Beitou Hot Spring Museum – A Community Affair

Museum exterior - Beitou Hot Spring Museum

The Beitou Hot Spring Musuem’s architecture is a combination of Victorian style with traditional Japanese elements.

Bathing in History

A little over one hundred years ago, in 1911, the Japanese colonial authorities in Taiwan commenced the building of a public bath house in the northern suburbs of the island’s colonial capital, Taipei. Beitou – or Hokuto, as it was then called by the Japanese – had developed a well-deserved reputation as a hot spring resort and its waters had achieved renown throughout the Japanese empire for their unique qualities. Yet bathing in hot springs was an exclusive, expensive affair, and beyond the means of even most Japanese residents. The Beitou Hot Spring Public Bath was opened to Japanese members of the public in 1913, and charged what was deemed to be an affordable price for entry. The building’s architecture combined strong Victorian characteristics – reflecting the Japanese empire’s admiration for, and desire to emulate, British imperial practice – with traditional Japanese style, particularly on the structure’s second floor and roof, resulting in an impressive and, for its time, brave architectural hybrid. Guests visiting the bath house for the first time must have been impressed by both the building’s cosmopolitan grandeur, and its peaceful rustic setting, sandwiched between the waters of Beitou Creek and the forested slopes of Datun Shan. Inside, the Public Bath contained a serene, contemplative lobby room, verandas with views looking out over the surrounding countryside and mountains, and, of course, the large hot spring bath itself surrounded by grandiose pillars, arched walkways, patterned floor tiles, and stained glass windows. Imperial Rome, too, was another of the building’s design inspirations.

Main bath hall, Beitou Hot Spring Museum

Beitou Hot Spring Museum’s main bath hall has distinct Roman architectural elements with its grand columns and arches.

A Community Cause

Within 80 years of opening, the building had fallen into a parlous state of disrepair and dereliction. Abandoned, unmaintained, and with its original identity fast disappearing from collective memory, by the 1990s the local government had planned to demolish the bath house in order to turn the site into a cable car station for the planned (but now abandoned) Yangming Shan gondola. When a local teacher began exploring the building on field-trips in the local area with her students, the bath house was an atmospheric ruin, desirable only to film crews looking for spooky movie sets. Ms. Huang Kuei-Kuan ( 黃桂冠 ), a teacher at Beitou Elementary School, was interested in the ‘hometown education’ movement, which promoted knowledge of local history and culture as a remedy to the restrictive, China-focused, curriculum administered by the government for decades after 1945. Many Taiwanese children and young adults had been left with little or no knowledge of their island’s own history, and in the case of Beitou this meant an ignorance of the area’s aboriginal, settler, and Japanese histories. Ms. Huang’s admirable efforts to advance local cultural knowledge among her students resulted in their (re)discovery of the old public bath house and the development of a strong community attachment to Beitou’s heritage. Ms. Huang, her students, and numerous other members of the community petitioned the Taipei city government to prevent the bath house’s demolition, request that it be listed as a designated historical building, and demand that it be transformed into a museum. In 1996 the government responded to this heartfelt movement and the building received listed status. By late 1998 the old public bath had been renovated and restored to its former glory, opening in October of that year as the Beitou Hot Spring Musuem. Through sustained activism and strong community participation, Beitou had succeeded in protecting one of its most important cultural assets and embarking on a voyage to rediscover its abundant local history.

Stained Glass Window Beitou Hot Spring Museum

Beitou Hot Spring Museum’s main bath house has some beautiful stained glass windows, though these are reproductions of the (stolen) originals.

The Museum

Since opening in 1998, the Beitou Hot Spring Museum has seen a steady stream of both Taiwanese and foreign visitors. Operating as the focal point for a constellation of Beitou’s other historic sights, cultural centres, and museums, the old bath house has led the area’s quest to become an ‘eco-museum’, a rather opaque term, which refers to the area around the museum and Beitou park as a space for harmonious and active engagement between local residents and the area’s heritage. This means that visitors to the museum immediately notice the local volunteers welcoming guests and inviting them to take off their shoes and put on slippers as they enter the building. In addition, the museum’s Operating Supervision Committee is made up of local teachers and representatives from Beitou district’s community organisations, giving locals a direct influence over what happens.

