Friday, September 14, 2012

Revisiting Tainan, where Modern History of Taiwan Began

Earlier in the summer, we took a family trip to Taiwan.  My memory of Taiwan’s hot and humid summer weather had faded for some times as the last time I visited it during the summer was exactly ten years ago.  It did not take long for the old memory to come back once the plane landed.  The good news is as always, there are more family bond, friendship, things to do and places to go to divert one’s attention and overcome the punishing weather.

On this trip, we visited Tainan 台南, the oldest city and the first capital (1683-1887) of Taiwan Perfecture which is easily reachable by high speed rail about 180 miles south of Taipei.  As the place where the modern history of Taiwan began, Tainan no doubtedly is the ideal place for anyone who wants to take a fresh or renewed look of the modern history of Taiwan.  

Prehistory of Taiwan is an active research topic with multiple propositions.   What we do know is that the island was connected with the (Asia) mainland till the Holocene period about 10,000 years ago when sea level rose and Taiwan Strait was formed.  Thus it is not surprised that it shares with the mainland some similar artifacts dated back 10s of thousands of years.  We also know that today's Taiwanese aborigines speak a language which belongs to the Austronesian languages family found across much of the Southeast Asia and Pacific.   As a large island off the Asia mainland, one thing seems clear: there have always been some human activities, migrations and settlements for last few thousand years but none significant enough to attract the attention of major powers in the region, China included.

The situation began to change when European colonial powers showed up in Pacific in 16th century, competing for trade advantages in Asia.   The first arrival - Portuguese - settled and set up a trading post in Macau in 1550s’.  Portuguese ships did sail by Taiwan and named the island Ilha Formosa.  The name stuck but Portuguese were too busy to stop.  Dutch arrived at Asia a little later after Spaniards who were focusing on Philippine islands.  The Dutch first set up a trade post at today’s Jakarta, Indonesia in late 16th century.  After a failed attempt of taking Penghu islands away from Qing dynasty of China, the Dutch East India Company fleet turned to Taiwan, landed at Tayouan in 1624 and began constructing Fort Zeelandia (aka AnPing Fort 安平古堡) in today’s Tainan.  It marks the beginning of the modern history of Taiwan.  

Incidentally, I am embarrassed to say that on this trip I finally learned where the name Taiwan came from. Can you imagine? It is the place I was born and the land I lived throughout my childhood and early adulthood!  It turns out that Tayouan (大員), where Fort Zeelandia was located, was the name (in sound) given by the resident (indigenous) PingPu tribe people平埔族.   Following the locals, early immigrants from Southern Fujian of China called the place the same which, when translated back into Mandarin, became “Taiwan”.  The name was eventually used to call the whole island.

Touring Fort Zeelandia or AnPing Fort and its neighboring areas easily makes up a pleasant outing of half day or more.  While there is only little of the original fort left (see photo to the right), the museum and its displays provide the visitors sufficient details to appreciate what the life, the architecture and construction techniques were like during the Dutch Colony days nearly 400 years ago.  The change of the landscape of the area is also amazing.  As one approaches the fort from Tainan city center at the east, what used to be the Taijian Inner Sea台江內海had been pretty much lost to silt reclaimed by land over the centuries.  Now there are only a few canals/creeks left and the old sea port had been relocated south.  The strategic reason for Dutch to build the fort to control the channel into the inner sea has long vanished. 

The Dutch was forced out of Taiwan after 38 years of occupation.  General Zheng ChengGong鄭成, aka Koxinga, a Ming Loyalist who was fighting against the new Qing Dynasty of the Manchus, laid a siege of Fort Zeelandia for 9 months with his 400 warships and 25,000 men.  On Feb 1st, 1662, the Dutch Governor Frederick Coyett signed the Koxinga-Dutch Treaty with Koxinga and ended the Dutch colonization effort of Taiwan.  It would take however another 22 years before Qing Dynasty finally paid more attention to rid of the Kingdom of Tungning (founded by General Zheng in 1661) and made Taiwan a prefecture under the jurisdiction of Fujian Province.  It is fair to say that without General Zheng, it is not clear who would have control over Taiwan in last several hundred years. 

