Let’s Go on a Walk through Dalin, in Chiayi County!
Text: Han Cheung; Photos: Maggie Song
A small town in rural southern Taiwan, Dalin is a travel destination about which you most likely have never heard. This obscurity may soon be a thing of the past, however, for it has been recognized by the Italy-based Cittaslow International organization as a “slow town.” To find out what Dalin has to offer the “slow traveler,” your best bet is to go on a tour led by a knowledgeable local guide.
Hsu Kai-hsing says that the longest tour of downtown Dalin he has ever given lasted seven hours. In truth, calling it a “downtown” is a stretch, but the old core of this sleepy town just to the east of National Freeway No. 1 in northern Chiayi County has plenty of character, and younger business owners like Hsu have joined forces to create a memorable day-tour experience for visitors.
Affectionately nicknamed “My Darling” in English by locals due to the “Dalin/Darling” phonological similarity, this seemingly nondescript town is one of four in Taiwan to be certified by Cittaslow International (www.cittaslow.org) as a “slow town.” The organization selects municipalities that promote environmentally-friendly measures, such as supporting organic agriculture, that serve to improve citizens’ quality of life while capitalizing on local existing charms to attract visitors. The idea is that travelers are more likely to make a connection with the local people and culture by visiting these types of places.
Dalin Railway Station
Hsu is the third-generation owner of Taicheng, a business selling traditional Chinese medicines. His 60-year-old shop and a new hands-on museum next door are among the highlights of his guided tour, which begins at the Dalin Railway Station. Like the town itself, the station may at first glance look quite ordinary. But Hsu proudly notes that it is Taiwan’s first green railway station. He explains that energy for the station is derived from a unique design that utilizes solar and wind power, while the station also has a rainwater collection system and water-saving faucets.
Japanese-style station master dormitory
The railway station sets the tone for the rest of the tour. Only when you slow down, soak in the atmosphere, and look for the minute details will you discover Dalin’s true charms. The restored wooden Japanese-style station master dormitory, about 50 meters north of the station, immediately stands out from its surroundings. With its lush “golden rain trees” in front, it is a prime venue for photoshoots, particularly during the trees’ late spring/early summer bloom. The building and the trees are especially photogenic in the evening, when the yellow blossoms are illuminated from below and light from the inside of the building shines through its checkerboard windows.
Mr. Hsu next takes visitors to Dalin’s “main drag,” Zhongshan Road, which starts directly opposite the railway station’s front entrance. It’s a narrow street lined with eateries and shops, a number of which are of particular interest.
Dalin Stinky Tofu
One eatery you’ll pass immediately on the left side as you enter the street is Dalin Stinky Tofu, probably the best-known establishment around the station. It has a distinct odor that is noticeable almost from the moment you exit the station. Perfectly crispy on the outside, but surprisingly tender and juicy on the inside, the scrumptious tofu served here is topped off with sweetened pickled cabbage, with the option of homemade dried-fish chili sauce and garlic puree. A few shops further down the street you’ll also have the chance to try some turkey rice, a Chiayi specialty.
From the stinky tofu eatery, Hsu takes visitors into a narrow alley lined with one-story wood-and-concrete structures that were built many decades ago. Then, along an even smaller side alley, you’ll pass Barbizon, a French cooking school and restaurant run by Ho Mao-jung, a former hotel executive chef who has retired to his hometown. Ho says he spent many years beautifying his place and its surroundings using recycled or found materials, creating what now resembles a quaint European-style rustic garden. Ho only accepts one set of customers per day, and makes sure he uses up all the fresh ingredients he has purchased that day.
No. 63 Park
Further on, the alley is lined with colorfully painted low walls. A charming maze of walkways and pavilions beautify No. 63 Park, which was once the site of a smelly, unsightly garbage dump and a few shabby houses. Through community efforts, the area was cleaned up and beautified with natural decorations, murals, garden art, and large stone bricks rescued by residents one-by-one from a stretch of the nearby main street before it was repaved with asphalt.
Taicheng Traditional Chinese Medicine shop
At the far end of the park is a path connecting to Zhongshan Road, close to where Hsu’s Taicheng Traditional Chinese Medicine shop is located. He says that, to go with the times, he has shifted the store’s focus from healing to health maintenance. Visitors are treated to cups of the shop’s home brews, such as black bean tea with black sesame, fleeceflower root, and stevia, which helps maintain a healthy and shiny head of hair, as well as a roselle tea that soothes indigestion. Hsu has kept the storefront pretty much the same as in the old days, and points out that his medicine cabinet is likely over 100 years old, as his grandfather bought it second-hand.
The real highlight here, however, is the traditional Chinese medicine museum next door, located in a 60-year-old residence. It’s filled with both traditional and modern medicine-related equipment that visitors can try, such as scales and grinders, and Hsu takes the time to explain the function of each piece. For those curious about more exotic medicinal matters, there are also displays of tiger and snake penises. Through glass openings in the wood floor, visitors can see the beautiful and intricate original floor tiles underneath. With up to 300 visitors a day, it makes sense to cover them up. The shop also has an array of fascinating antiques not related to pharmacopoeia, such as TV sets with dials and a working phonograph.
Ten Trust Eyewear
Next door on Zhongshan Road is Ten Trust Eyewear, run by Chuang Han-lin, who returned home from Taipei to take over his father’s shop. He hired a Taichung architect to transform the Japanese-era interior into a minimalist Scandinavian-style concrete-and-wood boutique that still retains much of its original, raw charm. The optometry-exam room is uniquely located – a glass enclosure beyond the wooden counter.
The final stop on Hsu’s tour, and a true gem of this downtown area, is the painstakingly restored Wanguo Theater, which among other things features faded vintage posters on its facade and a board indicating ticket prices of NT$10 for adults and NT$6 for children.
“This was one of five theaters in town,” Hsu says. “It is a testament of how bustling Dalin used to be – today’s Chiayi City only has three.”
After being closed down, the theater languished until it was chosen as a filming site for the 2016 Taiwan period-drama television series Abula. Anti-communist slogans and signs reminding people to speak Mandarin Chinese when using public transport take visitors back to its heyday.
Dalin Sugar Factory
Not on Hsu’s tour, and a bit north of Dalin town, is the Dalin Sugar Factory. There isn’t much to see for the average traveler, but it is definitely a hit with people who like abandoned, decaying structures and eerie atmospheres, especially history buffs. Also, the on-site Taiwan Sugar general store has tasty ice cream. A 7km bike path that takes you past the factory buildings and out into local rural backroads begins here. But note that you’ll need to bring your own bike, as there is no rental shop in the area.
Hsu says that there’s much more to see in Dalin than can be covered on one of his guided tours, and recommends that visitors stay at least a full day or two for a full Cittaslow experience.
“Visiting a nearby hands-on farm will already take you half a day,” he says. “We want people to experience and feel our local way of life in depth.”
If you’re interested in going on a walking tour of Dalin town, contact Mr. Hsu Kai-hsing by calling the Taicheng Traditional Chinese Medicine shop at (05) 265-2563.