A historical tour of Taiwan – Tamsui

A historical tour of Taiwan – Tamsui

27th November 2023 0 By livinguktaiwan

In case you’re wondering, no I’m not in Bali, Indonesia. Following my return post last month, I’m still in Taiwan and today we’re going on a historical tour of Taiwan. We have a place here called Ba-Li in Taipei and the other day we caught a ferry from Bali across the Tamsui River to Tamsui.

a historical tour of Taiwan

20230127_183117.jpglivinguktaiwan divider.pngTamsui is located on the estuary of Tamsui River and in the 19th century was the first port that was open for foreign trade in northern Taiwan. Those earlier centuries were a busy period for Taiwan, with the Spanish and Dutch making their footprint on this little island. The Qing dynasty government from China, as well as Japan, Canada and British all had an influence.  This gave Tamsui a very rich history. During my visit to Tamsui, I saw how all these nations from centuries ago left their mark and contributed to what Tamsui is today. Let me take you on a historical tour of Taiwan by visiting a few famous landmarks.


Tamsui Church

You’d be forgiven to think we’re in Europe. This gothic-style church was built in 1933 and is a nod to Taiwan’s most well-known missionary George Mackay who arrived from Canada in 1872. Mackay’s influence on Taiwan is pretty profound, and he touched Taiwanese people’s life in all areas such religion, medical, education.

In his 30 years in Taiwan, Mackay had established more than 60 churches, and baptized more than 3000 people. He identified with Taiwan all his life and called himself a Tamsui local. His heart, his love, his blood and his legacy are all in Taiwan. This one person’s love of the land marks a major contrast to the foreigner rulers who came and went without identifying with Taiwan in the past 400 years. Source

It’s quite amazing to see such a westernised structure in Tamsui, nestled amongst the traditional buildings.  I guess it was a very fitting place to build the church here as this is where Mackey lived for 30 years.  And it is his final resting place.

a historical tour of Taiwan

20230127_165544.jpgMany streets in the area are named after Mackay and it is not difficult to find buildings or statues named after him.

Aletheia University and Tamsui Girls School

Within a decade of arriving in Taiwan, Mackay started to build a school in Tamsui. This later became Aletheia University and today it is a private university and one of the oldest university in Taiwan. Like most of the historical buildings around Tamsui, Aletheia University is built on a hilltop.  Some of the rooms inside must have a magnificent view of the port. I was here in the early evening and you can just about see some of the mountain outlines in the background


Tamsui Girls School is nearby the Aletheia University. Mackay married a local lady during his time in Taiwan and together they founded the first girl’s school in 1884, also in Tamsui. It was difficult to take a photo of the actual school as the main gate was by the roadside. All I managed to document was the school’s sign in a rather blurry photo as it was late in the evening.

Custom officer residence

The history behind this building is very interesting. In 1858 the Qing Government lost the Opium War to Britain and France. As part of the peace negotiations, the Qing Government had to pay compensation to Britain and open up more ports for western free trade. Tamsui was one of these ports. The idea was that the custom tax collected from additional free trade would be used to fund the compensation. Due to various bureaucracies, the tax wasn’t collected.  In 1866, Britain stepped in to manage the tax collection process. They, or rather we 😄, established the Custom officer residence at Tamsui.

I arrived here about an hour before it was due to close and only managed a flash visit.  Then I had to rush off to Fort Santo Domingo (see below) which was also due to close within the hour. In fact, there wasn’t much to see anyway.  Other than the view looking out towards the port was quite impressive. Another tick in the box visit done.


British Consular residence at Fort Santo Domingo

From the name, you can guess the fort has a Spanish as well as British connection. Between 1626 to 1642 the northern part of Taiwan was a Spanish colony.  This was part of the bigger Spanish colonisation in the Philippines. The Spaniards built the fort at Tamsui in 1628 during their brief period of rule in the country. After the Spanish lost Taiwan, the Dutch and eventually the Qing Government from China took over. In 1868 the Qing government leased the fort to the British Government.  They built the British Consular Residence 1891 which cost £1500 for the two storey building.  This is worth around £174k in today’s value. Not that expensive to be honest considering it’s a consular building.


That said, the inside of the building isn’t as lavish as some of the grand houses I’ve visited in the UK. Perhaps because it’s already 120 years old, and it was consular building in a low priority territory for Britain. Today, the building forms an important part of Tamsui’s history.


Former residence of Tamsui Township head

From 1895 to 1945 Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese. During those 50 years, the Japanese probably advanced Taiwan a lot more than in the centuries that it was under Qing government rule. The Tamsui township head was an official role under the Japanese colonial government. In 1934, the holder of the role bought a piece of land in Tamsui to build his own private residence. The house is located on 19 Mackay Street and is of historical value.


The house is built in a traditional Japanese style with a beautiful garden area outside. When it was built, it was the first residential building in Taiwan to have a direct water supply into the property. It looked quite busy inside the house and I couldn’t be bothered to remove my boots to go in.  I  just strolled around outside.  The views were amazing, looking out into Tamsui River and the port. I can imagine the sunset view would be gorgeous here on a a good clear day.


I hope you found the historical tour of Taiwan interesting and enjoyed the architectural tour of Tamsui. Those were turbulent times with the Spanish, Dutch, British, Japanese, China and many other countries all having an influence in the area, making Tamsui what it is today. It will be interesting to see what lays ahead for Taiwan, hopefully peace and less turbulence.


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