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Danshui and Fort San Domingo - New Taipei City Highlights

Although I am in Hong Kong now, there are still a few places in Taiwan I would like to write about. One of them is Fort San Domingo in Danshui.

Danshui is a district in the Northeast part of New Taipei City. It used to be an urban township (淡水鎮; pinyin: Dànshuǐ Zhèn), until on 25 December 2010 the special municipality of New Taipei City was created (note). Practically, Danshui is still a sort of separate town, with around 130,000 inhabitants. 

History of Danshui

Before the Japanese took possession of Taiwan in 1895, Danshui was one of the cities most exposed to Western influence. There were two brief periods of colonial rule, first by the Spanish (1629-1641) and then by the Dutch (1641-1661) (note). Following the defeat of the Dutch, Taiwan was first ruled by the Cheng dynasty as a separate state, and then annexed to the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty, which in Taiwan lasted from 1684 to 1895 (see Davison 2003, chapters 2-4).

After the expulsion of the Dutch, Danshui was free from foreign influence, until the Treaty of Tientsin, signed in the mainland Chinese city of Tianjin (Tientsin) in June 1858, ending the first part of the Second Opium War (1856–1860), gave the British Empire, Russia, the United States and France special rights and protections in the port of Danshui (Crook 2011, p. 134). Among the Western merchants that came to Taiwan was John Dodd, who arrived in 1864 and started a prosperous tea business, helping establish the tea industry as one of the main economic resources of the island.

After the Japanese occupied Taiwan, Danshui slowly lost its importance as a port city, and was replaced by Keelung.

For a few decades Danshui was a sluggish suburb of Taipei. But with the opening of an MRT (= underground) station in 1998, Danshui suddenly became a popular weekend travel destination, thanks to its riverside promenade and its beaches (Kelly / Brown 2010, p. 126). Danshui is also home to schools and three universities (Aletheia University, Tamkang University, and St. John's University) (ibid.).

Danshui's Sights

Thanks to Danshui's small size, it's possible to reach many of its sights on foot. When you get out of the MRT station, turn left and you will see the riverside promenade and some of the old streets in Danshui with a lot of shops, restaurants, cafes and food stands all over the place.

View of Bali township, opposite Danshui. Bali can be reached by ferry

In Zhongzheng Road (see map) you will see more shops and restaurants, as well as the oldest temple in Danshui, Fuyou Temple ("Temple of Blessings", Chinese: 福佑宮). It was built in 1796 during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty, and it's devoted to the most popular deity in Taiwan: Mazu, the Sea Goddess. In the 17th and 18th century, crossing the Taiwan Straits was a dangerous enterprise, and many immigrants who came from mainland China did not survive the journey. But those who reached the island's shores showed their gratitude for the protection the Sea Goddess had granted them by building temples in her honour.

Before continuing our walk, my Taiwanese friend took me to a traditional restaurant where we ate Danshui's most famous dish: agei (Chinese: 阿給, pinyin: Āgěi). The name apparently comes from the Japanese "aburaage" (note). It is a snack made of tofu with Chinese mung bean noodles (also called Chinese vermicelli) inside, soaked in a sweet-spicy sauce.

Agei in its original shape

Agei after opening it; you can see the noodles inside

Hiking up Zhongzheng Road, you can see other interesting buildings, among them the so-called Little White House, a former customs office during the Qing dynasty, some school buildings and colourful gardens.

The following plaque informs us that Taiwan's very first girls' school was established by George L Mackay, an important figure in the history of Danshui. Mackay was a Canadian-born missionary who devoted himself to spreading Christianity among the Taiwanese. Although his stay in Taiwan was by far not free from conflicts - for instance, he despised Taoists, whom he considered "blinded" - he is still revered for his contributions in the fields of education and medicine. Besides, he is one of the very few foreigners to have a street named after him (Crook 2011, p. 135-138).

Mackay was also the founder of two of Danshui's universities: Aletheia University and Tamkang University. 

Aletheia University was built in 1882 and it was first called Oxford College, after Oxford County in Canada, Mackay's birthplace (Crook 2011, p. 135; Kelly / Brown 2010, p. 128). In 1999 Oxford College was renamed Aletheia University ('aletheia' means truth in Greek). Below you can see a few  pictures of the university:

Fort San Domingo

Fort San Domingo reflects, perhaps more than any other building, the tumultuous political life of Taiwan prior to the Japanese invasion.

Built in 1629 on a hillside "overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui River" (Logan / Hsu 2003, p. 124), the fort  is one of the few remainders of the short-lived Spanish rule in Taiwan (1629-1642). The Dutch, who were rivalling with the Spanish for the supremacy in Taiwan, conquered the fort in 1642. After the defeat of the Spanish, the Dutch were the major colonial power in Taiwan, controlling vast areas from North to South. But in 1661 they were driven out of the country by Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), who also took over Fort San Domingo.

After ruling Taiwan for twenty years, the Zheng dynasty was itself defeated by the new imperial dynasty of the Qing, who subsequently incorporated the island in the Chinese Empire.

When China was defeated in the Opium Wars by Britain, Dansui became a treaty port, and Fort San Domingo served as the British consulate. Most buildings that exist today were built in the 1860's (Logan / Hsu 2003, p. 124). In 1972 the consulate was closed after London shifted its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China, and upgraded its Beijing representation to an official embassy (Crook 2011, p. 139). 

The fort proper was the British Consulate.

Beautiful view from the hill

This red-brick building, adjacent to the consulate, was the British consular residence.

The British attached great importance in preserving their British lifestyle, even in distant places. Everything here looks like it would have looked 'back home'

A portrait of Queen Victoria

I guess that in this room Her Majesty's subjects used to have their afternoon tea

Danshui's Seaside

I recommend you to take advantage of a sunny day to go to a beach in Danshui. Taiwanese do not have the habit to go to the seaside, especially women, who do not want to get sun-burnt, because "white" skin is considered beautiful (that's why on sunny days you will see girls using their umbrella to protect themselves from the sun). Or, perhaps, it's just that I went there in October and that's why there was nobody there. To go to the seaside, you can take one of the many buses that depart from Danshui MRT station.

A nice little guardian is looking after the scooter

A refreshing beer on a hot day (in October!)

Our lunch


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