Blog / Culture

Small Town Portraits: Tamsui near Taipei

For much of its history, Tamsui — sometimes spelled Danshui — was bigger and more important than Taipei. Like Anping in Tainan, in the second half of the 19th century it was a treaty port, meaning merchants from certain Western countries enjoyed a range of privileges. The town attracted tea traders, camphor dealers and other pioneers. It retains a great deal of its old character, and even a foreigners’ cemetery.

If you’re staying in central Taipei, Tamsui is convenient to reach by metro. However, if you wish to go on to Yangmingshan National Park or the north coast, it’s much better to have your own car and driver as part of a Taiwan private tour. 

Among Tamsui’s early Western residents was George L. Mackay (1844-1901), a Canadian Presbyterian missionary now celebrated as a key figure in the spread of Christianity in Taiwan. Mackay, who arrived in 1871, worked day and night to master the Taiwanese language. He then began to preach to whoever was willing to listen, while offering much-needed medical services. During his career, he pulled more than 21,000 teeth and founded two landmark schools: What’s now Aletheia University (a few minutes’ walk from the historic heart of Tamsui) and Tamkang High School. Mackay’s account of his first two decades, From Far Formosa, is an engrossing read for anyone interested in 19th-century Taiwan.

Tamsui’s 19th-century Hobe Fort

Still standing on the street that bears Mackay’s name (one of very few roads in Taiwan named after someone not of Chinese descent, incidentally) are the missionary’s original clinic and a church designed by his son. Nearby, the Former Residence of Tada Eikichi offers contrasting architecture. Taka, a civil servant assigned to Taiwan during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese occupation, moved into this house soon after its completion in 1934. It’s by no means a luxury mansion but the view from the garden across the estuary is superb.

Like every Taiwanese town, Tamsui has several places of worship. In Fuyou Temple on Zhongzheng Road (a busy thoroughfare on which you’ll find several places to eat), there’s a timeworn inscribed board conferred by order of China’s emperor just after the Sino-French War of 1884-85. It announces the emperor’s gratitude to the sea goddess Mazu for interceding during the conflict and helping the Chinese forces hold back French troops who’d landed at Keelung. The prize for Tamsui’s most beautiful shrine, however, goes to Yinshan Temple, dedicated to Dingguang Buddha, a 10th-century deified Chinese monk.

The British-built consular residence in Tamsui

Tamsui’s most famous landmark is Fort San Domingo, a red-walled square fortress that’s been around since 1646. It was built by the Dutch (at the same time, the Dutch occupied Tainan in south Taiwan) but later occupied by Chinese imperial soldiers. Between 1867 and 1972, it housed the British consulate. Next door, the British built a sublime two-floor consular residence. Look closely and you’ll notice that several bricks are marked ‘VR 1891’, VR being Queen Victoria.

Tamsui’s Fort San Domingo

Cycling around Tamsui is a popular activity, as user-friendly riverside bike trails go all the way to Xindian south of Taipei. If you want to spend a few hours on bicycles as part of a guided family tour of Taiwan, Life of Taiwan can make the necessary arrangements. 

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