Discover Taipei’s history with museum experts – and almost for free

I’ve been living in Taipei for a few years, and I consider myself pretty interested in history. But when I joined this walking tour through the old city center today, I still learned a lot.

The tour is called „Blast to the Past: Walking Tour of Old Taipei“ and it’s not offered by a company, but by the National Taiwan Museum 國立臺灣博物館.

It’s in English and takes place on monthly or bi-monthly basis. Check their Facebook page.

It mostly covers places from the Qing Dinasty and the Japanese era in the area within the former city walls, the „new“ Taipei City center that was planted right between the existing settlements of Monga/Wanhua 萬華 and Dadaocheng 大稻埕 in the late 19th century.

We met up at Beimen 北門, the old north gate that’s lately been the center or major urban regeneration efforts.

Our guides were Phaedra Fang from the National Taiwan Museum’s Education Department and Iago, a Spanish student at NTU who also works at that department.

The price was just NT$50 per person, which included a ticket for the National Taiwan Museum and its branches. You could even use it to go back there after the tour and continue exploring at your own pace. Quite a bargain!

The tour took us from Beimen towards Taipei Main Station, following the former city wall that was erected under the late Qing Dinasty, less than 20 years before they had to hand Taiwan over to the Japanese. (The Japanese then promptly demolished the wall again.). Then we turned down Guanqian Rd. towards the National Taiwan Museum, and explored 228 Peace Park 228和平公園 – for me, as you will see, the part of the tour that offered the most surprises. From there, we took the bus to National Taiwan Museum’s Nanmen Park down by Roosevelt Road (map).

As you follow me through these stops, I will try to recap those bits of information that I found particularly interesting or surprising. I did not take notes today, so I am writing this while it’s still halfway fresh in my memory. However, I will not re-check everything, so there will probably be some inaccuracies which you are welcome to point out in the comments.

A big Japanese hotel

Walking along Zhongxiao West Rd. towards Taipei Main Station, we arrived at the Sinkong Mitsukoshi department store skyscraper. This used to be the site where the Japanese constructed a big hotel for state guests and other VIPs. Most would arrive at Taipei via the train station, and it was considered important to provide a good first impression of the city.

Like the Presidential Palace and many other Japanese buildings of the time, it copied Western architectural traditions.

Taipei’s most beautiful museum? Easily.

Guanqian Rd., leading towards the museum, was one of Taipei’s most prestigious streets during the Japanese era, lined by bank headquarters and other representative buildings. It terminates at the museum with its impressive dome and portico, influenced by Western classicism.

The urban layout here was supposed to mimic the way the National Tokyo Museum is locate close to Ueno train station.

Since Taiwan was Japan’s first „southern“ colony, a lot of effort was put into representation. The palm trees growing in front of the museum (and also on the NTU campus) are actually not native to Taiwan, but were imported from Florida to achieve the desired effect.

I was surprised to learn that the museum was not primarily designed as such, but rather as a memorial hall for two early Japanese adminstrators in Taiwan:  Viceroy Kodama Gentaro and Chief Civil Administrator Goto Shinpei.

The building, completed in 1915, was considered so sacred that the general public was not even allowed to use the big stairs leading to the main entrance. They were ushered in through a side entrance.

When Japan’s then-crown prince Hirohito visited Taiwan in 1923, of course, he used these steps.

The inside of the National Taiwan museum, with its dome, columns and marble, is one of my favourite architectural spaces in all of Taiwan. It was recently re-opened after two months of renovation works.

We learned that in the spaces were two big vases are displayed now, there used to be statues of Kodama and Goto.

In the center of the floor, there used to be a mosaic with the Japanese Chrysanthemum Seal in the center. Instead of 16 petals, the Imperial symbol, it had 8 – Taiwan was just a colony, after all.

The mosaic also featured a pineapple. Museum biologists determined that it actually was a pineapple and not a thistle, as had also been suspected. If it was there because of this fruit’s abundance in Taiwan, or because pineapples were once considered a symbol of wealth, is unknown.

Pineapples and other tropical fruit can also be found embelleshing this bull’s eye window in the museum. In the European tradition, it probably would have depicted grapes.

We left the museum and circled it to the south side, thus entering 228 Peace Park.

A park full of surprises

This park, which used to be called New Park, was originally divided into two parts.

The northern part, where the museum now stands, was the site of Taiwan’s largest temple complex during the Qing Dinasty: Tianhou Gong 天后宮, dedicated to Mazu.

The Qing adminstration also used the buildings for other public functions. When the Japanese took over, they repurposed it as a dormitory for employees of the nearby hospital (today NTU Hospital) and for soldiers.

