The City of Taipei: A Museum Without Walls
Five Living Museums — Old and New, Modern and Traditional, Coexisting in Harmony
Words by: Rick Charette
Photos by: Taiwan Scene, Toppy Baker, Beitou Hot Spring Museum, Richie Chan, Banka Qingshan Temple, MOCA Taipei
Taipei is a vibrant metropolis where the first-time visitor immediately notices how old and new, traditional and modern, live in seamless harmony. The people of this city — and island — are renowned for their openness to the world. Yet they also take great pride in their past, and over the past few decades have passionately dedicated themselves to preserving and celebrating the cultural inheritance bestowed on them by their forefathers. As you move around the city, again and again you come across scenes of carefully renovated heritage buildings standing proudly amidst gleaming modern architectural works that tower above them.
There have been numerous heritage architecture preservation initiatives. As such, the Taipei City government has launched the “Taipei Eco Museum” (台北無圍牆博物館) campaign, treating the city as a whole as a living museum, tying together its unique treasure trove of humanities, the lives of ordinary people, physical resources, and history into a tourism- focused whole for visitors to explore.▲As a living museum with many diverse faces, people can still see old street scenes in Taipei coexisting with the modern city.
Five major city zones of historical importance, each a living museum without walls that possesses a unique look, style, and story, have been chosen for integrated planning and marketing, collectively creating a new cultural-exploration map of the city that tourists can explore individually or in its entirety, depending on time and interest. Running north to south, they are: Beitou (北投溫泉), Dadaocheng (大稻埕), Bangka (萬華艋舺), North Town (城北廊帶), and South Town (城南台大). The campaign is a celebration of the cultural diversity and harmonious coexistence of the old and new, traditional and modern in each area.
Your thirst for adventure has no doubt been excited, so to whet your palate here is a quick tour of each of these neighborhoods.
BEITOU: Monuments & Architecture (with Hot Springs!)
The Beitou hot-spring resort area was the first such leisure and recreation area developed in Taiwan. Created by the Japanese starting in the late 1890s, it was once reached from central Taipei by a special branch railway. Today, this area is a dense, rich mix of old and stylish new architecture, including a small forest of heritage and modern-style hot-spring inns and hotels.▲Beitou is famous for its hot springs and many more popular natural sites such as Thermal Valley (地熱谷). (Photo/Toppy Baker)
The area’s core is a long, narrow valley at the base of the Yangmingshan (陽明山) massif filled up at its bottom with Beitou Park (北投公園). Immediately before the valley’s mouth is Taipei Metro’s striking Xinbeitou Station (捷運新北投站). The metro station and branch line were specifically built to help in the revival of the treasured Beitou hot spring culture. The station has an imperial-yellow Chinese palace-style roof, and is fronted by a classical-style archway that looks toward the hot spring park.
Beside the station, in small Qixing Park (七星公園), is a rebuilt version of the original Japanese-style wood- built station — Xinbeitou Historic Station (新北投車站). The station was built in 1916, with an expansion undertaken in 1937. The charming architectural restoration was created utilizing over 70% of the structure’s original materials, with the 1937 blueprints used as a reference. It has the same dimensions and appearance, with its most notable features being its wood exterior, copper roof tiles, ornately carved eaves, and ox-eye windows. The structure now houses a gallery with exhibits on Beitou history and a souvenir shop with Beitou-themed products.▲The Japanese-style Xinbeitou Historic Station is now a repurposed tourist attraction and exhibition space.
Inside Beitou Park, the first building encountered is the Taipei Public Library Beitou Branch (台北市立圖書館北投分館), Taiwan’s first green library. Resembling a giant ark resting amidst a mini-forest, the award- winning structure, built mainly of wood and steel, boasts an impressive array of eco-friendly features. Rooftop solar panels generate electricity, rooftop greenery helps keep the interior cool, and rainwater collected by the sloping roof’s drainage system is gathered for interior use (e.g. for watering plants and flushing toilets). Surrounding tree cover helps prevent direct sunlight from entering through the French windows, and also allows for comfortable outdoor reading on the building’s balconies. The overall design concept is to provide visitors with a soothing, spirit-calming “forest bath.”▲Located in the center of a lush, green park, Taipei Public Library Beitou Branch is a wooden building that looks like a huge tree house.
Just uphill from the library is the Beitou Hot Spring Museum (北投溫泉博物館). This lovely building of red brick, stained-wood planks, and white stucco, featuring an eclectic hybrid Victorian/Japanese architectural mix, was originally the Beitou Public Bathhouse, opened by the Japanese in 1913. As Taiwan’s first public bath and then East Asia’s largest hot spring public bath, its design was based on Japan’s famed Mount Izu Hot Spring Bathhouse. Inside, a Romanesque pool and columns have been restored, as has the original large, breezy Japanese- style tatami resting room, and there are many intriguing artifacts and info displays on Beitou history.▲Though built by the Japanese, Beitou Hot Spring Museum is a Victorian-style historical monument that has stood for more than a hundred years. (Photo/Beitou Hot Spring Museum)
▲The hot spring bath at Beitou Hot Spring Museum used to be the biggest in Asia. (Photo/Beitou Hot Spring Museum)
Tian Gou An (天狗庵) was the very first hot spring inn built in Taiwan, opened in 1896 by an Osaka businessman. This was the fountainhead of Beitou’s flowering as a hot spring resort area.
Besides, there was a hospital built ten minutes aways from Tian Gou An during the Japanese colonial era due to the health benefits of hot springs. With lots of soldiers being sent to the hospital during WWII, a community of military dependents quickly formed after the war. Together, they settled down at the neighborhood, establishing a village now known as Taipei Heart Village (中心新村), where you can see the bygone days in military dependents’ village preserved well since 1949.▲Next to a hospital built for the military, Taipei Heart Village is one of the few dependents’ villages preserved since 1949.
DADAOCHENG: Local Industries
The Dadaocheng neighborhood, perhaps Taipei’s richest in terms of physical heritage, is spread out along the Tamsui River (淡水河) in Datong District. Dihua Street (迪化街), the main street in Dadaocheng, also Taipei’s oldest commercial street, is where you will find tons of historical buildings.▲Stroll down Dihua Street to explore the neighborhood where many local industries originated from.
From the latter 19th century until the mid-20th century, Dadaocheng was the Taipei Basin’s main commercial center. It was settled in 1853 by Han Chinese fleeing internecine fighting in nearby Bangka, Taipei’s oldest settlement. Followed by the establishment of Tamsui Port, Western trading firms began moving in, making Dadaocheng a trading headquarters for four main industries: tea, Chinese medicines, fabrics, and nan-bei huo (南北貨, regional specialty goods). Many Chinese merchants copied their Western-style architectural motifs, and after the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, neo-Baroque and other Western styling was commonly used on facades. Dadaocheng gained a reputation as Taiwan’s key portal for Western influences.▲Nan-bei huo, or regional specialty goods, is one of the most important industries that helped trade in Dadaocheng thrive.
If you walk down Dihua Street these days, you’ll still see many of the structures’ facades are in the elaborate neo-Baroque style popular during Japan’s Taisho period, beautified with artistic flourishes. Look closely and you will see the name of the original business establishment carved above the entranceway. The buildings are in the traditional shophouse style, lined up tightly shoulder to shoulder. This allowed street access to the maximum number of businesses in the days when almost all travel was on foot. The shophouses run deep, with business operations at the front opening to the street and family quarters toward the rear. Today, this street is lined with score upon score of long-in-place shops and new cultural-creative ventures. Most of the heritage buildings have now been renovated. Bars, cafes, and trendy restaurants are opening shops after shops in Dadaocheng, adding to the exotic air of wonder for tourists.▲Today, shops selling creative or handmade products are multiplying in Dadaocheng, alongside (or even within) traditional houses that are still in use.
If any one industry was responsible for Dadaocheng’s rise, it was tea. The settlement filled up with tea- processing factories, and the Western-mimicking mansions of enriched merchants. Raw tea leaf was hauled in by workers from the hills surrounding the Taipei Basin, the finished product shipped out to destinations around the globe.
