Taiwan’s second largest city undergoing an architectural and cultural renaissance
Taichung is the laidback and artsy capital of Taiwan, with universities, colleges, museums and art-filled public spaces.
I am in Taichung, Taiwan’s second largest city, an hour south of Taipei by highspeed train. Taichung was founded by immigrants from mainland China in 1721. Under the Japanese, it was developed and modelled on Kyoto in the early 20th century, with classical arched bridges and gnarled banyan trees.
Today, Taichung is the laidback and artsy capital of Taiwan, with universities, colleges, museums and art-filled public spaces.
The city hosts the annual Taichung Arts Festival with more than 200 performances — from parades, dance and music to street performers, markets and cultural events and a Jazz festival.
Taichung is also home to some of the world’s most ambitious architectural projects and most of them are also green and sustainable. We start exploring the city with a visit to the new Taichung National Theatre which is the city’s showstopper. It took 11 years to build and here the drama is the architecture itself. Flanked by large gardens and dancing fountains, the building has on its façade huge cut-out concrete sections that remind me of gargantuan hourglasses — inside its all sinuous curves and flowing, organic spaces that make use of the mysterious play of light and dark giving one a feeling of walking into the womb.
Designed by Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond, this avant-garde building with no beams and drawing inspiration from rocks and caves has three theatres that host dance, music and opera performances from across the world. “It was built using 58 reinforced steel and concrete tubes to create a 3D space,” says our guide Jerry Chen.
As I walk through this minimalistic building that has knee-deep pools and streams on the floor of the foyer, I fall in love with its design that makes everything a piece of art, including the steel and glass elevators. On the façade of the building are small air holes that allow natural sunshine and air to permeate the interiors in the day and the light to spill out in the night. There is an ingeniously integrated special water screen system to help the building in case of fire with vents on the floor of the building that can douse the flames.
We pass the meandering Liu Chuan canal, rife with carp, with willows and native rain trees on the banks, and arched bridges, to the most magical place in the city — the opulent library-themed dessert store Dawn Cakes housed in a three-storey brick building called Miyahara, which was once a ophthalmology clinic, built during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in 1927.
The building was slated for demolition but the government decided to revitalise the district and its red brick walls and archway are today creatively combined with the modern structure.
I am enchanted by its Hogwarts-like atmosphere (as the school of magic shown in the Harry Potter films) with sweeping staircases, large floor to ceiling mirrors that sweep over three storeys, glittering chandeliers, wooden medicine chests, wooden shelves that hold dummy books (which are actually weathered blocks of wood from the eye hospital that existed here).
Soft music plays in the background as shop assistants dressed in blue uniforms pack sugary treats -- from pineapple cakes and sun cakes (flaky pastry filled with the honey of flowers that are endemic to Taiwan) to soft ginger candies — in retro style paper with ribbons. The creative packaging looks like vintage books — tea bags are packed like old LP covers and slabs of gourmet chocolates are available for tasting.
Taichung is also known as the birthplace of pearl milk tea — black or green tea with milk, sugar, and chewy black tapioca pearls. Sometimes there are fruit variations of the bubble tea or with additions like red beans. We try the legendary drink at Chun Shui Tang, which started as a small teahouse and today has more than 40 branches in Taiwan, and is said to be the inventor of bubble tea. They say that it all started when a product development manager dropped tapioca balls from her dessert into her iced tea for fun, and the rest is history.
We tick off our lunch on itemised sheets — from braised tofu to vegetable noodles and pearl milk tea as an efficient assembly line system places platters of food and drink on our table.
The pearl milk tea is full of sugary goodness — the chewy tapioca pearls and tea with milk tastes divine.
Everywhere in the city a new renaissance is palpable. An old cluster of police dormitories built during Japanese rule has been transformed into the Literature Museum.
Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park is an old winery converted into a cultural hub that hosts art & craft workshops. Taichung’s creativity is best expressed at Rainbow Village — a former colony for veteran soldiers on the outskirts of the city. It all started when the government wanted to bring down some houses to modernise the city and develop that land.
Huang Yung-Fu, a nonagenarian soldier, started doodling his home with myriad images — from animals and birds to whimsical men and women. Soon, people started getting attracted to the vibrant enclave. A group of students petitioned the government and it was decided to preserve the colony. Colourful images in bright pink red and green stare down from the walls and floors of this cluster of houses. Cats and monkeys, dolphins and exotic-looking birds stare down a wide expanse of wall and around a window.
Today, “Grandpa Rainbow”, as Huang is referred to, is a celebrity and hordes of tourists visit the spot which even has a café and souvenir shop that sells rainbow coloured umbrellas and T-shirts.
Come night, the city transforms into a psychedelic world of coloured neon and raucous night markets. We trawl the huge Feng Chia Night Market, brimming with youthful energy. It has more than 15,000 vendors and stalls selling everything — from stinky tofu beef noodles (the tofu fermented with brine and shelled shrimp), pork broth, French fries as long as a hand, taro pancakes with herbs to fried chicken, and the ubiquitous bubble tea.
Small boutiques sell the latest hipster fashionwear from South Korea and China alongside shoes from every major brand.
People stand in queues outside their favourite food stalls and music spills over from gaming shops and arcades. I soak in the sensory feast as I fill my shopping bags before making my way to the hotel way past midnight.
Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based writer