Tainan is to Taiwan what Kyoto is to Japan – essential for those curious about Taiwan’s past, and alluring to all who adore characterful yet laidback places awash in tradition. Between the mid-17th century and late 19th century, Tainan was Taiwan’s capital and largest settlement. The urban core now has close to a million inhabitants, and so many Buddhist and Taoist places of worship that locals like to say: ‘Tainan has a small shrine every three steps, and a major temple every five steps’.
A few thousand Han Chinese were living alongside the region’s indigenous Austronesians when the Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a trading colony here in 1624. Over the next 38 years, the VOC oversaw tremendous increases in rice and sugar production, commodities which the company exported to Japan and the Chinese mainland. To achieve this, the Dutch introduced water buffalo, shipped in farm tools and encouraged landless peasants in China’s Fujian province to migrate across the Taiwan Strait. Those pioneers are the ancestors of many 21st-century Taiwan citizens.
The Dutch were evicted in 1662 by Koxinga, a supporter of the old Ming Dynasty who’d retreated to Taiwan after the collapse of his campaign against the new Qing Dynasty. Koxinga’s lasting contribution to Taiwan was the introduction of classical Han Chinese civilisation, epitomised by Tainan Confucius Temple.
Modern Tainan rewards slow travellers. There are hundreds of lanes and back alleys where the past seems to live and breathe. Around every corner the curious will find something rewarding, be it a 19th-century merchant house turned into a restaurant, or a semi-Baroque abode constructed during Japan’s 1895-1945 rule of Taiwan.
Tainan’s most photogenic relics are clustered in two neighborhoods. The first is Anping, where the VOC and then Koxinga established their headquarters. Remnants of the older of Tainan’s two Dutch forts stand in the heart of old Anping, but visitors should also alot an hour for the adjacent streets. In places, the alleyways are so narrow that wandering tourists risk grazed elbows, but if they look closely they’re likely to spot sword-lions – motifs placed above doorways to keep evil at bay.
The other concentration of antiquities can be found near what is now National Museum Of Taiwan Literature; it used to be the city hall. This part of Tainan is easy to reach and tour, even for those coming here on a day-trip from Kaohsiung. In addition to Tainan Confucius Temple and the adjacent martial arts dojo – an utterly Japanese building right next to a thoroughly Chinese landmark – there are more than a dozen important shrines, most of which were founded over 300 years ago.
But there’s much more than incense, pious chanting and divination. As well as several good hotels, there’s a 1932 department store which was recently reopened after decades of closure. Standing in a 200-year-old classical Chinese garden, one finds the Tainan Meeting Hall, a French-influenced structure built in 1911 at the behest of the Japanese colonial authorities. It’s smooth lines and soft colours contrast abruptly but beautifully with the fantastically ornate roofs and dazzling decoration seen in the Great Queen of Heaven Temple, the Altar of Heaven, and scores more houses of worship.