Today the factories are but a memory, but various heritage tea-trading businesses have transformed themselves into cultural-creative living museums celebrating Taiwan’s tea culture. One such is Sin Hong Choon (新芳春茶行), opened in 1934, housed in an elegant three-story building with a neo-Baroque façade. The enterprise has a multi-pronged mission today — shop, museum, cultural-education center. Learn about Taiwan’s tea trade history, purchase your leaf in a traditional-look shop, and glimpse deeper into yesteryear in the preserved assembly-line rooms. Special tea-theme exhibits are also held.▲As one of the oldest tea houses in Dadaocheng, Sin Hong Choon is now an exhibition space for the tea industry, where people can see the traditional process of roasting tea leaves.
Dadaocheng is also the home to about 200 Chinese herbal medicine wholesale/retail shops. Many have taken part in the city government’s Store Reformation Project, beautifying storefronts and interiors. In recent decades, Taiwan folk have come to emphasize diet more than traditional Chinese medicine in maintaining health, and Dadaocheng’s heritage businesses have responded. Many Chinese medicine shops have developed products more convenient for 12 consumers, such as single-use packages and tea bags containing healthy Chinese herbs and also run attractive herbal tea stands.▲Dadaocheng is also the home of many Chinese herb and medicine stores with an open concept design, inviting guests to go in and shop.
BANGKA: Lives of the Common Folk
Taipei’s oldest settlement, Wanhua/Bangka, took shape in the early 1700s. Bangka is sited where the Xindian and Dahan Rivers (新店溪、大漢溪) meet to form the Tamsui River — optimal for trade within the Taipei Basin of imperial times.
In the imperial days, goods were brought by river transport to the coastal port of Tamsui (淡水) for transshipment to larger ships for delivery to far-flung destinations. A key reason for Bangka’s usurpation by Dadaocheng as the basin’s main commercial center was the silting-up of its river port. Bangka slipped into a long period of economic decline, but one positive from its period of slumber was that the local community looked inward. The common folk proudly and even definitely stick to time-honored cultural traditions, and today this is perhaps Taipei’s best place for viewing old-time religious practices and culinary traditions.▲Longshan Temple is a spiritual site where common folk in Bangka seek inner peace and happiness. (Photo/Richie Chan)
The soul of the community resides in the magnificent Longshan Temple (艋舺龍山寺), a place of priceless historical importance. This is also perhaps Taipei’s most important temple, assuredly its most visited, and one of the world’s elite examples of classical Chinese temple architecture. Right along the temple’s east-side exterior is old, short, exceedingly narrow Herb Lane (青草巷, Lane 224 on Xichang Street 西昌街), stuffed with sellers of herbs used in traditional tonics, salves, and medicinal foods. Many buyers will have first consulted with the gods inside Longshan Temple before making their purchase. The use of herbs for medicinal purposes is an intrinsic element of traditional everyday folk life, in items used before the fact to enhance health and after the fact to treat ailments. Herb sellers were a trusted source of herb- specific medical advice.▲Shops selling all kinds of herbal products, such as Chinese herbal tea, are lined up one after another along Herb Lane.
Sitting five minutes away from the temple is the Bopiliao Historic Block (剝皮寮歷史街區), where street scenes of the Qing Dynasty (清朝, 1636 A.D. – 1912 A.D.) are preserved in two rows of traditional brick houses. These two-story buildings with arcades on the first floor used to be an important commercial area during the Qing Dynasty and Japanese era. Nowadays, it serves as an educational exhibition hall in the community.▲At Bopiliao Historic Block, the old street scenes from the Qing Dynasty are vividly recreated in the modern day.
Section One of Xiyuan Road (西園路) on the temple’s west side is known as Buddhist Implement Street (佛具街), lined with sellers of statues and other worship items for temples, shrines, and homes. These are also popular with overseas tourists looking for exotic souvenirs. Arguably, praying to the deities for protection of the home, family members and the community at large, and communicating with them are key components of everyday existence, providing believers with assurance for the future.
