Tale of two towns
Chico and its sister city—Tamsui, Taiwan—have more in common than you might think
Two college towns, separated by an ocean, share much in common. They were both frontier towns, both homes to aboriginal peoples who are now largely gone; both had their histories influenced by waterways. Fittingly, they are sisters. Sister cities, that is.
Chico, Calif., and Tamsui, Taiwan, are quite alike in some ways; in others they are literally worlds apart.
Tamsui is a town of 130,000 located at the mouth of the Tamsui River in northwest Taiwan. One of Taiwan’s oldest seaside towns, Tamsui was an important deep-water harbor and it retains much of its traditional Chinese and Taiwanese character.
At the beginning of its history, Tamsui was important as a commercial and fishing harbor and as a military and administrative center. As the centuries went by, the Tamsui River silted up, making it impossible for any large boats to get into the harbor. In the mid-1800s the major military and government center of northern Taiwan moved to nearby Taipei, which is the country’s current capital.
It’s a little-known fact that Tamsui and Chico officially became sister cities in 1985, as evidenced by a statue in the Chico Municipal Building from the mayor of Tamsui memorializing the sisterhood. What’s also not so widely known is Tamsui’s largest university, Tamkang University, became a sister school to Chico State in 1988.
Nowadays Tamsui is a peaceful tourist and college town, but it was not always so. Its early history was one of forts, frontiers and frontier violence.
In the mid-1600s, Tamsui was inhabited by a mix of Ketagalan aborigines, Dutch traders and Spanish soldiers. The Chinese had not yet started to arrive in Taiwan. The original inhabitants were various Austronesian peoples who arrived on the island in Paleolithic times. The next group to arrive there were the Spanish, who came from the Philippines in 1629.
The Dutch had established trading colonies on the central western coast of Taiwan, then called Formosa, as early as 1623, and the Spanish sought to check Dutch expansion in the country by establishing a formal colony in Tamsui, centered in the combined fort and Dominican mission called Santo Domingo, set on a hilltop giving the fort’s cannon a commanding sweep over the harbor.
Even so, the Spanish were driven out of Tamsui by the Dutch East India Co. in 1642, and the Dutch constructed a new fort on the ruins of Santo Domingo. They called it Fort Anthonio, named after the head of the Dutch East India Co., Anthonio Van Diemen. (There was also a penal colony in Australia named Van Diemen’s Land, a fact U2 fans might remember.)
The Dutch were the reason most of the early Chinese inhabitants of Tamsui immigrated. During the time of the Spanish, northern Taiwan (including Tamsui) had been fairly lightly populated by aborigines. The Dutch East India Co. saw wealth in farming northern Taiwan, so the Dutch offered financial incentives to the Chinese living closest to Taiwan to move there either to farm rice or hunt deer (deer hides were also a valuable commodity).
The immigrants came from three separate ethnic groups that had lived in different parts of Fukien province. When they were put together in Tamsui, without any real law or order, ethnic violence erupted. They were quick to settle disputes by guns, swords or spears, and what would normally be simply a personal dispute oftentimes became a showdown. The Dutch had neither the resources nor the will to intervene in such battles; as long as the rice kept growing and the deer hides kept coming, they were happy.
The Chinese gave Fort Anthonio another, equally colorful, name: Hong-Mao Cheng, meaning Red Haired Fort. The most noticeable trait of the Dutch, at least as seen through Chinese eyes, was their red hair. The Dutch came to be known as the Red Hairs, and thus their fort picked up its name, which it retains to this day.
The Chinese also ran into trouble with the aboriginal tribes. The sides waged violent war against each other, with the Chinese, who had firearms supplied by the Dutch, largely wiping out the aborigines. Tamsui, therefore, was an explosive mix of ethnic groups competing for land and influence. In some ways it paralleled the California Gold Rush, with the Anglos, Californios, Chileans and Chinese living with minimal formal government while competing for gold.
It was not until Tamsui became a “foreign treaty port” in 1862 and the British Consulate was established next to Hong Mao Fort that a semblance of calm came to Tamsui.[page]
While Tamsui was a fairly violent frontier, it also was home to Taiwan’s first college, which was established in 1882, just a few years before the Chico Normal School was built.
Like other aspects of Tamsui’s history, the formation of the college involved an international cast of characters. The name of Taiwan’s oldest college is Oxford College—not named after Oxford, England, but rather after Oxford County in Canada.
The tale begins back on New Years Eve 1871, when the Rev. Dr. George Leslie Mackay, a missionary from the Canada Presbyterian Church, stepped off a boat onto Taiwan. He had been sent to erase the “scourge of Daoist idolatry” from northern Taiwan.
Daoism is the indigenous religion of the Chinese and as such had arrived in Tamsui with the first Chinese immigrants 200 years earlier. Still the main religion in Taiwan, Daoism operates along these lines:
• The believer chooses a deity as his or her personal patron god.
• The believer worships the patron deity and makes both food and monetary offerings in return for help with daily problems.
• If the deity fails to help the believer, he or she can switch gods.
As one might surmise, this approach to religion was anathema to 19th-century Protestantism. Like many missionaries, Mackay thought that modern scientific and medical knowledge would lead non-believers to see the wisdom and truth of the Protestant faith.
With that idea in mind he asked the people of his home parish back in Oxford, Canada, to donate money to build a university. They did so and in gratitude Mackay named the university after his home. The original building still stands with the name emblazoned across the doorway.
