Dadaocheng: New Life in a Historic District

Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, display of traditional puppets. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

One of Taipei’s oldest neighborhoods is getting revitalized with the opening of art galleries, cafés, and specialty shops in picturesque surroundings. 

If you could place yourself in Taiwan as the 19th century was drawing to a close and were wandering near the corner of what is now Dihua Street and Minquan West Road, you’d be surrounded by the chatter of tea and rice merchants, along with the sweet smells of camphor wood and tea waiting to be loaded upon barges for sale around the world.

Dihua Street is the center of the historic Taipei City area known as Dadaocheng (大稻埕), which stretches east to Yanping North Road, north to Minquan West Road, south to Nanjing West Road and west to Dadaocheng Wharf and Yanping Riverside Park.

Bustling Dihua Street and its environs on the west side of Taipei make for a fascinating walking tour. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
Bustling Dihua Street and its environs on the west side of Taipei make for a fascinating walking tour. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

Today, Dadaocheng is undergoing a revival as art galleries, coffee shops, and specialty retailers join a multitude of traditional shops to create a colorful and vibrant neighborhood that is increasingly focused on preserving the past while developing new opportunities for the future.

The closest MRT station for Dadaocheng is Daqiaotou. For a walking tour of the area, take the escalator for Exit 1 and follow the signs to “Yanping N Rd Sec 3/Tourist Night Market,” which is an underpass. As the underpass nears its end, follow the signs to “Yongle Elementary School.” Coming out of the exit, proceed 170 meters west along Minquan West Road to Dihua Street, Section 1.

Some of Dadaocheng’s best-preserved buildings are nearby. As you arrive at Dihua Street from Minquan Road, you’ll see what seems like a series of charming brick houses. In fact, it is a single extended structure with brick arches framing the sidewalk along its length and a courtyard in the back. At one time this building was owned by a prominent rice trader.

#302 DiHua Street, which is being converted by the KUO Mu-Sheng Foundation into an artist's residence and exhibition area. The building was once owned by a Taiwanese doctor to China’s last Emperor, Puyi. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
#302 DiHua Street, which is being converted by the KUO Mu-Sheng Foundation into an artist’s residence and exhibition area. The building was once owned by a Taiwanese doctor to China’s last Emperor, Puyi. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

The first unit in this building, near the corner, is at 368 Dihua Street, Sec. 1 (迪化街一段368號) and was reopened on January 9, 2016 after painstaking renovations. Further renovations are still ongoing, but occasionally the wooden doors are opened to host events such as art exhibitions, generally by local artists. As we continue walking along the front of the building, we soon come across the courtyard that houses several businesses, including the Oriental Cuisine Guangzhou Restaurant and Grand Mom’s Teahouse.

In front of the courtyard are steps leading to 348 Dihua Street, Sec. 1, which takes you up to a coffee shop and the Art Blooming Gallery. Curator Christine Yiting Wang explains that the gallery supports the work of local artists by providing a channel for them to display their work.

The coffee shop and gallery were opened in December 2014 by the Kuo Mu Sheng Foundation,

established by Kuo Mu-sheng, the founder of textile and construction conglomerate LeaLea Group, who got his start selling fabrics on Dihua Street. He established the foundation at the suggestion of his daughter, Kuo Su-ren, who chairs the organization. She says that Taipei City recently approved the Foundation’s preservation and development plan for a historic residence at 302 Dihua Street, Sec. 1, a building once owned by a Taiwanese doctor to China’s last Emperor, Puyi. The narrow frontage and long interior of the building, which stretches for about 50 meters from Huanhe Street to Dihua Street, are typical of Dadaocheng’s older structures.

The Foundation has called upon Christine Wang, the gallery curator, to lead the restoration effort for this nearly century-old building. The plan is to transform the residence into a work space for artists in media such as ceramics, providing both artistic resources as well as a sales outlet for their work. Artists from both Taiwan and overseas will be invited to work in the new facility, which is scheduled to open sometime later this year.

Artist and Dadaocheng Native Son

Acclaimed Taiwanese artist Kuo Hsueh-Hu (郭雪湖, 1908-2012) was born in Dadaocheng and over a life that spanned 104 years, became one of Taiwan’s most famous painters. Kuo’s early years were hard, as he lost his father at the age of two and was raised by his mother. But even as a youth his artistic skills were already apparent, and at the age of 20 his works were selected for inclusion in the first Taiwan Art Exhibition in 1928. Kuo, along with Lin Yu-Shan and Chen Jin, became known as the “Three Youths at the Taiwan Exhibition.”

Kuo’s mentor was the prominent Japanese painter Koto Gohara. With Gohara’s encouragement, Kuo resigned his position as head of National Taiwan Normal University’s Art Department to become a full-time painter.

