The Taipei story began about two hundred years ago (or in my case.. Two years ago), when I visited the Taipei Story House, there was an exhibition that showcased photos of old colonial buildings in Taipei city and I was carried away.
Talking about the Story House, it is a small museum next to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. It is the only English Tudor-style mansion in Taiwan, and hosts exhibitions about the history of the house (being Chen Tiau-Chun Residence), sometimes temporary exhibitions about antiques and Taiwanese cultural heritages. Having said that, the architecture itself is a beautiful sight. If you have not heard about this place, and want to explore some of the lesser-known attractions and places in Taipei, check out 12 Taipei Local Tips That You Do Not Know.
Taiwan under Japanese rule
The title of this post is “back to 1919”, and it was the period of Japanese Taiwan when Taiwan Island and Penghu Islands were under Japanese rule between 1985 and 1945. How did the Japanese claim sovereignty of Formosa from China? It traces back to the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Or Treaty of Bakan) that ends the First Sino-Japanese War. The peace treaty between Imperial Japan and the Qing Dynasty had been signed and was followed by the successful Japanese invasion of Taiwan. The ruling ended along with the Second World War when Japan surrendered in 1945.
All in all, it was a turning point in Taiwan’s history, as the island underwent a tremendous transformation from many aspects including politics and policies, culture, education, transportation, social, and economics. During this period, the colonial government launched the “Kōminka movement”, aiming to fully Japanize the Taiwanese society – the locals were encouraged to speak the Japanese language, wear Japanese clothing, live in Japanese-style houses, and embrace Japanese culture and traditions. That’s why you could see a great deal of resemblance to Japan in old neighborhoods in Taiwan with Japanese-style buildings and a tight and grid-like street layout.
While people in the past may have suffered from colonization and war, what’s left today are traces of evidence that marked Taiwan’s past. Many of the old buildings that were built by the Japanese were left and they still function as museums, government institutions, and facilities, or schools.
If you are a fan of architecture, you may enjoy looking at these buildings that are almost a hundred years old and learn about their stories.
The exhibition that I mentioned showcased paintings of many historical buildings in Taipei with an interesting history or important stance in the past. Sadly, some of them no longer exist; For those still standing, not all of them are opened to the public – some of them may have turned into a museum, some of them are functioning facilities, and some of them are private properties that you could only view from the outside. So here, I have listed some of the places that you may have access to, or worth visiting, and you could also refer to the guide map at the bottom to plot out a map and design your own route (among many other interesting spots in your itinerary).
Taipei Red House Theater
Used to be: Taipei Shinkigai Market Octagon Hall
Ximending is a “must-visit” district to any Taipei first-timers. It is a busy and popular shopping area and the first pedestrian zone in Taipei. In Chinese, “Xi men” means “West Gate” and “Ding” is the Chinese pronunciation of the word “Cho” in Japanese, it means a precinct or a neighborhood.
Old Taipei used to have five city gates in all directions. The West Gate was completed in 1882 and it connects to the Menga commercial area. The gate was demolished short after its construction in 1905 – yet the name of the area remained and a monument was erected to commemorate this gate until today. Here, right at the Ximen metro station, you will find retail chains, restaurants, and entertainment; Across Zhonghua Road, there is a historic building that is very special – the Taipei Red House Theater.
Originally, the building was the Shinkigai market designed by Kondo Juro. It is in an octagonal structure that is one-of-a-kind in colonial time. The exterior of the house is in Tatsuno-style, with a striking combination of white bands and red bricks; Inside, it is divided by columns in the hall to create three individual spaces that share the same center.
Today, the building is open to the public as a creative art space, performance venue, and a popular part of the gay scene. It is where the annual gay New Year’s Eve countdown and the Taipei Pride take place.
Taipei Chungshan Hall
Used to be: Taipei City Public Hall
A short walk behind the Red House is another historic building, designed by Ide Kaoru in 1936. The site was once a government office of the Chinese in the Qing Dynasty. The hall is a rectangular concrete structure that takes practicality over appearance. Still, the building has light green tiles produced by local kilns in Pei you, and the columns are adorned with geometric patterns with arch windows in different designs.
The building was renamed Chungshan Hall after World War II, and today it is a venue for various private events or performances.
The Western Hongan Buddhist Temple
Used to be: Taiwan Betsuin of Hongan-Ji School of Shin Buddhism
The small temple was an iconic structure of the Hongan-Ji School of Shin Buddhism in the Japanese period. The temple featured a Grand Hall of Great Sage, an entrance gate, a bell tower, and the dorm of abbots. The Grand Hall has a giant hip-and-gable roof which was laid with Japanese traditional tiles. The majority of the temple was burned down in 1975. The remains of the temple are restored and the city is now a small park – there, you could still see a hint of what the temple was like in the past.
Little South Gate
Used to be: Chung-Hsi Gate
When it says small, it is a really small gate on the side of the road. The structure was completed in 1882 and it was the gateway to Bianchiao and Chungher. In the past, the household of Lin Benyuan, a rich businessman of Bianchiao, donated money to commission the building of this gate in order to shun their adversaries of Monga Quanzhou origin.
The small was built with an aim to have a stronghold and defense, featuring pillars, open corridors, and other dominant features. The gate also went through a major renovation in 1966 and the upper part was altered from the original single-eave hip-and-gable to the Northern palatial style. Today, it is another metro station on the Songshan-Indian Line.
Office of the President
Used to be: Office of the Taiwan Governor-General
Of all the historic buildings in the city, this landmark is officially at the top of the rank because this is the office of the president! While the title of this post is “back to 1919”, now you can see it’s because this very building was built in 1919.
