October 8th, 2013

Taipei’s Urban Regeneration


Treasure Hill. Photo by Wunkai

It’s a scorchingly hot afternoon in Taipei and cicadas are buzzing loudly outside the Treasure Hill Temple. A man in cycling gear stops to take a swig of water before turning towards the temple’s statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. He clasps his hands and bows three times, paying his respects.

A few metres away, Travis Hung stands watching. “This temple was built a few hundred years ago in the Qing Dynasty,” he tells me. “It used to be one of the most important temples around Taipei.” When the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895, they deemed the hilly area around the temple to have exceptionally good water and banned development. For years, only six families lived nearby. Then came the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalists who placed Taiwan under martial law after fleeing from mainland China in 1949. More than 200 ex-soldiers and their families flocked to Treasure Hill, where they built houses and small farms, creating a unique rural community just a stone’s throw away from central Taipei.

Today, Treasure Hill is an altogether different kind of settlement, home to 14 artist studios, exhibition and performance spaces, a café and a youth hostel, along with a handful of longtime residents who maintain the same tile-roofed houses and small patches of farmland they built after 1949. “This is a special place,” says Hung, who works for the non-profit foundation that manages the village.

Treasure Hill is just one part of a cultural renaissance that has swept through Taipei, turning neglected urban spaces into design studios, music halls, craft workshops and independent shops. The Songshan Creative and Cultural Park brings art and design into a former tobacco factory; Huashan Creative Park is former distillery that is now a popular destination for music fans and arts and craft lovers; the Taipei Cinema Park screens films outdoors.

“We are facing competition from China, globalization, climate change, a low birth rate,” says Lin Yu-hsiu, a section chief at the Urban Regeneration Office, which transforms vacant buildings into creative spaces. “We have to think about how to move forward, but in a wiser way than before. We want a better life.”


January 23rd, 2013

The Sacred Food Court


Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”

Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”

The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.

There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.


January 2nd, 2013

The Treehouse of Roosevelt Road


A couple of months ago, I wrote about the fig tree that has taken root atop a dilapidated building on Temple Street in Hong Kong. 800 kilometres to the northeast, across the Taiwan Strait, there is something even more spectacular: an enormous tree that grows straight through an otherwise ordinary shophouse.

You can find the tree on Roosevelt Road, a wide boulevard that runs through the heart of Taipei, from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to some of the city’s largest universities. From afar, it looks as though the tree stands in a courtyard, but walk closer and you’ll find its trunk rooted in an adjacent sidewalk. It rises up through the building’s first floor, curves through the interior and explodes past the roof into a riot of foliage. What came first, the building or the tree? Either way, accommodating the tree would have required serious effort and expense on the part of the building’s owner.

It goes without saying that cities impose themselves rather heavily on nature. Manhattan was verdant and hilly when the Dutch arrived; now it is flat and stripped bare of nearly all primeval forest — even Central Park is a simulacrum, its landscape meticulously planned by Frederick Law Olmstead. Even recent efforts at urban greening — vertical gardens, rooftop farms — stop short of being truly transformative.


July 10th, 2012

Creative Urbanity in Taipei

Treasure Hill

Treasure Hill, Taipei. Photo by the Kozy Shack

When Chou Yu-jui was growing up near Yongkang Street, an old part of Taipei near two of the city’s universities, it was a quiet neighbourhood of wooden Japanese cottages, small shops and back alleys filled with potted plants. Ten years ago, it started to change. Small cafés, boutiques and bakeries opened and lent the area an eclectic charm.

“It’s interesting, because you have a lot of shops that sell things you won’t find in a department store,” says Chou, an industrial designer who specialises in products made from recycled and sustainable materials.

Last October, Chou was leading a group of foreign designers on a tour around Yongkang Street and nearby Treasure Hill, an old squatter’s village that has been transformed into an art district. Similar tours were happening around the design shops of Zhongshan, inside the Red House creative centre and at the wholesale market around the Taipei Rear Train Station, where industrial designers hunt for raw materials.

