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.
Last time I visited Tainan I went for breakfast at Harry’s, my favourite hole-in-the-wall breakfast shop. Afterwards I wandered down the alley, turned the corner, and was surprised to find this old temple in a state of ruin. I must have walked by it dozens of times while I was living there but never stepped inside to try and figure what it was all about—after all, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to check out every temple in Tainan!
I was momentarily wistful to see it go but then it hit me—this temple wasn’t being demolished, it was being rebuilt from the ground up! I thought back to all the historic plaques I’ve read that followed the “built in X, renovated in Y and Z” format, and realized that the physical structure of many “old” temples in Taiwan probably isn’t nearly as old as it seems. I have long wondered about what remains when a temple undergoes renovation—and while I am sure this isn’t the only way things are done, it wouldn’t surprise me if many Taiwanese temples are stripped down like this before being put back together again. Perhaps only the contents of the temple really matter in some instances?
Naturally I got curious and looked this place up after the fact. It has a tongue-twister of a name, Dǐngtàizǐ Shātáo Temple 頂太子沙淘宮, though you might be able to get away with calling it simply Shatao Temple. According to this article (which I barely understand; Google does an especially poor job with mythological matters) this temple was originally built in 1681 and has undergone renovations in 1954 and again in 1978. Now I suppose this history will need to be updated to include the great renovation of 2015!