The Takao Club

The Road to Bankimcheng

The Takao Club

The Road to Bankimcheng

     Among the Westerners who left a particular mark on southern Taiwan, perhaps none stands out so much as the Spanish Dominican priest, Fernando Sainz.

     As one of the first Westerners to legally enter Taiwan following the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin, Father Sainz not only founded two of southern Taiwan’s finest churches, but also played a timely role in the protection of the Makatau people.

     When the Spanish and the Dutch had come to Taiwan in the 17th century there were very few Chinese people. The plains of southwest Taiwan at that time were populated by the Siraya and Makatau, who hunted deer and practised swidden agriculture (slash and burn). These placid people proved ready converts to Christianity, yet found themselves progressively usurped from their land by the subsequent waves of Chinese settlers, whose 'modern' agricultural skills were more suited to a landlord society.

Father Fernando Sainz


(Photograph courtesy of the Dominican Church)

The Mission  

The first church in Kaohsiung c. 1863

      Father Sainz was sent to Taiwan by the Spanish Dominicans to restore the Christian mission that had been interrupted by Koxinga some 200 years earlier. Whilst the Dutch had missions in south Taiwan and the Spanish in north Taiwan, the Spanish had still regarded the Netherlands as their colony until 1648.

     After arriving at Kaohsiung in May 1859, Father Sainz soon lost his travelling companion, Father Bofurull, and found himself sleeping alone on the beach. 

     However, with the help of a foreign opium dealer (Rooney), who vouchsafed for him, and the leader of a gang of thieves, who gave him lodging, Sainz gained a foothold on the island. His dogged perseverance eventually saw him obtain the land upon which he built the first church in Kaohsiung in 1861.

     Today’s Holy Rosary Cathedral, built in 1929, now stands adjacent to the site of the original building on Wu-fu Road near Kaohsiung Bridge.  

   One of  Father Sainz’s missions was to succour any of those Christian families that might be still remaining in Taiwan.

     In this quest he was induced to travel due east to the Makatau settlement of Bankimcheng (Wan-chin) at the foot of the Central Mountain Range, to where the Makatau had been pushed by the progressive encroachments of the Hakka and Hokkien peoples. 

     The Makatau at Wan-chin embraced Father Sainz as a protector and accepted his teachings, allowing the mission at Bankimcheng to be founded in 1861.

     Subsequent disputes with the neighbouring Hakka and the mountain-dwelling Paiwan, as well as earthquakes, would see the early missions destroyed again and again until the present fortress-like edifice was built in 1869.

Wanchin church in 1870

(Photograph courtesy of the Dominican Church)

A group of converts at Bankimcheng Church in 1903

(Photograph courtesy of the Dominican Church)

     Sainz travelled frequently between Kaohsiung and Wanchin, often moving at night and skirting the towns in order to avoid robbery or worse. 

    In the interests of safety for himself and his converts, he broke his journey at the little mission of Kaoakhi, which lay half a day on foot from Kaohsiung and two hours before Wanchin. 

     The Kaoakhi mission stood in a fertile and thus well-contested area. As a result the isolated station had to be rebuilt three times after violent destructions in the 1860s and 1870s at the hands of mobs instilled with a fear of foreigners and Catholics in particular following the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion.    

     Notably Father Sainz was kidnapped by Hakka settlers in late 1867 and successfully held to a ransom of fifty pesos (Mexican Silver Dollars). This incident would eventually lead to the controversial 1868 shelling of Tainan, in assertion of treaty rights, by the British (Acting) Consul Gibson, who was subsequently recalled.

     By retracing Sainz’s steps today one can learn more about Taiwan’s history and enjoy some very particular sights.  

The Road to Kaoakhi

     The route out of Kaohsiung skirts the airport and crosses the Kao-ping River at Wan-ta (Great) Bridge on the new Provincial Highway 88. The highway arrives in Pingtung County at She-pi Village, whose fertile soil was long occupied by the Siraya people. Today they seem to have been wholly assimilated by the Hokkien who intermarried readily with the Sirayan women. Indeed, the Taiwanese word ‘kan-chiu’, meaning ‘wife’, is derived directly from the Sirayan language.

     Skirting Wan-tan on Provincial Highway 27 and taking Hsien Highway 189 towards Chao-chou one soon crosses the Ai-liao River. The route prior to the insignificant river passes numerous betel-nut vendor kiosks, staffed by jauntily-clad 'bin-lang princesses', signalling the entry into the betel-nut growing areas, or the home of 'green gold'. 

      However, before the Japanese built the massive dykes at Shui-men, the Ai-liao River was one of the mightiest and most dangerous in the Pingtung plains. 

     The first village beyond the river is Kaoakhi, where nothing seemingly remains of the little mission

     In Kaoakhi the Hsien Highway 82 branches towards Chu-tien, passing through areca palm (betel-nut) orchards and into Hakka country. Deviating a little from Father Sainz’s path, at Chu-tien one can head north towards Mei-ho on Provincial Highway 1 to understand more about the Hakka and the power of water.  

Kaoakhi sign amidst the areca palms

Hakka Country  

     During the Ching Dynasty the Hakka community in the southern plains of Taiwan had set up a militia system based on the 'Six Camps' or 'Liu-tui', located at: Lin-lo; Nei-pu; Ping-tung; Chia-tung; Chu-tien and Wanluan. These camps were to safeguard and expand the Hakka hold on the plains. As such, they came to inevitable conflict with the existing 'Eight Villages' of the Makatau.

