Capturing key moments

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am


On top of a hill overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui River, Fort San Domingo still keeps watch over the boat traffic that passes through what was once the gateway to Taipei.

Although it might be strange to find a Spanish colonial fort this far from the Philippines, its existence reflects Taiwan's chequered history in the fortunes of many foreign powers that tried to control the island.

As relations improve between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, tourism has also risen. The island's officials have embraced Taiwan's history by refurbishing historical sites and opening them to the public. 'We're trying to restore sites that present a complete picture of Taiwan's development,' says Tsai Ya-chi, a spokesman for Taiwan's Council of Cultural Affairs. 'Every site captures the key people and events that made Taiwan what it is today.'

In the past five centuries, the Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese have all made claims and settled in Taiwan.

Fort San Domingo represents the brief period that northern Taiwan served as a Spanish colony. Established in 1629, the fort was built to counter a surging Dutch presence on the southern part of the island. Due to wars, it was successively taken by the Dutch and then the Chinese. Today's fort houses two buildings on top of its prominent hilltop - a jailhouse keep and a brick mansion. The keep was built by the Dutch in 1644, while the mansion was constructed in 1911 after the Qing dynasty lent the site to the British in 1868 as a consulate complex.

Taiwanese officials have taken pains to keep the consulate as it had appeared during the Victorian age, placing furniture, china and ornaments from that era inside.

As interest in Taiwan history grows, local hotels have reported a growing number of guests who have a historical intent. 'Most of our guests who are tourists are now here for historical sites,' says Ting Yu, a marketing manager at the Sheraton Taipei Hotel.

The Regent Taipei Hotel goes a step further by offering a brochure of historical sites within walking distance.

Included in the guide is Spot Taipei Film House, a colonial-style mansion built in 1925 to serve as the consulate for the United States. The building is now a cinema that plays independent films.

'So much of Taiwan's history can be found through a short walk,' says Jennifer Lee, the public relations co-ordinator for Regent Taipei. 'We use the guide to support some of the unique sites and shops in our community.' Much of Taipei still reminds visitors of Taiwan's Japanese colonial heritage. At Beitou, a suburb known for its hot springs, the streets and buildings take visitors down memory lane.

Beitou's Hot Spring Museum is located in the original public bathhouse that was built by the Japanese in 1913.

The building resembles a mixture of Western and Japanese styles that was typical of the Meiji era.

Inside, cavernous hallways take visitors to old spring pools. There are beautifully restored stained-glass windows and visitors can also step into a huge tatami room where bathers used to relax after a soak.

About two blocks away is Puji Temple, a Buddhist temple built in 1905, features more classic Japanese architecture.

With clay roof tiles, tan and white exterior walls, and bell-shaped windows, the temple still serves the spiritual needs of bathers and tourists as it did more than a century ago.

In the spring, cherry blossom blooms in Beitou, adding to the Japanese flavour.

Taipei's most recent restored site pays homage to the Chinese Nationalists after they retreated to Taiwan in 1949.

In January, the city government opened all of Chiang Kai-shek's Shilin Official Residence to the public. Adorned with classic Chinese furniture inside and a handsome garden outside, the residence reminds visitors of a time when Taiwan was just a temporary base for a leader who had hoped to retake the mainland.

Times have certainly changed. As the island's people identify increasingly with being Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, old Kuomintang relics, such as the Shilin residence, have become enshrined in the island's fabled history.