Of course, attempts by European colonial powers and later, the Imperial Japan to dominate Asia continued well into 20th century.  A stone throw away, north of the Fort Zeelandia or AnPing Fort, one finds an intriguing Banyan tree house, now called AnPing Treehouse.  It used to be the warehouse of the British Tait & Company英商德記洋行who traded tea, camphor and opium.  It was used later by the Japan Salt Company during the Japanese occupation from1895 till the end of WWII.   The abandoned warehouse and the adjacent office building (now a museum) was built in 1867 when Qing Dynasty was forced to sign the Tianjin Treaty of 1958 after being defeated in the Second Opium War (1856–1860).  AnPing was one of the 11 ports included in the treaty to which foreigners were given free access.  Visitors can now walk up and down the viewing staircases at the exterior and through the interiors of the warehouse to get a fascinating live snapshot of how few Banyan trees takes over and posses a large structure.   Photos below give you a sense of the massive spread of the trees in 6 decades.  Not far from the British Tait & Company, there is the German Julius Mannich & CO德商東興洋行 of the same era.  With its outdoor café in the shade, it is a perfect place for an afternoon break.


There are several other popular historical sites in Tainan worth visiting as well.  They include Chikan Tower赤崁 (built in 1658 by Dutch), Tainan Confucian Temple 孔廟 (built in 1665 by General Zheng’s son) and the Eternal Golden Fortress 億載金 (built in 1874 by Qing government), to mention a few.

For nature lovers, there are now ecological parks where one can enjoy the nature and watch their habitats.  Don’t miss the ecology tours at the Taijiang National Park台江國家公 that was just established in 2009.  A boat ride through the SiCao Green Tunnel canal 四草綠色隧道 (photo to the right) is a pleasurable way to see some rare mangroves, psammophyte, and halophyte, and large monk crabs.

For food lovers, don’t miss the local milkfish虱目.  Prepared fresh, it seems you can never have a bad meal with it.  Of course, you must also try Taiwanese Tappas 台灣小吃。Being the oldest city and first capital, you should not be surprised Tainan is the place from where many of the Taiwanese Tappas originated.  One good place to start with is the famous Tu Hsiao Yueh 度小月 (see photo to the right).  Now a nicely decorated restaurant with 3 branches in Taipei, it was started by a fisherman on the street during the off-season back in 1895.

Before I go, I must mention the recently completed National Museum of Taiwan History 國立臺灣歷史博物館 (not to be confused with the old National Taiwan Museum國立台灣博物 in Taipei) that is opened to public since end of last October.  Filled with models and visuals, the museum offers visitors a chance to complete the story of modern history of Taiwan systemically which we did.   Its permanent exhibitions are organized chronologically with the familiar periods and timeline.  After a brief introduction of pre-historical Taiwan and early residents, it discusses the foreign influences under Dutch rule (1624-1662), sinicization with significant immigration over time from mainland China during 200 years of Qing Dynasty rule (1683-1895), Japanization and the opposing nationalism under Japan rule (1895-1945), and finally the economic development, and democratization/localization under ROC (Republic of China) government from the time when Taiwan was returned to the Nationalist Government of China till this day.

While the exhibits and displays are objective, our knowledgeable museum guide seemed to have more agenda.  His view appears to echo the pro-Taiwan Independence argument that the Taiwan’s status is undetermined:  he repeatedly brought our attention to the fact that Taiwan had been occupied and ruled by different forces in history for its strategic location and resources.  He emphasized that Taiwan’s residents, while mostly decedents of people from mainland China, view the island as their true home.   It follows therefore Taiwan should not be ruled by "others" and Taiwan's future should be determined by its people alone.   I don’t know if this guide’s interpretation and expansion of historical facts was sanctioned by the museum but it certainly reflects the sentiment of a significant portion of people.  The issue is so complex that only time will tell.  Then, another chapter of modern history of Taiwan will be written.

Talk to you soon!

No comments: