The Masterminds Behind
The Rise of the Eslite Nanxi Commercial District
The new Eslite Spectrum Nanxi Store right next to Zhongshan MRT station was the talk of the town even before its formal launch. At the artsy department store, which features a bookstore with movie screenings, customers stood in line for hours just to get a bite of trendy Japanese soufflé pancakes. The area’s rise as a tourism and shopping magnet, however, owes to the vision of an alliance between a community-building NGO, a neighborhood chief, and local artists.
The Rise of the Eslite Nanxi Commercial DistrictBy Meng-Hsuan Yang
On September 30, when the Eslite store on Nanjing West Road (Nanxi Store) formally opened after trial operations, more than 50 people were already queuing outside the entrance just after 6 a.m., hours before the doors flung open. A signpost reading ”Please take numbers for Flipper’s soufflé pancakes” indicated where the early risers were headed.
During ten days of trial operations, the new store attracted around half a million people. Eslite Group Chairwoman Mercy Wu cautioned that visitor numbers during trial operations could only serve as a reference, though she also conceded that the figure exceeded the company’s internal forecast.
The Nanxi Store, Wu’s first independent venture since the death of her father, Eslite Group founder Robert Wu, a year ago, is located in the property that previously housed the Idee Taipei department store and subsequently the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Nanxi Store Two. It ties in with her father’s last project, the 261-meter-long R79 Eslite Underground book street in the Zhongshan Metro Mall that connects Zhongshan and Shuanglian MRT stations.
Aside from hip Japanese brands such as Flipper’s desserts, Sarutahiko Coffee and Matsukiyo drugstore, the store offers more than 100 Taiwanese micro brands. The bookstore inside, which retains the five-meter high ceiling of the former movie theater, will be used to promote the creative industries and cultural tourism. Arts and culture events will be planned and hosted here in cooperation with local shop owners and cultural workers for the shared benefit of the Nanxi commercial district.
“Finding this location was a serendipity,” says Wu.
Eslite Group Chairwoman Mercy Wu (Source: Kuo-Tai Liu)
The 6th Busiest Taipei MRT Station
The landlord of the Nanxi store is the Hsu Clan, one of the largest landowners in Taipei’s Western District, which made its fortune with department stores and hotels. Since the Hsu family, which also owns the Eslite Spectrum Ximen Store property in Wanhua District, was optimistic about the prospect of the Nanxi commercial district, they asked Eslite to move in after the lease with Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department stores ended.
In contrast to run-of-the mill shopping malls, the Nanxi commercial district caters to shoppers with more individualistic, culture-oriented interests such as bookworms, gourmets, vintage fashion lovers and art lovers.
Since the Taipei MRT’s Green Line, which runs between Songshan and Xindian, opened in late 2014, Zhongshan MRT Station has grown into the station with the sixth-highest ridership count and the third-fastest ridership growth, behind Ximen and City Hall stations.
In 2017, a total of 14 million people exited the metro at Zhongshan Station.
Christina Ko, general manager of Jing-Jan Retail Business Co. Ltd. which runs the Qsquare Shopping Mall near the Taipei railway station, has witnessed the rise of the Nanxi commercial district. Ko, who started her career with the now-defunct Idee Department Store chain, is optimistic that the Eslite Nanxi store will become a crowd magnet, and hopes it will contribute to amalgamating the Nanxi and Taipei Main station shopping areas.
For the same reason, her company decided to bid for the operating rights of Jazz Square, an event space in the Zhongshan Metro Mall, and nearby stores. The plan is to create a space for picnics, performances and recreational activities. “We hope to pull the crowds toward Taipei main station; we don’t want to be forgotten,” Ko says.
Evolving into Taipei’s Ura-Harajuku
Thanks to Ko’s creativity, the Idee Taipei was able to carve out a living right next to the giant Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Nanxi One store, in part by using handsome doormen to attract young fashionistas.
In 1999, the Idee Taipei did so well that the company looked to expand to the high-rise on the other, northern side of the street. At the time, the existing department stores were located on the “bright side” of the Nanxi commercial district, whereas the area across the street was considered “dark” or less attractive because it drew in less foot traffic and comprised a rather motley mix of businesses.
However, Ko, who had lived in Japan for a prolonged period, felt that the area had the potential to evolve into the Ura-Harajuku of Taipei. Ura-Harajuku is a network of smaller alleys off Tokyo’s glitzy international shopping area between Harajuku Station and Omotesando.
