The Taroko Express from Taipei Main Station circumvents the mountainous midrib of the elliptic leaf Taiwan resembles, following the contours of the western blade until it reaches Changhua Railway Station, a palm-tree-flanked building of Japanese-era vintage. Beyond a sea of yellow taxis, it’s a short hike across downtown to Bagua Hill, which bursts out of Changhua like a verdant stone geyser, testament to the island’s volcanic inception. Following the slope to the summit requires serious effort in the dank heat that descends on central Taiwan when the spring rains cycle into summer. The path levels at the foot of a rather cartoonish Great Buddha, a 22-metre-high statue of little aesthetic merit or historical interest, dating back only to 1962. But the Lord of Light stands vigil over a significant panorama; a plain once roamed by wild deer, Changhua became a land of sugar cane and rice after merchants from mainland China undertook irrigation projects in 1719. More recently, it became a wholly human estate, the chaotic result of the “Taiwan miracle”, which saw the Republic of China transform from a rural backwater to an industrial and hi-tech powerhouse in a matter of decades. Tellingly, coastal Changhua is Taiwan ’s most populous county, with 1.3 million people calling it home. Changhua is also one of the island’s oldest counties, at least in administrative terms, as the Confucius Temple, in the heart of town, demonstrates. Dating back to 1726, its symmetry and landscaped gardens invoke a sense of feng shui, and a pair of Quanzhou stone dragon columns were erected here to instil positive values in a restive population. Peking sought to inculcate classical learning in Changhua and the reason is best understood 14km to the west, in Lukang, once Taiwan’s second city. I alight from a bus at the southern end of this nondescript township and stroll through the scenic gardens of the Wenkai Academy, which are buzzing with cicada clicks and birdsong. The colourful 19th century complex was an examination centre for aspiring Qing officials. The reason fisher folk in this coastal backwater sought imperial office is explained on one of the information plaques that pepper Lukang, this one illustrated with shipping lanes of the 18th and 19th centuries. Lukang’s significance lay in it being the closest point on Taiwan to Quanzhou, across the perilous strait. Many Lukang residents claim lineage to the Fujian province port city and speak the Hokkien dialect with a distinctive Quanzhou twang. Among them is my affable rickshaw driver and guide. “My family came here from Quanzhou 150 years ago,” says Mr Yan, proudly. “We came to labour on the land.” There is little hint of mercantile or maritime heritage on Lukang’s main streets, but down the tiled back alleys we find a veritable museum, defined by artisan workshops housed in crumbling brick homes topped with distinctive roof decorations. “You see that round stone,” says Yan. “That signifies earth while that larger one signifies water. Those triangles are fire.” The five elements are all depicted in abstract stone formations on the rooftops of this pious town. One of Lukang’s best-preserved Qing-era residences is the Mansion of the Dings, a lovingly furnished wooden row house long occupied by a well-to-do merchant family from Quanzhou that, according to Yan, “had Arab blood” and “never ate pork”. Given that Quanzhou is home to a 1,000-year-old mosque and was the mouth of the cosmopolitan Maritime Silk Road, this is not implausible. The design of the house is quintessentially Chinese, however; three units in a line separated by two shared courtyards and a garden at the rear. A distinguishing characteristic is that red is subordinate to blue, a colour scheme perhaps inspired by Lukang’s relationship with the sea, from where it drew its wealth. Like almost everywhere in Taiwan, Lukang is festooned with temples, its folk deities and demons especially vigilant in the old quarters. “Remember to enter with the dragon and leave with the tiger,” Yan reminds me, pointing to wall murals, as I cross the threshold of a temple-shrine housing effigies that are paraded, during festivals, in wooden palanquins handmade in workshops along Zhongshan Road. By way of snack-shop-fringed Minsheng Road we come upon the Tianhou Temple. Not to be confused with two similarly named temples in the area, this, it is claimed, was one of the first in Taiwan, established in 1591. Amid blazing lanterns, it houses a Mazu effigy shipped from the Fujianese island on which, so legend goes, the sea goddess was born. Some of Lukang’s old buildings have been left to rot, but a few are being repurposed to house businesses such as Fang Kofi. Operating in a brilliantly refurbished building at the end of Lane 74, just off Zhongshan Road, Fang was founded by brother and sister team Shu-ning and Shu-fang, who serve artisan coffee and world-class cocktails to an alt-rock soundtrack. More retro in vibe is Yiguzhai, a colourful, eclectic teahouse decorated with advertising posters depicting pretty girls dressed in qipaos promoting the benefits of brands such as Double Crane cigarettes and Haig whisky. There’s no booze or tobacco on sale here, however; like many neighbourhood cafes, Yiguzhai sells the local speciality, miancha , or flour tea – which is more of a cold dessert than its name might suggest. As well as a milky glass of sweet flour tea, I get a tip in Yiguzhai. “The Longshan Temple is really special,” says the kindly waitress, Miss Huang. “There’s one in Taipei that is more famous, of course, but our temple is really more beautiful, and there are far fewer crowds.” Temple fatigue is a real danger in Taiwan, but Longshan offers something of a cure. Said to recall the splendour of Quanzhou’s Kaiyuan Temple, its main entrance hall is decorated with woodcarvings, including an easy-to-miss gargoyle of a red-haired Dutch sailor – a reminder of Taiwan’s earliest colonial custodians – and a masterful ceiling sculpture centred on a ravishing, if somewhat demonic, dragon mural, the beast’s celestial powers fanning out in all directions along the ceiling frames. There are faded door gods and a reminder that “whatever people do, heaven watches”. A pair of 200-year-old sacred Banyan trees shade the main hall and although the temple is dedicated to Guanyin – the Bodhisattva of mercy and compassion – the three pillars of Taiwanese tradition are represented in the doorways that lead through the complex: a circle for Buddhism; a trigram for Taoism; and an archway for Confucianism. In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Tokyo and the modernising Japanese would rule the island until 1945. Among the town’s many Japanese-era buildings are the Lukang Folk Arts Museum, housed in a tawdry baroque mansion, and the rather more elegant Assembly Hall, both dating back to the 1920s. The latter, according to a wall plaque, was “the first assembly hall in the Changhua area and an important public building during the Japanese Colonial Period”; it would host “singing performances” as well as community meetings. The spacious, whitewashed interior has since been repurposed as a cultural centre. Outside the Assembly Hall is a harbour, complete with mooring cleats, although it’s dry and we are some kilometres from the sea. Lukang’s decline came as the harbour gradually silted up during the second half of the 19th century. By 1895, major shipping had ceased and Lukang was forgotten as metropolitan centres such as Taipei and Kaohsiung were developed by Japanese urban planners. Walking its streets at night, after the tourists have left, one gets a sense of Lukang’s solitariness. Were it not for the decorative lanterns dangling overhead, there’d be little in the way of street lighting. I veer down Nine Turns Lane, which zigzags along the edge of a coastline that is no more, and come upon the Shih Yih Hall. A sign outside says the local literati once came here to “recite poetry and partake in alcoholic revelry”. The hall is silent now and even the cicadas have gone to bed early, leaving old Lukang to feel like something of a dream.