Shoe Rack Beitou Hot Spring Museum

Visitors to the Beitou Hot Spring Museum are asked to change into slippers as they enter.

The museum’s second floor contains exhibits and information pertaining to Beitou’s fascinating human history. Unfortunately this section of the museum currently has no English translations, however the story begins with the indigenous Ketagalan settlement of Patauw – meaning ‘The Place of Witches’, so named because of the mysterious plumes of smoke billowing from the mountain sides, and their accompaniment by an (at the time) inexplicable sulphurous stench – from which the name ‘Beitou’ derives. Settlers from Mainland China followed from the 15th century onwards, selecting the area as one whose volcanic soils meant the land made for fertile farmland, and inter-marrying with Ketagalan tribes-people.  The Spanish and Dutch also made excursions into the Beitou area during the time of their occupation at nearby Danshui, and the famous traveller Yu Yonghe followed not long after the Dutch left in his quest to exploit local sulphur resources for use as an ingredient in gunpowder. Beitou was really put on the map, however, during Taiwan’s time as a Japanese colony and the district’s rapid development as a hot spring resort. As part of this development, in 1916 a 1.2 kilometre railway branch line was opened on the Taipei – Danshui railway line, from Beitou to the unimaginatively-named ‘New Beitou’ station. A number of fascinating old Japanese-era photographs have been unearthed from various archives and juxtaposed with pictures of the present giving visitors a welcome visual insight into the area’s history.

1960s Film Poster Beitou Hot Spring Museum

The Beitou Hot Spring Museum has a room devoted to Beitou’s fame in the 1960s as a favoured location for Taiwanese language movies.

By default Beitou Hot Spring Museum also serves as a museum of Japanese colonial architecture, and the building’s upper floor is a fascinating place to explore the original lobby area which is kitted out in traditional Japanese style and whose wooden screen doors and tatami mat flooring have been restored, as well as a fine veranda overlooking Beitou Park and Beitou Creek. The upper floor’s remaining spaces have been converted into a multimedia auditorium, exhibition space, and small room displaying information on Beitou’s role during the late 1960s as a popular location for movie shoots; over one hundred Taiwanese-language films were filmed in the area during that decade. Exhibits on the ground floor of the museum focus on Beitou’s fascinating geology, hot spring formation, and the history of the old bath house. Again, the vast majority of information boards are only available in Chinese, but sections pertaining to Taiwan’s famous hot springs and the old public bath house’s renovation do have English translations. In addition, one of the lounge rooms situated next to the bath hall shows an excellent video documentary outlining the story behind the museum’s establishment and its role in bringing Beitou’s community together, which is well worth seeing and thankfully does have English subtitles.

Bath House Floor Tiles Beitou Hot Spring Museum

The floor tiles in the bath house are a mixture of original tiles and modern replacements.

Natural (High)Light

The main bath hall itself is the highlight of a trip to the Hot Spring Museum, and besides admiring the ancient Roman style and motifs, there is a wealth of information detailing the painstaking steps (following international standards requiring ‘maximum preservation and minimum intervention’) taken to restore the building to its former glory. This included working with a local tile-maker to produce floor tiles that matched the exact hue of the originals, and using the extensive collections of local amateur photographer Ms. Chuang Hsiu-Luan, to accurately reproduce the design of the stained-glass windows which, by the early 1990s, had long been stolen. At nine metres long by six metres wide, the scale of the main bath is hardly overwhelming, but its architectural context and expert use of natural light result in an area that appears much grander and more spacious than its dimensions might suggest. On weekdays, when visitor numbers are relatively small, the main bath hall is a peaceful, meditative space, and thoroughly suited to its role as an occasional art exhibitions space.

Left Words, Left Impressions Beitou Hot Spring Museum

Visitors’ messages posted on the wall of the ‘Left Words, Left Impressions’ exhibition currently running at the Beitou Hot Spring Museum.

