A month ago I embarked upon a day trip to Zuoying to check out the famous temples and pagodas of Lotus Pond 蓮池潭, one of the main tourist attractions of greater Kaohsiung. Afterwards I wandered over to have a look at the old city of Zuoying 左營舊城, originally built in 1722 by the ruling Qing Dynasty in response to the many uprisings that regularly plagued Taiwan Prefecture 臺灣府.
This project did not go according to plan as rebels broke through the fortifications on several occasions. Consequently the county seat was moved further east and the walls were eventually rebuilt with stone in 1825. Many residents were evicted from the walled city under Japanese rule when Zuoying became a military district. Finally, in the post-war era, the incoming Kuomintang designated the area within the walls a military dependents’ village, the remains of which can be seen today.
The old walled city is one of only a handful of national monuments in Kaohsiung, a fact that would not be obvious from a perusal of the English language blogosphere. Were it not for browsing around on Wikipedia in search of things to see and do near Lotus Pond I would not have heard of it. A cursory search for more information in English turns up little more than this entry on roundTAIWANround (an excellent index of things to see and do in Taiwan) and this blurb on a random travel blog. Occasionally it appears almost as an afterthought in Lotus Pond travelogues. Am I that unusual in having an interest in the old walled cities of Taiwan?
There seems to be some confusion about the names of the walled cities of Kaohsiung. Most of Taiwan south of Tainan (including Kaohsiung) was administered as Fèngshān County 鳳山縣 by the Qing. As such, the walled city in modern-day Zuoying is known as Fèngshān County Old City 鳳山縣舊城 (with Fengshan sometimes appearing as Fongshan in the older Wade-Giles romanization system). In the late 18th century the administrative seat of the county moved east to another walled city: Fengshan County New City 鳳山縣新城, the remains of which can be found in the modern district of Fengshan. Can you see where this is going? Not everyone who writes about these places seems to be aware that there are two walled cities with almost identical names in Kaohsiung.
Aside from the walls themselves (and a small shrine outside the north gate) I didn’t see many signs of Qing era Taiwan inside the old city. The Japanese appropriated the land inside the old city walls for military purposes due to the proximity to modern-day Zuoying Naval Base, the nation’s largest, and the KMT settled many soldiers and their families here after coming to Taiwan.
Zìzhù New Village 自助新村 is perhaps the most well-known of Zuoying’s military dependents’ villages as it was taken over by artists and transformed into a minor attraction much like the fabled Rainbow Village of Taichung. The village I wandered through, East Zìzhù New Village 東自助新村 (if Google Maps can be trusted), was neither covered in art nor abandoned and left to the elements. Actually, the north end of the village was very lively, with children running through the streets, old people meandering down laneways with soft smiles on their faces, and the fragrant scent of home cooking in the air. Overall it felt like a neighbourhood that still had a bit of life in it yet, totally unlike many of the military villages I have visited in Taiwan.
The south end of the village had not fared so well. The main road was lined with fenced-off lots with broken tile floors where houses used to stand. I turned down a side road that ran along the hillside and passed by many abandoned homes in various states of disrepair. Along one small laneway I noticed the ruins of an old water tower or gun turret—it wasn’t obvious what it was in the gathering gloom. There were few people around and most of those were scowling as I passed. The energy had clearly been drained from this half of the community.
Eventually I reached the end of the village. Here there was a path leading up Turtle Mountain 龜山 and some military structures that may or may not have been abandoned. It was getting dark so I opted to cut the tour short and head off in the direction of the eastern gate. Immediately the mood changed as much of the land to the south of the small mountain has been cleared and turned into open parkland. Taiwanese dog owners were out in full force with their pets and whole families were having picnics on the grass.
The eastern gate of the old city of Zuoying, formally known as Fèngyí Gate 鳳儀門, was a most impressive sight. Both sides have their own character and differing inscriptions. The extent of the city walls in this section rival those of Hengchun, another great place to visit if you’re interested in Qing era fortifications.
The old city of Zuoying is unusual in that its walls were also ringed by a moat, something that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Taiwan with the exception of the Eternal Golden Castle 億載金城 in Tainan. I suppose this is probably why some Taiwanese refer to Zuoying’s old city as a “castle”.
There was much more to see of the old walled city than I had time for that late into the afternoon. With daylight fading I left the old city behind and forged on to Kaohsiung’s twin night markets, supposedly the largest in all Taiwan.