Designed by Kenji Nagano Uheizi, and later revised by Moriyama Matsuosuke, the main structure is a classic manifestation of Tatsuno-style: red bricks, white horizontal bands, and crowned with a central tower.
A lot of foreign elements were used to decorate this building, and this iconic masterpiece is showcased as a monument right at the end of Ketagalan Boulevard.
Today, Ketagalan Boulevard is the main stage for all kinds of political rallies, protests, and national celebrations.
What is Tatsuno-style?
Tatsuno Kingo was a Japanese well-known architect from the late 19th century to 1919 (this is also the year the architect passed). He has a strong influence on Japanese colonial architecture and Tatsuno-style has been a standard for many buildings in China and Taiwan: white bands, red bricks, and crowned with a central tower or a dome. Where to find Tatsuno-style buildings in Japan? Check out Tokyo’s Main Station and Manseibashi Station, or Osaka’s Central Public Hall. In Korea, check out Culture Station Seoul 284.
Judicial Office Building
Used to be: Supreme Courthouse and Taipei District Courthouse of Taiwan Governor-General Office
The Judicial Building is near the Office of the President. While the building is in the Eclectic style, it has some Romanesque characteristics, including medieval basket-shaped order in the porch, double arches at the façade, and geometric zigzag moldings. The building is also painted in light green. Today it still functions as the Judicial Office, and therefore you may appreciate the building from the outside by looking at the central arch-shaped gable, and helmet-shaped roofs on the central tower.
What is Eclecticism?
This is a tough word and so I got help from the Internet. This is actually a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject – so in architecture, it means that the building is a combination of different historical or art styles.
Chongqing South Road
Used to be: Hon-Cho
It was named Fuqian Street during the Qing Dynasty, and it had been a political and economic quarter in Taipei. Apart from the Judicial office building, this is where the important institutions and officials are located, like the Bank of Taiwan.
Many of the historic buildings have gone, but walk through here you will still find traces of the city’s historic past. Besides, it leads right back to Ximending, the shopping center in Taipei.
Taipei Guest House
Used to be: Mansion of the Taiwan Governor-General Office
The Guest House is a mansion designed by Fukuda Togo in 1901 and renovated by Moriyama Matsunosuke in 1912. Today, it still functions as a venue to greet foreign guests, the site is opened in specific time slots during the weekend to the general public. For more information, check out the official website for opening times and visiting instructions.
From the outside, it looks like a generic old building in gray stone – wait until you see the inside, the dormer windows, and bull’s eye windows projecting from the main roof are incorporated with European palatial architectural elements. More, the roof showcases the principle of the Beaux-Arts composition.
The house also features a Japanese-style garden, with pavilions, bridges, bonsai, mini waterfalls, and fountains.
National Taiwan University Hospital
Used to be: Taipei Hospital of Taiwan Governor-General Office
This is probably my favorite building of the bunch, as it is also featured in a number of local movies, TV shows, and music videos. Designed by Kondo Juro, this is another classic Tatsuno-style architecture located right on top of its namesake metro station. The front door of the old wing takes you back in time as a red and white building is just surrounded by trees and bushes.
The spatial hierarchy and the quiet environment really suit the purpose of it being a hospital, as it still serves its purpose today. While it may not be appropriate to barge in there and take pictures, check out the front door and appreciate its beautiful decorative elements before moving on to the other buildings in old Taipei.
National Taiwan Museum
Used to be: Museum of the Taiwan Governor-General Office
Another impressive piece of architecture in the old Taipei cluster, and this is a museum that you could actually enter. Designed by Nomura Ichirou and Araki Eiichi, it was formerly a memorial hall commissioned by officials and civilians across Taiwan in memory of Kodama Gentaro.
It became the oldest large-scale museum in Taiwan. Influenced by the British Museum, it is also a great sample of neoclassical architectural expression.
Today, the museum hosts exhibitions about the evolution of Taiwan in areas like earth science, humanitarian developments, zoology, and botany. The collection features specimens of Taiwan’s indigenous animals and plants and cultural artifacts. A number of temporary and special exhibitions are also held here. There are so many things to see and do in Taipei, to me, the museum is often overshadowed by the Taiwan Palace Museum. Take a walk here and learn a little bit more about Taiwan’s history if you have time.
Street-houses on Dihua Street
If you want to indulge yourself in a nostalgic environment, take a walk on Dihua Street.
Dihua Street has emerged as a popular tourist district in Taipei in recent years, which I have also introduced in my previous posts about Taipei Instagram spots and art places, with new shops, boutiques, tea houses, and art spaces established in the area.
Dihua Street and Dadaocheng are closely located as the street is the commercial center with businesses from the Wharf. The Dadaocheng Wharf was formerly inhabited by Taiwanese plain aborigines, due to the strong ethnic conflicts between the Monga and immigrants back in the early 20th century. The Dadaocheng Wharf later replaced the Monga Wharf as the main trading hub of tea leaves, fabrics, and dried food carried by boats.
Today, you could still see a hint of this part of history as tea houses dominate the district, at the same time, many street houses remained in their colonial styles that making a great picture as well. There were primarily four different architectural styles on both sides o the street, including Southern Minnan style, Wester historical style, art deco, and modernist style.
Drop by the visitor center and check out the latest shows, arts and crafts workshops, or tea tasting and demonstration programs.
Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei
The last building in the list that I have also introduced before, is the Museum of Modern Art (or Moca), located between Taipei Station and Zhongshan metro station.
The museum was a former elementary school, built in 1921. While it also features a historic exterior, it hosts a number of contemporary art exhibitions, that you could check out on its website before your visits.