The Old House Inn in Tainan
Old House, New Soul
After Kyle Hsieh lovingly converted his old family home into a vacation rental, it quickly became a hit with travelers from Taiwan and abroad. Retro is now contemporary, and the past is the latest fashion.
Old House, New SoulBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 475 )
It's an early summer day and the streets of old Tainan are bathed in sunlight.
Hsieh and I are chatting, sitting in a wooden bench on the third floor of the Old House Inn on Bao'an Road, the second house with a family connection that he has restored.
As the third child and fifth member of his family, he has acquired the nickname "Little No. 5." With two older sisters, and parents who "don't really understand young people, but are still supportive," Hsieh is the Benjamin of his family, yet he has an ambitious, determined glint in his eyes.
The 35-year-old always takes great pains telling the story of the Old House Inn and likes to share with visitors the various milestones during the renovation process. Talking excitedly and animatedly like a little boy, Hsieh often exclaims during the conversation: "This is the Old House Inn! Isn't it great?" Nothing could captivate listeners more than Hsieh recounting his own experience restoring the house.
Just like the inn's room keys, which have old-fashioned buttons for danglers, Hsieh's stories open the door to the world of the textile business his family used to run. The Hsieh clan became wealthy as cloth merchants in the old West Gate Market, where they purchased the shophouse that would one day become the first Old House Inn. A second Hsieh family residence on Bao'an Road would become the second.
A grandson of the original owner, Kyle Hsieh saved the houses from demolition by renovating them and preserving their original character. Both houses have now become a hit among local and foreign travelers, who rent them on a nightly basis to experience local Tainan life as it used to be.
A light breeze wafts from the alley across the street, gently rustling the green leaves of the sweet gum tree growing in the house. This indigenous Taiwanese tree, transplanted from the mountains of Nantou County, grows unbridled from the first floor up to the third, and through the skylight toward the blue sky beyond. This is just one of the surprises in Hsieh's attentive, thoughtful design.
"I'm sure you wanted to have a tree house when you were little, didn't you?" Hsieh enthuses. While we're chatting, Hsieh keeps checking his iPhone for fan messages on the Old House Inn's Facebook page. On the cell phone display he shows off a photo that he took of two Czech travelers who stayed at the inn. The photo deftly captures the girls' delight over the house's tranquil atmosphere.
"To run a place like this in these times, you need to be multi-talented," Hsieh grumbles, but his face also reveals a certain pride about his successful venture.
Preserving Old Houses, Protecting Tainan
His complaints are not without reason. The night before our interview, he couldn't get to bed until 2 a.m. but had to get up before 7, to rush to another ongoing renovation project. He hardly has any time to be with his baby daughter, born just three months ago.
"Restoring old houses amounts to racing against the clock. What I am most scared of is not being able to find good artisans and master craftsmen," he says. Of the once numerous tatami makers, for instance, just two are still practicing their craft in Tainan.
Hsieh bought the house in Bao'an Road from a paternal uncle, turning it into the second Old House Inn. Since restoration work was completed in October last year, visitors from more than 20 countries have stayed at the house.
The first Old House Inn, inside the maze of the old West Gate Market, is where Hsieh himself grew up. Since it was restored in 2009, the house, which is more than 40 years old, has become the favored model for Tainan guesthouses, widely featured by Hong Kong and Japanese media.
"From now on, it doesn't make sense to say that Tainan has nothing but snacks and historical sites. It doesn't make sense to eat the food in Tainan and then rush off to Kaohsiung or Kenting without spending the night," declares L-instyle Boutique Travel Service general manager You Chih-wei. Four years ago, You, Hsieh's schoolmate in vocational college, talked Hsieh into restoring his family home and turning it into an inn. He argued that it would be an incentive for travelers to stay in Tainan overnight and an opportunity to fall in love with the old city.
Driven by their shared mission of saving endangered old houses from demolition, the pair founded the Old House Workshop, which aims to bring together people who are interested in renovating and reviving old spaces. Thanks to their different personalities – one a man of action, the other an eloquent orator – the two make a good team.
Before the arrival of the Old House Inn, Tainan City already had a number of restored old houses that got new leases on life as restaurants, bookstores or coffeeshops – but no inns that could leave a lasting impression.
