By Steven Crook
To catch glimpses of Taiwan as it used to be, few places are better than Lukang (鹿港). Between the first quarter of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century, this coastal town—27 kilometers southwest of central Taichung as the crow flies—was second only to the former capital Tainan as a population center and hub of commerce.
Until silt blocked Lukang’s harbor, thousands of ships docked here each year. They brought cloth, dried fish, and herbs from China and carried Taiwanese rice to the mainland. The thoroughfare now called ZhongShan Road (中山路) was once so narrow, with shops’ awnings blocking the sunlight, that locals nicknamed it “See-No-Sky Street” (不見天街). After Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895, the colonial authorities widened ZhongShan Road and several other streets, but the glorious temples and merchant abodes built during the town’s heyday remain intact—and the best way to see them is on foot or by bicycle (Lukang has several YouBike rental points).
Spared the redevelopment that has erased much of Taipei’s character, Lukang boasts an exceptional number of alluring old buildings. Many of them are on PuTou Street (埔頭街) and YaoLin Street (瑤林街), conjoined lanes together known as Lukang Old Street (鹿港老街). Another standout is the Lukang Ding Mansion (鹿港丁家古厝), built in 1893 at the behest of Ding Shou-quan (丁壽泉). Ding brought glory to his clan by attaining success in China’s imperial civil service examinations. There’s no sign of it within the mansion, but the Dings—like many other old Lukang families—were descended from Muslim traders who moved here from the coast of China more than 250 years ago. Not far from the mansion, a little-visited temple stands where the first mosque in Taiwan was established back in the 18th century. It looks no different to thousands of other shrines around the country, yet it’s said that many worshippers, knowing there used to be an Islamic hall of worship here, exclude pork from the offerings they make.
Lukang’s two must-visit religious sites are Longshan Temple (龍山寺) and Tianhou Temple (天后宮). The former is an exquisite and spacious Buddhist shrine. Pay particular attention to the fabulously ornate ceiling, its 99 doorways, and the carved-wood screens. The latter, unfailingly crowded with pilgrims and often deafeningly noisy, is devoted to the cult of Matsu (媽祖). Officially the sea goddess, she’s now revered as a generalist deity by millions of Taiwanese.
If you’re traveling with children, you may want to add Yuqu Temple (玉渠宮) to your itinerary. When this small but delightful shrine was updated some years back, the management committee commissioned paintings of SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick Star, Mickey Mouse and Japanese cartoon icon Doraemon. Each image is no bigger than a smartphone, and positioned on a high beam at the very front of the shrine, so finding them might take you a minute or two. There’s a good reason why they’re here: Yuqu Temple’s principal deity is Marshal Tian Du (田都元帥), the god of performers and drama. The temple is less than 100 meters south of the No. 1 Market (第一市場), where vendors sell an intriguing selection of traditional snacks, some of which incorporate locally-grown taro.
To get away from the sunshine, and see some truly engrossing artifacts, head for Lukang Folk Arts Museum (鹿港民俗文物館). Located a few minutes’ walk east of the old street, this collection of books, musical instruments, antique furnishings and traditional garments is housed in an imposing 104-year-old baroque mansion. Both the building and many of the exhibits were donated by the Koo family, even now one of Taiwan’s most important business clans. Admission is NT$130/70; see www.lukangarts.tw for opening hours and other details.
Lukang is nowhere near a high-speed rail (HSR) or conventional train (TRA) station, yet getting here by public transportation is straightforward. The No. 6936 bus leaves Taichung HSR Station for Lukang every hour on the hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. The more frequent No. 9018 service sets out from Taichung TRA Station and makes severals stops, including the Chaoma (朝馬) bus station area in Xitun District, before taking the freeway south to Lukang. Regular buses to Lukang can also be caught a stone’s throw from Changhua TRA Station.