After strolling back upstairs having finished the museum tour, visitors are left with a better understanding not only of Beitou’s history, the area’s endlessly fascinating geology, and its important role as Japanese Taiwan’s premier leisure (and pleasure) resort, but also of the power of communities in Taiwan to fight to protect their heritage. This beautiful old public bath house, an architectural and cultural relic unique in Taiwan, would not exist today were it not for the patient but devoted activism of Beitou’s children, teachers, and other members of the community. The Beitou Hot Spring Museum is, in short, an institution containing lessons from the past that are as important for our present and future.

By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei

Beitou Hot Spring Museum

Entry: Free

Open: 9.00 am – 5.00 pm, Tuesday – Sunday

MRT: New Beitou

No.2, Zhongshan Road, Beitou District, Taipei

Phone: (02) 28939981


  • Bath Tiles
  • Bath House Floor Tiles
  • Film Poster 1
  • Stained Glass Window
  • Left Words, Left Impressions
  • Museum Exterior
  • Main Bath
  • Shoe Rack
  • Bath Tiles Hot Spring Museum Feature Image
  • Beitou Hot Spring Museum Feature Image

Review – Out of China

Out of China - Detail from Seygert van Regteren's 1635 Version of Cadidius' Account of Taiwan

Detail from Seygert van Regteren’s 1635 Version of Cadidius’ Account of Taiwan.

Out of China: A History of 17th Century Taiwan by Macabe Keliher

Long before people took advantage of Beitou‘s position at the foot of Yangming Shan to enjoy the benefits of its hot springs, some individuals were making the hazardous journey – often over very considerable distances – to exploit a different, though related, natural resource: sulphur. One such person was a man named Yu Yonghe, a literati and itinerant wanderer, who hailed originally from Zhejiang. In 1697 he found himself in Fuzhou, and when the provincial governor requested the services of someone to help them replenish their stores of sulphur (which had literally gone up in smoke a few months before, when their stores of gunpowder exploded), Yu duly obliged. Word of abundant sulphur supplies at the northern tip of the Chinese empire’s newest possession – Taiwan – had long before reached the Mainland, and this was an opportunity to make use of them.

Out of China - Detail from Aborigine Receiving Tattoos, from Taiwan Fanshe Fengsu, Eighteenth Century.

Detail – Aborigine receiving tattoos, from Taiwan Fanshe Fengsu, eighteenth century.

Macabe Keliher’s book, ‘Out of China: A History of 17th Century Taiwan’, tells the story of Yu Yonghe’s journey from Fuzhou to Xiamen, his crossing by boat to Taiwan Fu (Tainan), and his obstacle-ridden trek overland from the south of the island to Danshui and, finally, to Beitou. Keliher tells this story well, taking Yu’s own diary as his primary source material and structuring narrative. As Tu Cheng-sheng, former Director of the National Palace Museum, says in his preface to the book, Keliher has done an excellent job of translating these diaries and weaving them together with his own strong knowledge of early Qing Dynasty social conditions to create a broader history of late 17th century Taiwan. He commands the source material well, and the book engages the reader throughout, subtly drawing on revealing details.

The book was published in 2003 to accompany the exhibition entitled “The Emergence of Taiwan on the World Scene in the 17th Century” at the National Palace Museum, and Out of China has successfully brought an important historical character to life, helping us gain an insight into not only into the minutiae of Yu Yonghe’s own daily existence (lack of sleep, rain-drenched clothes, the tribulations of making a river crossing), but also into the prevailing attitudes of Mainland bureaucrats towards this new island frontier and its aboriginal inhabitants. Yu is a contemplative mind, and on more than one occasion in his diaries he calls into question the contempt in which many of his fellow Mainlanders hold the Taiwanese tribespeople and the discriminatory treatment they receive. “Just because they are different does not mean we must discriminate against them…they are still people, their flesh and blood the same as ours,” he explains in one heartfelt passage. The book thus raises a new, important historical perspective in evaluating China’s experience with colonisation, shifting the focus from the country’s role as victim, to the part it has played in the oppression of minorities – a subject which still remains no less relevant today.

Out of China by Macabe Keliher

Out of China – Macabe Keliher

Beautifully illustrated and incorporating a number of explanatory diversions into subjects such as ‘Spaniards in Taiwan’, ‘The Dutch at Penghu’, and ‘The Zhengs as Colonizers’, Out of China is an accessible and illuminating introduction to 17th century Taiwanese history. Despite structuring his narrative with a verb tense that sometimes results in confusion regarding the timing of events, Keliher has achieved an overall result that is nevertheless very accomplished and readable. Out of China will be a welcome addition to any English-language library focused on Taiwan.

