The new rail connection, which opened in January, means the majority of Taiwan's population can reach Tainan in less than two hours, raising hopes that the island's spiritual and cultural center will thrive once again. "This is where Taiwan's modern civilization began," says Tsai Bi-ju, Tainan's international-affairs section chief, referring to the city's 200-year reign as the island's capital before Taipei replaced it in 1885. Tainan's founding father, a Ming dynasty general called Koxinga, arrived from China in 1661 with a fleet of artists and scholars, intent on transforming the Dutch-ruled port into a beacon of Chinese culture. It worked, and today's Tainanese are quick to claim their city as the island's guardian of tradition.
Some say this is the "real" Taiwan, and, indeed, a trip down from the capital requires cultural reorientation. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers speak the Taiwanese dialect instead of Mandarin, and politics here are decidedly "green"the color of President Chen and his independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. Japanese tourists regularly visit, looking for scattered vestiges of their country's 50-year rule on the island, but Westerners have only trickled in, deterred by the four-hour-plus train ride or stop-and-start bus trip down Taiwan's congested west coast. That is expected to change now that the high-speed train makes Tainan an easy day-trip.
Mayor Hsu Tain-tsair, a U.S.-educated economist, is readying his city for the surge. He has rehabilitated a long-neglected urban canal, allowed expat jazz bands to perform next to 300-year-old temples and supported a public arts district along Hai-An Road where, several years ago, local artists began painting giant murals on the sides of abandoned homes. One eye-popping example, called Blueprint for its rendering of an architectural drawing, spawned an adjacent pub by the same nameone of many in the district that draws late-night sidewalk crowds quaffing Belgian ales.
While raucous nightlife isn't Tainan's big lure, you'll see religion practiced on a scale that easily outpaces the capital. More than 200 templesTaoist, Buddhist, Confucianare tucked into lanes and alleys amid the high-rises, each offering its own brand of salvation. Pray for fair judgment in the afterlife at the City God Temple, where two giant abacuses tally good deeds versus bad, or plead for high exam scores at the Confucius Temple, the island's oldest. Festivals celebrating temple gods' birthdays are several-day affairs here, their likenesses paraded through the streets on palanquins, urged on by a great racket. "There's a temple to meet every need. We can solve all your problems," local campus radio-station manager Tsai Tzong-lin assures me, without irony.
And then there's the food. In a culture already obsessed with eating, the Tainanese are at the extreme end of the scale. On Yenping Street in the city's Anping district, a cheek-by-jowl crowd converges on weekends to inhale the aroma of xiao chi, or street snacks: fermented tofu, fried wontons, grilled mushrooms and "coffin cakes," the local version of pot pies. It's all good, but the people watching is better. Off the main drag, an elderly man squats beside his own low-tech incarnation of an ice cream trucka weather-beaten bicycle with a jury-rigged cooler lashed to the back. He rings a bell and awaits his next customer. But he looks in no hurry; in time, they will come.