Tea, Tigers, and Temples in Lukang

Lukang, which once served as an important trading port for Taiwan, now sees tourists flocking to enjoy traditional fare and historic sites.


Its name may mean deer harbor (鹿港), but today Lukang (sometimes rendered Lugang) is more a city of birds. In the shifting hours when day becomes night and night becomes day, the winding, brick-paved streets of this historical town surprisingly fill with birdsong.  

Facing China halfway down Taiwan’s west coast in Changhua County, Lukang was one of the island’s most important ports in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its ships were laden with rice, sugar, cloth, and timber. Prosperous merchants built themselves mansions here, while a growing number of migrants from across the Strait fueled the demand for ever grander temples. Lukang was a dynamic center of culture and craftsmanship until the 19th century when the harbor silted up, railroads opened new transport options, and the capital was moved from Tainan in the south to Taipei up north. 

These days it is tourists – not traders – who flock to Lukang. They come to admire the old twisting streets and heritage buildings, renovated and converted into teashops and souvenir stores. And they come to marvel at two of the most stunning temples in Taiwan – Lukang Tianhou Temple (天后宮, also known as Mazu Temple) and Lungshan Temple (龍山寺). In terms of visitor experiences, Lukang is a bit of a crossover between New Taipei’s old hill mining town Jiufen and Taipei’s traditional shophouse district along Dihua Street. 

Most people come for a day trip, but Lukang is considerably more enjoyable if you can squeeze in an overnight stay. Not only will you be able to experience the joys of the dawn-and-dusk birdsong, but outside of the 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tourist rush, you can amble the old streets in peace, visit a glass temple that lights up only at night, and save the souvenir shopping for the following morning. 

An early morning train from Taipei with a bus connection (No. 6396) from the Taichung HSR station should get you into Lukang before 10 a.m. Arriving at Lukang’s Fuxing Road bus depot, you can take a five-minute walk to the Lukang Township Northern Visitor Center, which has useful English-language maps. Another five-minute walk from here will take you to Tianhou Temple – an excellent place to start your visit.  

Lukang is no metropolis, but its streets seemingly curve without rhyme or reason (there’s even a lane called Nine-Turns Lane, or 九曲巷), making navigation a somewhat tricky task. It helps to know that all the main sights are anchored around Zhongshan Road, which runs north to south. Bisecting Zhongshan is Minquan Road, which heads west to east. Roughly, you can explore north of Minquan in the morning and south in the afternoon.  

Lukang Tianhou Temple is one of the liveliest temples you will see in Taiwan. Dedicated to worship of Mazu (媽祖), goddess of the sea, this impressive complex probably dates back to sometime in the 17th century. The interior hosts a plethora of deities, several serene Mazu statues, bulging-eyed generals, chubby flying fairies, and Yue Lao (月老), the god of love and marriage, for those who need a little help with affairs of the heart. 

But the temple’s forecourt, strung with red lanterns, is where all the action is. That morning we arrived at a cacophony of celebration. Amid crashing cymbals and beating drums, explosions of firecrackers punctuated the din without warning. Moments later, techno was blasting out of a sound system on wheels propelled by Heineken-drinking volunteers decked out in green T-shirted uniforms. Behind them was a sedan chair borne by similarly-clothed devotees that bounced and flared flaming gas Mad Max style.  

A row of cannons, emblazoned with tiger motifs, let out bursts of gunpowder blasts. Milling among the crowds were young men in silky costumes with extravagantly painted faces, feathered headdresses, and scepters – I spotted one tiger and a bird. To me, it was thunderously festive, but apparently, this was just another day at the busy temple.  

Outside the main gate is a cluster of restaurants and snack stalls serving Lukang’s famous oyster omelets, deep-fried shrimp, sesame buns, and taro cakes – fist-sized buns of minced meat (vegetarian versions are available). Here you can also buy another Lukang specialty – the ox-tongue biscuit (牛舌餅, niushebing). Despite its name, it’s not made from ox tongue. Rather, it is a long flaky pastry with a moist, doughy center and flavored with taro, strawberry, five spices, or sesame. 

The streets west will lead you into the historic quarter comprised of Putou Street (which morphs into Yaolin Street as it approaches Minquan Road), Houche Lane, and a few impossibly narrow alleyways. Take your time exploring, enjoying the many beautiful doorways with painted wood and stone details. Look up to spot hanging orchids in alien colors and timelessly elegant swallowtail roofs. 

Afternoon delights

There is plenty to buy in Lukang. You can bag some fresh handmade noodles dried in courtyards in the sunshine and stretchy like elastic bands. There are embroidered red silk baby shoes so small that a pair fits snugly into the palm of one hand. Traditional toy shops dominate, hawking spinning tops, painted yo-yos, and animals on sticks.   

You’ll also find retro pinball parlors, where the prizes are sausages, and photo studios where you can slip on a cheongsam (or qipao) and pose in front of a trellis of fake flowers and a giant plastic flamingo. The 150-year-old Cheng Yu Chen Bakery (鄭玉珍餅舖, No. 23 Putou Street) sells gift boxes of pastries, including its famous phoenix-eye cakes (鳳眼糕, fengyangao) – tiny almond-shaped treats that taste a bit like sugary dust.  