Out of China: A History of 17th Century Taiwan by Macabe Keliher, published by SMC Publishing, is available at Page One, Taipei 101 Mall, priced at NT$300.

  • Out of China - Macabe Keliher
  • Detail from Aborigine Receiving Tattoos, from Taiwan Fanshe Fengsu, Eighteenth Century.
  • Detail from Seygert van Regteren's 1635 Version of Cadidius' Account of Taiwan

Fortress of the Red-Haired

From downtown Taipei, Danshui looks, literally, like the end of the line: it is, after all, the last station on the ‘red’ Tamsui MRT line. Mention the name of this small seaside town and it brings to mind thoughts of romantic strolls along the riverside and watching the sun slowly set over the Taiwan Strait. Unfortunately Danshui’s important historical role as the entry point to the Taipei Basin tends to get lost amidst the snack foods, street performers, and river cruises. In the age of wind and sail, when Taiwan was known to the outside world as a remote, distant and dangerous land, Danshui was, along with Tainan and Jilong, one of the island’s three navigable harbours. Well into the late 19th century Danshui was the first point of contact for those who travelled to the north-west of Taiwan from outside the island, and for a period the town was Taiwan’s busiest port.

The Spanish

Danshui was therefore, after Jilong, one of the two places in Taiwan that the Spanish chose as bases from which to attempt trade with China and Japan. Their fort in Danshui, which they named Santo Domingo, went up in 1629, three years later than its sister fort, San Salvador, near Jilong. Sitting on a small hill with commanding views over the Danshui River, the fort’s strategic location is clear to visitors today, though neither its position nor its high wooden walls stopped the aboriginal inhabitants from nearby settlements from attacking it. One night in 1636 local tribesmen attacked the fort and set it on fire, before killing many of the fleeing Spaniards. The fort was subsequently reinforced with stone, but facing failure in both their colonisation and trading efforts in 1638 the governor-general of the Spanish East Indies in Manila sent orders for the outpost to be scaled back and resources to be consolidated at Jilong.

Danshui Fort San Domingo

The main building of Fort San Domingo, which dates from the Dutch period.

The Dutch

Having been abandoned by the Spanish in 1638, their Dutch rivals soon moved in and established a new fort on the same site. In a remarkable example of historical brown-nosing, they named it Fort Anthony after their boss, the governor of the Dutch East India Company at the time, Anthony van Diemen. While Dutch attempts to build a viable colony and trading post in the north of Taiwan fared better than those of their Spanish predecessors, the results were less successful than in the area surrounding their provincial capital near what is now Tainan. A small garrison was maintained at Fort Anthony, and in one of the Dutch initiatives whose results we see but take for granted today, Han Chinese immigration and permanent settlement in the Danshui area was strongly encouraged.

The Ming

After Zheng Chenggong / Koxinga’s invasion of Taiwan in 1661, Fort Anthony held out for longer than Dutch forces in the south of the island. Yet it was only a matter of time before the Dutch were forced from their northern outposts too and Koxinga’s Ming rebels soon established their own fort, officially calling it Danshui Fort. By that time, however, the fort’s modern nickname was apparently already in use: the Dutch were known by locals as ‘red-haired people’, and their colonial project in Taiwan is commemorated today in the fort’s best-known label Hong Mao Cheng (紅毛城) or ‘Fortress of the Red-Haired’.

The Qing

Following the Zheng family’s brief reign over Taiwan, from 1662 to 1683, and their subsequent surrender to the Manchu Qing Dynasty, Danshui’s fort was appropriated by imperial troops and underwent substantial renovation, adding extra gates, and reinforcing the outer walls. Neither its guns nor its walls were subsequently put to the test, however, and the site was rendered largely superfluous as a military installation as a result of Qing defeats further afield in conflicts with foreign powers, and the treaties which followed.

Danshui former British consulate

The former British consulate building.

