Despite its gloomy reputation, Yunlin County – rich in culture and history – can provide a tranquil escape from the bustle of big city life.
Photo credit: Steven Crook
Situated just over 200 kilometers southwest of Taipei by freeway, Yunlin County suffers from a reputation for being flat, uninteresting, and insignificant. It has none of Taiwan’s high mountains and no national parks. The 55-kilometer-long coastline lacks attractive beaches. And the county seat, Douliu (斗六, population 108,000), is no place for anyone in search of nightlife.
All that is true. Yet Yunlin has its own charm – a sleepy rural outpost that is nonetheless host to an abundance of historic architecture, traditional religious sites, breathtaking natural scenery, and local agricultural expertise.
Sightseers who arrive in Douliu by train typically head straight for Taiping Old Street (太平老街), one of Taiwan’s most impressive agglomerations of prewar shophouses. If you get there well before noon, you might first like to walk through the town’s West Market (西市場).
This traditional daily market sprawls out from the intersection of Aiguo Street (愛國街) and Xingzhong Street (興中街). The piles of produce reflect Yunlin’s tremendous agricultural productivity: most of the carrots, garlic, ginger, groundnuts, potatoes, and sweet potatoes sold here were harvested within the county.
Walking southwest from the market along Zhongshan Road (中山路) will bring you to the southern end of Taiping Street. How long you spend exploring the latter thoroughfare – where authenticity far outweighs conservation artifice – depends entirely on how interesting you find highly embellished two-story buildings.
Many houses on this 600-meter-long street were built of reinforced concrete around 1927, but a few are over 100 years old. Several exhibit red-brick façades and ornate decorative elements, while others are unadorned. If you adore the historic quarter of Daxi (大溪) in Taoyuan, the flamboyant blend of Baroque, neoclassicism, and Art Deco along Taiping Street is reason enough to justify an excursion to Yunlin.
Moving north, you may notice the mock crenellations atop the buildings at nos. 160, 162, and 164. Each – respectively a church, a seal-maker’s shop, and a dental clinic – has an elegant balcony that is too narrow and shallow for anything larger than flowerpots.
Other buildings worth looking out for include no. 91, near the intersection with Zhonghua Road (中華路). On the parapet, relief decorations feature a pair of portly men with red-brown skin holding up a clock. It is said the clock symbolizes Taiwan’s transformation from a mainly agricultural society to a more dynamic commercial-industrial economy during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule. At the apex of the façade, an eagle carved from stone is about to take flight.
At its northern end, Taiping Street merges into a nondescript traffic circle, where one of the more prominent buildings is the Grand Earl Hotel (緻麗伯爵酒店). According to Sherman Cheng, a Taipei-based Yunlin native and keen photographer, it is sometimes possible – weather permitting – to enjoy truly grand vistas of the Alishan Mountain Range from the bar on the hotel’s 13th floor.
The bar is open only in the evening, but Cheng explains that you can ask to access the 13th floor the following morning if you stay overnight at the hotel. “If the weather and air quality are just right, the view can be fantastic,” he says.
Explore local history
The town of Beigang (北港) in the southwestern portion of the county is half the size of Douliu but attracts at least twice as many outsiders. Long before Taiping Street’s merchants built their shophouses, Beigang’s Mazu temple was a leading pilgrimage destination. Even now Beigang owes a good bit of its prosperity to Mazu, a girl who lived in 10th-century Fujian and is worshipped as a goddess of the sea in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia.
While not the oldest or grandest Mazu shrine in the country, the 327-year-old Chaotian Temple (朝天宫) is as lively as any Taiwanese place of worship and more lavish than many. The temple’s charitable activities include funding Beigang Mazu Memorial Hospital, which doubles as China Medical University’s Beigang Campus.
Beigang’s putative founder was an outlaw, Yan Si-qi, who murdered a eunuch servant in Fujian, then fled to Japan where he joined an uprising against the shogunate. That rebellion failed, so once again he had to leave home in a hurry.
Sometime between 1621 and 1624, Yan and his followers sailed up the Beigang River from the Taiwan Strait and put down roots. They called their new home Bengang (笨港, literally “stupid harbor”), derived from the indigenous toponym, Ponkan. A couple of centuries later, Bengang was modified to Beigang.
The Yan Si-qi Pioneering of Taiwan Monument (顏思齊開拓台灣紀念碑), a simple white obelisk erected in 1959 at the intersection of Minzhu Road (民主路) and Wenhua Road (文化路), honors these early settlers.
An eatery that faces the monument draws adventurous gourmands. Yuanhuan Red-Braised Frog Soup (圓環紅燒青蛙湯) takes its name from its specialty. Each serving of frog soup comprises two gutted and headless amphibians in broth; the red-braised version is a good deal tastier than the “original flavor” soup.
Getting from Douliu to Beigang (and between Beigang and Chiayi City) by bus is easy enough, but if you want a good look at Yunlin’s coastal townships, you will need your own vehicle. That said, there are some buses running between Beigang and the sleepy village of Santiaolun (三條崙).
Santiaolun’s main draw is Haiqing Temple (海清宮), which is at least 225 years old. In addition to being shinier and more colorful than most religious sites in Taiwan, its current iteration is a triumph of traditional construction techniques. At the outset of the 1993-1998 reconstruction, it was decided that no concrete would be used, and that Fujian-style tenons, rather than nails, would hold everything together. Wooden columns 16 meters long hold up the roof.
Although Santiaolun is a fishing village, the main deity enshrined in Haiqing Temple has no maritime connections. During his mortal existence, Justice Bao (包青天) was a Song Dynasty judge revered for his wisdom and fairness. Perhaps rectitude is heritable: One of Bao’s 34th-generation descendants was imprisoned for joining the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. In Taiwan, Justice Bao is venerated by police and judicial officials.
Just east of Santiaolun, Provincial Highway 17 passes through a place called Feisha (飛沙, “flying sand”). Come here during the winter, when grit-carrying north winds scour the landscape, and the place name will make sense.
Within Taixi Township (台西), there is another toponym that is more interesting than the place it is attached to: Wengang (蚊港), which means “mosquito harbor.” These days, however, there is no harbor, and – by all accounts – the mosquitoes are no worse than anywhere else in Taiwan.
The western third of Yunlin County may not inspire sightseers, but those who turn inland and head for Xiluo (西螺) are seldom disappointed. Like Douliu, this town is best known for being awash with a prewar character. In the town’s heyday, what is now called Yanping Road Old Street (延平路老街) was where everyone who was anyone in Xiluo set up shop.
If you move east from Fuxing Temple (福興宮) at 180 Yanping Road, look out for two unusual three-story buildings on the north side of the road. At no. 76, what some call Xiluo Clocktower (西螺鐘樓), also known as Jin Yu-cheng Clocktower (金玉成鐘樓), was commissioned by a craftsman to advertise his watch-and-clock business. Like the strikingly asymmetrical former dental clinic at no. 66, the clocktower dates from the mid-1930s.
Anyone interested in the architectural trends of yesteryear will find it worth their time to stroll to the eastern end of the old street, then cross the road and head back west. The intersection between Yanping Road and Jianxing Road (建興路) is one of the busiest in the town, and around it, there are two sights of note.
No. 268 Jianxing Road is a well-preserved block of four shophouses. They were built at the same time yet individualized for each client. Look up and you will see lions, an eagle, and a pineapple. That fruit is an auspicious motif. In Taiwanese, pineapple is pronounced ong lai, a homophone for “prosperity arriving.”
On the northwestern corner of the intersection, the apex of an elegant two-floor building now serving as a restaurant displays two flags in relief: A Kuomintang (KMT) flag on the left and a Republic of China flag on the right. Only the faintest traces of color remain.
This feature must have been added some decades after the building’s construction, as Taiwan was a colony of Japan until 1945. Very possibly, the family that owned the building thought it important to demonstrate its loyalty to the KMT regime, as one son was in Japan agitating for Taiwan’s independence. That man was Thomas Liao (廖文毅, 1910-1986), who held a doctorate in chemical engineering from Ohio State University. Liao initially supported the KMT, but by 1950 he was living in Japan and leading the Formosan Democratic Independence Party (台灣民主獨立黨, FDIP).
Liao returned to Taiwan in 1965. According to the government publication Free China Review, he had concluded that “the people of Taiwan are Chinese through and through, by blood and by culture, and that their future belongs and is bound together.” He was also quoted as saying that since the KMT took control of Taiwan, “life is better in every way. …Democracy has taken hold at the grassroots.”
The article did not mention that one of his nephews had been sentenced to death, and his mother to several years’ imprisonment, for alleged involvement in the proscribed FDIP. Liao agreed to fly home, renounce politics, and take up an academic post in return for their freedom.
Discover pristine nature
Driving from Xiluo to Linnei (林內) takes about half an hour, and as soon as you approach the town, Yunlin’s hilly interior comes into view. If you want to break a sweat, Linnei offers what could be the county’s best hike. The entrance to Longguomai Forest Trail (龍過脈森林步道) is a 25-minute walk from Linnei Railway Station, behind a pair of temples.
Both of these shrines honor Ji Gong (濟公), the so-called “drunk monk” of Buddhism. In his mortal life – the faithful believe he lived from 1130 to 1209 CE – he is said to have helped every poor or sick person he encountered, his alcoholism notwithstanding.
Along the trail, you can find detailed map-boards with distance, altitude, and ecological information. The trailhead by the temples is 116 meters above sea level; the elevation at the eastern terminus is 303 meters; the distance between the two spots is 2.3 kilometers.
Formosan macaques populate the canopy, and some visitors complain that the monkeys have snatched food out of their hands. Others are more bothered by the swarms of mosquitoes, but these bloodsuckers are a significant reason why bronzed drongos, black-naped monarchs, and other insect-gobbling birds thrive in the forest.
How good a view you get from the gazebo at the eastern end of the path depends on the weather. If you are in luck, you can make out the Taiwan Strait. You are at least guaranteed a view of the Zhuoshui River (濁水溪) and beyond into Changhua County.
The hill country that used to be one of Yunlin’s prime natural attractions lies several kilometers due south of Longguomai Forest Trail. Formerly an excellent place to see the fairy pitta – a bird known to Chinese speakers as the ba se niao (八色鳥) on account of its eight-colored plumage – the area has never recovered from the construction of Hushan Reservoir (湖山水庫).
“The destruction of so much habitat in the area was a great blow,” laments Mark Wilkie, a South African birder who has lived in Yunlin for 19 years. “Very few fairy pitta can be seen there now. Yunlin County still has some good birding areas like Shibi (石壁) and Kouhu (口湖). Yunlin is also very important for Northern lapwing, a migratory waterbird. But the loss of the fairy pitta stronghold at Huben (湖本) was a great tragedy.”
Yunlin does not face the acute pressure for development experienced in some other parts of the island. Even so, a sense of urgency about the environment is justified. Try to see the county as it is now, because the next major change may not be one for the better.