The message from the tours was clear: Taipei’s creative scene is not only alive and well, it’s changing the very face of the city. The transformation began just over a decade ago and has accelerated in recent years. In 2007, a century-old public market known as the Red House was renovated to include a theatre, music venue and retail space for emerging local designers. 2010 saw the conversion of Treasure Hill, an informal village once threatened by demolition, into a collection of exhibition spaces and studios. Most recently, an old tobacco factory was restored and reopened last year as Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, home to the Taiwan Design Museum and the focal point of the 2011 World Design Expo — a coming-of-age event for Taiwan’s design industry.

The new creative spaces have been accompanied by the growing involvement of artists and designers in Taipei’s urban life, especially the informal city of night markets, street hawkers and illegal structures that thrives in the Taiwanese capital, something the Finnish urbanist Marco Casagrande described as the Instant City, in contrast to the Official City.


May 3rd, 2011

Photos of the Week: Mailboxes

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf


Hong Kong mailboxes by Hamachi & Toro


Taipei mailboxes by Poagao

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

March 21st, 2011

Photos of the Week: Well Seated

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

This week’s photos were taken in Taipei and Neihu by Poagao, a writer, photographer and filmmaker who immigrated to Taiwan from the United States in the 1980s. Check out his Flickr photostream.

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.


June 10th, 2010

Locals vs. Tourists


We’ve always known there is a gulf between the city as experienced by tourists and the city lived in by locals. Now we have a fun visual representation of that divide. Using various types of data from Flickr, one user of the photo-sharing website, Eric Fisher, has created maps that indicate the spots photographed by tourists and those shot by locals. Local photographs are blue, tourist photos red and undetermined photos yellow.

There are some problems in the methodology. Whether a Flickr user is a local or a tourist is determined by whether they photograph a given location over a long period of time (like a local would) or in just a few days (like a tourist would). That seems fair enough, but not everyone geotags their photos, which could possibly skew the results one way or another. One person who obsessive geotags all of his or her photos could have a disproportionately large representation on the map. You can see this in Vancouver, where one person’s geotagged cycle routes are prominently displayed.

Still, just by looking at the maps you get a strong intuitive sense that they are close to reality. In the Montreal map, tourists overwhelmingly stick to Old Montreal, St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Olympic Stadium while locals take photos throughout downtown and the Plateau, with an especially notable cluster of local shots around Lafontaine Park, Maisonneuve Park and the Botanical Gardens (which, interestingly enough, are right across the street from the Olympic tourist hub).


December 21st, 2009

The Many Chinese Words for “Lane”

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Suoyi Hutong Beijing

Suoyi Hutong, Beijing

There’s several different names in English for small, secondary streets that run between blocks or behind major roads. Alley and lane are the words most often used in North America, but there’s significant variation in the UK, where regional words like vennel, chare, wynd, twitten and jigger are common.

It’s a similar story in China. Just about every city has a lu (路), which is the word mostly commonly used to describe important roads. And even though there is a basic word for lane — xiang (巷) — there are also many regional variations. In Beijing, it’s hutong (衚衕); in Shanghai, it’s longtang (弄堂) and in Chengdu, it’s xiangzi (巷子).

I don’t know anything about the exact origins of these different words for alley, but I imagine they have roots in local languages and geography. In Guangzhou, for example, a common name for alley is tung jeun in Cantonese (衕津), which literally means “alley dock” and refers to a lane near the Pearl River. Nobody uses this word in Hong Kong, where two other words are used to refer to alleys: fong (坊) and lei (里), which is a Cantonese transliteration of the English word “lane.”


June 5th, 2009

Street Flourishes

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Mosaic on Yongkang Street, Taipei

Hong Kong is a city with very utilitarian streetscapes — everything on the street, from paving to furniture, is standardized, cost-efficient and bland — so visiting Taipei was a bit of a relief. Streets there are far more haphazard and eclectic. Part of that has to do with the wide range of street furniture (like the bollards I wrote about last winter) but part of it simply comes from nice decorative touches, like these mosaic walls along Yongkang Street. They add a bit of individuality and character to the street, avoiding (at least in this part of Taipei) the repetitiveness so common here in HK.

