A Tour of Taipei’s Old Walled City

North Gate, long obscured by an overpass, is now again easily accessible. Photo: Chris Stowers

Much of what is now downtown Taipei was once enclosed within city walls, with access through five gates. The area has a lot to tell about the city’s history.

The Taipei city wall was completed by the Qing Dynasty in 1884. Although it survived for only 16 years, its influence on modern Taipei is still surprisingly evident. Over the years, the wall and its five gates have witnessed many changes in Taiwan, both painful and hopeful. Join us for a tour of Taipei’s wall and the city that developed along its path.

In 1881, Cen Yuying, the energetic Governor of Fujian Province, visited Taiwan to push forward plans for a Chengnei (城內, “inside the walls”) area within the new Taipeh Prefecture (台北州) that made up most of present-day northern Taiwan. This Chengnei, located roughly between the settlements of Dadaocheng and Bangka (Wanhua), was to serve as the capital for the prefecture. With the completion of the wall and gates, voila, Taipei was born.

Five gates were built into the wall, each leading to a different settlement:

  • North Gate “Beimen” (北門) – to Dadaocheng port/Dihua Street
  • West Gate “Ximen” (西門) – to Bangka
  • Little South Gate “Xiaonanmen” (小南門) – to Banqiao
  • South Gate “Nanmen” (南門) – to Guting
  • East Gate “Dongmen” (東門) – to Songshan on the Keelung River

However, the winds of war soon changed things dramatically when China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the First Sino-Japanese War. When Japanese troops arrived to take control after a complicated interregnum, they marched into the city through Taipei’s North Gate.

One of the new administration’s early actions, in 1900, was to dismantle the Taipei wall. The West Gate was also removed, but resulting protests helped save the remaining four gates.

Although the physical wall was torn down, its influence continues to the modern day. The Japanese built four of Taipei’s major roads upon the wall’s foundations: Zhonghua, Aiguo West, Zhongshan South, and Zhongxiao West.

One other lasting influence is the off-center orientation of downtown Taipei, as the four roads mentioned above all angle 13 degrees to the east from a strict north-south axis. This phenomenon can be credited to a gentleman named Liu Ao, the Qing Dynasty’s Master of Observations for Taiwan Province. A fengshui expert, he successfully argued that the wall should be oriented toward Qixing Mountain to the northeast, making it the city’s “backing mountain.” As the new Japanese roads were built on the old wall’s foundations, this slant remains with us today.

Now let’s “walk the wall” by following its ancient path, which is about five kilometers in length. A good starting point is the Beimen MRT Station. The station’s B1 level has several interesting archeological displays of discoveries made during the station’s construction. Outside Exit 1 are several plaques, including a 1911 Taipei map highlighting the roads that replaced the wall.

To the east on Zhongxiao West Road is a large renovated Japanese-era building that is the site of the future Railway Ministry Park (國立臺灣博物館鐵道部). Beyond it is the recently relocated Mitsui House (三井物產台北支店), which is now a museum exhibiting many historical photos. The stately North Gate (Beimen, 北門) is directly across the street.

When Qing dignitaries visited Taipei, they would disembark at Dadaocheng, proceed south down Yanping North Road and enter the city through the North Gate. We shall do no less. Stroll across Zhongxiao West Road at the crosswalk and proceed through the North Gate into the old walled city.

Each of the five gates has a formal Chinese name, and for the North Gate it is Chengenmen (承恩門) – “Gate of Granted Favor.”

North Gate is part of Beimen Square (北門廣場), a wonderful example of urban transformation. Until a few years ago, the North Gate was obscured by a clumsy elevated road, but with the dismantling of the overpass, the gate once again stands proudly in this open area.

Beimen Square is filled with information about the wall and its era, including limestone blocks from the wall’s foundation. Impressions in the sidewalk show the path of an old railway line as it turned the corner and proceeded south outside the west wall.

Across from the North Gate on Boai Road is the grand Beimen Post Office (北門郵局). The current building was completed in 1930, replacing a two-story structure built in 1898. Boai Road was one of old Taipei’s wealthiest streets, as it and Yanping North Road connected Chengnei and Dadaocheng. Today it’s a very good place to do some camera shopping.

Futai Street Mansion, completed in 1910, is now a museum. Photo: Chris Stowers

Just to the right of Boai Road is Yanping South Road, which was moved to its current location in 1910 during urban restructuring. The new location was a boon for its fortunes, and this wealth is highlighted by the Futai Street Mansion (撫臺街洋樓), which was also completed in 1910. It’s now a museum containing maps and photos of life in the old days. Returning to the North Gate, we begin our counterclockwise walk along the old wall.

West Wall (Zhonghua Road)

A few steps west of Beimen Square is Zhonghua Road, which was the old west wall. Zhonghua is extra wide at this point, as it formerly accommodated the rail line reimagined in Beimen Square. The old route from Taipei Station past Beimen to Banqiao is still plied underground by Taiwan Railways and the MRT’s Blue Line.