Taiwan’s first university, although fairly small in size, offered a completely Western-style liberal education. The heart and soul of the curriculum was theology and Bible study, but there were also such humanities classes as sociology (a very new discipline at that time), Chinese history, and literature.
There also were many courses in the natural sciences including geology, botany, zoology and mineralogy. These classes were perhaps a reflection of the fact that Mackay was a self-taught natural scientist who had a great interest in the natural history of Taiwan. Well over half of Mackay’s first book on the region is devoted to the flora, fauna and geology of the island.
Oxford College also offered another area that was of interest to Mackay: medicine. In addition to being a missionary, Mackay was a doctor, and he used the results of Western medicine as a way to draw positive reactions from the Chinese toward his Presbyterian faith.
Through the years, the Northern Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan kept Oxford College operating, and the original school has been renamed Aletheia University. On a political-science side note, the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church was the single most important organization driving the development of democracy and human rights in Taiwan from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Just as Chico has the Pioneer Day parades, Tamsui has its Daoist temple parades. In both cases, the events aim to build a sense of community, celebrate history and provide a chance to show the neighborhood’s vitality. These community parades, be they in Chico or in Tamsui, often feature bands, cars and colorful characters. The Tamsui temple parades, however, have at their core a religious purpose.
Each Daoist temple in Taiwan has one main deity to which it is primarily dedicated. Daoist deities on special occasions, including their “birthdays,” are taken from their altar for a tour of the neighborhood the temple serves.
Accompanying the Daoist deities on their community tours is a group known in Chinese as the Ba Jia Jing, the Eight Generals. They can best be described as “celestial cops.” Like police anywhere, their job is to protect the public from criminals, but the criminals in this case are invisible and preternaturally strong, with no scruples or compassion. They are ghosts, demons and denizens of the netherworld who bring pestilence, plague, sickness and misfortune.[page]
Standing between the people of Tamsui and these invisible evils are the Eight Generals. You see them in many Tamsui temple parades.
They are easy to spot.
Their distinctive face paint, or “urban camouflage,” which derives from the makeup used in Chinese opera, consists of demonic swirls, darkened eyes and jutting fangs. Their costumes and elaborate headdresses reflect their martial background. Their confident strides and dignified gestures reflect considerable “command presence,” as modern police trainers put it.
The Eight Generals carry wooden handcuffs, badges (which resemble solid wooden fans) and weapons. Most ominously, one of their number will carry on his shoulder a tiger and on the tiger’s back, secured by magic talismans, will be the executioner’s sword.
The Eight Generals serve two important functions: one religious, one entertainment. They draw crowds of all ages, and the different Eight Generals performance groups do have “star performers,” men who play the role very well with a lot of life and vigor. They are attractions just like an opera performer or musician.
In the cool of the morning, when the sun is low enough in the sky that most of the narrow alley is in semi-darkness, nobody is asleep in Tamsui. Quite the contrary. The cacophony of metal pans scraping on the asphalt, the fishmongers’ high-decibel sales pitches, the grandmothers', mothers’ and daughters’ staccato chatter; all guarantee that nobody remains asleep. The alleyway, probably no more than 10 feet across, descends steeply down into the Tamsui River. Footing is more than a bit treacherous because of the constant flow of water, hog’s blood and fish entrails. It is Tamsui’s “traditional wet market.”
These wet markets are still very much a part of modern Tamsui life. For foreigners it is the kind of Taiwanese scene that can either amuse, enthrall or sicken you; pigs are butchered while you watch, fish are gutted and the entrails tossed into the alley, shellfish share shelf space with pigs’ hooves, and flies are everywhere. But also everywhere is laughter, good-natured joking around and a strong sense of Tamsui community. This alley with its wet market is far removed from the tourist traps that are the common image of Tamsui, but it represents an aspect of Tamsui daily life that is as old as any of the historical monuments.
An equally important part of daily life is seen at the top of the alley, where it enters the main street. Directly across is the main Daoist temple in Tamsui. Although the history books talk about how Tamsui was an entry point for Western religion into Taiwan, the majority of people in Tamsui are Daoist or Buddhist, not Christians. And as such the Daoist temple is a main part of daily life. In the mornings the faithful commune with the various Daoist deities in the temple. In sharp contrast to the noise of the wet market, the temple’s interior is quiet enough to hear the murmuring of the supplicants asking their patron deities for advice or favors.
Over the past decade, with the completion of a subway link between Taipei and Tamsui, there has been a major increase in tourism to Tamsui, and the Tamsui government has made tourism a priority. A new tourist “Fisherman’s Wharf” similar to the one in San Francisco (including the prices) has been constructed with restaurants, bars, 7-Eleven stores, and “see-the-dolphins cruises,” none of which has much traditional connection with Tamsui.
The most recent addition to the city is that the Tamsui police now have equestrian and bicycle units on patrol at the Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf. But, quite unlike Chico, Tamsui is not bicycle friendly. Scooters are all over the place in Taiwan. They (as opposed to full-sized motorcycles) are by far the most common mode of transportation.
Appealing to the more religious-minded people, the harbor temple for Matsu—a goddess who is viewed as the patroness of Taiwan—underwent a modernization and refurbishment. It is deeply rooted in local and national culture. Since she is the protector of seafarers, fishermen and people living in coastal areas, Tamsui has close links with Matsu.
The Matsu Harbor Temple features a single statue of the goddess. She sits in a large, open-air tent, majestically facing out of the harbor toward the ocean, foreign lands and Tamsui’s sister city of Chico.