The British

With Danshui’s growing importance as one of China’s treaty ports – trading in goods such as tea, camphor, sulphur, coal, and opium – the British established a consulate in the town in 1864. By 1867, the site of the fort was acquired by the British and became their consulate compound, ending nearly 240 years of the fort’s use for military purposes. Deeming the small fort building too cramped and too prone to humidity and termites (and, apparently, too white – they decided to repaint it in its current distinctive red hue) in 1891 a modern colonial building was built adjacent to the fort using bricks imported from Xiamen. The fifth British consul in Danshui was Herbert Allen Giles, and it was there that the linguist did much of his work on the standardised romanization of Mandarin Chinese, which became known as the Wade-Giles system. With a brief interlude during the Second World War, when the consulate was occupied by Japan, the British consulate at Danshui stayed at the fort until 1972. Following that the buildings and grounds were managed briefly by the Australian government, then by the United States government before, in 1980, finally being acquired by the government of the Republic of China. In 1983 the fort was opened to the public as a historical site.


Danshui Former British Consulate floor tiles

The former British consulate building boasts a number of fine decorative details, including these colourful floor tiles.

Whether you’re a history buff or not, it’s tough not to be inspired by Fort San Domingo’s lengthy, multi-faceted past. Indeed, the site’s own unique history condenses many of the broader historical themes of Taiwan’s recent past within one small building, giving those modest red walls an added significance. The architecture alone, with examples from the Dutch period, the Qing Dynasty, and the late 19th century Victorian colonial style makes the fort a fascinating place to walk around and it surely stands out as one of northern Taiwan’s most revealing and best-preserved historical monuments. Pious and fearful Spaniards, marauding tribesmen, capitalist Dutch, victorious Ming rebels, wary Qing bureaucrats, and ambitious Britons – there’s enough food for the historical imagination here to sate any appetite. Luckily tourists, by contrast with previous users of the site, can now enjoy the fort at their leisure, free from fear of attack. Staring out at the splendid views of Guanyin Shan and the Danshui River as it meets the sea it’s easy to forget the fort’s less pleasant previous uses – as watchtower, symbol of intimidation and control, and bastion of colonisation.

Danshui River Sunset

Sunset over the Danshui River.

The fort is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm, which means that there is unfortunately no chance to watch the Danshui sunsets which must have been one of the few comforts the fort’s historical residents were able to enjoy. Exhibits inside the fort’s tower on the site’s history, while interesting and accessible (explanations are printed in Chinese, Japanese, and English), are by no means comprehensive, and the volunteers manning the museum are perhaps less clued-up than they should or could be. Nevertheless, there are some fascinating prints of old Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese maps and engravings depicting Taiwan, and explanations of the wider historical contexts in which Danshui’s fort was set are both useful and insightful. The Victorian British consulate building has further exhibits detailing the British use of the fort, and many of the rooms contain their original period furniture and layouts. This all makes Fort San Domingo a rewarding excursion and an accessible window into Taiwan’s history. Free entry means that weekdays are probably the best time to see the place, and late afternoon makes for the best light to enjoy the stunning views.

As visitors leave by the main gate of the fort, they may notice seven modest flagpoles, from which hang the flags of Spain, Holland, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, the United States, and the R.O.C. In many other countries, sites associated with colonial dominance are often pasted with jingoistic paraphernalia and the celebration of national independence movements. Fort San Domingo’s flags represent a different, very Taiwanese approach to its past; they serve not just as symbols of historical proprietorship over the site, but also appear to represent Taiwan’s very mature, forgiving, and self-confident acceptance of its complex history. Fort San Domingo, Fort Anthony, Fortress of the Red-Haired, Danshui Fort; call it what you will, the fort is undoubtedly a must-see celebration of Taiwan’s rich history.

By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei

Opening Times: Tuesday – Sunday, 9am – 5pm

Entrance: Free

Address: No.1, Alley 30, Zhong Zheng Road, Danshui, New Taipei City 新北市淡水區中正路30巷1號

Phone: 02-6266802

MRT: Danshui

  • Sunset over the Danshui River
  • Former British Consulate at Danshui
  • Colourful Floor Tiles Inside the Former British Consulate
  • Fort San Domingo
  • Fort San Domingo, Danshui