Walking south on Zhonghua, we soon come to the Taipei Zhongshan Hall (中山堂), which was completed in 1936 to commemorate the 1928 ascension to the throne of Emperor Hirohito. It’s a beautiful building inside. As one might expect, the entrance faces east toward the rising sun, and is thus on Yanping South Road rather than on Zhonghua Road.

Zhongshan Hall hosts many performances and also offers a restaurant and coffee shop. It was in this hall at the end of World War II that the last Japanese Governor-General of Taiwan, Ando Rikichi, surrendered to the ROC Supreme Commander’s Representative, General Chen Yi. President Chiang Kai-Shek occasionally made speeches from the balcony above the entrance.

A few steps to the south from here is the former site of the West Gate (Ximen, 西門), the only gate destroyed by the Japanese. It connected Chengnei to Bangka via Chengdu Road. The old gate is commemorated by a modern artistic representation. The gate’s formal name was Baochengmen (寶成門) – “Gate of Precious Success.”

Just west of the gate is the Red House (西門紅樓), built in 1908 as a place for socializing and enjoying the arts. It’s still a theater, and its adjacent plaza is a popular gathering place. The Red House is part of the Ximending (西門町) neighborhood, which always seems to be abuzz with life as a gathering place for the younger crowd.

Further south on the west side of Zhonghua is the Nishi Honganji Square (西本願寺廣場), the site of a former Japanese temple. It’s now a park area with restored Japanese-era buildings and the bell from the former temple.

Returning to the east side of Zhonghua and heading south, we arrive at Aiguo West Road and turn left to follow the old south wall.

South Wall (Aiguo W. Rd.)

Soon after turning onto Aiguo you’ll see the Little South Gate, Xiaonanmen (小南門). Like the East and South gates, it underwent a facelift after World War II that gave it a more ornate appearance compared to the original Manchu approach. The gate’s formal name is Zhongximen (重熙門) – “Gate of Abundant Prosperity.”

This fifth gate was not in the original plans, but was added following pressure from the Banqiao settlement. They apparently wished to avoid walking through the area occupied by those pesky people near the West Gate. Clan rivalries seem to have been a common issue in old Taipei.

The Xiaonanmen MRT station exits are located between the Little South Gate and the South Gate at the Boai Road intersection.  A short walk south on Boai Road leads to the lovely Taipei Botanical Garden (台北植物園). The Garden was established in 1896 as a nursery just one year into the Japanese era. Its 8.2 hectares constitute something of a secret garden in Taipei. Next door is the National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館).

On the lane near the Gardens’ entrance, going east, is the interesting Sun Yun-Suan Memorial Museum (孫運璿科技 • 人文紀念館). Sun was a talented electrical engineer who was sent to Taiwan from China in 1946 and led the team that kept the electricity flowing after Japan’s departure. Later as a Cabinet minister and eventually Premier, he was regarded as one of the major architects of Taiwan’s economic development, including a major role in creating the Hsinchu Science Park. Before being sidelined by a stroke in 1984, he was considered to be the likely successor to President Chiang Ching-kuo. Sun’s house is now a memorial to his life and career.

Back at Aiguo West Road and heading east, the next stop is the South Gate or Nanmen (南門). This gate was considered Chengnei’s main gate. Under traditional Chinese design, walled cities generally faced south toward the sun, and often were backed by a mountain to the north, which in Taipei’s case is Qixing Mountain. The gate’s formal name is Lizhengmen (麗正門) – or “(Main) Gate of Beauty.”

The headquarters of the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp. Photo: Chris Stowers

Just south of the gate on Nanchang Road is the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor (TTL) Corp. (台灣省菸酒公賣局) headquarters, an elegant structure completed in 1913. TTL is a state-owned enterprise that was founded during the Qing Dynasty, and it’s been a cash generator ever since. Besides tobacco and liquor, its product lines once included camphor and opium. Japanese-era remnants of some of the old camphor and opium operations are just south on Nanchang in what is now the National Taiwan Museum–Nanmen Park (國立臺灣博物館南門園區).

At the back of the park is the White Palace (小白宮), which was built of white stone in 1902 as a raw opium warehouse. Records show that stones from the old Taipei wall were transported here and used in the building’s construction. The building originally faced north. After restoration, it now again has a north entrance, and is fronted by three camphor trees.

Across the courtyard is a brick building called the Red House (紅樓), not to be confused with Ximen’s Red House. This structure was formerly a warehouse for camphor, which for many years was one of Taiwan’s major industries. The first floor now has a café and a camphor museum that includes a Japanese-era documentary on Taiwan’s industries in the 1930s.

After returning to Aiguo West Road, continue east and then turn left onto Zhongshan Road to follow the old eastern wall.

East Wall (Zhongshan S. Rd.)

Just across the road is the monumental Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂). This expansive area of buildings and landscaped grounds was opened in 1980 on the fifth anniversary of President Chiang’s passing. It’s been one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist venues ever since, while also at times being a focal point of political controversy.

Further north on Zhongshan, we reach the fifth and final gate, the East Gate or Dongmen (東門). Its formal name is Jingfumen (景福門) – “Gate of Good Fortune.”

Across the street is the Evergreen Maritime Museum (長榮海事博物館), originally the Kuomintang (KMT) headquarters but sold by the once wealthy party when it began to run short of funds. The change in ownership of the property was considered a major event in Taiwan’s democratic transition. The museum contains historic maps and maritime exhibits, most of them collected by the late Chang Yung-fa, founder of Taiwan’s largest shipping and transportation group.

Gazing east down Ketagalan Boulevard provides an excellent view of the majestic Presidential Office Building (中華民國總統府). Built in 1919 during the Japanese colonial period, like Zhongshan Hall it faces east toward the rising sun. Its final design was by Matsunosuke Moriyama, the architect responsible for many of Taipei’s historic buildings, including TTL’s offices.

The building was originally the Office of the Taiwan Governor-General (Viceroy). Heavily damaged by Allied bombing in World War II, it was quickly restored and subsequently became the offices of the President of the Republic of China. 

North of Ketagalan Boulevard and partly hidden by a wall is the Taipei Guest House (台北賓館), which served as the Japanese Governor-General’s Residence. Construction started in 1899 and was completed in 1901.  A renovation under Moriyama’s direction was carried out in 1912.  The house and its beautiful grounds now serve as the venue for diplomatic receptions, and about once a month are opened for public tours.

The stately Taipei Guesthouse, once the Japanese Governor-General’s residence, is now used for diplomatic receptions. Photo: Chris Stowers

 West from the Guest House, past Gongyuan Road (公園路), is the Taipei 228 Memorial Peace Park (二二八和平公園). The first park on this site was established in 1900. Its current name refers to the 228 Incident that began on February 28, 1947 and led to protests against the KMT government that took control of Taiwan after World War II.

The 228 Peace Park is home to two museums. The first one, at the southern end, is the Taipei 228 Memorial Hall (台北二二八紀念館), located on the site of a former government radio station. The station was taken over by protestors during the 228 uprising and used to broadcast opposition views.

The second museum, on the northern end, is the National Taiwan Museum (國立臺灣博物館). Taiwan’s oldest museum, the structure was completed in 1915, replacing one built in 1908. Its formal name at one time, in honor of two early Japanese leaders stationed in Taiwan, was the “Viceroy Kodama Gentaro and Minister of Civilian Affairs Goto Shinpei Memorial Museum.” Goto was a progressive minister who served in Taiwan from 1898 to 1906.

As you enter the museum, you’ll see alcoves on both sides that originally held statues of Kodama and Goto. After World War II, the statues were removed and put into storage. However, in 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the museum, they were taken out of storage and placed on display on the third floor. This is arguably the museum’s most interesting floor, as it also has exhibits on Taiwan’s aboriginal culture and animal life.

From the park, walk down Changde Street (常德街), which is north of the 228 Memorial Hall. On the left is the ornate National Taiwan University Hospital (West Site) (國立臺灣大學醫學院附設醫院西址). Built in 1924, it’s still an active hospital. Continue east, then turn left onto Zhongshan South Road.

On the east side of Zhongshan at the Zhongxiao West Road intersection is the elegant Control Yuan (監察院) building. Completed in 1915, it originally was the Taipei Prefecture Hall, another of Moriyama’s projects. Once at Zhongxiao, turn left to trace the old north wall.

North Wall (Zhongxiao W. Rd.)

Zhongxiao West Road is a bustling area tightly packed with buildings and people. The Taipei Main Station (台北車站) dominates this part of the onetime wall. The current building is large and functional, but we can capture a bit more romance if we harken back to days of old.

In 1901, the Japanese completed a new Taipei Train Station. It was just west of the current station and faced south down Guanqian Road (館前路). Just across the road, on the current site of the Shin Kong Life Tower, was the grand Taiwan Railway Hotel (台灣鐵道飯店) completed in 1908.

The beauty of this location was that you could stand in front of the station, with the luxurious hotel to your left, and look down fashionable Guanqian Road and see the National Taiwan Museum facing you at the other end of the boulevard. It’s still a nice view, and even better if you have an active imagination. Returning slowly from our reverie, we continue west toward Beimen Square and our starting point.

While we’ve walked only about five kilometers in distance, we’ve also traversed 130 years of Taiwan history. The journey in time began with an energetic Qing Dynasty official, followed by the sudden ceding of Taiwan to Japan in 1895, liberation after World War II, and then the conflicts and joys, failures and successes, of one-party rule followed by the dawn of a new democracy. The area of the old wall has seen a lot.