The historic charm of Tamsui’s boardwalk

By Trista di Genova / The Wild East / Beautiful island

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For me personally, Tamsui (淡水) has some of the most endearing of Taiwan’s features– fresh-air strolls along its lovely boardwalk, now Youbike-enabled cycling past the serene and picturesque Tamsui River (淡水河), Guanyin Mountain (觀音山).

IMG_20141015_172315It might just be the best spot in Taiwan for sampling local delicacies here and on Old Street (老街), such as the freakish deep-fried squid on a stick (has anyone ever checked the calories on that?!) ‘iron eggs’, nougat candies, ginger tea, and so on. The boardwalk in the past ten years has really thrived and become a beautiful wonderland of nature and history.

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IMG_20141015_165251Moving down the boardwalk, Tamsui’s historic district is filled with many striking reminders of George McKay, perhaps the most colorful character in Formosan history. These photos show the Foreign Cemetery where McKay is buried, which on the present-day Tamkang High School campus (second photo), once part of Oxford College.

McKay (1844-1901) was a Scottish-Canadian Presbyterian missionary who during the Qing era set up the island’s first Western-style educational institution, Oxford College, as well as the Tamsui Girls School, the first for girls in Taiwan. Most in Taiwan today know him well for the excellent memorial hospitals in his name, such as the McKay Memorial Hospital in Taipei.

A sculpture of George McKay on McKay Street, Tamsui. A man who is perhaps Formosa's most colorful character. Photo: Trista di Genova
George McKay, perhaps Formosa’s most colorful character. Photo: Trista di Genova
Statues of the bearded McKay such as this one give some indication of the force of presence of this man, who could be called the island’s first dentist.

One could say that for McKay finding new converts to his Western religion was like pulling teeth, literally. Few people know he married a local Aboriginal woman and had children; no doubt this alliance helped him assimilate into this at-times hostile, unknown frontier. One wonders why there are no museums about the man! Biographies speak of the natives in Bangka (now Wanhua District in Taipei), at that time the major trading port in Formosa who pelted the ‘foreign devil’ (洋鬼子) as he walked the streets, seeking new converts.

Walk north along the boardwalk and enjoy remnants of Qing dynasty architecture and customs buildings of would-be colonizers. Photo: Trista di Genova
Walk north along the boardwalk and enjoy remnants of Qing dynasty architecture and customs buildings of would-be colonizers. Photo: Trista di Genova
Qing dynasty style architecture in Tamsui’s historic district is interwoven with Western-style buildings, left over by British, Dutch and Spanish would-be colonizers, from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Fort Domingo, the customs building and other historic landmarks in this area lend Tamsui its distinction as one of the few places in Taiwan where such history is clearly and so beautifully preserved. If the museums in Tamsui were more state-of-the-art, we’d all be that much better off.

Looks like Tamsui’s made a comeback on the cultural stage, go and check it out?

What are some of the things you like about Tamsui culture and history? Post your comments below.

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Voices in the Clouds

A still image from Voices in the Clouds. A still image from award-winning domumentary Voices in the Clouds.

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A documentary by American Tony Coolidge about his personal journey discovering and exploring his Atayal roots in Taiwan. Tony is the founder of atayal.org.

Voices in the Clouds explores issues of personal and cultural identity. Tony’s documentary is interesting because he is, from the perspective of mainstream, ethnic Han Taiwanese society, a foreigner; and at the same time he is a Taiwanese aboriginal. His story creates a bridge between the remote interior of Taiwan and the outside world.

Simple, honest, unsophisticated, sincere: these elements culminate in some heart-touching moments, when Tony finally meets the oldest surviving members of his mother’s tribe. The women he meets are among the last of their tribe who bear the facial tattoos that were an integral part of their culture.

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