Exploring Yilan

By Tom Rook – Republished here with permission from the author. Find more of Tom Rook’s work at www.overthecity.asia.

Yilan is an often overlooked part of the northeast coast. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “I’m going on a trip to Yilan City” before, and that made me curious. I chose possibly the hottest, stickiest day of the year so far to explore the city, but somehow still managed to enjoy the trip. The city has a ton of small sites that in isolation aren’t amazing, but strung together make for a varied day. This first installment of a two-part article follows a rough arc from the train station to the city’s winery.

The Yilan area was originally inhabited by the Kavalan aboriginal tribe. A large Han Chinese settlement wasn’t established here until the early 1800s. For some time the city was surrounded by walls, but these were removed by the Japanese in 1913. The city developed quite rapidly during the Japanese era and it still has a lot of sites from that time. Overall it’s still a small, sleepy place.


Yilan Station is modern and fairly plain, with the exception of the random giraffe sticking out of the roof. The source of this unexpected creature is an illustrator called Jimmy, who has written several famous children’s books. The area to the south of the station building has been made into a small park, and is filled with his designs. A few old warehouses to the north with wooden roofs have been well-converted into commercial sites. Opposite is a plaza with a flying train (another Jimmy creation) that was holding a market when I visited. Another slice of fantasy is a towering white amusement arcade, though it’s definitely on the cheesy and rundown side of things.


A block away from Jimmy Park is the modest Zhongshan Park. There’s an interesting monument here to Yilan’s violent past. In earlier days, settlers on the Yilan plain, both Han and Kavalan, were victims of Atayal head-hunting raids. Qing dynasty troops were ineffective and it wasn’t until the early Japanese era that the Atayal were defeated and agreed to stop head hunting here. This monument was built in 1909, and buried underneath are Atayal knives and the skulls of their victims. The park was also the site of the city’s Shinto shrine in the Japanese era, but nothing remains of it now. In the center of the park is a locked air raid shelter.

Across the road, in an otherwise abandoned government housing area, I was surprised to find a small photography gallery. I quite liked the work on display and was happy to find a library of high quality photo books on the second floor. I get the impression this place has only just opened as I’ve found no information about it online so far, even in Chinese. Not even a name on Google Maps. The large grey building nearby was the Yilan City Council Office, and it has also been recently restored as a gallery and restaurant.

Outside the bulky Luna Plaza shopping mall is the former general office and foyer of Yilan Prison, built in 1896. It’s a pretty building which is now a bistro. The shopping mall occupies the rest of the former prison site.


These two beautiful wooden houses are set in tranquil gardens. There’s a small entrance fee for the administration museum, which has exhibits on Yilan’s local history. It’s about as exciting as you’d expect it to be. It may have been better if there were some translations, but I had to look everything up afterwards to find English information. The house and garden are the real attractions here and they are well looked after. The house was the official residence of county magistrates and was built in 1900. The bureaucratic exhibits were redeemed slightly by a map room and a friendly cat.

A couple of wooden houses nearby have been restored to more commercial uses and one is the literary museum. This museum won’t be of much interest to non-Chinese speakers though.


You may have noticed from other posts that I like a good historic factory. This one was established in 1906, but most of the buildings date from the 1920s to 40s. There are some well written and designed boards next to each building with dates and historic pictures. Sadly though, English signage is pretty scant elsewhere. The liquor museum had very little. Like the brewery in Taipei this is still a working factory and you’ll be sharing space with forklift trucks. Certain parts of the site are off limits, but sometimes the boundaries aren’t all that clear. Workers didn’t seem to mind me accidentally straying into a restricted area near the smokestack. I was a little sad that the bottling plant was off limits as the rattling conveyors were like something out of a Wallace and Gromit movie.

The main focus of this site is a rice wine made from a red yeast called anka. It has a sweet taste that isn’t terrible but it’s not something I’d drink normally. The drink is famous in Yilan and a few variants from the winery have won awards. Predictably there’s anka-flavored everything on sale, but I’ve learnt my lesson with this sort of thing after the strawberry sausages at Strawberry World. Most of the site is very commercialized; for instance the anka “museum” is really a large gift shop. Another building is given over to a company that makes gold-infused drinks. The largest warehouse is full of the usual Taiwan liquor company merchandise.

Aside from the shops, one warehouse is given over to a calligraphy exhibition, and there were a few art installations around. Overall, it’s worth quickly stopping by if you like historic sites and alcohol, but otherwise the site is marred a little by over-commercialization and a lack of creativity in some of the displays.


Tom Rook is an artist from Devon, England who currently lives in Taipei. See his work and read more about his life on the island at www.overthecity.asia.