Kaohsiung: appealing city of the arts

A plethora of installations, galleries and artworks makes this Taiwanese city a must-visit for art lovers and nature enthusiasts

A black-and-white mural of men in hard hats is splashed across a weathered warehouse in Kaohsiung's Pier-2 art enclave.

This vibrant district represents the Taiwanese port-city's continuing push to become less industrial and more of a lifestyle and arts destination.

The warehouse on which the workers, evoking the southern city's past as a heavy-industry hub, have been daubed is one of more than 20 abandoned buildings that were reborn as the Pier-2 Art Center (pier-2.khcc.gov.tw/eng) in 2006.

As I wander in this precinct, which is constantly enhanced by fresh artwork, I find giant cartoon-ish statues towering over beguiled children.

Quirky art installations sit atop former storehouses converted into galleries and museums. Walls are vivid with graffiti art.

There is live entertainment as well, with performance artists and musicians weaving their magic among the artwork.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Scoot (www.flyscoot.com) and China Airlines (www.china-airlines.com) offer direct flights from Singapore to Kaohsiung.

    The other option is to catch one of the many daily flights from Singapore to Taipei and get on a bullet train from Taipei station to Zuoying station in Kaohsiung.

    This trip takes between 95 and 120 minutes.

I am but one face amid throngs of visitors navigating the kilometres of walking and cycling paths which cut through the sprawling precinct in Kaohsiung's inner-east.

In between watching performances, visiting the galleries and museums, and posing for photos with the installations, visitors stop at the cafes, restaurants and bars spread throughout the precinct.

This aesthetically pleasing district is a significant facet of Kaohsiung's desire to be known as an artistic city.

The Kaohsiung Spring Arts Festival (www.ksaf.com.tw/en) has also blossomed into a major event from humble beginnings in 2010. It features performance art shows at indoor and outdoor venues across the city and now runs from February to July each year.

Meanwhile, the impressive Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (www.kmfa.gov.tw) has been modernised over the past decade.

And next year, there is the opening of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts. This state-of-the-art facility being built on a former military base will boast four indoor venues including a concert hall and theatre and will host major plays and concerts.

These developments appear intended to help Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, keep pace with Taipei.

The national capital has long overshadowed Kaohsiung as a tourist destination.

Of the almost 11 million tourists who visited Taiwan last year, a majority arrived at Taipei's international airport in the far north. With Kaohsiung located at the southern end of Taiwan, its relative isolation has impeded the tourism industry.

Taipei has, for years, been among the top 10 most-visited cities for Singapore citizens. More than 400,000 Singaporeans travelled to Taiwan last year - an increase of 25 per cent compared with five years ago.

The attractions of Taiwan's biggest city are well known, from Taipei's historic temples to renowned street food.

In the background, Kaohsiung has quietly developed into one of the most appealing cities in Asia.

Despite being a metropolis, home to almost three million people as well as several petrochemical plants, it is not a steel-and-concrete forest.

Rather, it has remained well connected to nature, thanks to its location on the coast, flanked by the popular day-trip destination Cijin Island and the verdant expanses of Shoushan National Nature Park.

The island has the laidback vibe of a small beach resort town while the park soothes with its natural splendour - lush forests skirt the ocean and is inhabited by screeching monkeys.

In this way, Kaohsiung has more in common with the green metropolis of Singapore than the smoggy megacities of mainland China.

Kaohsiung also seems to be following the lead of Singapore in its efforts to create more attractive, lively public spaces such as Pier-2.

All too often, such art districts are opened to great fanfare only to become stale in a few years.

Pier-2, however, has found a way to stay relevant.

The exhibits in the warehouses are updated frequently and fresh installations are regularly added to the open-air gallery that is Pier-2. This change keeps the locals returning and is also appealing for international travellers.

In my three days in Kaohsiung, nowhere do I encounter more foreign faces than at Pier-2.

While I am trying on a too-small but ever-so-stylish denim jacket in a loft-style boutique, a group of young Japanese men are buying bags full of the shop's slick threads.

During my perusal of several art galleries, which offer pieces ranging in style from modern to traditional Taiwanese, I overhear conversations among Australians, Americans, Britons and Spaniards.

Soon, the district will have even greater pulling power, thanks to its biggest development in years, the recent opening of Pier-2 Base, a giant shared workspace facility with room for 60 companies and artists.

Featuring kitschy design elements such as slides to descend from one floor to another, this facility is expected to have a flow-on effect for tourists.

The increased number of on-site workers will see new cafes, restaurants and bars opened to service the workers and visitors too.

Slowly, Pier-2 is becoming more than just an art precinct, but also an entertainment hub. Visitors who come for the popular weekend afternoon flea market can stay on into the evening to drink and dine in style.

Whether you are an art connoisseur, a foodie or an Instagram addict looking for eye-catching backdrops, Pier-2 has pleasures aplenty.

• The writer is an Australian photojournalist who divides his time between Ireland and Thailand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Kaohsiung: appealing city of the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe