When discussing an upcoming trip to Taiwan with friends, they hastily assume a stay in Taipei is in order. There’s the inevitable list of recommendations – “Go here! Eat this!” – and who can blame them for their enthusiasm? In addition to being a street food mecca, Taipei is a bustling centre of culture, music, shopping and nightlife.
This time around, though, a direct flight has been booked from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung.
“Oh, I’ve never been there,” your friends might say – and it’s a fairly common sentiment. Kaohsiung is not on most travellers’ radars, but it deserves to be. Situated along the Taiwan Strait on the southwestern end of the island, the port city of more than 2 million people has emerged as a surprisingly hip art hub. It boasts near-empty beaches and peaceful pagodas, plus more eccentric attractions like art exhibits housed in old industrial warehouses. The main sights can easily be packaged into a weekend trip, but after experiencing the laidback vibe of Kaohsiung, you might be tempted to extend your stay.
Over the years, Kaohsiung has undergone a remarkable transformation from a small trading centre to Taiwan’s most important port, not to mention a thriving industrial city known for its steel, shipbuilding and petrochemical industries. However, at one point in the city’s history, industry took a hit as Kaohsiung shifted to the service sector. Dozens of 1970s-era warehouses along the harbour were shuttered and abandoned.
That makes it all the more surprising to witness the revitalisation of these warehouses in recent years – not as an industrial accessory, but as an art hub. A group of local artists with a vision for a central art outlet in Kaohsiung got together in 2001 and founded the Pier-2 Artistic Development Association. The idea proved to be a runaway success, and since then the centre has hosted cutting-edge workshops, art installations and annual festivals, including the International Steel & Iron Sculpture Festival, and the International Container Art Festival (where bland shipping containers are transformed into works of art).
“It’s surprising to see Kaohsiung’s revitalisation of old warehouses – not as an industrial accessory, but as an art hub”
Hong Kong artist Veron Sung opened a studio at Pier-2 just last month as part of the art center’s artist-in residency programme. “There’s a massive amount of public art (in Kaohsiung),” she says. “Most of the sculptures along the sea have been upcycled from the metal of old ships.
“My last two studios in Hong Kong were also revitalised factory buildings: JCCAC (Shek Kip Mei) and the ADC Artspace (Wong Chuk Hang). I exhibited in huge abandoned warehouses in mainland China at the Shenzhen Biennale of Contemporary Art, and in South Korea too. Warehouses turned into art spaces are a global trend.”
A Pier-2 pass grants visitors access to a contemporary art exhibit and the Memories of Pier-2 Warehouse exhibit about the area’s history. Guests can also go up to the roof of a tower with views overlooking the harbour and several quirky, mural-covered buildings. Plus, visitors get to ride through the center’s courtyards on the world’s most adorable miniature train – a tribute to Kaohsiung’s first railway station. Beyond the warehouse are the actual tracks of the city’s historic railroad, which visitors can traipse along while viewing public art installations made from steel and iron.
In addition to serving up a healthy dose of history, Pier-2 offers fun in abundance. It’s home to an outdoor swing-set suspended from an overpass, two oddly shaped water-spraying sculptures and a wire humpback whale hanging above the pavement. There’s also a collectible shop called Lulu the Dimpled Cat, which showcases a bizarre array of plastic dinosaurs, old photographs in jars, Star Wars collectibles, musty books and misfit toys.
After getting your fill of artistic inspiration, hail a taxi and head on over to the former British Consulate at Takao. Built in 1879, it was home to the first British consulate in Taiwan. After perusing the historical exhibits at the foot of the hill, grab a refreshing English rose tea from the café and start heading up the stone steps to the consulate building. Even those who aren’t history buffs will marvel at the panoramic views of the harbour – especially at sunset.
At nighttime, the scenic Love River beckons. Opt for a stroll along the river banks or, if you prefer to rest your weary feet, take a short cruise up and down the canal. The reflection of the city lights on the water and sound of street performers crooning Taiwanese ballads create a romantic setting. If you’re lucky enough to visit Kaohsiung in early February or June, you might just catch the annual Lantern Festival or Dragon Boat races, respectively.
After a night of rest at one of Kaohsiung’s luxurious hotels, like the Grand Hi Lai or Hotel Indigo, there’s no better way to kick off another day of sightseeing than by enjoying a spot of breakfast at Wu Pao Chun bakery. The world-famous bakery offers the best of both Western and Asian recipes and serves a variety of pizzas, meat and cheese-stuffed breads, buns, pastries, tarts and much more. It’s famous for its red wine longan wheat bread, a truly unique flavour that has garnered numerous awards at international baking competitions. Expect a long line inside the store, and if it’s rush hour, a line outside as well.
From there, head to the blissful Lotus Pond to see the colourful Dragon and Tiger Pagodas. Legend has it that if you rub money on the statue in front of the dragon pagoda and sleep with the bill under your pillow for three nights, a financial windfall will come your way. Be sure to enter the pagodas through the dragon’s throat and exit through the tiger’s mouth – a symbol of good fortune. The nearby Spring and Autumn Pavilions on the pond are a tribute to Kuan Kung, the Chinese God of War. In addition, there are plenty of stunning temples nearby, and a 24-metre statue of Taoist god Xuan Tian Shang Di that can’t be missed.
Later that evening, head to the bustling Liuhe Night Market for some street food. Vendors line the street selling a tantalising selection of treats: grilled squid, dumplings, grilled beef and leek rolls, stuffed crab shells, papaya milk, fish ball soup and more seafood.
For those with stronger stomachs, duck tongues and stir-fried snake can also be sampled.
However, if fine dining is more to your taste, fret not – you won’t go home hungry. Harbour Restaurant, located inside the Grand Hi Lai Hotel, offers an indulgent buffet of sushi, seafood, dumplings, roasted meats and other Western and Asian delicacies. And naturally, there’s an impressive view of the harbour. French restaurant J’Adore and dumpling staple Din Tai Fung also come highly recommended.
For those with more time to kill in Kaohsiung, Cijin Island (accessible by a short ferry ride) is well worth a visit. The beach is practically empty on weekdays, and carriage-style electric bikes that can seat up to four people are available for rent. While cruising along the seaside, you might encounter an enormous seashell sculpture – the perfect backdrop for snapping some selfies. Also located on Cijin is the Kaohsiung Lighthouse, situated next to the historic Cihou Fort (which offers one of the best views of the island). After visiting these two attractions, be sure to follow the tiny path that leads to a well-hidden tunnel carved out of the hillside and, beyond that, to a “secret” viewpoint along the water. The picturesque trail is surrounded by nothing but crashing waves, flowering cacti and a few idle passersby – just perfect for a leisurely stroll with a view.
Come dinner time, Ya Jiao Seafood Restaurant is just the ticket for some of the freshest and tastiest seafood that Cijin Island has to offer. The prawns are delivered straight to the restaurant from the fishing boats anchored outside.
Back in Kaohsiung City, shopaholics will find something to their liking at Dream Mall, the largest mall in Taiwan. It’s not all retail outlets, either. In addition to the ferris wheel and miniature carnival on the rooftop, the mall also boasts a cinema, arcade and expansive food court plus a go-kart track, laser tag centre and BB gun shooting range in the basement. Thrill seekers may also want to check out the nearby Taroko Park, which has a bigger and better-priced go-kart track that is modelled after Japan’s famous Suzuka circuit.
After a day of amusement, it’s time to head back to the airport – just one stop away on the subway. Visitors to Kaohsiung who expected it to be just like Taipei will undoubtedly leave disappointed by the city’s slower pace and smaller scale. Adjust your expectations a smidge, though, and you might be pleasantly surprised by Kaohsiung’s many artistic and cultural quirks.
Text: Emily Petsko