     Thus, Father Sainz's route would pass straight through the heart of the Hakka area, with Wanchin being pinned between the 'Hou-tui' (Nei-pu) and 'Hsien-feng-tui' (Wanluan), meaning 'Pioneer Camp'.

     The Tseng clan house in Mei-ho, though modest and somewhat rebuilt, is a very rare example of a U-shaped Hakka layout known as Weilung wu. Such Hakka structures were an integral part of the 'Six Camps' (Liu-tui) network.

     The semi-circular northern side of the building shows both the defensive structure of the Hakka roundhouses of south China as well as a geomantic focus on the central ancestral shrine. The front gate, though recently remodelled, still shows the circular gun ports that were used to fend off unwanted visitors. 


An aerial view of the Tseng clan house at Mei-ho

(Blue Tungkang River Environmental Council)

     Many other interesting Hakka sites around the Nei-pu and Chu-tien area can be found with the help of the friendly little Pingtung Plains Cultural Association just north of the gas station as one enters Mei-ho on Provincial, at 88 Hsueh-jen Road, Mei-ho Village, Nei-pu Hsiang; Tel: (08) 769-0095.

(Above and right) Details of a private house in Nei-pu Hsiang, near Pingtung City

      The lane beside the Tseng family home leads off across the Tung-kang River toward Ssu-kou and Wu-kou Villages and on to the Wanchin Basilica. The word ‘ditch’ (kou), in the village names of Ssu-kou (4 ditch) and Wu-kou (5 ditch), refers to the irrigation channels dug in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Hakkas. These irrigation channels tended to marginalize the Makatau and led to fierce struggles over water rights between the two groups. 

      It was to secure an irrigation source that the Dominicans, utilising the privileges granted under the 1860 (Sino-French) Convention of Peking, purchased greater land holdings around Wanchin, thus ensuring both the self-sufficiency of the community and the church’s dominance over their lives.

The Tung-kang River below the bridge between Mei-ho and Ssu-kou

     Before the tiny village of Ssu-kou the road crosses a normally quiet country stream that is the Tung-kang River. This seemingly placid stream becomes such a raging torrent following storms or typhoons that until very recent times Ho-shin and Ssu-kou had only very tenuous links: in the rainy season there was a ferry: and in the dry season a bamboo bridge was built that would invariably be swept away the next year. 

      Since 1996 the two communities have been joined together by a steel bridge that was built, in typically self-sufficient Hakka fashion, by public subscription. The details of this story are amply recorded on the stele standing on the east of the bridge.

     Continuing on to Wu-kou, one finds a village dominated by the clan house of the Liu family. The building, which dates from 1864, is shown in the photograph on the right. Note the areca palms (betel-nut trees) behind the building, reflecting new wealth; and the irrigation ditch to the front, reflecting power.

     A tablet beside the porch relates that the family is directly descended from the Han emperor of some two thousand years ago and implies that the Hakka were political refugees in Taiwan, not economic refugees like the Hokkien. The characters (tai-i-chung-kuang) behind the entrance show the clan’s desire to recover China, a recurrent theme in Taiwan’s history.

     The swallowtail roof over the porch and central shrine reflect the Mandarin status of the family, which held extensive properties prior to the 1956 land reforms.

The Liu clan house in Wu-kou Village, Wan-luan


     From Wu-kou it is but a short way to Wanchin, nestled beneath the imposing mountain fasts of the Paiwan. The church, now a basilica minore, has been extensively restored and rebuilt over the years, with only the main walls remaining of the 1869 structure. Above the portal is the stone tablet which conferred the Ching Emperor’s protection to the church and its congregation.  

Wanchin Church in the 1950s

(Photograph courtesy the Dominican Church)

     Wanchin today passes much of the year as a sleepy cluster of humble dwellings where some 80% of the people are Catholic and most are Makatau. However, on the second Sunday in December, at the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and at Christmas, thousands will converge on the village from all over Taiwan to celebrate.    

Wanchin Basilica today

    Much more information about the church and its activities can be found at their bilingual website


     At the end of a journey one’s thoughts turn to food. Some excellent noodles can be found in front of the basilica gates at Wanchin, appropriately enough in Hakka style after all the enmity has become history. 

     For a weightier repast, or especially to stock up for a picnic, an excellent choice is to head back to the district town of  Wan-luan to sample its famous pork leg.

     Here it seems that every little restaurant or even hotel was once patronised by the late president Chiang Ching-kuo.

     People and the signs of the exasperated will soon direct the curious to the street near the main municipal market which specialises in this particular delicacy.

     The women here will be only too keen to sell you the braised legs and knuckles and to cut them up into convenient eatable chunks accompanied by bags of a special sauce. The nearby Wan-luan market teems with cheap fresh produce, including mountain delicacies.

'Pig-leg Street' in Wan-luan

Sculpture on a bridge heading up to Lai-yi


     Wanchin now has parishes in the mountain districts; a practice that was foolhardy under Ching Dynasty rule and forbidden during Japanese colonial times.

     One such modern-day parish is that at Lai-yi, which lies about five miles south of Wanchin on Route 185.

     Lai-yi, with its waterfall, is Paiwan territory, whose inhabitants for many years resisted outside domination, be it from the Dutch, the Hakka, or the Japanese. 

      With the recent resurgence of their primacy, their colourful pride in their identity is to be savoured as one wends one way up into the mountain coolness to relax.

The Takao Club

The Road to Bankimcheng

The Takao Club