Another major local temple is Bangka Qingshan Temple (艋舺青山宮), built in 1856, known especially for its resplendent carved beams and murals. Its Qingshan King Rituals (青山王祭典) are the biggest event of the year in Bangka, when it seems the whole community comes out. The extravaganza lasts three days with visually and aurally lavish deity parades.▲Qingshan King Rituals is the biggest and the most important religious event for people in Wanhua. (Photo/Banka Qingshan Temple)
As one would expect, the most traditional culinary ways are also held dear in Bangka. Through Chinese history, a key location for vendor markets to spring up has been around busy temples, serving the steady streams of worshipers from near and far. Bangka’s premier night market, known island-wide, is Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market (華西街觀光夜市), immediately west of Longshan Temple. Among the many classic snack treats visitors line up for are pork-rib soup (排骨湯), red-yeast pork (紅燒肉), and cuttlefish stew (花枝羹).▲Follow the locals, and you’ll see that Bangka is the place to find the most authentic street eats such as pork-rib soup or braised pork on rice.
NORTH TOWN: Cultural-Arts Corridor
North Town neighbors Dadaocheng’s eastern edge. Its boundaries are Chengde Road (承德路) on its west side, Zhongshan North Road (中山北路) on its east, Changan West Road (長安西路) on its south edge, and Minsheng West Road (民生西路) on its north.
This community was largely formed after the Japanese took over Taiwan, with many Japanese civil officials resident. Today, running north-south through its heart from MRT Zhongshan Station (捷運中山站) to MRT Shuanglian Station (捷運雙連站) is the long,
narrow Xinzhongshan Linear Park (心中山線形公園), an elongated oasis that used to be the site of a railway line. Temporary cultural-arts exhibits are often staged in the park, food trucks set up every weekend, and an indie-designer craft fair is held on the second weekend of every month. Beneath the park is the longest underground book street Eslite 79 (誠品R79) that sells all kind of design books, adding even more artful atmosphere to the North Town. ▲With the railways now removed, Xinzhongshan Linear Park keeps the elongated shape of the old line in the North Town and has become an oasis for the locals.
In past times, the North Town area was a place of refined cultural pursuits — a tradition carried on today, notably with the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (MOCA Taipei, 台北當代藝術館) and the Tsai Jui-yueh Dance Research Institute (蔡瑞月舞蹈研究社), both located in Japanese-built heritage complexes. The influx of shining new ideas also continues in the form of a growing concentration of cultural-creative shops and bookstores.
MOCA Taipei is in a two-story red-brick building that 22 was built in 1919 as an elementary school for Japanese children. The architecture is a hybrid of Victorian and Edwardian styles, with perhaps the most visually compelling attraction the bell tower rising from the roof’s center. The building was meticulously refurbished before Taiwan’s first museum dedicated to contemporary art opened in 2001, concentrating on the themes of art, design, and architecture, with no permanent exhibits.▲MOCA Taipei’s red brick wall is a historical feature that has remained the same since 1919, creating a strong contrast with the contemporary art displayed inside. (Photo/MOCA Taipei)
As for the Tsai Jui-yueh Dance Research Institute, the institution is housed in what originally was a Japanese-era dormitory for civil servants. The wood-built double-building complex, set amidst a well-tended lawn and green space, was later the home, classroom, and studio for Tsai Jui-yueh (蔡瑞月), praised as the “mother of modern dance in Taiwan.” Part of the space is now taken up by an attractive café with outdoor seating.▲Tsai Jui-yueh Dance Research Institute might be dedicated to modern dance, but it was actually an old dormitory for civil servants during Japanese era.
Besides, nearby Taipei Film House (台北之家) is a quiet garden of cultural elegance. Formerly the residence of US ambassadors to the ROC — Richard Nixon also famously stayed here during his VP days — this tree-surrounded white-exterior mansion has a striking American antebellum design. Today the heritage site is a place where cinema is celebrated and creative exchange fostered. In addition to sitting down for arthouse films in an 88-seat theater in what was originally the garage, enjoy specially-made drinks named after famous films in the Café Lumière or in the Le Ballon Rouge bar. Well-crafted souvenir items are sold in the SPOT Design boutique shop — original handmade items from Taiwan and premium-design goods from around the globe.▲Formerly the residence of US ambassadors, Taipei Film House is now a cultural site for movie lovers and coffee addicts to enjoy.