If it’s a hot day and the crowds are getting to you, pop into one of the many flour tea shops on this stretch. Flour tea or miancha (麵茶) is a sweetened cereal-like drink served iced, hot, or as a dessert. Forgo takeout and slip inside to have your drink. The establishment at No. 6 Putou Street resembles an old 1920s Shanghai saloon with elaborately painted screens, wooden benches, and an old apothecary-like counter. I opted for a refreshing iced miancha (NT$50), which had puffed grain bobbing on the top and a pleasant wheaty paste on the bottom. 

As you near the end of Yaolin Street, just before reaching Minquan Road, you will notice people lining up to photograph themselves next to a half well that juts out of the side of a wall. Tourist literature explains that the well’s owner constructed it this way to allow “the poor” outside his mansion to have access to the water.  

Before you cross Minquan Road, if you’re in the market for hand-crafted lanterns, nip up Zhongshan Road to the Wu Tun-Hou Lantern Shop (吳敦厚燈舖)  at No. 310. This shop even has its own Wikipedia page. Giant yellow lanterns adorned with red calligraphy and stretched across wicker frames go for around NT$10,000. Now staffed by the affable son of founder Master Wu, Wu Tun-Hou is adorned with posters showing its most famous customers, including Lady Gaga and President Tsai Ing-wen. 

The old lanes continue south of Minquan Road. The maze is messier here, but also mellower, with less commerce and less foot traffic, although you’ll see fleets of bicycle taxis trundling past. There are some surprises – twisting old trees, hand pumps that still spout water, hidden cafés, and renovated mansions.  

Nine-Turns Lane is Lukang’s famous meandering alleyway. Notice the curved walls and a small, stone bridge-like structure called Shih Yih Hall (十宜樓), a watering hole for Lukang’s poets and writers in times past. Farther south is Breast Touching Lane (摸乳巷), a long and narrow alley that gets its name from the inevitable brushing of bodies when passing someone coming the other way. We waited until the coast was clear before venturing inside! 

Breast Touching Lane is also known as Gentleman Lane, as a true gentleman would wait for a lady to pass first.

A short walk southwest takes you to Lukang’s second great temple – Lungshan. Initially constructed in the 18th century, Lungshan Temple is a peaceful haven with spreading trees, moon gates, and multiple courtyards. Sadly, the front of the temple complex was being repaired when we visited, which meant the caisson ceiling, an exquisite octagonal wooden structure, was out of bounds.  

Wander the halls of Lungshan and admire the wooden and stone carvings featuring writhing dragons, leaping tigers, and dancing fish. Note the several entrances and exits from the walled compound and the numerous shaded spots to rest and watch the faithful. 

Swing back around and head up Zhongshan Road until you reach the Ding Family Mansion (丁家古厝) at No. 132. This hauntingly lovely Fujian-style courtyard house, with smoky blue painted doors, was the home of wealthy Muslim traders. Toward the front stands an ancestral shrine, a gallery, and one@Lukang, a dessert parlor serving ice cream and sorbet. The back quarters house office spaces, a library with papercuts on the walls, and a storeroom piled high with discarded furniture.  

After leaving through the back entrance of the Ding house, you may experience a sense of déjà vu if you’ve traveled here from Taipei. The Lukang Folk Arts Museum building next door, built around the time of World War I, was designed by Matsunosuke Moriyama, the same Japanese architect responsible for Taipei’s Presidential Office Building. The two structures share the same baroque style.  

The museum is housed in what was the ancestral home of the Koo family that became prominent in Taiwanese business circles (their many companies include Taiwan Cement and CTBC Bank) and politics (in the 1990s, Koo Chen-fu was Taiwan’s lead negotiator with China). The myriad items in the museum collection, including wedding carriages, impossibly tiny shoes for bound feet, four-poster beds covered with pink silk, tasseled tobacco pouches, and a magic mirror used for exorcisms, were all Koo family possessions. The artifacts are accompanied by decent English explanations, and the corridors and courtyards are well worth exploring. Note that photography is not allowed inside the building.  

Husheng Temple, also known as the Glass Mazu Temple, is made of 70,000 pieces of glass.

On the corner of Zhongshan and Minzu Roads sits Lukang’s most famous bakery, Yu Zhen Zhai (玉珍齋), where tourists descend to buy gift boxes of pastries. If you’re in the mood for a coffee, continue a few minutes up Zhongshan Road to Skinny Café (瘦子咖啡) at No. 163, a renovated shophouse intact with period dark wooden furniture and a small open courtyard.  

Before dusk falls, head to the industrial park to see the Taiwan Husheng Temple (玻璃媽祖廟, also known as the Glass Mazu Temple), about eight kilometers west of Lukang’s urban center. It’s easiest if you have your own transport, but if you don’t, take the infrequent 6936 bus that leaves from the bus station on Fuxing Road and goes directly to the temple. During the day this elaborate structure, made from 70,000 pieces of glass, is a little underwhelming, but as night falls, the neon lights create an entrancing glow.  

Come evening, Lukang is finally emptied of its tourist hordes. Strolling through the old streets at this time is truly a magical experience. A cat slinks into the shadows, a door creaks on its hinges, and the soft smell of incense tingles the nostrils. Above, strings of lanterns glow orange, and the sound of birds sweetens the air.