The ABCs of Taichung

National Theater. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

The major city in central Taiwan has much to recommend it as a stopover for local and foreign tourists, including its architecture, museums, and – surprisingly – greenery.   

My first impression of Taipei City was that it was an unlivable, chaotic burg clogged with scooters, people, and exhaust fumes. That this notion was formed during a viewing of the Ang Lee film Eat Drink Man Woman six months before I had even set foot in Taiwan proved prescient, validating the maxim set forth in song by David Byrne of Talking Heads: “first impressions are often correct.”

Thus 72 hours after arriving in Taiwan in 1994, I found myself on a southbound train, searching not for art or culture (being too green an expat then to appreciate such lofty sentiments), but heading to a city offering a gentler form of disorder in which to acclimate myself to the strange new land that would become my intermittent home for the next few decades.

A quarter century later, both Taipei and Taichung have evolved mightily in fits and starts. While Taipei’s evolution into a high-tech town of semi-tamed chaos has been well documented, Taichung’s transformation into a city of art, culture, and greenery (attributes that I’ve come to appreciate more) is less documented. Though Taiwan’s central city hasn’t gotten nearly as much ink or pixels as has Taipei, it deserves the praise.

So let’s start with the A’s.

Art

Unless you’ve been under a self-imposed media blackout for the past few years, you’ll no doubt have heard about Taichung’s most famous nonagenarian artist, Huang Yung-fu, also known as Rainbow Grandpa. The story of how the small collection of ramshackle single-story bungalows where he lived for decades went from near abandonment to one of central Taiwan’s most visited tourist attractions bears retelling.

Located in the city’s outlying Nantun District, the “village” was home to aged veterans of the Chinese Civil War. A decade ago, Huang – then a sprightly octogenarian and the village’s sole remaining resident, his comrades having passed away or otherwise moved on – found a demolition notice on his door. Unwilling to depart, he instead began painting, starting with the interior of his own home and then applying his bright colors and whimsical designs to outdoor walls, fences, and sidewalks.

Rainbow Grandpa’s colorful artwork at Rainbow Village. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Local college students took notice and began to spread the word about this unique, slowly expanding art installation. More and more curious observers came by and promoted Huang’s art online, attracting ever growing crowds of tourists and extensive media coverage. As Rainbow Grandpa, Huang is now an internationally recognized artist, and his neighborhood, now dubbed Rainbow Village (Caihongjuan Village,彩虹眷村), is under government protection as a national treasure.

Less whimsical is Taichung’s National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Renowned for its collection of modern and contemporary art, the sprawling museum offers both permanent and rotating exhibits. The museum is a short walk from Taichung’s Calligraphy Greenway, which we’ll file under B for Bucolic Byways.

But before we get there…

Architecture

While the Taichung skyline makes for a nice shot from the window of a High Speed Rail train, the city is thus far bereft of iconic towers like Taipei 101 or the Kaohsiung 85 Sky Tower (admittedly hard to beat in the city representation department, since the building is shaped like the character kao [高] in Kaohsiung). To truly appreciate the architecture of Taichung, you need to get a closer look.

During the colonial era, the Japanese did their best to turn Taichung into a sort of surrogate Osaka. The most walkable nexus of Japanese colonial splendor lies just south of the Liuchuan River, where you’ll find the Taichung Literature Museum, a traditional Japanese-style structure that once served as a police headquarters.

Inside the traditional Japanese-style Taichung Literature Museum. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

As with much in Taiwan, militarism has given way to contemplation, and the venue is decidedly more serene these days, offering a welcoming space devoted to housing the works of Taiwanese authors. Book lovers are invited to sit in reading rooms with attractive wooden floors that emit a most pleasing fragrance. But beautiful books and wooden floors play second fiddle to the museum’s real star – a massive centenarian banyan that grows in the center of the plaza. Benches surround this stunning tree, allowing you to sit in its tranquil shade.

Travelers looking to trick children into cultural appreciation (or ease them into the idea of getting vision-correction surgery at some future date) can offer to take the little ones to the Miyahara Eye Hospital. The name is purely historical, as nary a cataract has been removed on the grounds for many a decade. Instead, the restored Miyahara now features an array of tasty snacks and colorful souvenirs. Staff are welcoming and sharply dressed, and the Mihayara’s main attraction is the ice cream shop on the building’s north side, which provides an unusual but delicious variety of flavors.

Those seeking more mature colonial pursuits should check out the three-story Taichung Shiyakusho, a Baroque-style structure dating back to 1911. The Shiyakusho, whose ground-floor café makes a good spot for a midday coffee break, sits across from the Taichung Prefecture Hall, another splendid example of colonial-era architecture worth exploring.

Hands down, the city’s most noteworthy contribution to the field of modern architecture is the Taichung National Theater, which takes up an entire city block and is a worthwhile place to spend the better part of an afternoon. Featuring swooping concrete walls on the outside and a delicate rounded interior, the building offers much to explore. The lower floor has several small stores selling artistic wares perfect for holiday shopping, while the upper stories feature rotating art exhibitions, multiple bookstores, two good-quality restaurants, and of course the modern opera house that gives the structure its name. Be sure to take the time to visit the Theater’s rooftop open-air park. Its subtle hilly manicured lawns provide a perfect setting to watch the sunset and contemplate eternity.

Which is as good a segue as any into the B’s, beginning with…

Bucolic Byways

Taiwan’s eastern coast gets more press about its luscious green mountains, clean air, and picturesque coastline. While Taichung may not immediately be associated with greenery, it has several areas allowing visitors to commune with nature without abandoning urban conveniences.

The Calligraphy Greenway is a kilometer-long park filled with modern art and sculptures, creating a pleasant blend of the natural and artistic. Walking the Greenway to the north brings you to Taichung’s CMP Park Block, Taiwan’s first open-air museum, which mixes the concepts of craft and art. It has a permanent exhibition of cars swallowed up by grass and a rotating collection of quirky art such as giant sculptures of milk cartons.

The Green River Trail, filled with art and alcoves, is a relaxing walk through the city. On a hot day, its shady spots are perfect for eating ice cream and bird watching. An art installation of particular note involves glass fish tanks that seemingly hover over the river. The tanks enable fish to swim above the river, turning the tables by transforming the people walking by into a spectacle for the fish to enjoy.

Next up…

A Bipartite of Big Buddhas

There is no shortage of Buddha statues in Taiwan, but if it’s big you’re going for, central Taiwan is where you’ll find not one but two. Taichung’s northern district is home to the Paochueh Temple (寶覺寺). This five-story-high Buddha is distinctive not only for his large size but also for his golden color and wide, serene smile.

The five-story-high Buddha at Paochueh Temple. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Also of note is the Buddha’s belly button, which once upon a time was a viewing window for visitors inside. This area and the accompanying circular windows on the Buddha’s backside are currently off limits. The statue still makes for stunning photos, as does the surrounding area containing a Shinto Shrine and associated meditation hall.

Another Big Buddha of note can be found meditating on the top of Baguashan, a hill in Changhua City, about a 30-minute drive south of Taichung. The Baguashan Buddha (八卦山大佛) is a bit more somber, but also more welcoming than its urban cousin in that you can still go inside the statue. Behind the big Buddha sits a temple with numerous smaller Buddha statues that are vividly painted with golden skin and bright blue hair.

Moving on to the C’s, let’s start with…

Crafts and Culture

Crafty vibes abound in Taichung, where neighborhoods once zoned for industrial use have been re-purposed into hipster hideaways. Shen Ji New Village (審計新村), with its collection of renovated buildings, is one such spot where high-end restaurants are situated comfortably next to pet-themed ice cream shops and quirky stores selling artisan soaps and homemade knick-knacks. At the neighborhood’s weekend flea markets with stands run by local artists, you’ll find everything from handmade wallets to craft beer.

The gentrified Shen Ji New Village. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

For culture on a more organized level, Taichung’s museums are second to none. The National Museum of Natural Science is a must stop for science nerds and families with children, though the animatronic dinosaurs, popular with the older kids, may prove a bit too intense for the toddler set. Astronomy buffs won’t want to miss the museum’s world-class Space Theater. It costs a bit extra to get in, but the headsets with English translations of the hour-long show are free of charge.

More down-to-earth cultural pursuits await at the Natural Way Six Arts Center, a dojo complex fashioned in a classical (that is, pre-colonial) Japanese style. The space has a main martial arts hall, a shrine, and a subordinate building east of the main hall. The hall has space for judo and kendo practice, and is also used for lectures, tea ceremonies, and classes. Keep a keen eye out for the Japanese gargoyles adorning the building.

We conclude the C’s with a few suggestions for…

Culinary Character

Although some in the southern city of Tainan dispute the claim, Taichung is generally considered to be the original home of that most quintessentially Taiwanese beverage, bubble tea. The Chun Shui Tang (春水堂) restaurant proudly proclaims that it was the first to come up with the then-unlikely idea of combining glutinous tapioca pearls with tea, creating a drink that’s now so associated with our fair island that Madame President herself has been known to pose with a glass for the media.

The restaurant’s food is good as well, but don’t fill up. Just a few blocks to the north is Taichung’s Second Market, which boasts a cornucopia of stalls offering local delicacies such as thick squid soup and oyster pancakes. For an extra dose of post-meal culture, the market is centered around a small temple.

A vendor roasting corn at the Second Market. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Of course, no journey around a Taiwanese city would be complete without a visit to a local night market, and Taichung’s Feng Jia Night Market (逢甲夜市) is among the biggest and most diverse in the country. At nearly a kilometer wide, it accommodates a huge array of food stalls. You’ll have no problem finding standard Taiwan night market fare along with trendy items like super-long French fries and Korean fried chicken. In addition to street-food stalls, the night market has several sit-down restaurants for those who may not wish to dine al fresco. 

Which brings us back to one final A…

Air

One thing that Ang Lee’s film didn’t prepare me for was the rather…shall we say chunky…quality of Taipei’s atmosphere, and in 1994 poor air quality was another factor leading to my rather rapid retreat southward. Once again, David Byrne’s lyrics offered useful foreshadowing:

“Some people say not to worry about the air.

Some people never had experience with Air.”

In this aspect, for better and worse, Taipei and Taichung seem to have switched places over the last quarter century, with central Taiwan suffering through more high-particulate days than the breezier north thanks to a combination of location and industry. Hopefully, the opening of Taichung’s aptly named Metro Green Mass Transit Line (scheduled for the end of 2020) will help clear the air a bit.

Until then, perhaps the best bet is to time your trip for days when the wind is blowing in from the east.

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