Tainan time machine

Sarah Gillespie visits Taiwan’s oldest city as it prepares to celebrate its 400th birthday.

Paid partnership with Taiwan Tourism Administration

Tainan time machine

Sarah Gillespie visits Taiwan’s oldest city and its former capital, due to celebrate its 400th birthday next year and discovers a city embracing Han, Taiwanese and Dutch roots in a bewitching mixture of old and new.

To listen along to this story on Tainan, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

I’m in a minibus on the outskirts of Tainan. My guide, Michelle Chiu Shan Chieh, glances at her watch. “We’re not gonna have time to stop for lunch,” she says. “We’d better go to the 7-Eleven.”

We pull up outside the ubiquitous convenience store and Michelle leads me in. I reemerge clutching plastic-wrapped onigiri, cartoon-emblazoned crisp packets and canned pink drinks. When we arrive in the city centre, they’ll look incongruous: artefacts from a future that hasn’t yet happened.

Tainan is Taiwan’s oldest city and its former capital, due to celebrate its 400th birthday next year.

Although indigenous Taiwanese and Han Chinese have lived in this area since at least 1590, the city was officially established in 1624 by Dutch colonists, who were driven out by famed Southern Ming general Zheng ‘Koxinga’ Chenggong in 1662.

Koxinga’s portrait now dominates the exhibition hall at Chihkan Tower, which stands on the ruins of the 17th-century Dutch-built Fort Provintia.

After showing me the exhibition hall, Michelle leads me through a vase-shaped archway, below faded wood transoms and past red-brick walls which, she tells me, were cemented with a mixture of brown sugar, sticky rice and ground oyster shells. 

We look down onto the grounds, with their manicured hedges and a koi-filled pond bordered by nine bixi: mythical, dragon-turtle hybrids. Each one bears a stone stele recording the events of Lin Shuang-wen’s rebellion against the Qing dynasty in 1787-1788. It was not to be: after his defeat and capture, Lin was executed in Beijing.

So it goes in the Tainan time machine: back in time, then forward, then back again. At the gate of Confucius Temple – established in 1666 by Koxinga’s son – another stone stele warns us to dismount from our horses before entering.

The complex was once a centre for Confucian studies – “the first school of Taiwan,” says Michelle. Here and there, pinboards flutter with yellow notes: good-luck charms pinned by students hoping for good grades.

Every 28 September at 6am, a Confucius Memorial Ceremony takes place at the temple’s Dacheng Hall, with ritual dances performed to mark the great philosopher’s birthday.

During the rest of the year, visitors can see the ancient instruments used in the ceremony. Michelle shows me polished dark-wood zithers, bamboo panpipes and dense, bronze bianzhong bells.

In keeping with Confucius’ frugality, the complex is modest in decoration. Not so for Guan Gong – the red-faced Chinese god of war and wealth – who has an entire temple dedicated just to his horse.

“You’re joking?” I say, when Michelle tells me this. She shakes her head, indicating a garage-sized temple. A spray of grass sits in a pot outside. “The grass is for the horse,” she says.

We head into the main temple; over the entrance hang gold-lettered plaques, dedications to Guan Gong from Taiwan’s former emperors and presidents. I point up at one. “True macho man,” says Michelle. I laugh; she shrugs. “I’ll get you a better translation later.”

In a side-temple off the main complex is a shrine dedicated to Yue Lao, the matchmaker god. One wall is covered with Save the Date cards, wedding invitations and photocopied marriage contracts: tokens of thanks for a wish fulfilled.

Outside, a sculpture of a man and a woman have been moulded into an incense burner; smoke curls around the red ribbon that binds them in a knot of eternity.

Wedding planning is too much work even for the gods; as we leave the temple, we pass their assistants, working at antique desks and surrounded by charts and calendars.

These are the professional ‘day-choosers’, who select the most auspicious date for weddings and other celebrations based on birth dates, lucky numbers and the Chinese zodiac.

After a quick mango juice stop at the photogenic Ai Guo Xian – a juice bar operating out of an 80-year-old former hardware store – we head for dinner at Zhu Xin Ju.

The restaurant received a Michelin Bib Gourmand for its seven-course traditional Taiwanese banquet, all made using local and seasonal ingredients. 

Michelle and I dig into oysters topped with chilli sauce, glossy pork belly and Cigu milkfish that flakes apart in the mouth. The setting – a restored 1840s mansion, with nostalgic film posters and glazed tea caddies – inspires from the diners a hushed reverence.

The only sounds heard are the tapping of chopsticks and the clink of blue-and-white porcelain cups.

Our final stop is Shennong Street – one of Tainan’s best-preserved, dating back to the Qing dynasty and now home to boutique souvenir shops and artists’ studios.

I walk down the joss-scented lane; bobbing lanterns cast their pinkish light on scarred walls and stained wooden shutters.

Even here there are shop-sized temples, miniature icons lighting them up like little skyscrapers. I see a pot of grass outside one temple and smile in recognition.

There’s the occasional jolt of modernity: a scooter leaning against a wall; a group of lads on plastic chairs, laughing at a game show. The city seems intent on reintroducing me to the real world of tomorrow.

I ignore it, choosing to spend my final hour wreathed in incense, basking in the glow of this Taiwanese time capsule.

Need to know

  • Getting there: EVA Air flies to Taipei Taoyuan (TPE) from a number of international destinations, including London Heathrow (via a brief stop in Bangkok) and New York City.
  • Best time to go: Apart from June to September, when Taiwan can be hit by typhoons at times, the country offers a variety of tourist attractions and activities for the rest of the year.
  • Where to stay: From five-star luxury hotels and resorts to economic hostels, Taiwan offers a great spectrum of accommodations. Check out the Taiwan Tourism Administration website for more information.
  • Food: Street food and night markets! Taiwan is best known for its diversity of food. Visit the Michelin Guide website to discover more.
  • Must-pack item: A jumper and a mac might be needed as indoor air conditioners and sudden afternoon showers could turn the temperature slightly chilly.
  • Anything else? In addition to Taiwan’s Lucky Land campaign which gives out 5000 Taiwanese dollars in spending money, Taiwan is offering visitors a Free Half-Day Tour at the moment.

More information

This article on Tainan was brought to you in partnership with the Taiwan Tourism Administration.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to their website.

To learn more about Tainan’s 400th-anniversary celebrations, go to tainan-400.tw.

The writer was a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Administration with flights provided by EVA Air.

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