Xīluó 西螺 is a small historic town on the left bank of the Zhuóshuǐ River 濁水溪 in Yúnlín 雲林. It emerged as an important center of trade in central Taiwan during the Qing dynasty era and continued to prosper into the early 20th century under Japanese colonial rule. Disaster struck in 1935 when the devastating Hsinchu-Taichung Earthquake ripped through north-central Taiwan, reducing much of Xiluo to rubble. Colonial authorities and the local gentry worked together to rebuild, taking the opportunity to completely remodel the main commercial thoroughfares with an intriguing blend of influences from Baroque Revival, Art Deco, and Modern architecture. A short stroll down Yánpíng Old Street 延平老街 reveals that many of these unique shophouses and commercial buildings remain standing today.
Many “old streets” in Taiwan have the contrived carnivalesque atmosphere of a night market—which, although fun at times, tends to obscure whatever sense of history might be experienced in a given place. It is difficult to get lost in a moment when you’re surrounded by vendors hawking snacks and souvenirs but sleepy Xiluo appears to have done little to attract this sort of mass tourism. In fact, apart from some inoffensive shops located in the renovated East Market 東市場 (built in the 1950s, despite appearances, and recently revitalized) there is little to suggest that anything has changed in decades.
Yanping Old Street feels genuinely old but also rather well-kept. What restoration work has been done is unobtrusive and many of the gorgeous shophouses lining the main street1 are still occupied even if the shops on the ground floor are no longer in business. By my standards this is easily one of the finest old streets in the country—and I’ve visited dozens. If you appreciate Taiwanese history and architecture then Xiluo absolutely has to be on your list.
What explains Xiluo’s unusual state of preservation? We can look to Lukang 鹿港, a historic town in neighbouring Changhua 彰化, for some answers. Xiluo and Lukang share several traits: both prospered in the late Qing dynasty era; both were bypassed when the Japanese routed the Western Trunk Line 縱貫線 to the east; both are former ports, though Lukang’s harbour silted up and Xiluo’s riverside docks became less important as road and railway transportation networks improved. The completion of the Xiluo Bridge 西螺大橋 in 1952 ushered in several more decades of relative prosperity without upsetting the careful balance of tradition and modernity still evident today.
Apart from the shophouses on the main thoroughfare one will find several other buildings of interest along the streets and laneways extending in both directions. Derelict mansions can be found to the north; one of these is faintly visible from an overgrown backyard while the other has been stripped down to a rugged reinforced concrete skeleton.
Just south of the East Market one will find the remarkable Xiluo Grand Theater 西螺大戲院, one of the very last of Taiwan’s remaining Japanese colonial era movie theaters, and a row of abandoned Japanese shophouses with original wood exteriors on Shìhòu Street 市後街. I will be writing an entire post about the theater, which remains in ruins despite its status as a heritage property, so I won’t say much about it now. If you’re interested in Taiwanese cinema it is absolutely essential that you undertake a pilgrimage to this rare and special theater as soon as possible.
This post was originally published in September 2014 and focused exclusively on the shophouses of Yanping Old Street. I returned twice more in 2017/2018 and completely revised this post with many more photos and information. As such, I’ve bumped the date on this post and given it a more general name, aligning it with my series of postcards from Taiwan.