Wanhua (萬華; wànhúa) district, bounded by Zhongzheng to the east and the Danshui River to the west, is the oldest part of the city. Founded by immigrants from China in the early eighteenth century, the village was gradually absorbed by newly created Taipei in the 1890s. Originally known as Bangka or Manka in Taiwanese (from the Ketagalan word for “canoe”), its name was changed by the Japanese in 1920: the new characters read “Manka” in Japanese but “Wanhua” in Chinese. It’s best explored on foot – some of the city’s most famous temples and markets remain squashed between modern apartment blocks and to the north, Ximending is one of Taipei’s funkier neighbourhoods.
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The most important of Wanhua’s “big three” temples (the others being Qingshui and Qingshan), Longshan Temple (龍山寺; lóngshān sì) is the ideal place to soak up Taiwan’s vibrant religious traditions. Located a block north of Longshan Temple MRT Station across Mangka Park, the temple was established in 1738 (making it Taipei’s oldest), renovated 1919–1924 and partially rebuilt after US bombing destroyed much of the complex during World War II. It’s principally a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, but there are more than a hundred deities worshipped here, mostly from the Taoist pantheon.
The main entrance on Guangzhou Street borders a pleasant courtyard, replete with artificial waterfall on the right-hand side. Before entering the temple proper, take a look at the two dragon pillars outside the Front Hall, the only bronze pair in Taiwan. Once inside you’ll see prayer tables and worshippers facing the Main Hall in the centre where Guanyin is enshrined – the principal image of the goddess has proved virtually indestructible over the years, surviving local conflicts, earthquakes and even the US bombing. Note the two gold censers (incense burners) in front of the hall, with their vivid cast images of “silly barbarians lifting a corner of the temple”, supposedly eighteenth-century depictions of the Dutch. This is the busiest part of the temple, but the deity-packed Rear Hall also receives a steady stream of visitors. The goddess Mazu is worshipped in the centre and fringed by guāngmíng lights, each representing a donation made in the hope of attracting good fortune. To the far right is a separate shrine dedicated to the gods of literature, primarily Wenchang Dijun in the middle, patronized by students and anxious parents at examination time. Guan Di occupies the shrine on the far left and in front of this in a side hall is a newer altar dedicated to the Matchmaker, a sort of Chinese cupid.