Nowadays Lukang is a small, sleepy town, for most of the year
Yet, until the end of the 19th century, Lugang was an important commercial center, second only to Tainan.
Junks laden with rice, sugar and camphor sailed from Lukang to the coast of China. On the way back they carried finished goods such as clothing and pottery and, also, settlers. Granite slabs, used as ballast on the ships, often ended their journey as part of the mansions of the rich merchants of Lukang.
The end of Lukang arrives when the harbor, which had never been deep and suitable for the larger vessels, silted completely – now the sea is more than 2 kms away. The coup de grace was given by the Japanese invasion, that shut down most of the trade with mainland China, and by the stubborn conservatorism of the elders of the city, that persuaded the Japanese to build the new railway as far as possible from Lukang.
The development of Lukang stopped. The city still does not exceed 30,000 inhabitants. The only activities that remained, up until now, were the numerous temples and handicrafts, which are mostly just focused to serve the needs of temples and religious followers.
The city became simply too poor. Several old buildings, instead of being demolished to make room for new ones, as happened in the rest of Taiwan, have remained until today.
Nowadays Lukang offers a look at lifestyles, traditions and rituals typical of old China.
And, above all, two or three of the most beautiful and interesting Chinese temples throughout Taiwan.
You will find that, on some guides and road signs, Lukang is also written as Lugang. Lukang is the oldest and most well-known “romanization”, Lugang is the new official spelling that follows the rules of Hanyu Pinyin, the system that is also in use in mainland China and recently became official also in Taiwan.
The name Lukang means “Deers Harbour”. For sure deers abounded around Lukang 200 years ago and deer skins were one of the main products exported by the city – especially to Japan. It seems anyway that the city’s name comes from the corruption of a former Aboriginal name.
Things to see and do in Lukang
Lukang is a small town that you can easily visit, by foot, in one day.
On the bottom of this page you will find a more detailed map with locations of the main attractions, hotels, eateries and so on.
I also sketched a visit itinerary. Lukang “downtown” is very small and can be walked all around or, if you want, you can rent one of the pedicabs you will meet from time to time. The Visitor Centers provide excellent free maps (in English) that list all the handicrafts workshops and the eateries.
I suggest to pay a visit to one of the Visitor Centers (they are two) at the beginning of your visit.
1 – Tianhou Temple (Tianhou Gong)
Tianhou is dedicated to Mazu, the Celestial Mother, the most popular deity among the Taiwanese.
Tianhou is a typical Taoist temple, flamboyant, the roofs crowded with figurines.
Still, compared with other Taoist temples in Taiwan, Tianhou is definitively more sober and athmospheric.
The temple is seldom quiet. People always come here to do “bai bai”, that is burning incense and joss money to the gods, to pray to them and to divine the future.
The temple is divided according to the classic model called “San Jian Er Yuan”, that means Three Halls and Two Courtyards. The arch that contains the square on the front was added in recent times.
As in a noble residence, the most important deities, such as Mazu and the Jade Emperor, dwell in the rear or in the main hall. The lesser deities stay in the front hall or at the sides. Not even the gods can escape the rigid hierarchy of the Chinese!
Feel free to enter and look around the temple and observe, discreetly, the people giving offers and performing rituals.
Tianhou was built, for the first time, in 1725, when the beginning of the Qing rule over Taiwan was recent and the Dutch domination was still a fresh memory. This is showed by the wooden architraves in the front hall, where Western figures of that time (look at the shoes and the hair!), are supporting the roof.
Besides the wooden coffered vault, in the Front Hall, do not miss the beautiful statues, in the Main Hall, of the two demons-guardians that serve Mazu.
The photo below shows a room that is located on the right side, looking from the entrance.
This shrine is home to Yue Xia Lao Ren, the Old Man under the Moonlight.
Yue Xia Lao Ren is in charge of arranging marriages, tying together two different persons with invisible ribbons since their birth. These couples are therefore destined to find each other and get married.
As you can guess, the little shrine of this romantic lesser god is always visited by followers, especially young people looking for love or concerned parents.
In a room nearby, worshipers can choose a figurine of Mazu to bring home for their family shrine. The little statue has been “charged” by Mazu just remaining for a whole year in the temple.
