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Why are there so many churches in Keelung?

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Keelung, Taiwan: a city that attracts tourists from far and wide with its ornate temples, scattered shrines, and peaceful pockets of Buddhist and Taoist spirituality. Any Westerner who is lucky enough to find themselves in Taiwan will quickly be struck by the abundance of temples which decorate the quiet streets, bringing them to life with glowing red lanterns and the waft of incense. 93% of Taiwan identify as Buddhist, Taoist, or Taiwanese folk religion. Only 4% of the island’s population consider themselves Christian (ROC Ministry of the Interior). Yet anyone wandering the bustling streets of Keelung cannot ignore the high frequency of churches they pass. This begs the question: Why are there so many churches in Keelung?

A walk through the churches of Keelung

Dotted throughout the urban landscape of Keelung, you will find numerous churches which dominate the city’s architectural design, and contribute to a vaguely Christian feeling. Although ‘Christianity’ in Taiwan refers to Protestantism, Keelung boasts an impressive array of Baptist, Catholic and even Jehovah’s Witness places of worship. A quick google maps search for ‘church’ reveals no fewer than 18 churches lining the city’s central canal.

Glory, Baptist Church, Keelung
Glory Baptist Church (浸信會榮光堂)

 

But it was on a walk past Zhongzheng Park that the role of Christianity in Keelung really stood out to me. As I privately admired the grandeur of nearby Buddhist temples and tourist-trodden havens of Eastern spirituality, an older lady tentatively approached me as if to ask for help. My first thought was that she wanted me to take a photo of her and her daughter, or perhaps that she was about to ask for directions. But to my surprise, she opened the conversation boldly, with one simple question, first in Chinese, and then in repeated in English: “Do you know the mystery of life?”

It took me more than a few seconds to realize I had just been targeted by a Taiwanese missionary, outside a cluster of Buddhist temples, as a European tourist in Asia. Perhaps it was my Western ignorance, but the roles seemed to be ironically reversed in this situation. As I encouraged her to speak Chinese with me, she began narrating the familiar tale of Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and resurrection, but this time in another tongue to what I had been used to. We struggled through the verbal exchange: she accused me of ‘forsaking’ the Lord I knew in my childhood, I fumbled over excuses to leave an increasingly uncomfortable conversation.

churches in keelung use local missionaries to further the faith
A booklet from a local missionary: The Mystery of Human Life.

 

And then I mustered the courage to ask her why she had approached me of all people, considering my impression that the people of Keelung were more partial to Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, whilst it was Westerners that tended to be Christian. Her response was, roughly translated, ‘the Taiwanese people have suffered a lot’, and the Church offers a spiritual pillar in the face of a long history of political, economic, and psychological struggles. Despite only 4% of Taiwan’s population being Christian, it was clear to me that believers found a strong sense of belonging and spiritual consolation in their beliefs about God. This was not a ‘western’-style Christianity, as historically forced upon the locals by foreign colonizers and missionaries, but a uniquely ‘Taiwanese’ version of Christianity. Churches in Keelung harmonized with and reinforced local and national identity. It offered many people solace.

聖母升天堂
Ruoshi Kindergarten of Catholic Archdiocese of Taipei

A brief history of Christianity in Taiwan

Christianity was introduced to the island of Formosa by the Dutch and Spanish colonists of the 17th century. Whilst the Catholic Spanish had limited success in converting the island’s northern part between 1626-1642, the Dutch made great sweeps in introducing Protestantism to Taiwanese aboriginals between 1624-1668. They aimed to ‘further the faith’ and improve cooperation, reducing conflicts between the European colonizers and the Taiwanese aboriginals.

After the Dutch were ousted by the Han Chinese (1662), Christianity was almost fully extinguished on the island. Save for a few, remote indigenous communities, the Ming dynasty successfully stamped out traces of Western Christianity and fostered strong beliefs in Confucianism and Asian spirituality. This was until the fateful Treaty of Tianjin (1858), when the defeated Qing China was forced to open the great gates to the West. The government had no choice but to sign off on opening trading ports, welcoming foreign settlers, and allowing an influx of Western missionaries into the kingdom of China, which included Taiwan.

Missionaries in Taiwan

Since then, Taiwan became a hotspot for missionaries. Dr James Ma came in 1865 and established the British Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. Reverend Mackay came in 1872 and set up the Canadian Presbyterian Church. Spanish Dominican missionaries came through the Philippines and helped the Catholic Church take root.

Christianity in Taiwan has a long history
Taiwan’s first female evangelists. Source: Taipei Times.

 

Even during the Japanese colonial period from 1895-1945, the presence of Christianity in Taiwan did not waver. Despite Japan’s attempt to ‘Japanize’ the island and crackdown on Christian practices to promote Japanese-style spirituality, Churches protected their right to exist as they were key players in implementing imperial policy and cooperating with the colonial authorities.

But it was after World War Two that Christianity really flourished in Taiwan. In a dramatic unfolding of events from China’s Civil War, the Nationalists fled from the Mainland to Taiwan. And with them came swarms of Christians, missionaries, priests, churches, and believers, fleeing the oncoming slaughter of religious groups in a new, violently atheist version of Communist China. Taiwan offered a safe place for religious groups to retreat from the Mainland; and Keelung, as the northernmost port on the island, was a natural first point of refuge.

What’s so special about Keelung?

Throughout Taiwan’s long and complicated history, Keelung has remained an important city for connection and exchange. When Qing Taiwan opened its borders to Western missionaries after 1858, many arrived by boat through Keelung’s harbour. When the Kuomintang and Mainland Christians fled China after 1949, many settled on the island via its northernmost port of access, Keelung. As a city separated from the capital, Taipei, by a mere 30 kilometers, Keelung has always been, and will always remain to be, a key site of trade, exchange, culture, and communication.

Nowadays, Taiwan’s freedom of religion is seen as a pillar of democracy, held in direct opposition with the Chinese Communist Party’s controlled atheism. The very fact that Christianity flourishes in Keelung loudly declares the city’s embrace of democracy and diversity, and it is a symbol of how Keelung connects with people from all over the world.

So, in the end, it makes sense that Keelung has so many churches.

 

Screenshot 2024 03 20 115914
Churches in Keelung along Tianliao River. Source: Google Maps.

 

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