Taichung has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Located roughly halfway up the island, it’s Taiwan’s third-largest metropolitan area and a place I’ve passed through a several times before. These visits tended to be weekend debauches with foreign friends, and apart from the all-you-can-drink night clubs and a wonderful deli (“Fingaz!” was the old clarion call for any southward trip), Taichung always struck me as a bland urban sprawl.
Yet talk to a foreigner who lives there and they’ll usually defend it to the bitter end.
These were the misconceptions I brought with me on my latest visit to Taichung, though this time keeping to a markedly more wholesome itinerary. I wanted to focus on the Japanese colonial era, and how it impacted the city’s history and architecture. One of the city’s most striking landmarks – and something you remember no matter how soused of a weekend – is the baroque Taichung Railway Station, built under Japanese rule in 1905. I wanted to see if there was anything else like it.
Lucky for me one of my girlfriend’s former classmates had agreed to point out some important landmarks in the city. But thanks to bad timing on my part, we couldn’t meet up until my second day in town.
So in the meantime I fell back on my tried and tested method of tourism: death marches and crowd-sourced sightseeing. My first march was from the seedy love hotel I was staying at near the train station to Fingaz, which took about an hour and a half. It was here where my attitude towards Taichung began to soften. After all, how bad could any city with tree-lined canals possibly be? Sure it would be nice if there were a subway system (it’s currently being built), or at the very least if drivers were a little more inclined to follow the rules of the road. But on the other hand the city exudes that laid-back, rural feeling that one used to get in Taipei, like this is somewhere you can still wear flip-flops, a muscle shirt, and floral jammers to the 7-11 without being made to feel shame.
City of Art
The more I asked people what I should see in Taichung, the more it became apparent that the city has a vibrant art scene. A waitress at Fingaz suggested I see Zhongxin Market (忠信市場); a yoga teacher named Lulu recommended Stock 20, a railway stockyard-turned-exhibition hall; Pei Ying (my super-helpful guide) said I had to visit Tunghai Art Street; and the owner of a coffee shop (itself an exhibition space featuring a show by a friend) recommended the Caotian Space (艸田空間) and the “Freedom Men Art Apartments” (自由人公寓).
Then there’s the Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park, a wine factory that has been converted into a mixed-use creative space that pulls together boutiques, exhibition spaces, workshops, cafes, and government offices.
As is often the case, there seems to be two scenes running parallel in Taichung: a government-as-patron-of-the-arts scene where the local and national governments support artists as a vehicle for economic development, and an underground scene of talented people expressing themselves for expression’s sake. Of the latter, Zhongxin Market is worth a visit. Located a stone’s throw from the Museum of Fine Arts, this slightly dilapidated hangar-esque building has workshops, cafes, bookshops, antique stores, and even a small shrine. For me it evoked memories of the now-defunct Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin. Let’s hope the inhabitants of Zhongxin don’t get similarly booted in the name of urban beautification.
Taichung figured prominently in Tokyo’s plans for the island’s development during the Japanese colonial era. At the time of the handover (1895) Taichung was far less populated and built up than Changhua and thus afforded Japanese urban planners a freer hand in planning the city. Various remnants from this era are still present, notably the old government offices (州廳) and the Mid-Lake Pavilion in Taichung Park; a space that figured prominently in the government pageantry of the time. The old residential quarter (大和村) can also be discerned in some of the original, Japanese-style roofs that survive to this day. I was interested in the offices and residential quarter mostly due to the handover of power from Japan to the KMT, specifically how KMT soldiers and bureaucrats directly occupied the buildings being vacated by Japan, and I hope to delve further into these themes in post-trip research.
I left Taichung after 3 nights, but felt I could have stayed another 3 and not run out of things to do. After getting over the initial inconvenience of getting around, you’ll be rewarded with a city that’s cheaper, warmer, and more laid-back than Taipei (but not too laid-back like Kaohsiung, so said a local). Really it seems like a great place to be, and I know that next time I come back it won’t just be to visit Fingaz.
(Note: paintings in last two pics by Michun)