Not long after ushering in the new year in Taipei 台北 I made an unplanned visit to Tainan 台南, where I lived back in 2014, and spent an afternoon wandering around town with fellow blogger and photographer Josh Ellis. We captured a lot that day—including this mandala pasted onto a wall in the alleyway leading to Pǔjìdiàn 普濟殿, a reliably eventful temple known, among other things, for displaying hundreds of lanterns over new year’s. Looking closely you should be able to discern a rooster in the mandala, for it is now the Year of the Fire Rooster 火雞年 according to the Chinese zodiac 屬相. Combining the twelve animals of the zodiac with the Five Elements 五行 (wood 木, fire 火, earth 土, metal 金, and water 水), yields the Sexagenary Cycle 六十干支, deified as the sixty Tài Suì 太歲 gods commonly seen in Taiwanese temples. If you want to be cheeky about it you could call this the “year of the turkey”, for “fire chicken” or huǒjī 火雞 is the Chinese word for turkey, a linguistic quirk elaborated here.
Last year I briefly visited the historic Fahua Monastery 法華寺 in Tainan 台南. Like many of my explorations of temples in Taiwan this one wasn’t planned in advance. I noticed the monastery from the roadside while riding a scooter through the back streets south of the train station and decided to stop and check it out on a whim. As it turns out, Fahua Monastery has quite a long and distinguished history—going all the way back to 1684—and the interior is unusually minimalistic and serene compared to most other temples I have visited here in Taiwan 台灣.
Back when I was living in Tainan 台南 I made an effort to check out many of the temples I encounter in my daily travels around town. One day after breakfast, while riding along Kāishān Road 開山路, I stopped to check out what looked to be yet another temple across the street from the Koxinga Shrine. I was surprised to learn that despite the palatial Chinese architecture and superficially traditional style of design this is actually a Catholic cathedral, Our Lady Queen of China 中華聖母主教座堂. Built in 1963, it is the top-ranking church in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tainan 天主教台南教區.
Flashback to January 2014. Having previously visited Tainan 台南 on my round-the-island bicycle trip I return for a few days to suss out whether I’d like to move down south or not (which, of course, I do). On my way out of town I snap this photograph of the ticket booths at Tainan Station 台南車站 before walking out to the platform to take the train north to Taichung 台中. I was bound for Taichung Airport 台中航空站 and a brief stay in Hong Kong 香港 to satisfy my visa requirements.
Tainan 台南 is home to an extraordinary number of temples, at least 1,613 at last count, more than anywhere else in Taiwan 台灣. Take a random walk through any neighbourhood in Tainan and you’ll inevitably see many temples of all shapes and sizes, many of them squirreled away along back alleys and dead ends. They further infuse the urban landscape with a palpable sense of culture and history.
West Market 西市場 (sometimes referred to as West Gate or Xīmén Market 西門市場) in Tainan 台南 was once the largest market in southern Taiwan 台灣. The first market building on this location was erected sometime from 1905 to 1908 under Japanese colonial rule. This building was later reconstructed in 1920 after suffering typhoon damage. It remains a hub of commercial activity in this part of the city up until the present day—but its very heart has been hollowed out and mostly abandoned for the last several decades.
Xìnglín General Hospital 杏林綜合醫院 is the most famous ruin in downtown Tainan 台南. It opened for business in 1975 as the largest hospital in the city and catered to the burgeoning middle class during the boom times of the Taiwan Economic Miracle. In 1993 the hospital shut down after being plagued by a number of scandals involving fraudulent records, medical malpractice, and allegations of wrongful death.
Dànánmén 大南門, also known as Níngnánmén 寧南門, is one of two great gates remaining in Tainan 台南, the most historic city in Taiwan 台灣. Built in 1725, it has been renovated several times but maintains its classical charm. Nowadays it can be found in a gorgeous park just south of the Confucius Temple on Nánmén Road 大南路. The gate itself is surrounded by a secondary fortification, a barbican or wèngchéng 瓮城, which provides additional defensive capabilities. As usual, Tainan City Guide has an excellent write-up about this historic landmark.
Not much remains of the original Qing dynasty era defensive fortifications of Tainan 台南. The Japanese tore almost everything down in a bid to modernize the city in the early 20th century. Xiǎoxīmén 小西門, the small western gate, is one of three inner gates that remain. It was originally located near the traffic circle at the intersection of Xīmén Road 小西路 and Fǔqián Road 府前路 but was moved the opposite side of the city in 1970 to accommodate a road widening project. Nowadays it can be found amongst the ruins of Tainan’s old city walls next to what remains of Xiaodongmen (little eastern gate) on the main NCKU campus in East Tainan 台南市東區.
Chin Men Theater 全美戲院 (pinyin: Quánměi Xìyuàn) is a second-run movie theater in Tainan 台南 famous for its hand-painted billboards. These nostalgic oil paintings are the work of local artist Yen Chen Fa 顏振發 (pinyin: Yán Zhènfā), a 40 year veteran of the dying trade profiled in the New York Post and the China Post. This is the same theater director Ang Lee used to frequent while attending high school in Tainan. To read much more deeply into the nostalgic history of this old theater check out this article in Taiwan Panorama. For more insight into the art of hand-painted movie posters check out my original post about Zhongyuan Grand Theater 中源大戲院.