In 2008, the National Museum of History in Taipei City held an exhibition entitled “The Age of Elegance: A Centennial Exhibition of Kuo Hsueh-Hu” on the occasion of the artist’s 100th birthday. Kuo has been praised as a leading force in the modernist art movement in Taiwan in the first half of the 20th century.

Across the street from the Art Blooming Gallery, at 329 Dihua Street, Sec. 1, is “Rice and Shine.” This interesting shop is operated by the affable and knowledgeable Soren Yeh, who is a member of the fifth generation of a Dadaocheng rice-processing family. The store is in a traditional home built in 1923.

Yeh points out one of the distinctive elements of the structure: the tian jin (天井), an open courtyard separating the front and back sections of the house that is a common feature in Dadaocheng’s (and many Chinese/Taiwanese) older buildings. Rooms that would benefit from extra ventilation, such as kitchens and bathrooms, were often built adjacent to this open area so that they could have windows facing the courtyard.

Ms. Kuo Su-Ren of the Kuo Mu Sheng Foundation at her gallery space on DiHua St. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
Ms. Kuo Su-Ren of the Kuo Mu Sheng Foundation at her gallery space on DiHua St. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

Rice and Shine includes a small tea shop as well as a store selling locally sourced items, mostly rice-related. A second floor room is dedicated to the famous Taiwanese artist Kuo Hsueh-hu, and includes a copy of his famous painting of Dadaocheng called Festival on South Street (南街殷賑) [see the accompanying story]. Completed in 1930, the work depicts the street celebrations on Dihua Street in connection with the opening of the Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple during the annual Ghost Festival.

Down the street from Rice and Shine at 309 Dihua Street, Sec. 1 is Lee’s Bakery, established in 1894. Stroll through this small, well-known bakery and sample their delightful selection of moon cakes and other items.

Dihua Street boasts a growing number of innovative coffee and tea shops. One of these is Morgenstern Kaffee at 276 Dihua Street, Sec. 1, which combines a café with a crafts shop on the first floor. Many of their products are reproductions done in cooperation with the National Palace Museum. Opened in January this year, the shop is but one of several new enterprises combining the arts with a quiet place to enjoy a special hot beverage.

If you’re beginning to feel hungry, one option is the small noodle shop called Lao A Bao at 226 Dihua Street, Sec. 1. You can enjoy fried noodles and a bowl of soup for under NT$100. The shop is open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For a modern place to dine, a bistro named Salt Peanuts and a bar/café called Peacock can be found at 197 Dihua Street, Sec. 1. The two establishments are separated by a pleasant garden, along the lines of the traditional tian jin mentioned earlier.

The City God Temple is the main temple of the Dadaocheng District. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
The City God Temple is the main temple of the Dadaocheng District. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

Dadaocheng offers a number of shops selling wooden and bamboo household items. For example, the “Together” shop at 155 Dihua Street, Sec. 1 sells an interesting variety of household items and holds occasional cooking events. “Together” is an active participant in the overall Dadaocheng revitalization effort.

If you want to take a rest at this point, Dadaocheng Park can be reached by taking a left from Dihua Street at Guisui Street. This area contains many textile and fabric shops.

Alternatively, take a right onto Guisui Street and you’ll come to a lane that is the site of the Koo Family Mansion. Built around 1920 by the venerable Koo family, the mansion is located at Guisui Street, Lane 303, #9 (歸綏街303巷9號). In former days, it contained a rice trading floor and family residences, but currently is used by a pre-school.

As Dihua Street crosses Guisui Street, it changes from the cultural revitalization theme of the previous blocks to the bustling traditional food-in-abundance atmosphere that Taiwanese typically associate with Dihua Street. You’ll see shops selling all sorts of items. Looking for an inexpensive bag of cashews? You’re in the right place. The same goes for candies, dried foods, and various kinds of fresh foods. Many shops, such as Shengji Pharmacy (生記藥行) at 60 Dihua Street, Sec. 1, also prepare and sell Chinese herbal medicines.

After you pass Minsheng West Road, Dihua Street approaches the Taipei Xiahai Chenghuang (City God) Temple (台北霞海城隍廟) at 61 Dihua Street, Sec. 1, and the adjacent Yongle Market. The Xiahai Temple is the main temple for the district. As the losing side in the Ding-Xia Feud fled Bangka [see the sidebar for the historical details], they took the god of their ancestral clan with them to Dadaocheng, where the Xiahai Temple was built to house this deity. In modern times, the temple has gained acclaim, and a steady flow of visitors, as a place to gain guidance on matters of the heart and marriage. You’ll generally see many young people visiting the staff and following the procedures for a consultation.

Next door, the sprawling Yongle Market continues to host many seamstresses busily working with their well-used traditional sewing machines – another reminder of the role textiles played in the development of Dadaocheng.

