Time Travel in Taichung: A Nostalgia and History Tour
By Joe Henley
Whether you’re into old architecture, antiques, period fashion, classic art, or the golden age of the film industry, Taichung has plenty of places to stoke the history buff’s passion for the past. Here are a few highlights awaiting personal exploration in this fascinating and history-rich central Taiwan city.
Long a focal point of the bucolic Tunghai University campus, the Luce Chapel, completed in 1963, stands in the middle of a sprawling park on the university grounds, its tapered walls covered by glazed diamond-shaped tiles that gleam during the daylight hours. Designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei, whose notable buildings include the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower, the church sits on an irregular hexagonal base, and the structure itself rises into a triangular, tent-like form. The interior walls feature thick, diamond-shaped coffers that diminish in size toward the ceiling.
Floor-to-ceiling windows at the entrance and behind the altar ensure a steady flow of natural light. The chapel is regularly filled with the faithful for the Sunday morning service – with seating for 500 – and their hymns ring out across the park. The sturdy design is both beautiful and practical, with concrete ribs that thicken as they descend along the church’s curved surfaces, providing reinforcement against earthquake damage. The church was named in honor of Reverend Henry W. Luce, an American missionary who went to China in the late nineteenth century to spread the gospel and wound up staying for over four decades – the father of famed publisher Henry R. Luce.
Tunghai Art Street
Not far from Tunghai University is Taichung Art Street which, despite the singular name, is actually a collection of streets and narrow alleys filled with art galleries, craft shops, clothing stores, antique distributors, pet shops, and bookstores. There is also a number of secondhand bookshops, where you might stumble upon untold numbers of literary treasures.
Though Tunghai Art Street only dates back to the 1980s, it nevertheless has a strong connection to yesteryear. For those looking for a literal taste of historic Taiwan, there are shops selling old-style Taiwanese candies and other confections that are displayed alongside traditional Taiwanese hand puppets and pop-culture items from decades past. In several antique shops, pictures of old-time pop idols and movie starlets sit alongside corporate collectibles, Buddha figures, old clay pillows, religious sculptures, jade figurines, and pendulum clocks.
Other stores specialize in antique furniture, selling handmade wooden chairs, 60-year-old cabinets from Tainan made from the wood of the pomelo tree, 50-year-old Japanese-style bookcases, and 40-year-old radios still in working order, along with ceramics, flatware, ice-cream scoops, and most any other household item you can name.
Taichung Broadcasting Bureau
Built in 1935, the Taichung Broadcasting Bureau (TBB) building was once home to the third radio station in Taiwan. Building and bureau were built and run by the colonial Japanese government, then taken over by the Kuomintang administration in 1949. Today the building houses a broadcasting museum, an exhibition space, and an interior-design business called Macro Maison, which oversees the whole operation.
The exhibition space features a rotating array of handicrafts, fashions, and lifestyle items made by local businesses and craftspeople. During a recent exhibition, handbags made by grandmothers from Nantou County, who lost their jobs on betel-nut farms when the area was devastated by the 9/21 earthquake of 1999, were on display alongside handmade jewelry and aromatherapy products. In an adjacent wing is a modest exhibit from the radio industry's heyday, with items such as phonographs, tube amps, reel-to-reel machines, and cassette players – i.e., the broadcasting museum.
The rear of the TBB is where Macro Maison peddles its wares, including furniture, building materials, fabrics, teak lighting fixtures, and ash bookshelves, tables, and desks. All products are made in Taiwan, and the company’s unique sense of style has won it a host of large local clients, including Starbucks, Mr. Donut, and Cold Stone Creamery. Guided tours are available in Chinese, and though the guides are modest about their English abilities, this writer received a full tour of the facilities in competent English.
Bei Huan Sui Yue
More evidence of Taiwan’s colonial past can be found at Bei Huan Sui Yue, a teahouse in a Japanese-style residence that was actually the childhood home of its owner, Dr. Wu Hao-chi. The home was built in 1924, and still looks much as it did back then, with partitioned rooms separated by elegant sliding doors made of wood and rice paper, a Zen garden, and lush vegetation outside the windows, making the complex seem like an ancient green sanctuary hidden away from its urban surroundings. Guests can sit around antique tables surrounded by furnishings from mainland China, some of which, such as the shelves, are over a hundred years old, or can choose to be served in the traditional Japanese way as they sit on tatami mats on the floor. Whichever you choose, you are embraced by the hospitable, warm atmosphere.
Houses such as this are a rarity these days in Taiwan, making them all the more valuable. From the 1960s through the 1980s Taiwan’s economy grew quickly, and many Taiwanese favored knocking down older homes in favor of more modern constructions. But Dr. Wu, who worked with the Department of Health, wanted to keep the history of his city and country alive, and in keeping with his deep love of tea culture converted his home into a teahouse in 1988. In addition to serving various kinds of tea and set meals, Bei Huan Sui Yue also hosts musical and traditional Taiwanese hand-puppet performances.
Once the warehouses where goods to be shipped out of Taichung Railway Station were stored, located just a stone’s throw away from the railroad tracks, Stock 20 is now a converted space where Taichung’s artistic community thrives. Several of the warehouses, which were built back in 1917 and are still in their original state, now provide space for artists in residence to work on dance performances, installation-art pieces, paintings, or works in whatever other medium they decide on, and one has been set aside exclusively for student artists. Another of the warehouses has been converted into a performance space for bands, theater troupes, or other performing artists.
Exhibitions by invited artists are staged in the main building at the far end of the complex, featuring sculptures, paintings, and other artworks. Meanwhile, an old railway car adjacent to the main entrance has been set aside for the various workshops that are staged periodically at Stock 20. In the middle of it all sits the Glass House, built on the former site of a warehouse that was destroyed during the 9/21 earthquake. Guests who climb to the top of the Glass House are rewarded with a panoramic view of the train station and the surrounding area, providing one with a basic idea of how a sprawling metropolis grew around this district.
Banana New Paradise
Perhaps the best way to end a day in historic Taichung is to enjoy a meal surrounded by countless items from Taiwan’s past. Banana New Paradise is a restaurant set up to resemble an old Taichung neighborhood and buildings that once surrounded the Taichung Railway Station in the early-to-mid 20th century. Tables sit beside replicas of an old camera shop, a general store, a dentist’s office, a barber shop, and a department store, and are surrounded by old vehicles such as taxis, motorcycles, and even a few creaking bicycles. The walls are completely covered in memorabilia, with old pictures salvaged from family homes and donated by local families. Some patrons have even been surprised to see old family photos from their childhood when perusing the walls on a visit to the establishment.
The centerpiece of the restaurant is a replica of an old movie theater, complete with props from films that were shot in Taichung, once regarded as the “Hollywood of Taiwan,” and a gargantuan and long-retired movie projector. Original and reprinted movie posters line the walls upstairs, where private rooms can be booked for family/group meals. The cuisine is a mix of traditional Taiwanese and Chinese dishes along with some modern creations, and it's well worth looking around while waiting for your meal to arrive to get a feel for what it was like to live in Taichung in years gone by.
Taichung Broadcasting Bureau
Add: 1, Diantai St., North District, Taichung City
Bei Huan Sui Yue
Add: 29, Daquan St., Taichung City
Tel: (04) 2371-1984
Add: 6-1, Lane 37, Fuxing Rd., Sec. 4, Taichung City
Tel: (04) 2220-9972
Banana New Paradise
Add: 111, Shuangshi Rd., Sec. 2, Taichung City
Tel: (04) 2234-5402