Mosaic on Yongkang Street, Taipei

April 19th, 2009

A Perch on the Edge of the World

Macau balconies

There are two types of architectural birdcages in Macau: casinos and balconies. One of this southern Chinese city’s most famous casinos, the gloriously kitschy Lisboa, could coop up a giant parrot, and across town, a massive aviary greets visitors at the city’s newest gambling complex, in the Four Seasons Hotel. This is the only place in China where gambling is legal—in 2006, revenues surpassed those of Las Vegas—but unlike in nearby Hong Kong, traditional aesthetics are not yet lost. It doesn’t take long to wander away from the casinos into crowded streets that double as living rooms; amid the Portuguese street signs and droopy banyan trees, you’ll see dozens of balconies and windowsills, each enclosed by iron grates. The bars are a precaution against burglary, but the effect is a jumble of human-sized birdcages above the street, with potted plants and laundry instead of seed trays and perches.

Those balconies are a large reason why, despite the flashing casino lights on the horizon, Macau continues to feel lived-in and down-to-earth. They’re a bridge between the private and the public, inviting domestic activity into the street and social life into the home. If the city is a stage, the balcony is just that—the balcony, a spot for observing drama and, as with the two old men in The Muppets, occasionally participating in it.

And balconies are unique in every city. In Vancouver’s West End, where apartment buildings nestle into lush greenery, they are for quiet post-dinner conversation and solitary reading. Neighbours are glimpsed, voyeuristically, but interaction is rare. In the coastal Indian city of Chennai, by contrast, teenagers flirt “across floors and across blocks,” reports The Hindu, prompting mothers to warn their daughters against spending too much time on the balcony. Of course, there are few cities so passionate about its balconies as Montreal, where, as memories of the long winter melt with the snow, summer brings the whole city outside. Almost every evening from May until October, the murmur of conversation and clinking of beer bottles drifts down from overhead.

Things are different in Hong Kong, where I now live. Here, across the Pearl River Delta from Macau, summers are muggy, and for decades balconies had the all-important task of providing ventilation to sweltering apartments. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both British colonial tenements and tong lau—literally “Chinese building”—were graced with spacious balconies and large, recessed verandas.


April 3rd, 2009

Taipei’s Japanese Bungalows

Japanese bungalow

Japanese bungalow

At some point or another, most of Asia was occupied by the Japanese, usually with disastrous consequences. But Taiwan is a bit different. From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was a full-fledged Japanese colony, a legacy that continues to manifest itself in many subtle aspects of Taiwanese culture. Not the least of this is the urban landscape of Taipei. It’s hard to pin down, exactly, but there’s something that makes it feel very different from mainland Chinese cities, and I’m willing to bet that much of this has to do with the way the city evolved during the Japanese period.

Japanese bungalows are one example of this. In the early twentieth century, low-slung wood cottages were built on the edges of Taipei. Somehow, even as the city expanded into its current bulky mass of low-rise apartment blocks, many of the cottages survived. They’re usually surrounded by concrete walls and sit amidst lush greenery; a bit of the old countryside left behind in the concrete and asphalt of Taipei. Peek over the walls and you’ll see an elegant but dilapidated house, its garden unkempt, windows dusty. Many of the houses seem abandoned but there are often scooters or cars parked in the yard, and sometimes laundry drying, which seems to suggest that some are still occupied, despite the dilapidation.


March 17th, 2009

Don’t Hate

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Don't Hate

I first passed by this paste-up late at night in Taipei’s Ximending district. When I happened to be nearby a couple of days later, I was doubly impressed: whoever made it knew that by placing it here, it would illuminated each afternoon by a thin sliver of light, a ready-made art space in an otherwise dark lane.

February 19th, 2009

Stencil Art in Taipei

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf




February 8th, 2009

Scooter’s Eye View

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf