A Ramble Down Roosevelt Road

Photo: Dinah Gardner

With an intriguing history and rich culture, Taipei’s Roosevelt Road hosts many more interesting attractions than first meet the eye. 

This story begins in a bookstore. The sky is overcast, but a soft glow from the overhead lights inside SMC Publishing (南天書局), a Taiwan-focused academic bookshop in Taipei’s university district of Gongguan, creates a comfortable ambiance. Crinkly maps are heaped high on a long bench at the front of the store. They have been carefully selected by owner and publisher Wei Te-wen in response to a query I sent him about what might be the capital city’s most intriguing street. The first question I ask is when Roosevelt Road was first constructed.

“That’s a difficult question to answer,” Wei says with a chuckle. “The only way to show you is to go through the maps, one by one.” And that is exactly what we do.

Roosevelt Road holds a special place in my heart. In my almost seven years in Taipei, I have lived in eight different apartments. Five of them (including my current residence) either have a Roosevelt Road address or are located a stone’s throw from this six-lane avenue that connects political Taipei with the residential suburbs. Not only is Roosevelt the only road in the capital named after an American president and one of a few with a name bearing no Chinese connection, but it also has a unique character and timeless air. Absent are the old-world atmosphere of Wanhua, the towering shopping malls of Xinyi, and the commercial thrum of Ximen. Rather, Roosevelt is distinguished by a leafy university district, specialist bookshops, density of cafes, and pockets of curious history, including two tumbledown military dependents’ villages and remnants of a forgotten railway.

Our voyage back in time with Wei begins with a hand-drawn 1888 map of Taipei, just two years after it became the capital of the western sliver of Taiwan then under Qing Dynasty control. Three urban pockets existed at the time, according to this map: the walled inner city and the two ports of Wanhua and Dadaocheng. Where Roosevelt Road should be displayed, there are only rice paddies. The next two maps, dated 1895 and 1890, bring Taipei under Japanese occupation. The rice fields recede and are replaced by streets and structures, but there is still nothing but squiggles denoting farmland in what will become the Roosevelt Road area.

Photos of Roosevelt Road from the 1950s. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Map four from 1903 shows the beginnings of a train line snaking down from Wanhua (it would eventually connect to Xindian and open to the public in 1921). The city walls are coming down, and for the first time, construction can be seen around the northern part of what will be Roosevelt Road. But the Japanese have chosen Nanchang Road as their main north-south route. For the time being, it is the broadest and longest street in this part of the city. The following map, a city plan from 1905, reveals the first signs of a short stubby street – the foundation of Roosevelt.

With map number six, we jump ahead to 1932. The parks are labeled with numbers, and Roosevelt Road is a narrow street that stretches from present-day Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to Heping East Road. The Japanese did not name roads, just neighborhoods, says Wei as he dips his head to work out the characters on the map. Roosevelt’s precursor is labeled Qiansui Ding (千歲町) – ding being a Japanese word for neighborhood (today’s Ximending is notable for retaining this character). With this information, we can confirm that Roosevelt Road was established sometime between 1905 and 1932.

But it wasn’t named Roosevelt until 1945, when Nationalist China took control of Taiwan as the conclusion of World War II brought an end to the Japanese era. Map seven, dated that year, clearly marks it as Roosevelt Road for the first time. Wei examines the map’s tiny print with a cartographer’s magnifying glass. The road was named in honor of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who helped China defeat the Japanese. The Republic of China authorities “were grateful,” explains Wei. “They were thanking them [the Americans] by giving this road a special name.”

Just two years later, in 1947, Wei’s eighth map depicts an almost unrecognizable city. Roosevelt is now the main north-south route. It is noticeably broader, branching out from Nanchang and continuing down past National Taiwan University. The map shows 16 separate bus routes, with the Nos. 14 and 15 cruising up and down Roosevelt. On map nine, from 1961, Roosevelt is the six-lane thoroughfare we recognize today, and thus – in nine maps – we have solved the puzzle.

