The legacy of Taiwan’s pioneering foreign residents lingers strongly in a scenic riverside town just north of Taipei, where visitors can experience one of the most rewarding options for a quick day trip outside the busy capital.
After tucking into a simple store-bought breakfast, I checked out of Hotel Puri and left most of my luggage with reception, neatly packed and ready for the afternoon transfer to my hostel (more on that later).
From the front door, I stepped out into the bright morning sunshine and began making my way towards Taipei Station. It was during this brief walk that I got my first good look at the surrounding neighbourhood.
Huayin Street is a nice little corner of central Taipei, flanked by covered walkways and lined with small shops (many of which were still shuttered at this early hour). There was nothing historically or architecturally noteworthy in the area around the hotel, but I liked the atmosphere: a lively dash of concrete urban decay spiced with a faint blush of urban renewal, topped with a generous sprinkling of brightly coloured exotic signage and perfumed with the mingled aromas of local delicacies.
Taipei Station’s facade seemed like it could benefit from a bit of retouching here and there…
…but things looked a lot better on the inside.
Using an EasyCard – which is probably one of the first things a visitor should get upon arriving in the Taiwanese capital – I tapped my way onto the Tamsui Line of the Taipei Metro and rode it all the way to its northern terminus at Tamsui Station (labelled “Danshui” in older maps). The journey takes about 40 minutes and costs TWD 50, or TWD 40 using an EasyCard (which offers a 20% discount on Taipei Metro fares).
The station’s brick veneer offered a sneak preview of what I was about to see quite a lot of that morning.
This was the gateway to Tamsui, once a township but now reorganised as a district of New Taipei City. First settled by Taiwanese aborigines, the area’s prime location at the mouth of the Tamsui River made it an attractive target for Spanish and Dutch invaders in the 17th century. After Imperial China opened up the town to foreign trade in the 1860s, businessmen and missionaries alike arrived in droves, all leaving their mark upon this small but strategic corner of the island.
From here, following the route prescribed by a guidebook – and almost getting run over by a bike along the way – I cut north through rows of cafés and restaurants and a busy market street…
…searching for a certain local landmark. I probably took a wrong turn somewhere because I ended up on busy Zhongshan Road instead, where I saw this.
I mentioned in an older post how I enjoy chance encounters with Catholic churches during my travels overseas. It doesn’t matter if it’s a soaring Gothic cathedral or a humble concrete chapel of no artistic significance – any Catholic church I come across offers a place of spiritual refuge, and a chance to spend a few moments in quiet contemplation.
Also, I suppose this particular unplanned visit was a gentle tap on the shoulder from above, reminding me that I still hadn’t finished saying my morning prayers. Time to redress that oversight.
After kneeling for a few moments at a vacant pew, I sat up and rested awhile, silently glancing at the church’s simple interiors. Within minutes, I was joined by three friendly locals – members of the parish staff, it seemed, whose curiosity was piqued by the presence of a foreigner. The language barrier was all but insurmountable, with Chinese on their side and English on mine, yet despite the difficulty we made an effort at casual conversation. When it was time for me to go, one of them shuffled off and came back with a parting gift: a tiny red box containing an etched-glass icon of the Holy Family.
It was quite the moving experience, as such interactions often are. I’d like to pay them another visit if I ever find myself in this area again.
From the church, I made my way to Zhongzheng Road and paused briefly at this rather imposing portrait bust.
The chap depicted here is George Leslie Mackay (1844-1901), a Canadian missionary who came to Taiwan in the 19th century. His contributions to the local community were as large as this monument might suggest – in fact, it would be better for me to describe them during our stroll through town rather than try to summarise them here.
From the statue, I followed a narrow street towards a large brick tower in the distance.
This little whitewashed building once housed a clinic founded by Mackay, the first Western hospital in this part of the country and the forerunner of today’s Mackay Memorial Hospital (now based in Taipei).
Right next to the former hospital stands the Tamsui Presbyterian Church, its brick facade glowing bright orange in the late morning sunshine. The present structure dates from 1933 and is still in active use.
I continued walking westwards through the town’s hilly streets and eventually came upon the Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence, an elegant Western-style house built in the second half of the 19th century.
This area high above the Tamsui River is particularly rich in well-preserved buildings from the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th, all within a short walk of each other and many with a connection to the life and work of George Leslie Mackay. Many of these historic structures are located within or near the campus of Aletheia University, a private institution that traces its origins to the 1882 foundation of Oxford College in Tamsui by … well, I needn’t even mention his name anymore. (^_^)
To illustrate just how close to each other these landmarks are, I’ve staked them out on the following map. You can probably do a walk covering much of central Tamsui in a few hours, and this particular area in just a fraction of that.
The two-storey building in the next couple of images is Missionary House, built in 1875 at the direction of Mackay, who wanted to set up a residence for visiting pastors.
This simple white bungalow with a low tiled roof was Mackay’s own house – and perhaps the one building in Tamsui with the closest link to the missionary’s personal life. He designed the place himself and built it in 1875, married his wife here, started his family here, and ultimately passed away here in 1901.
Right next to Mackay’s house is a rather attractive brick edifice called the “House of Maidens”. Built in 1906, the two-storey structure was originally designed to serve as a residence for unmarried female missionaries. It now houses the office of the president of Aletheia University.
A few steps past the House of Maidens is a similar brick building, the “House of Reverends”, which dates from 1909 and was once the home of a succession of pastors.
I turned a corner and entered the main campus of Aletheia University, dominated by the soaring church-like facade of its auditorium. Or chapel. Or both. Or neither. (I’ve seen it described in varying ways on different maps.)
Directly across the er, auditorium/chapel is a small but quite tastefully designed brick building, its structure combining elements of both Western and local architecture. Completed in 1882, this was the home of Oxford College – a multidisciplinary educational institution founded by, yes, none other than Tamsui’s most famous adopted son.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name, it’s got nothing to do with Oxford University. The school was named in honour of Mackay’s home region, Oxford County (now part of present-day Ontario, Canada), where a large part of the funding for its construction was raised.
I passed through a small side gate in the boundary wall of Aletheia University and arrived at the former British Consular Residence, dating from the late 19th century.
I say, now that’s a lovely view. I wouldn’t be surprised if the former residents of this fine Victorian house did a lot more tea-sipping on the verandah than any actual diplomatic work.
Not far from the consular residence stands one of Tamsui’s best-known landmarks, the red-painted cube of brick and stone known as Fort San Domingo.
The present structure was built by the Dutch in the 1640s, controlled by Imperial China for most of the next two centuries, used by the British as a consulate from the 1860s to 1941, held by the Japanese during the Second World War, reverted to the British after the war, was briefly entrusted to Australia and then the United States, until finally passing into full Taiwanese control in 1979.
Oh, and did I fail to mention the fact that the Spanish built an earlier fort here, way back in 1628?
This colourful history is reflected in the row of flags set up in front of the fort, tracing the long succession of empires and nations that once held sway over this little corner of Taiwan.
With that, I decided to call it a day – at least for the Tamsui part of today’s sightseeing. I didn’t even come close to exhausting the rich cultural and historic treasury of this scenic riverside town, but with my time in Taiwan running painfully short, other important landmarks like Hobe Fort will need to wait for a future trip.
I walked downhill from Fort San Domingo, crossed the street, and caught a bus to Tamsui Station for the metro ride back to downtown Taipei.
Next comes a hearty lunch, and a city walk to see some of the attractions located in the heart of the capital.