Tainan’s Old West Market 台南西市場

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.

In the 1930s a number of new commercial development grew around the old market like layers of an onion: Asakusa Shopping Mall 淺草商場 (traditionally Japanese-themed, now a “youth fashion” market with trendy boutiques) and a fish market 魚市場 later converted into a banana warehouse 香蕉倉庫 (now abandoned and falling apart). After the war several more buildings sprung up around West Market: the confusingly named West Gate or Xīmén Market 西門市場 (originally for meat and produce, nowadays an aging garment and textile market) in 1945 and a wholesale food market 大菜市 in 19561.

The vintage hand-painted signs still hanging over many of the market stalls are one of the main attractions for history buffs. There are more aside from the few I have shared here. Several of these signs display five digit telephone numbers—a convention that hasn’t been followed in a very long time.

When you walk through these old markets it isn’t obvious where one building ends and another begins. It’s a big place, too—the complex sprawls across an entire city block interconnected with a labyrinth of passageways snaking every which way. The style of construction is almost organic, as if each of these buildings were existing in symbiosis with one another. Turn a corner, duck under an overhang, and you might find yourself in the mouldering ruins of the old banana warehouse or lost in the dark reaches at the back of the textiles mall. Only the western side of the block—the youth fashion area—shows signs of life and vitality, but that part isn’t well-connected to the rest.

The photographs that appear in this piece were collected on at least three separate visits over the course of two years. One of those visits was late at night, an eerie experience I would recommend to anyone who isn’t squeamish, for this is when you’re most likely to find giant rats scavenging for scraps among the ruins. It’s not that bad, mind you—as with most other old markets in Taiwan the population of vermin is held in check by the half-wild cats that skulk through the stalls after dark.

One final note: the market complex also contains one of my favourite old school restaurants in Tainan, a place by the name of Fúróng Xiǎochīdiàn 福榮小吃店 that was founded in 1923. If you’re curious you can read a little more about that in my guide to eating like a local in Tainan.

  1. These names and dates may be inaccurate. Most of the information I found online doesn’t match and there seems to be no shortage of confusion about which building is which. Corrections are welcome in the comments.