Ersatz mock railroad track marking one section of the old Wanhua-Xindian line. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Signs of an old railway

On one of his maps, Wei points out the Wanhua-Xindian train line, which follows current-day Tingzhou Road before it connects with Roosevelt Road after Gongguan. In the late 1990s, the green MRT line, which today connects Taipei’s Songshan district to Xindian in New Taipei City, traced the same southernmost rail route along Roosevelt.

I ask Wei if he had ever taken that train. “Oh yes,” he says. “I was in elementary school, about four or five years old.” This would have been sometime in the 1950s. Wei and his father traveled from Hsinchu to visit his older brother, who was residing in Guting at the time. They took the bus into Taipei before switching to the train in Wanhua. “We left in the morning at 8 a.m., and it was four in the afternoon when we arrived,” Wei says. “We spent the whole day traveling – now it takes little more than an hour.”

Signs of the old train line can still be seen today if one knows where to search. About halfway between the Jingmei and Wanlong MRT stations, a display in the shape of the sides of two carriages is easily overlooked, as it blends in seamlessly with an adjacent bus stop. Its mirrored sides are marked with a narration of the story of the 10.4-kilometer line. The text says that the line had 17 stops under the Japanese, including many with names familiar to us today – Gutingding (Guting), Gongguan, Jingwei (Jingmei), and Dapinglin. Five stations were closed after 1945, likely because they were so close together that they were deemed redundant, as 17 stops along 10 kilometers allow for just a little more than 500 meters between each stop.

A boardwalk winds through greenery near the Treasure Hill artist village. Photo: Dinah Gardner

The line was envisaged by Japanese investors back in 1896 to help transport coal, lumber, and tea, but due to a lack of funds, it did not open until 1921 when the Japanese colonial government acquired control. In the 1950s, the route became a popular way for people to enjoy a day at the lake at Bitan; one year, spectators were even treated to a performance there by a U.S. waterskiing team. The line eventually closed in 1965. Highway construction had opened up alternative transport options, such as buses and private vehicles, causing train passenger numbers to plummet. Another part of the display has a depiction of a newspaper advertisement offering a flat rate of NT$1 for any trip along the route.

An additional tribute to the old railway can be found just west of the hissing woks of Gongguan Night Market. At one end of a new wooden boardwalk that scoops through a tangle of forest to the Treasure Hill artists’ colony, there is a plaque commemorating the former Gongguan Station. Next to it is a bloom of orange and purple flowers and a few feet of ersatz track. It is a serene spot, although unfortunately no photos are on display to show what it looked like in the past. I imagine a scene of professors and students disembarking for Taihoku Imperial University (now National Taiwan University). Finally, further up Tingzhou Road, the exterior wall of Yingqiao Junior High School is decorated with sleepers from the former track to form the image of a locomotive in memory of the old line.

A memorial to the Wanhua-Xindian rail line that forms part of the outer gate of Yingqiao Junior High School in Gongguan. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Demilitarized villages

Front gate of a Toad Mountain Village residence. Photo: Dinah Gardner

As members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) fled China to Taiwan in 1949, soldiers and their families lived in makeshift settlements that spread organically outward. One such area resulted in Treasure Hill, one of Taiwan’s better-known military dependents’ villages, today jazzed up and renovated as an artists’ neighborhood and tourist destination. But less than a kilometer southeast, across the roundabout that links Roosevelt to Keelung Road, lies another, less famous, such village. Toad Mountain (蟾蜍山), also known as Huanmin New Village, was set up by the KMT’s Air Force Combat Command in the 1940s. During the Korean War in the early 1950s, the U.S. 13th Air Force also camped there. Toad Mountain is easy to spot from the Gongguan stretch of Roosevelt Road. Looking south, it is the forested hill topped with a radar antenna. It also carries a Roosevelt Road address: Section 4, Lane 119.

The Toad Mountain Living Room, a former residence converted into an exhibition space that serves as a visitor center for the historic military dependents’ village. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Taipei in recent years has invested in restoring and converting some of Toad Mountain’s residences into exhibition spaces. So far, one has been completed and is open to the public. The “Toad Mountain Living Room,” open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., features maps, models, books, and displays geared at schoolchildren and depicting how a house in this village might have looked last century. A drawn map of Toad Mountain by British artist Tom Rook, who spent many weeks in 2013 at the location sketching its meandering lanes, is prominently displayed on the wall. At the time, residents were fighting evictions, and the village’s fate looked bleak. Rook’s map was part of an ultimately successful campaign to preserve Toad Mountain. The following year, Taipei City awarded it Cultural Landscape status.

I invite Rook back to see the village’s transformation. “It’s changed quite a lot,” he says with a smile. “A lot of these buildings have been renovated.”

Despite this, Toad Mountain remains unkempt and decrepit. Wellington-booted workers with cigarettes dangling from their lips chat on their phones or carry pipes into half-restored buildings boasting new wooden beams and smooth concrete floors. Further up the slope, many of the homes are still inhabited. Roofs are of corrugated iron, pasty green or rusty burgundy. Paint peels from walls, clothes are draped across scooters or hung from railings, and doorways are piled high with crooked umbrellas and racks of shoes. Every available inch of surface is covered with potted plants and pink and white calla lilies. It is a warren of snaking paths and uneven steps.

“It’s got a kind of Jiufen feel to it,” notes Rook, referring to the mountain gold-rush town northeast of Taipei that is now a popular tourist destination. We pass a home under a covered walkway. An elderly lady smiles and waves at us from her chair, warning Rook – who towers in at around six feet tall – to mind his head on the low roof.

Rook tells me he is especially fond of a row of houses near the village’s peak, which he says were built during the Japanese era. Unlike the rest of the homes, which are mainly constructed from concrete and iron, these are made of red brick and wooden beams. Sadly, the buildings have almost entirely collapsed, with vines and other vegetation entangling their skeletal remains. “They’ve been abandoned for a couple of decades at least,” he notes.

Climbing further up, past a ferocious chained dog, brings you to a foreboding-looking fence with a sign that reads in Chinese: Important military base – Trespassers will be prosecuted. No barrier was there back in 2013, Rook recalls. He and a group of friends scrambled through the forest, discovering man-made caves and bunkers. Eventually, they ended up at the very top next to the antenna. They spotted a lone soldier who, probably as surprised about the encounter as they were, stared at them before they slipped through a gate back down to the village.

Coffee and cake

The interior of Sanhuai Tang, a cozy coffee house in Toad Mountain Village. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Roosevelt Road’s upper section has a significantly longer history than the rest of the thoroughfare. Wei’s old maps mark this part of the road with buildings owned by the Monopoly Bureau, an institution set up by the Japanese to control the production and sale of key goods such as tobacco, alcohol, camphor, salt, and oil. The Monopoly Bureau Building, a handsome red and cream Renaissance-style construction with a copper spire dating back to 1913, still stands on nearby Nanchang Street.

Tucked away at No. 2, Lane 72, Roosevelt Road, Section 1 you will find the Sanhuai Tang (三槐堂) shop, which is not quite as old as the Monopoly Bureau but nevertheless exudes history. The proprietors, the Wangs, have been serving siphon coffee and home-baked cheesecake since 1995, a year prior to Taiwan’s first presidential elections. Mr. Wang, who stands behind the counter concocting brews, says that the menu has barely changed since then. With long wooden tables and polished floorboards, it feels like a teashop from another era. The cheesecake is not too sweet – it is Japanese style, more spongey than the New York cream and crunch. Most importantly, it is a delightful accompaniment to a cup of tea or coffee and the perfect end to a day exploring the mysteries of Roosevelt Road.