"When I was doing the Old House Inn in West Gate Market, I actually didn't have much confidence. I also didn't aim to make any money in the beginning. I only wanted to have something to show for my work, to spread the message that old houses should be preserved," Hsieh insists. When attending university and doing a master's degree in Melbourne, one of the world's best preserved Victorian cities, Hsieh saw how much effort was being made to find new uses for historical buildings, whereas Taiwan's only solution was the wrecking ball. He also realized that setting an example with his own actions was better than just preaching to others.
Starting the renovation project was like turning the first page of the Hsieh clan's history. As Hsieh reacquainted himself with his childhood home, he also reacquainted himself with his paternal grandmother – Hsieh Lin Pu-chan, who hailed from Tainan's Anping harbor district.
Spreading Grandma's Story via the Internet
"After all, my grandma's story is really powerful," Hsieh exclaims. Hsieh Lin Pu-chan's nickname "Anping-sao" (meaning "the Lady of Anping") is a household name for all Tainan residents over the age of 50.
Anping-sao started out selling fabrics. When Chinese forces gained control of Taiwan following World War II, vendors were forced to rent their stalls in West Gate Market through agents. Hsieh's grandmother felt this was unfair and therefore kept filing protests with the city government for three years in a row. Eventually, the city government relented and passed an ordinance allowing shopkeepers to own their own shops. Anping-sao built a reputation and won people's respect for her courage standing up to authorities, and her shop came to be known as "West Gate Market No. 1." Today, it's the first Old House Inn.
"Imagine, running a one-woman social movement back in that era!" Taking out his iPhone again, Hsieh shows me a newspaper photograph published more than four decades ago in the local Chikan Daily. The article portrays Anping-sao and her moneymaking skills. "But Grandma didn't live in the Internet age. Her story can't get spread around. Should I let it be quietly buried in history?"
Hsieh is proud of his grandma. But if he doesn't tell her story, young people will not even have heard her name. "Her story is Tainan's story. I hope my grandma's achievements can be found on Google!"
Before I'm even aware of it, we have arrived in front of "West Gate Market No. 1," the first Old House Inn. Hsieh rolls up the steel door, and urges me to climb up a staircase as steep as a ladder in the twilight.
The inn comprises the entire house aside from the ground floor, which is rented out as a shop. The second floor features a living room, the third floor a kitchen, the fourth a bedroom, and the top floor a bathroom. The layout and design of each floor is the result of spatial modeling and countless rounds of discussion.
For the renovation Hsieh found five old master craftsmen. "Their combined age is 400 years," he says. They did terrazzo floors, customized tatami mats and padded cotton quilts. They sewed mosquito nets and cushions... Every detail was meant to make the house as modern and restful as possible, without diminishing the old-fashioned ambiance.
Retro Style with a Modern Touch
Hsieh, who studied marketing, was fully aware that the renovation could not be called successful unless his design gained acceptance among his target customer group – young people born in the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, he organized a discussion session with architecture students from National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, to listen to their opinions and create new values that bridge old and new.
What is the best ratio of pebbles to cement in the terrazzo? How can natural light be brought into the house for those perfect photographs? These were among the questions that had to be answered. Likewise, bathroom concepts have changed dramatically since the days of Hsieh's grandma. Modern people want a spacious, bright bathroom where they can leisurely soak in the tub. Consequently, Hsieh turned the entire top floor into a bathroom that has many visitors gasping in amazement.
At the Old House Inn, the amenities of modern life are hidden behind a retro interior. Like any five-star hotel, the inn provides snow-white, fluffy towels and has dedicated cleaning staff. The living room features an iPod stereo system with 1,500 songs. In the bedroom, three collectible Matchbox cars sit on top of an antique wooden desk with dark teacup rings.
"The day will come when we'll all be able to pour our creativity into old things, transforming them, making them completely new, recreating Taiwan," reads one of the messages left in the inn's guest book.
Another urges: "Let's all do a little something for the Old House Inn. I for my part have arranged the Dragon Ball comic books in the right order, volumes 1 to 42!"
Hsieh's next projects is renovating the house of his beloved grandmother. Jokingly admitting to wild flights of fancy on a daily basis, he has resolved to open five branches of the Old House Inn.
"Each one will be a different model, serving as a reference for other folks who want to revamp old houses," he boldly declares. All those who have been to the Old House Inn can't wait to see what kind of "wow" factor Hsieh will bring to his coming projects.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz