The Zhongshan-Datong Area
The Soho of Taipei
Independent, relaxed, with a welcoming rhythm of life all its own – this once run-down area has staged a remarkable comeback, thanks to the creativity of its residents. Today its artsy atmosphere attracts the crowds, and offers surprises.
The Soho of TaipeiBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 433 )
This used to be an area that did not even have a name. But within the past five years this unassuming neighborhood has turned into Taipei's most colorful community and most attractive shopping district.
When you leave the Zhongshan Rapid Transit Station from Exit 2 on Nanjing West Road, you will find yourself standing in between Datong District, on your left, and Zhongshan District, on your right. If you walk from Nanjing West Road to Minsheng West Road along the greenway running above the subway line, you will come across many surprises.
The area within one kilometer of the Rapid Transit station resembles a giant creative hotbed for ordinary citizens. Residents and shopowners are tapping into their creativity, opening distinctive restaurants, renovating historic homes, and launching new artistic ventures.
In front of Melange Café people are waiting for freshly baked waffles as soon as the coffeeshop opens at 8 a.m. through closing time at 11 p.m. Another popular local coffeeshop, Galerie Bistro, is located in a Baroque-style building from the Japanese colonial era. In its outdoor patio affluent ladies leisurely sip coffee and eat artfully decorated crepes.
The main store of Taiwan design brand Booday and Lovely Taiwan, a shop that sells handmade local arts and crafts, are next-door neighbors. Booday combines a nicely decorated showroom with a cozy coffeeshop for leisurely shopping. Natural materials dominate the interiors of both shops. Pure cotton T-shirts, hats and other hand-made accessories from across Taiwan are on display on shelves and racks made from untreated wood.
For the more fashion-oriented there is the concept store of fashion designers Stephane Dou and ChangLee Yugin. Also based in the area are creative agency Pao & Paws, which publishes the bi-weekly design magazine PPaper, and its ive&sean PPaper Shop. Those seeking a quiet corner to relax might be drawn to Jamei Chen's Dialogue Tea Salon, where you can sample delicate teas in beautiful china.
The ambience here is a far cry from the ostentatious consumerism of the Xinyi District or the bourgeois character of Yongkang Street, and is less boisterous than eastern Taipei. There is room for nostalgia in this neighborhood, which does not know the stressful speed of life that is typical in other parts of Taipei.
Five years ago people would link the area with Grand Formosa Regent Taipei, the Hotel Royal Taipei, as well as the street fashion of the Idee department store and the crowded alleys on Linsen North Road.
So why, within the short span of five years, has this handful of nameless alleys gained a name as an independent, laid-back neighborhood that is creative, stylish and a great place for ordinary people to live?
Spot-Taipei Film House Triggers Old Memories
In 2001 and 2002 the opening of two cultural venues in historical buildings put the spotlight on the area's long neglected architectural landmarks. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MOCA Taipei), moved into a renovated school building from the Japanese colonial era that once housed the city government. Spot-Taipei Film House, which screens independent art-house films, is located in a renovated Western-style building that once served as the residence of the U.S. ambassador.
Forty-something fashion designer Dou says he will never forget the day when Spot opened. On that day he roamed the streets of the neighborhood, reliving the fun he had as a student looking for dyes and fabric in Huayin Road and near Yungle Market. Since he liked the area, Dou decided to open his first independent fashion store in an alley right next to Spot.
The opening of Spot six years ago also inspired the four advertising designers of Booday Workshop Limited to create their own brand of designer products named Booday. They decided to rent an old detached house in one of the tree-lined alleys in the area.
For people in creative industries, this neighborhood provides sufficient inspiration and cultural stimulation.
Chang Jia-hsing, one of the Booday founders, has seen many cities around the world only to discover that Taipei's Zhongshan District has its own special character. He feels that the neighborhood is a stronghold of the traditional life of ordinary people. You can buy groceries near Shuanglian Station, make a visit to the Dalongdong Confucius Temple on the way, and then when reaching Zhongshan Station look at the latest fashion fads and enjoy the cultural ambience of Spot. Two years ago, in a small alley off Taiyuan Road, he discovered Taiwan's only remaining company that still produces traditional Chinese character lead type used in movable type printing – Ri Xing Typography.