The Mazu Temple in Lugang is among the most vibrant and lively temples throughout Taiwan. Unless you really love the crowd and the noise, you will have a better experience if you come outside the holidays. The convenient free parking lots scattered around the town center are built to accommodate Mazu followers vehicles on those festivals.
The temple also offers several beautiful things, besides those I mentioned. Do not forget to take a look also to the beautiful carvings and the painted main doors.
They are testimony to the great artist-craftsmen that, through the centuries, have brought these traditional arts until the present day Taiwan.
The alleys around the temple are a permanent market of religious crafts and, of course, local delicacies.
This is the best place to buy a bag of monkey shrimps, fried with basil leaves.
I found the video below on Youtube. It is a little bit too long, but it offers a glance of the deities worshipped in Tianhou. The part when the girl demonstrates the correct procedure to divine the future and to ask for a partner to Yue Xia Lao Ren is especially interesting.
As you can see from the video, these gods need to be told about your name, address and age, in order to be able to help you! This fact speaks volumes about the difference in the concept of “God” between the Chinese and other religions.
2 – Longshan Temple (Longshan Si)
Dragon Mountain temple, Longshan in fact, is the antithesis of Tianhou Temple.
Quiet and peaceful, its beauty, in my eyes, is much more “classic” and serene, compared to the colorful and whimsical temple of Mazu.
I have read somewhere that Longshan is more a “tourist thing”. This is simply not true.
People come to Longshan to “bai bai” as well, including locals such as our cousin from Lugang, who comes here to sit down for a while as the time goes by, before returning to her family matters.
Longshan is described as a Buddhist temple … Buddhist as is often practiced here in Taiwan, so the temple is dedicated to the female goddess Guanyin. Guanyin is an incarnation of Buddha but is also very similar to Mary: the Mother that helps and comforts.
Built for the first time in 1728, Longshan temple has undergone many changes. The last one is very recent: after the temple was severely damaged by 921 earthquake (21 September 1999), it has been meticulously restored using the original parts.
No doubt, Longshan Temple is one of the most beautiful temples in Taiwan, and should not be missed if you come to Lukang.
3 – Wenkai Academy (Wenkai Shuyuan)
Wenkai Academy is a quiet and colorful complex in the southern part of Lugang, surrounded by a garden, and recently restored.
The complex is made up of the Academy of Wenkai proper, lined by two small temples, dedicated respectively to the God of Literature (the central one) and the God of War Guan-Di, on the left.
Wenkai Academy was built in 1827, during the Ching Dynasty, to host courses to prepare for the imperial examinations in Beijing. In addition, it served as a gathering place for the literati of Lukang.
The most interesting part of the complex is the Academy itself, with a few wood carvings and colorful Koji potteries.
4 – Zhongshan Road (Zhongshan Lu)
Lugang main street is called Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) Rd, as in every city in Taiwan.
Zhongshan was a narrow covered street before the arrival of Japanese in 1895. The Japanese provided to uncover and to make it wider, I guess mainly for hygienic reasons.
The Art Deco facades, that still remain here and there, in different conditions, are original from that time. The Japanese also built the arcades that line Zhongshan Road
There are several interesting things along Zhongshan Road … small temples, as the lovely City God Temple that you can see in the photo above, the Japanese fronts, small dusty shops where traditional crafts are still manufactured such as paper lanterns, incense sticks, sedan chairs and so on.
These stores are authentic. Their main customers are not the tourists, but the temples, in Lukang as in the rest of Taiwan.
5 – Old Market Street (Gushi Jie)
Old Market Street (Putou Road) is one of the main attractions in Lukang, not to be missed and possibly not to be visited on weekends, since it is also one of the most popular among local tourists.
It is a small winding lane, roughly parallel to Zhongshan Rd, where the market once was taking place.
Many of the old wooden houses and shops, dating back to the Ching Dinasty, have been preserved to this day.
Until a few years ago Old Market Street was crumbling and abandoned. Today, however, it has been restored, where possible, together with the small buildings along the lane.