Mr. Soren Yeh, owner of "Rice and Shine" store at #329 DiHua St. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
Mr. Soren Yeh, owner of “Rice and Shine” store at #329 DiHua St. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

The Yongle Market is also home to the Dadaocheng Theater, housed on the eighth and ninth floors of the Dadaocheng Plaza next to the market building. The theater stages traditional Taiwanese opera performances.

On the lane right behind the Yongle Market sits another good noodle shop, with a large, clean and relaxed interior and a friendly staff. Known as Lao Ma Ma Noodles, it is located at Nanjing W. Road, Lane 223, #9 (南京西2239號).

Continuing the tour, head south on Dihua Street past shops and intriguing examples of architecture until you reach Nanjing West Road and then turn right. (At this point, Dihua Street ends and continues as Tacheng Street, which you can follow to the Beimen MRT Station if you wish.)

Nanjing West Road is the southern border of Dadaocheng. Heading west, you can take a loop by making a right turn onto Xining North Road, which is home to the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, located at 79-1 Xining N. Rd. (西寧北路79-1號).

From Xining Road, turn left onto Minsheng West Road. Just before Huanhe Road you’ll see a lane next to a small park. This is historic GuiDe Street (貴德街), which in the glory days of Dadaocheng was home to the mansions of the rich and powerful. The largest and most impressive building on GuiDe Street is at #73, the currently unoccupied Chen Tian-Lai Residence (陳天來故居). Completed in 1920 as the home of wealthy tea trader Chen Tian-Lai, the building is constructed in neoclassical style, like many of Dadaocheng’s buildings designed during the early 20th century.

When you return to Nanjing West Road, turn right and continue westward. As you approach busy Huanhe Road, you’ll see a highway flyover and a large wall that conceals the Tamsui River from view. If you look carefully across the street, you’ll see a small door in the wall with a small yellow sign next to it that reads, rather unromantically, “Yuquan Evacuation Gate.”

Lao Mam Ma Noodles, just south of Yongle Market in lower DiHua street area. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
Lao Mam Ma Noodles, just south of Yongle Market in lower DiHua street area. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

Go through this gate and you’ll suddenly see trees, bike paths, and a humble Buddhist Temple. You’ve now entered the lovely and pastoral Yanping Riverside Park. Take a right turn on the path along the Tamsui River heading north, where you will see large trees and hear the chirping of birds.

The next place you’ll reach is Dadaocheng Wharf, which features small trucks selling snacks and a bike rental facility. We suggest you leave the park at this point, as the next exit – at Minquan Road and Taipei Bridge – involves a lot of stairs. (Of course, if you are on Minsheng West Road you can enter Dadaocheng Wharf from there.) The Wharf is an excellent place from which to watch a sunset over the Tamsui River.

Exiting from the Dadaocheng Wharf gate, you are now back at Minsheng West Road. You can take Minsheng back to Dihua Street to complete the circle, and from there meander north to Minquan West Road or head south and take Tacheng Road to the Beimen MRT station.

Another option is just to wander around a bit further on your own. The sights, sounds, and smells of Dadaocheng are truly a unique experience. You can readily feel the old splendor of the place, while also sensing the energy of innovative young people opening businesses and actively building a new and interesting future in one of the oldest and most historic parts of Taiwan.

Shengji Pharmacy, a traditional Chjinese Medicine store, at #60 DiHua St. (Photo: Chris Stowers)
Shengji Pharmacy, a traditional Chjinese Medicine store, at #60 DiHua St. (Photo: Chris Stowers)

Success Arising from Defeat

Violence and trade went hand in hand in early Taiwan, with immigrants from southern China often bringing their competing loyalties and hostilities to the island. Dadaocheng owes its existence to the outcome of one such conflict, having been established by the losing clan in the so-called “Ding-Xia Feud” (頂下郊拼) of the 1850s.

In 1853, settlers in Bangka (today’s Wanhua District in Taipei City) competed for control of the lucrative trade along the Tamsui River. Earlier immigrants from the three Fujian counties of Hui An, Jinjiang, and Nan An controlled trade along the Tamsui through their trade association called the Dingjiao (頂郊). More recent immigrants from the Tongan area in Fujian formed their own business association called the Xiajiao (下郊) and vied with the Dingjiao over trade.

The Dingjiao, as earlier arrivers, controlled the port and imposed a 5% tariff on all commercial shipments, including those of the Xiajiao. Tension between the groups eventually erupted into violent conflict in August 1853 in which 38 people were killed and the Qingshui Temple in Bangka, where the Xiajiao worshipped, was burned down.

The Dingjiao emerged victorious and drove the defeated Xia out of Bangka. The Xia retreated downstream and created a new settlement which became Dadaocheng. But while the Xia had been defeated, within a few short years their fortunes turned. The silting of the Tamsui River and the relatively higher water level at Dadaocheng increased the area’s attractiveness as a port over Bangka. Ultimately, Dadaocheng surpassed Bangka as the major trading port on the Tamsui River and helped usher in a period of prosperity that extended through the Japanese colonial era.