The buildings were heavily damaged by flooding after a typhoon at some point, so they were cleared, making way for the museum building.

Unlike today, the museum’s south side originally featured open balconies.

The bridge, still in place, became a popular spot for taking photos.

The photos on the left used to be displayed next to train time tables: Women in Chinese qipao dresses, standing on a Japanese bridge in front of a Western-style building. The idea here was to present Taiwan as a cultivated and cosmopolitan place.

A few steps further, the music stage that’s still around went through several iterations. The first version, with its turret roof, was apparently not built strong enough, so it collapsed during an earthquake.

This easily overlooked memorial arch, Jigonghaoyi Arch (急公好義坊), is a Qing Dinasty relic commemorating a rich businessman who donated money to build an exam hall in Taipei, saving students taking government exams the long journey to Tainan. (Richard Saunders has more on this and other memorial arches.)

These objects, scattered around 228 Peace Park are not actually seats, but former pedestals for the columns of the Tianhou Temple mentioned above. Think about this rich history next time you sit there!

By the 1930’s, Japanese architects were less eager to imitate Western architecture. The Taipei Radio Station, today’s Municipal Taipei 228 Memorial Museum, was influenced by Spanish architecture, but also featured more obvious Asian elements.

 

Because only few people had a radio back home, public loudspeakers were installed in the park, enabling everyone to follow the broadcasts. At least of them is still there.

Gathered around, this is where many Taipei residents learned events like the Japanese surrender or the 228 Incident (insurgend citizens occupied the radio station and broadcast their demands.)

Phaedra and Iago really had a lot of knowledge to share.

This is a book they brought along that features fascinating, razor-sharp black & white photographs from the Japanese era.

Representations of history

We arrived at the 228 Memorial. This spot originally featured a Japanese statue (for one of the two administrators memorialized in the museum, I’m not sure which one). Later, it was replaced by a clock tower.

I had never acually stepped inside the 228 Memorial before. Iago mentioned that the stepping-stone path leading there automatically makes you lower your head, as if in reverence for the victims. Quite intriguing.

In another corner of the park, there are some Chinese-style pavillons with busts of Sun Yat-sen, Koxinga and other historical Chinese figures. These were erected in the 1960 as part of the government’s sinicization efforts. The Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement was supposed to counter the PRC’s Cultural Revolution and also make the Taiwanese feel more Chinese.

Also, the open grounds that were here before had turned into a gathering place for Taipei’s homeless, which the mayor did not like. So these lakes and pavillons are an early example of urban planning to exclude fringe groups.

In tourism photos of the time, the late Chinese-style additions convenently occupied the foreground, relegating the Japanese-era buildings to a backdrop function. Architecture and its representation often have specific functions and are shaped by dominant ideologies of their time.

Another nice example: This Confucius statue in 228 Peace Park occupies a pedestal that originally was built for a statue of the Japanese head of the Land Bank.

On our way to the bus station, we passed by another Qing-era memorial arch. The Huang Widow’s Memorial (黄氏节孝坊) pays tribute to a lady who lived what was considered a virtuous life after her husband passed away.

Having this arch dedicated to her means she was a person of considerable influence at her time; unusual for a woman back then.

We then took the 706 bus that leaves directly in front of the musem for a quick ride to the NTM Nanmen Park on Nanchang Rd.

A former chemical factory turned museum

This compound, today reduced to about 1/8 of its original size, used to be Taiwan’s largest chemical factory during the Japanese era. Camphor was extracted from the wood of camphor trees here.

Point of note: The building to the right was constructed with stones taken from the old city wall.

Camphor is a fascinating substance. For one, it’s the basis of Celluloid, the first synthetic plastic material.

And it was essential for the production of smokeless gunpowder, which all major military powers adapted in the late 19th century.

At that time, Taiwan produced about 80% of the worldwide camphor output. So you could say that most of the powder fired during World War I could not have been produced without this factory in Taipei.

The Japanese also turned this place into an Opium factory.

Today, this is a charming, beautifully restored green spot that you should visit when you have a chance.

Here is the most important information about the „Blast to the Past“ walking tour. The next tour will take place on January 13, 2018.

You need to register beforehand. Check out the museum’s English Facebook page or Twitter feed.

I had a great time today. In less then 3 hours, the tour deepened my knowlegde about Taipei’s history, and I learned quite a few facts I had not been aware of.

What are your experiences? What helped you get a grasp of Taiwan’s multi-layered history?

About me

I am a German reporter living and working in Taiwan. Read more English posts on this otherwise mostly German blog. You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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