Putou Rd is still authentic, at least in part. Besides the souvenir shops, there are also temples (Nanjing Palace and especially Sinzu Temple, with the interior blackened by burning incense), houses that are still inhabited by the locals and some interesting shops like the teahouse Yi Gu Zhai and the pastry shop Jeng Yu Jhen.
Our favorite corner is in front of a little shop, where in winter the mullet roe (which in this shop is really good, even according to the locals) is left on tables to dry under the sun!
Even the streets around, much quieter, offer unexpected discoveries, like the tiny city gate in Houche Lane. The southern extension of Old Market Street, beyond Minquan Road, is less interesting. Nine-Turns Lane (Jiuqu Xiang), where the lane narrows and becomes tortuous – according to the legend for defense against the pirates – is nothing special actually.
6 – Lukang Folk Arts Museum and Ding Family Mansion (Lugang Minsu Wenwuguan/Ding Jia Gucuo)
The stately and elegant European resident of the Koo family was built in 1920, at the time of the Japanese rule.
The Koos are, until today, one of the most powerful families in Taiwan – they still own conglomerates and banks.
This clan has always successfully managed to sail between the Ching emperors, the Japanese and Kuomintang. Long ago, in 1973, the Koos donated the building to the government that turned it into a museum.
The name of the museum, Folk Arts, is misleading. A significant part of the exhibition is dedicated to fine items – clothing, brocades, furniture, books and so on – than belonged to wealthy families, probably including the same Koos.
Therefore is a museum of considerable value and interest.
The entrance to the museum costs 130 NTD (this is the only attraction in Lukang where you have to pay a fee, but it’s worth it). The museum is open from 9AM to 5PM and is closed on Monday. Click here for the Museum English Web Site.
Nearby the Museum, on the same square, you can see a small garden and the back door of the home of another wealthy family, the Dings. This house, built in traditional style, has been carefully restored and open to the public recently.
The Dings were merchants, however this house was built when one of their members became a Mandarin.
The residence houses memorabilia of this event, including the wooden ensign that preceded the sedan chair of the officer.
The house was composed of three units, each one narrow (4.5 meters each) and long (77 meters), combined together along the longer side.
The modern Taiwanese “row houses” you can spot everywhere are still inspired by this model (even if they are not so long).
The home of Ding was anyway the residence of a rich family, built in the Minnan style, according to the principle of San Kan San Jin Er Yuan, that means three units side by side, each of them made by three different houses separated by two shared courtyards. The courtyards are actually three, not two, as the back of the house has a tiny garden.
The granite slabs paving the courtyards came to Taiwan from China as ships’ ballast.
The Dings, quite a number of them today living in Taisi, Yunlin County, were originally Muslim. Over time they completely assimilated to the rest of the Taiwanese (the Chinese have often fully absorbed peoples of different cultures). They retained some customs, such as not to offer pork to the ancestors. At the time when the Ding residence was built it is said they still regarded the Koran as a holy book, that however, they were no longer able to read.
Ding Family Mansion, that can be accessed for free, is also a very convenient short cut, between Zhongshan Road and the Folk Art Museum.
How to get to and and around Lukang
As I mentioned above, Lukang is close Taichung and Changhua, so it can be visited as a day trip from those two cities.
There are plenty of free parking lots around the center (which are filled with pilgrims during the Mazu festivals). From the parkings often there are only a few tens of meters to the center.
There are buses from the following places:
- Taipei – 6 each day with Ubus from the new Taipei Bus Station (350 NTD – 3-4 hours)
- Taichung – Changhua Bus provides frequent departures from both the HSR station (#6936) and the Main Railway Station (#6933).
- Changhua – again Changhua Bus from Changhua Railway Station
- All buses stop in front of Changhua Christian Hospital in Lukang (see map below).
You can easily explore Lukang on foot – the signs in English are rather good and we never had any problem.
However, the two Visitor Centers rent bicycles (nominally free of charge but you have to purchase souvenirs at the Visitor Center) and provide information about the free shuttle bus and pedicabs – the latter costs 600 NTD per 90 minutes.
Do not forget to pick up the free maps in English – they are quite good and provide plenty of informations about handicrafts and delicacies.
The video above shows one more way to get to Lukang from Taichung.