For hipsters who are looking for a destination with energetic vibes, Chifeng Street (赤峰街), once renowned as “Blacksmith Street” (打鐵街), is the top choice. Vivid graffiti art and installation artworks adorn Chifeng and its adjoining alleys. A small army of youthful entrepreneurs has set up camp in the old commercial buildings — stylish bookstores, cafés, bakeries, workshops, and other cultural- creative initiatives — bringing a chic new spirit while at the same time celebrating yesteryear’s architectural aesthetics.▲There are many hipster cafés on Chifeng Street that feature graffiti on the wall, adding more artful scenes to the streets of North Town.
SOUTH TOWN: Knowledge & Enlightenment
South Town Eco Museum encompasses the National Taiwan University campus and the areas south, southwest, and west of it, centered on Roosevelt Road (羅斯福路), Tingzhou Road (汀州路), and Wenzhou Street (溫州街). This area can be defined as an exemplar of the Taiwan democratic mosaic, where over time settlements and communities of disparate peoples have slowly congealed into a single whole.
It is also renowned as an enclave of higher learning. The area was chosen as a demonstration space for urban modernization during the Japanese era, and a base for model education and student cultivation, built around institutions of higher learning. These have given South Town an unusually deep cultural inheritance, evidenced in the form of appealing heritage architecture, a pronounced literary air, and community pride in Taiwan’s cherished democratic society.▲National Taiwan University has enlightened South Town for decades in Taipei.
National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學) are in Taiwan’s elite corps of post-secondary institutions. Since their founding by the Japanese, the two have been a fount of future Taiwan leaders, and students from both have invariably been at the center of protests and other pushes in Taiwan’s democratization struggles as well.
Emanating from its small forest of places of higher education, South Town has a powerful thirst for knowledge and enlightenment that is also manifested in its dense population of bookstores, student- focused cafés, and reading rooms. Gongguan commercial district (公館商圈) offers an alluring, eclectic grove of indie bookstores. A prime example is Kafka by the Sea (海邊的卡夫卡), which houses an indie bookstore, indie-label record shop, and café, with arts events, unplugged music performances, and exhibits regularly held. Besides, Guling Street (牯嶺街), not far away from Gongguan, is a second-hand book street overflowing with treasure; the Kishu An Forest of Literature (紀州庵文學森林), centered on an elegant traditional Japanese-style wooden building used as a banquet restaurant during the Japanese era, is a serene space where literature lovers luxuriate in reading, writing, and coffee.▲Kishu An Forest of Literature is a Japanese-style wooden house where literature lovers can enjoy a leisurely afternoon of writing and sipping delicious coffee.
Among the early settlers in the South Town area, where the Xindian River runs out from the hills into this corner of the Taipei Basin, was a strong contingent of Hakka. The Hakka, a Han Chinese subgroup, is the second-largest ethnic group in Taiwan. They are renowned for their simple living habits and frugality, willingness to take on hard, deep family loyalty, and business acumen built on a foundation of integrity. With their own language and customs, Hakka people have developed a unique culture including religion, music, food, architectural features and more. South Town’s expansive Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park (台北市客家文化主題公園) is where you can see traditional water wheels from a rural Hakka village, or even try dried persimmon if you’re visiting during fall.▲A Traditional waterwheel, commonly seen in a rural Hakka village, is set out in Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park.
In addition, Taiwan once had almost 900 military dependents’ villages — collections of simple cement-walled structures, many right in the midst of cities, home to the families of military personnel who came to Taiwan as part of the 1940s Nationalist exodus from China. The Treasure Hill village (寶藏巖), a dense neighborhood of jerry-built structures spread over a hill overlooking the Xindian River, has been transformed into the bohemian Treasure Hill Artist Village (寶藏巖國際藝術村), brimming with eclectic public artworks, artist studios, and exhibit spaces. The permanent residents remain the core of the area, with the artist village born as an incubator for community revitalization.▲An old military dependents’ village in South Town has been repurposed in Treasure Hill Artist Village, brimming with the artworks and creative exhibitions of artists from all over the world.
Five urban-neighborhood eco museums without walls, each of singular character, await your arrival for cultural exploration. Enjoy!
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