missionaries that came soon after focused on spreading Christianity to the indigenous peoples living on the Siraya plains that cover southwestern Taiwan. At that time, the Han population was still a minority, and the Dutch referred to the indigenous inhabitants as “Formosans.” One ancient Siraya settlement is now the site of today’s Southern Taiwan Science Park.

The first Dutch Reformed Church missionary to arrive was German Georgius Candidius. He lived among the Siraya, learning their language and developing a romanized writing system for it. Texts in romanized Siraya outlasted the spoken language, which died out more than 100 years ago, although efforts have been made in recent years to revive it. Robertus Junius, who came next, built Taiwan’s first school, which taught Christianity and Dutch language.

As they carried out their evangelizing mission, Candidius and Junius translated the Bible into Siraya but also localized it, getting rid of words and ideas that were alien to the Siraya. They made Jesus not a Jew but a Siraya and translated “kingdom” as “village,” with the aim of making the people feel the Christian god could be their god, too.

The Green Siraya Valley (綠谷西拉雅) in Xinhua District is a scenic spot run by a Siraya family where visitors can learn about Siraya culture. It also acts as a platform for promoting revival of the Siraya language and environmental protection.

The churches, schools, and 38-year Dutch rule came to a brutal end in 1662 following a prolonged siege of Fort Zeelandia by a Chinese general named Zheng Chenggong – more commonly known in English as Koxinga – who had remained loyal to the fallen Ming Dynasty. Compounding the shame, a statue of the conqueror has been situated outside Fort Zeelandia. Chihkan Tower became the seat of Koxinga’s government; Chinese-style towers were subsequently added to the structure, and during Japanese rule, it was turned into an army hospital. Some of the site’s original 17th-century brick foundations remain.

Koxinga’s imprint

Barefoot Western men guard the entrance to Luermen Zhengmen Temple. Photo credit: Louise Watt

The Luermen Mazu Temple (鹿耳門天后宮) at 136 Mazugong 1st Street, Annan District, marks the spot where Koxinga came ashore before attacking the Dutch forts. It honors the sea goddess Matsu, whom legend says helped Koxinga and his fleet make their landing. 

A much smaller temple with a unique cosmopolitan blend is the Luermen Zhengmen Temple (鹿耳門鎮門宮), a five-minute drive away at No. 420, Lane 345, Mazugong 1st Street. Built in 1986, it pays homage to Koxinga, with a large statue of the erstwhile ruler at the front, a painting of him on the wall, and dozens of figurines set in rows on a table for offerings.

Notably, the temple also contains paintings of two barefoot Western men. One – with blond curls, armor, and a spear – is painted on the door on the furthest right. Next to him is an older man with a shield. These guards are not necessarily Dutch; people of various nationalities worked and fought for the Dutch East India Company. Why no shoes? One theory is that they were living and working on a sandy island where there was no need for footwear. Whatever the reason, locals near the temple feel sorry for these footwear-deprived Westerners and have been leaving shoes for them. A glass display among the many Koxinga statuettes contains donated shoes, including pairs of clogs, rain boots, and sneakers.

Another destination worth visiting is the Sicao Dazhong Temple (四草大眾廟, at 360 Dazhong Road, Annan District), built on the site of a bloody battle between Dutch troops and Koxinga’s forces. The temple includes a shrine to Chen Yu, one of Koxinga’s generals, who defeated hundreds of Dutch soldiers. In 1971, bones were discovered under the ground next to the temple. Archaeologists determined they were Dutch soldiers with injuries including head wounds and broken legs. Today, the ground is barren with a few patches of grass but beautifully shaded thanks to banyan and bodhi trees. A round tomb contains the Dutch remains and is decorated with images of 17th-century Dutch paintings of ships and tropical scenes. The most poignant is a self-portrait of a Dutch sailor.

Tourists can take a 30-minute boat ride through the neighboring Sicao Green Tunnel (四草綠隧), a stunning overhanging mangrove forest. A longer, 70-minute ride meanders past wetlands where visitors can glimpse migrating birds and see out to the Yanshui River.

Tourists can enjoy the beauty of an overhanging mangrove forest on a relaxing boat ride through the Sicao Green Tunnel. Photo credit: Louise Watt

The Scots arrive

Koxinga died in 1662, a few months after expelling the Dutch. He had devoted himself to turning Formosa into a base from which to try to restore the Ming Dynasty on the mainland. His Kingdom of Tungning continued and was the first Han government to control Taiwan. Its rule ended in 1683 when the Qing Dynasty annexed Taiwan as part of Fujian Province.

During the Qing era, European missionaries again traveled to Tainan, and this time it was Scots who made their mark. One of the most famous, doctor and Presbyterian missionary James Laidlaw Maxwell, established Taiwan’s first modern medical facility, Sinlau Hospital, located in Tainan’s East District.

The Maxwell Memorial Church (太平境馬雅各紀念教會) at 6 Gongyuan Road, West Central District, honors him. Inside is Taiwan’s oldest pipe organ still in use, one of two sets donated by American churches and delivered by U.S. warships in 1964. (The other is in Tainan’s Chimei Museum).

Photo credit: Louise Watt

A museum at the back of the church displays photographs and other items relating to Maxwell and other Scottish figures, as well as old linen sheets printed with tonal guides and vocabulary used to teach Sunday school children romanized Taiwanese, a written form of the language developed by early Western missionaries. Maxwell helped to promote dissemination of the written language by persuading the Presbyterian Church of England to donate Taiwan’s first printing press to a church in Tainan in 1880.

A museum at the back of the Maxwell Memorial Church displays tonal guides and vocabulary for a form of romanized Taiwanese invented by early Western missionaries. Photo credit: Louise Watt

Another Scotsman, the Reverend Thomas Barclay, learned how to operate the printing press and later started the Taiwan Church Press, which in 1885 published Taiwan’s first printed newspaper, the Taiwan Church News. The periodical was printed in romanized Taiwanese until the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-controlled government ordered a shift to Chinese characters in 1969. Today, it is the longest-running newspaper in the Chinese-speaking world, although at various points in its history it was confiscated or banned by Japanese and KMT authorities for discussing taboo topics, including the 228 Incident of 1947. 

A replica of the original printing press, which visitors can try out, is on display at today’s Taiwan Church Press (台灣教會公報社) at 334 Qingnian Road, East District.

Rev. Barclay also promoted a romanized Taiwanese version of the Bible, which is still used in some Presbyterian churches in Taiwan. He is praised for his role as a mediator between Japanese forces and a resistance movement at the beginning of Japan’s colonial rule that saved the city from attack by Japanese troops. He died in Tainan in 1935.

The government named the Barclay Memorial Park (巴克禮紀念公園) in the city’s East District after him in 2004. Until that time, the area, which includes a lake and provides breezy shade on a hot day, had been a garbage dump. Eventually, local residents became so fed up with the unhygienic eyesore that they banded together and cleared it up. The waste filled 170 trucks. Volunteers were surprised to discover a creek and small road in the park, long hidden under piles of junk.

Thanks to this story of people power, the Barclay Park became famous in Tainan. Later on, the government added a parking lot and extended the park to the south. Here one can enjoy walking trails, sakura trees, and fireflies dancing in the tall undergrowth during the spring.

Traces of Japan

Taiwan was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945. Even though the capital had moved from Tainan to Taichung in 1885, and to Taipei soon after, the southern city still retained some of its past importance. Tainan was still the center of agriculture and culture, and the Japanese held in high regard Tainan’s mix of Dutch relics, folk culture, Eastern and Western religions, and Ming-era temples – as well as the fact that Koxinga’s mother was Japanese.

Before the colonial period, Tainan had been a collection of small streets that had formed organically without any central planning. But the Japanese were inspired by European cities – particularly Paris – to create the geometric road layout, with roundabouts, that exists today. These roundabouts connected the city’s important buildings, including Tainan Railway Station and the old city hall (now the National Museum of Taiwan Literature), whose architecture was influenced by European styles. A landmark department store, Hayashi, at 63 Zhongyi Road Section 2, was opened in 1932. The art deco-style building boasted Taiwan’s first elevator. After languishing empty for decades after the colonial era, the store reopened in 2014.

Although the Japanese redesigned cities across Taiwan, Tainan was unique in that its new street system connected land and sea, and the railway linked to a newly built canal as well as Anping Harbor. 

Japanese engineers also transformed Tainan’s waterways. One of the key feats was the Wushantou Reservoir, which took 10 years to construct and was at the time the largest in Asia. The reservoir and Chianan irrigation system were designed by engineer Yoichi Hatta, and vastly increased the area that could harvest rice in Tainan, Chiayi, and Yunlin. The irrigation system is still in operation today.

Tourists can visit the Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area (烏山頭水庫風景區) in Guantian District and see the old floodgates. Solar-powered boat tours of the area’s Coral Lake, named for its shape when viewed from above, are also available.

Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area. Photo: Wikipedia

Hatta died in 1942 when an American submarine sunk the ship he was on in the East China Sea. It is said that his body floated to a Japanese fishing village and was identified via the name stitched into his work overalls. Hatta’s body was returned to Tainan and a tomb was erected for him at the reservoir.

A bronze statue of the engineer – dressed in work clothes and sitting on the ground, his elbow resting on his knee – was erected near the reservoir. While Hatta was revered by farmers and other local people, he had humbly asked that any statue not show him in the pose of a grand man. When the Japanese came looking for the statue to melt down to turn into ammunition during World War II, the residents hid it in a railway warehouse, where it stayed for 30 years.

Sinitic flourishes

Even after the end of the Japanese era and the building of European-inspired architecture, Tainan has continued to see the blending of Eastern and Western cultures. A notable example is Our Lady Queen of China Cathedral (天主教台南教區中華聖母主教座堂) at 145 Kaishan Road, West Central District. Its exterior is in the traditional Chinese style and looks like a Daoist temple, with vibrant red pillars and a roof with upturned eaves. But inside, the pews, confessionals, and cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis very clearly belong to the Catholic faith.

Our Lady Queen of China Cathedral incorporates Buddhist and Daoist elements to appeal to the local Taiwanese population. The most striking of these is an ethnically Han Mary statue outside the entrance. Photo credit: Louise Watt.

Built in 1963, the church purposefully incorporates Buddhist and Daoist elements to appeal to the local Taiwanese population. It holds Catholic services for the Lunar New Year and Tomb-Sweeping Festival and welcomes the burning of incense. Outside, a statue of an ethnically Han Mary holding a baby Jesus is deliberately located across the road from Koxinga’s shrine.

The legacies of the Dutch, Chinese, British, Japanese, Christians, and others reveal Tainan’s cosmopolitan past. Over the past 400 years, it has been at the forefront of a kind of globalization, connecting with others through romanization of its languages and merging elements from different cultures, religions, and populations from near and afar.