Which city has two botanical gardens compared to Taipei’s one, a reservoir said to have been dug by the Dutch in the 17th century, and Taiwan’s only Japanese colonial-era former jail [pictured right] open to the public? If your answer is Chiayi, you almost certainly live there.
The city (population: 271, 000) is surrounded by yet administratively separate from Chiayi County. Whereas the county stretches from abandoned saltpans on the coast to the western slopes of Yushan, Chiayi City covers a mere 60 square kilometers. It has no shoreline, and no point is more than 99.4m above sea level.
Chiayi is also the hometown of the first Taiwanese artist to win fame beyond the island. In 1926, Chen Cheng-po (1895—1947) became the first Taiwanese painter to have a work included in Japan’s most prestigious art exhibition. Chen’s works, which embody both Chinese landscape-painting conventions and aspects of Modernism, continue to be very popular; his 1935 Sunset at Danshui fetched US$6.5m when auctioned in 2007. But these days he is remembered as much for the way he died as for his artistic achievements.
Chen was a member of Chiayi’s city council when the February 28 Incident erupted. With other local leaders, he approached Nationalist Army units, hoping to begin negotiations. He and three others were immediately arrested; on March 25, 1947, they were marched to the train station and shot dead. The military authorities forbade their families from collecting the corpses immediately; the remains of Chen and the others were left to decompose on the street for several days. Surprisingly, there is nothing at the station — not even a simple plaque — to memorialize this grisly event.
Tourists need not go out of their way to see Chen’s paintings. Reproductions have been set on steel easels at various points around the city, including several in the park across the road from the small Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum (228-12 Guohua St; open: 9am to midday and 1pm to 5pm, Mon—Fri; free admission).
The front section of the Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum displays duplicates of more than 30 of Chen’s paintings, along with bilingual commentaries. The back room is given over to Chinese-language information about the 2-28 Incident in Chiayi. Chen also makes an appearance at Chiayi Municipal Museum (275 Zhongxiao Road; open: 9am to 5pm, Tue—Sun; free admission), where visitors will also find some interesting fossils and a great deal of geological information.
More unusual is the ceramics collection in the basement of the Cultural Affairs Bureau building between the museum and the main road. The Koji Pottery Museum (open: 9am to 5pm Tue—Sun; free admission) is a good introduction to the gorgeous art form that is sometimes called Cochin ware, and which is a key element of Taiwanese temple decoration.
Unfortunately, the municipal museum says little about Chiayi’s past. The city’s written history begins in the 1640s, when Dutch East India Company officials passed through an aboriginal village hereabouts. The Dutch — who are said to have later created Lantan, the 2km2 scenic body of water in the city’s eastern suburbs — spelled the village’s name Tilaossen. Fujianese settlers called it Tirosen, and rendered it in characters which Mandarin speakers pronounce Zhuluoshan. Because Zhuluoshan’s inhabitants successfully resisted Lin Shuang-wen’s anti-Qing rebel army in 1786, Emperor Qianlong in Beijing rewarded them with a more distinguished toponym name: Jiayi in Mandarin (Kagi in both Taiwanese and Japanese), meaning “commendable righteousness.”
After an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, the colonial authorities reorganized the city, giving it the straight but narrow roads it has today. The following year, work started on the narrow-gauge railroad which eventually reached Alishan. Large-scale logging around Alishan was halted in the 1960s, but the impact of the timber trade on the city remains very visible. The pond outside the Cultural Affairs Bureau is far older than the building; red cypress trunks from the mountains were kept in it so they would not crack or warp in the heat of the lowlands.
All over Taiwan, individual wooden bungalows from the Japanese era or just after have been restored and repurposed. What makes Hinoki Village (aka Cypress Forest Life Village) unique is the scale of the project. The village comprises 28 buildings, most of which were dormitories for forest-management officials and their families. The most elegant, however, is a 1914 cream-colored former clubhouse [pictured immediately above] with Tudor architectural elements. The village does not have much historic atmosphere, but it is photogenic, and a good place to stop for a coffee.
A string of minor attractions links Hinoki Village with Chiayi TRA Railway Station, 1.6km away. At the time of writing, Chiayi Lumber Factory was closed for renovation, and Chiayi Motive Power Wood Sculpture Museum — a former power station — was between exhibitions. The narrow-gauge rolling stock on display at Alishan Garage Park will appeal to rail enthusiasts, and Beimen Station’s wood-walled, tile-roofed ticket office/waiting room looks as quaint as ever.
Beimen Station is less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Former Chiayi Prison (140 Weixin Road; open: Wed—Sun; free admission). Between 1922 and 1994, this jail held up to 300 male convicts, plus 30 women in segregated facilities. Inmates were held in three wings arranged so the corridors could be surveilled by a single officer from his desk. The main doors, made of yellow cypress from Alishan, the workshops in which convicts labored, and the bathhouse where they washed, have all been preserved. Visitors can only enter at certain times (9.30am, 10.30am, 1.30pm and 2.30pm) and must stay close to the guide. Call (05) 276-9574 in advance and it may be possible to arrange an English-language tour.
Among facts often related by the guides are that male staff, including the warden himself, were forbidden from entering the women’s section; and that inmates trying to escape over the wall often hurt themselves jumping down on the other side. Some limped around the corner to St Martin de Porres Hospital (founded in 1966 using money donated by American Catholics), where they were treated before being returned to captivity.
The city’s liveliest religious site is Cheng Huang Temple (168 Wufeng North Rd; open: 5.30am to 9pm daily), which was founded exactly 300 years ago. As its name suggests, the main deity here is the city god, Chenghuangye, and his effigy is in the very centre on the first floor. The temple was important enough to escape the ravages of the Kominka Movement in the late 1930s; that campaign by the Japanese authorities to “Nipponify” its colony resulted in the demolition or conversion to secular use of at least sixty shrines in Chiayi. Among the 600-plus icons inside Cheng Huang Temple are representations of Mazu and Guanyin, as well as heaven’s matchmaker, the Old Man under the Moon.
Beizihtou Botanical Garden is adored by birdwatchers but gets few other visitors, despite having such arboreal wonders as Garcinia subelliptica and Canaga odorata. The first, sometimes called the Happiness Tree, bears a fruit resembling the satsuma and related to the mangosteen. However, the leaves are more valuable; in the Taiwan of yore they were used to produce a yellowish dye. In Chinese as well as English, the second is also the Perfume Tree. Stand downwind, and you will notice a pleasant fragrance.
Like Beizihtou, Chiayi Arboretum was established during the early years of Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. At 8.3 hectares, it is nearly twice the size of Beizihtou. Almost all the trails are shaded; the canopy is impressively dense thanks to a range of tree species, including teak, mahogany, and hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii Sweet).
Chiayi Park, adjacent to the arboretum, includes a few notable structures. Near the bland Confucius Temple is the 62m-high Chiayi Tower (open: 9am to 5pm Wed—Fri, 9am to 9pm Sat). If the weather is clear, do buy a ticket for the tenth-floor observatory (NT$50 for adults; children NT$25). The Shinto shrine that once stood here was demolished long ago, but the shrine’s former office survives in the form of Chiayi City Historical Relic Data Museum [lower picture in this post]. The displays inside are unlikely to engross you, but the sublime exterior is perhaps the city’s single most beautiful spectacle. Admission is free.
Few new museums have been as highly anticipated as the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (NPM). Rather than simply provide additional exhibition space for the world-renowned NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch’s stated mission is, according to the Executive Yuan’s website, to be “a world-class museum of Asian art and culture.”
According to the original plan, the museum was to have been designed by US architect Antoine Predock and ready by 2008. But Predock quit the project before construction began. He was eventually replaced by Kris Yao, a Taiwanese architect best known for Lanyang Museum. Another deadline came and went in 2012, but Yao’s edifice — which some compare to a giant black slug — was given a soft opening on December 28 last year.
The Southern Branch offers five permanent exhibitions, among them a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi, and a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art are played (none has English subtitles). Far more engaging are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, in which you will learn that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink, and on Buddhist artifacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and call to mind the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.
Of the temporary exhibitions, the most remarkable continues until October 12 this year. Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection features dozens of lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other items fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread. Some originated from Mughal India or the Ottoman Empire, and were gifted to Qing Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who then had poetry inscribed on many of the bowls and plates.
For details of forthcoming exhibitions, see the museum's website. Like Chimei Museum, access to the NPM Southern Branch is limited to those who make online reservations in advance. Standard admission is NT$250, but until June 30 residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they hold ROC citizenship. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday. The southern branch is located in Chiayi County’s Taibao City. Every half hour, a shuttle bus connects the museum with Chiayi HSR Station, 4.6km away (NT$24 one way). The museum’s bus stop is 530m from the entrance — the parking lots are not significantly closer — so visitors get a good look at the 70-hectare grounds before stepping inside. In a few years, when the trees have grown a bit, the surroundings should look magnificent.
This isn't the version which appeared in the magazine's recent travel and culture special issue, but rather a shortened version of the article as I submitted it. The editor decided the National Palace Museum Southern Branch was the most newsworthy element, so moved that segment to the front. The published piece (and some excellent articles by other writers) can be read online.
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