At the time, plans were being mulled to repurpose the former residence of the U.S. ambassador on Zhongshan North Road. In 2002, the refurbished building reopened as the Spot-Taipei Film House. Managed by the Taiwan Film and Culture Association of renowned Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-hsien, it became the second cinema screening independent art-house films after the Wonderful Theater in Ximending. Idee department stores invited up-and-coming Taiwanese designers to set up shop in Idee Taipei, which sparked many fashion designers to open studios in nearby alleys.
“The business mix in this area differed from that in the stretch between Zhongshan North Road and Linsen North Road. Many of the residents here were already capable merchants,” Ko points out.
The Spot-Taipei and Idee S, which was located opposite of Idee Taipei and catered to a streetwear and hip-hop clientele, drove the metamorphosis of the “dark” northern side of Nanjing West Road into a popular backstreet shopping area. Soon, the evolving Nanxi commercial district with the Taipei MRT Administration Building at its core was bursting at the seams.
(Source: Kuo-Tai Liu)
Civic Group, Neighborhood Chief and Artists Revive Chifeng Street
At the time, nearby Chifeng Street and its lanes, which technically belong to Datong District, were known for a cluster of hardware stores, auto parts suppliers and car repair shops. While the area was widely associated with a negative image - run-down old houses, noise and greasy dirt - the first new stores were beginning to move in.
In 2009, the newly founded non-profit Lovely Taiwan Foundation, a community-building group, came across Chifeng Street when searching for a suitable office location. They found that the street’s lack in aesthetic appeal was made up for by its convenient location near Zhongshan Station and Xianxing Park, which runs above the MRT line.
In hindsight, Lisa Yeh, executive director of the Lovely Taiwan Foundation, compares the Zhongshan and Datong districts, located east and west of Xianxing Park, to a novice and an old hand. Zhongshan District boasted many Japanese trading companies, hotels and boutiques, whereas Chifeng Street in Datong District was an outdated neighborhood with many elderly residents.
A few cultural and creative retail stores as well as arts and crafts studios that were not open to the public were already huddled away in nearby lanes and alleys, such as Mogu and Miin Design.
“One of our ideals is to connect with villages and towns and cultivate good neighborly relations,” explains Yeh.
Therefore, the Lovely Taiwan Foundation organized events in Xianxing Park, inviting store and design studio owners to step out into the community and participate in workshops teaching indigo dyeing, woodblock printing, and painting on wood.
They also invited prominent cultural figures such as Taiwanese essayist Shu Kuo-chih, a renowned observer of Taipei life, and Liu Wei-gong, the former commissioner of Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, to take people on strolls through the streets of the Zhongshan and Datong districts for a deeper understanding of the local community. The foundation also hosted lectures and published a community periodical to pool the neighborhood’s artistic forces.
Tranquil Neighborhood Attracts Xiaoqi
Chiang Ming-yu, founder of Chifeng Street’s most famous Xiaoqi group of shops, relays how she came to open her first store selling Japanese kitchenware here. She ventured into the neighborhood for the first time when Mogu launched its Zhongshan store, falling in love with its laid-back atmosphere.
In 2011, when her friend, author and film director Fu Tien-yu, opened Nichi Nichi coffeeshop in a Chifeng Street lane, Chiang begged her to help her scout for a location. Starting out with a gallery, Chiang rented a former hardware store and turned it into a Japanese-style select shop for household goods. She also opened Xiaoqi Kitchen, a casual restaurant, in a former grocery store next to Jiancheng Park.
“We were able to rent our locations in Chifeng Street all because of some lucky coincidences. We figured out what kind of shop we would open only after signing the leases,” recounts Chiang.
Analyzing the neighborhood’s structure, Chiang points out that in its early days, Chifeng Street was a cluster of auto parts suppliers and car repair shops. Local residents were accustomed to mixed-use properties with living quarters above the retail spaces. Many landlords were living in the neighborhood, most of whom were longtime neighbors or someone’s relative.
Chiang laughs as she recalls the reactions to her kitchenware assortment. “Of course, they would ask why the plates were so expensive. But it was also good for them to see how beautiful and peaceful the shop had become.” The landlords were quite happy that someone could help them clean up their shops. “I feel that the local residents welcome these beautiful things with open arms.”
A Modern Art-Loving Neighborhood Chief
Chen Ching-yun, who was elected head of the Guangneng Neighborhood, which includes Chifeng Street, in 2011, is a second-generation resident. Since she was a child she had heard people speak badly about her community, calling it greasy, stinky and dirty, which made her quite sad. Therefore, she ran on a political platform that advocated improving the living environment and bringing art into the community.
Pedestrians on Chifeng Street previously had to navigate their way around 14 street-side transformer boxes and put up with flooding during heavy rains. The first thing Chen did after taking office was improve the drainage system and complete the long-overdue construction of the Jiancheng Park parking lot. She took the initiative in asking the Museum of Contemporary Art to include Guangneng Neighborhood in the museum’s efforts to bring public art into the neighborhoods. Now visitors can discover murals in the neighborhood’s lanes and alleys as well as a few old houses with giant wall paintings.
Collecting unwanted car parts and materials from local shops, the Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned artists to create mantises, bats and other creatures for display in the underground mall. Those who provided the materials were invited to the opening press conference to help them understand that these old parts could become art.
Since 2012, the museum has organized arts events with the homegrown brands and artists of the Zhongshan-Shuanglian areas every year. For instance, metalsmiths and designers Peggy Hung and Tsao Ting-ting, who founded the Bomb Metal and Fry Jewelry Studio in 2005, taught local residents to create unique models of Taiwanese butterflies from metal materials.
(Source: Kuo-Tai Liu)
“This is not a very commerce-oriented commercial district; the shop owners create publicity for each other and refer customers, since they hope that all of the shops can stick around,” notes Tsao.
Consideration for Longtime Residents
Chiang, who has lived in Japan, points out that the protests from local residents over trash and noise from the Shida night market a few years ago have made local businesses cautious. When Xiaoqi was launched, Chiang instructed her colleagues to build good neighborly relations, be considerate of local residents’ living habits and greet people on the street. After returning to Taiwan, Chiang often visited her landlord and chatted with him about the situation in the neighborhood, which made it easier to become an accepted member of the community.
Meanwhile, some businesses that left the Shida Road night market and adjoining Yongkang Street and Wenzhou Street after the controversy moved to Chifeng Street, with similar repercussions. “Previously the trash cans in Jiancheng Park would never be full. But now, on weekends, the trash cans flow over and garbage is strewn all over the floor,” complain the thirtysomething owners of the design store Loopy, Chen Kuan-fu and his wife Lin Tzi-wei.
Design store Loopy (Source: Kuo-Tai Liu)
Another result of the area’s rising popularity is soaring rents. Already several smaller shops and homegrown brands have been forced to move to other locations because they could no longer shoulder the financial burden. Over the past two years, tenant turnover has gained pace in Chifeng Street. Increasingly, individual arts and crafts stores and homegrown brands are being squeezed out by restaurant/retail shops, wholesalers and fancy hair salons.
The items sold at Loopy all reflect the designer couple’s creative ideas and sense of humor. There is, for instance, a T-shirt with a baked sweet potato sewn onto the front. Its skin, which is attached with hook and loop straps, can be pulled off to expose the yellow flesh inside, which is meant to remind people to retain a warm-hearted attitude. The Loopy designers believe that these humorous designs elicit smiles, generating positive energy for their customers.
(Source: Kuo-Tai Liu)
Will Rising Rents Change the Neighborhood’s Character?
Witnessing one idealistic shop owner after another being displaced from Chifeng Street, Chen is worried about the neighborhood’s future. For creative ventures, turning a profit is difficult, which means small brands cannot shoulder the rising rents. “Chifeng Street might go down the same road as other commercial districts that once had a very distinct character and attracted many startups but then lost their uniqueness because the rents went up,” remarks Chen.
Xiaoqi’s Chiang reveals that real estate brokers already predicted in chats with local landlords that rents in Chifeng Street will become as expensive as in the Ximending entertainment district.
Ko, who had the foresight many years ago to bet on the rise of the Nanxi commercial district, believes that, aside from public infrastructure, it takes a good store that moves into a neighborhood and remains to attract more good businesses. A commercial district depends on businesses thriving together. The value of a good business’ magnet effect cannot be measured in monetary terms such as the rent alone, Ko points out.
The Loopy store is located on the upper floor of a typical shophouse above a street-level retail store selling forklift parts. The two businesses maintain a good relationship, epitomizing the essential character behind the rise of the Nanxi commercial district, which also attracted Eslite Spectrum to move in. Whether the area can stay true to its character will ultimately depend on human nature.
Translated by Susanne Ganz
Edited by Sharon Tseng