In this neighborhood even hair salons are not just hair salons
Lai Li-chin, owner of the Peony hair salon, originally worked at Yellow Ted, the oldest beauty parlor in the neighborhood. Then Lai, who in her forties looks like a younger version of Japanese fashion designer Hiroko Koshino, decided to establish her own brand, High Vision.
She rented an old house, built more than forty years ago, from a well-known family of physicians. She preserved the original layout of the three-story house and also kept its inner courtyard, which now serves as a waiting room. In spring Peony customers can enjoy a beautiful scene when the cherry trees in this spacious, elegant courtyard burst into full bloom.
Lai says her salon pursues "a better quality of life." At the shop entrance customers find tourism information on art museums, which Lai brought back from trips to Japan. She feels that hair salons should not only take care of external beauty, but also look after the soul.
'Buy Handmade' Spawns Charming Shops
Lou, founder of the artist agency Pumpkin Creative Inc., has rented a second-floor office space in the area. She observes that the most typical business model here is to combine a shop with a studio. Most proprietors preserve the building's original appearance as much as possible, she notes, and refurbish it as if it was their own home. "There is a strong focus on handiwork and tasteful life," Lou says.
At the Dialogue Tea Salon, the walls have a decorative finishing usually used on clay walls and much of its furniture is made from recycled wood. Its subdued ambience naturally makes people slow down from hectic city life, take a breather and relax.
This has led more and more creative professionals and lifestyle entrepreneurs to move into the neighborhood. Singer/songwriter Jonathan Lee and Ben Tsiang, CEO of documentary film production house CNEX and co-founder of leading Chinese web portal Sina, are currently scouting the area for suitable premises.
It's this mix of people and endeavors that has turned the Zhongshan-Datong area into a new cultural hub. Somehow the area resembles New York's Soho district, which was also rejuvenated after artists moved into the area's abandoned factory buildings.
The spontaneous forces of change that came into play here have debunked the myth that only massive urban renewal projects can revive old neighborhoods.
Veteran journalist Hsu Lu believes that the highrises that come with urban renewal or other large-scale construction projects hardly improve the flavor of our lives. Old communities depend on creativity that springs from day to day life to conceive charming small shops.
The area had a strong character in the first place. Many of the original homeowners were from the traditional upper class, and many descendants of physicians, lawyers, and first-generation merchants insisted on holding on to their old family homes with their ancestral tablets, rather than selling them to outsiders. More than a few let their houses stand empty for years rather than renting them out.
Dou has rented a detached house on Tianjin Street a 15-minute walk away from his shop. The owner of the building, built more than 60 years ago, originally planned to turn it into a family museum, but Dou won him over to his own plans by showing him a model of the house after renovation.
The cooperation between the old gentleman and the creative fashion artist opened a new chapter for the old neighborhood.
Galerie Bistro, which opened in July last year, is located in a colonial building from 1931. Its first inhabitants were National Assembly representatives Liu Tian-lu and Liu Jieh-jow. In the following decades the house stayed in the family, but after the grandchildren emigrated, it stood empty for twenty years.
Galerie Bistro owner Ely Liu, a direct descendant of the house's original owner, still remembers how she rode her bicycle inside the courtyard as a small child. Liu didn't want to see the beautiful old building that housed so many of her fond childhood memories demolished, so she decided two years ago to renovate it and open a bistro there. She kept its old brick walls and stone stairs and planted osmanthus, the favorite flower of her great grandmother.
An Ordinary Neighborhood with a Lot of Culture
Everywhere colorful bougainvilleas are climbing up the walls of buildings showing that the local residents care about this place. Newcomers and old residents in this neighborhood have begun to develop a sense of community. They see themselves as Zhongshan-Datong-area people, and identify with the lane they live on.
In May this year Hsu Lu brought together the owners of several individual stores for a joint community event. The shops moved out of their alleyways and offered their products at stalls in the park. Hsu and her neighbors are also preparing to publish a community paper in October, which will report about the area's special character and history. With such activities, they hope to keep the community alive in the long run.
Amid the changing times the Zhongshan-Datong area has found the energy for rejuvenation. And it has achieved the even more difficult mission of developing its own distinctive character. The residents here have proven that culture can be very ordinary and that ordinary people can create culture too.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 紐約蘇活在台北