Out of the Ashes: Taichung’s ASEAN Square Breathes Life Into Once Desolate Neighborhood

Bánh tét is one of the Vietnamese treats on offer at Taichung's ASEAN Square. PHOTO: ALPHA, FLICKR

Fires and ghost stories haven’t prevented the proliferation of Southeast Asian restaurants surrounding a historic shopping center from creating a novel blend of cultures and cuisines.

When a fire broke out on Chenggong Road in Taichung’s Central District in mid-November, it brought back vivid memories of a mid-1990s spate of blazes that destroyed property in the city. 

An inferno in 1995 engulfed the Weierkang Club (衛爾康餐廳, alternatively translated as the “Welcome Bar”), a popular eatery, bar, and karaoke spot in West District, ultimately killing 64 people. The fallout included hefty fines for the proprietor and the impeachment of several officials, including then-Taichung City Mayor Lin Po-jung, who was later suspended from office for six months. 

Authorities quickly moved to ensure there was no repeat of the incident, impacting other entertainment and leisure venues. The most high-profile example was the First Square complex in Central District, situated in the quadrangle formed by the junctions of Chenggong Road, Jiguang Street, Taiwan Boulevard, and Luchuan West Road. The building had long been considered a fire trap, and the implementation of tougher – and more costly – safety requirements reportedly drove businesses away. Interestingly, First Square had been constructed on the site of Taichung’s First Market, a remnant of the Japanese colonial era dating from 1908 that burned down in 1978.  

“Urban legends about ghost ships and suicides were spread, which indirectly led to a decrease in the number of people” frequenting such venues, writes Taichung native and urban explorer Zhu Shu-han on his blog Writing Taichung, which documents abandoned buildings and ghost folklore. Deep-seated superstitions turned the area into a literal ghost town in the minds of many Taiwanese.  

The “ghost ship” legend began when locals claimed to have seen a spectral vessel bearing the souls of the deceased through the windows of the burned-out Weierkang Club. Similar apparitions were spotted at other locations around the city, including First Square, though why these ghost ships were sailing through those places is anyone’s guess. Mass hysteria took hold in the community, driving customers away and precluding purchases or rental of property in the area. 

“Most [Taiwan-owned] stores around here are several generations old,” says Chen Hui-nan, who runs an herbal tea store around the corner on Lane 20, Chenggong Road, colloquially referred to as Chinese herbs street. “Taiwanese didn’t want to set up new businesses here after First Market closed, but Southeast Asian immigrants were fine because they didn’t know or care about the history.”  

ASEAN Square’s fortunes changed after an influx of migrant workers from South East Asia. PHOTO: ALPHA, FLICKR

The recruitment of thousands of Thai workers for the construction of Taichung High Speed Rail Station in 2002 saw a change in the neighborhood’s fortunes. The small, cheap, and conveniently located eateries that remained in and around First Square catered to this new workforce. Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Indonesians followed the Thai lead, and soon established their own restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. In those early days such establishments proved popular with Western residents of Taiwan, and some remain even to this day. As such, “this forgotten area began flourishing once again,” according to the Taichung City Government website. 

A twist in the tale occurred when a blaze engulfed the Golden Plaza Tower – noted for its “UFO” revolving restaurant – in 2005. The four deaths that occurred in this accident were rumored by local soothsayers to have completed a quota of spirits required to send the Weierkang ghost ship on its way out of our world. Another preposterously bizarre claim was that the birthday of a manager at the Golden Plaza Tower was somehow inauspiciously linked to the date of the Weierkang Club fire. Either way, with Taiwanese now less wary of restless spirits, the reinvigoration of the neighborhood around the old First Square building quickly picked up steam. 

Little bits of the Philippines 

Things took an official turn in 2010 with the opening of the Southeast Asian Shopping and Food Court on the building’s second floor. In response to the multicultural immigrant community that had sprung up, then-Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung announced the repackaging of the mall as ASEAN Square (東協廣場) in 2016. The Taiwan International Workers Association, a nongovernmental organization advocating for migrant workers’ rights, established its Taichung branch at the mall the same year.  

St. Francis Square, located opposite ASEAN Square in Taichung, offers Pinoy comfort food.

What is remarkable about the mall and the surrounding area is its multicultural makeup. While there are now many sizeable ethnic enclaves in cities around Taiwan, no other has the diversity of the ASEAN Square neighborhood, where Filipino, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and a few Thai restaurants sit alongside one another.  

“I’ve never heard anything about ghosts or anything like that,” says Joy Chang, who arrived in Taiwan from the Philippines in 2003. “We opened here because it was so close to this,” she adds, motioning to ASEAN Square.  

Chang describes her early years in Taiwan, struggling as a factory worker before marrying her Taiwanese husband in 2008 and deciding to try her hand as a restaurateur. When Chang opened St. Francis Square restaurant in 2013, directly opposite the northern entrance to First Square on Chenggong Road, she saw opportunity in the extensive Filipino presence in the area.  

The fare at St. Francis Square is typical Pinoy cuisine: meat-heavy stews, including adobo (pork braised in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic) and menudo, a pork dish that includes liver, tomatoes, and potatoes. There is also the beef calderata, a tangy and sometimes spicy tomato-based stew. While the word calderata now simply means “stew” in modern Spanish, the name of the dish derived from caldera, meaning “cauldron,” after the cooking pots were introduced to the Philippines during colonial rule. Around this time, the Spanish were attempting the same across the water in northern Taiwan. 

For fans of salty, crunchy snacks, the chicharrónes are the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer. These deep-fried rinds are also of Spanish origin, with variations found throughout Latin America.  

Out front, Chang’s employees are preparing eggplant for a delicious tortang talong, or eggplant omelet. The whole eggplant is char-grilled to infuse it with a smoky flavor before the flesh is mashed and flattened while still stuck to the stalk. The resulting preparation is then coated in egg batter, pan-fried, and served with your condiment of choice. While tortang talong is traditionally served as a light breakfast or brunch item, a more filling version called rellenong talong is available, stuffed with meat, seafood, or assorted vegetables.  

A popular sauce option is banana ketchup. This condiment has been tricky to procure in recent years due to a ruling by the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration that specifically prohibits the use of saccharin in banana-based sauces. (If you can think of any Taiwanese sauces that include banana, I’m all ears!)  

Regarding the multicultural makeup of the neighborhood, Chang notes that everyone generally gets along, although there is a competitive spirit among the different groups. (This is perhaps most evident in bragging rights between Filipinos and Indonesians over “important” events such as Miss Universe, in which the Philippines proudly boasts multiple victories).  

Vietnamese New Year treats 

Less than 20 meters away, on the Chenggong and Jiguang intersection, is one of several Vietnamese eateries run by Phạm Tuấn Anh, who has lived in Taiwan for over 20 years. This larger premise features a karaoke bar on the second floor and is popular with dining parties celebrating special occasions. Across the street, Phạm maintains a smaller restaurant with food booths outside. The stalls are stacked with snacks, including several types of glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves.  

Notable among these is bánh tét, a rice cake roll traditionally served during Tết – the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. A common misapprehension is that the tét in the name refers to the festival. In fact, it is a different word meaning “split,” referring to how it is often served in slices similar to a Swiss roll.  

Bánh tét can be savory or sweet, and while the Lunar New Year variety is often boiled, the portions at this stall have been deep-fried, giving them a delectably crispy outer layer. Each slice is NT$50 and contains a decent portion of fatty pork, making it a cheap, tasty, and filling snack. “Although it is usually eaten during Tết, we sell it at other times,” says Phạm. “Some Vietnamese want a taste of home at any time of year.”  

A Vietnamese vendor in Taipei expands on this. “Vietnamese workers in Taiwan like to return home for Tết,” she says. “But they want to celebrate with their compatriots in Taiwan before they leave for their holidays, so quite a few restaurants will offer this well before the New Year. Some people will even make their own to share with friends.”  

Another crispy treat is bánh xèo, a pancake made from rice flour and turmeric. Regional variations can determine the ingredients, size, and fillings but, at its most basic it usually comes with fresh cucumber and the standard Vietnamese leafy greens – Thai basil, mint, and perilla.  

Makanan Jakarta 1 is set up as a buffet-style canteen, much like many Indonesian eateries in the area.

The many flavors of Indonesia 

For standout Indonesian grub, look no further than Makanan Jakarta 1 on Luchuan West Road, just north of ASEAN Square. Owner Ricka Zhang was born to a huaqiao (overseas Chinese) Hakka family in Kalimantan – the Indonesian portion of Borneo. Despite this, he spoke little Mandarin upon his arrival in Taiwan in 2008.  

“My father knew some Hakka, and he came to Taiwan first to work in a factory,” says Zhang. “When he’d saved enough money, my wife and I followed. We all started in manual labor too before opening this place and another one (Jakarta 2) nearby.” 

Like many Indonesian eateries, the setup here is a buffet-style canteen. Indonesian cuisine is incredibly diverse, and while Zhang says he has tried to capture a blend of tastes that will satisfy customers from all corners of his homeland, he believes the food is closest to what one might find in the country’s capital – hence the name. 

Not all the customers agree. “I’m not sure why they’ve called this place Jakarta,” says Thomas Sugihartono, a logistics and marketing major at Chao-yang University of Technology. “It’s nice, but definitely more like Kalimantan style.” This assessment receives mild pushback from his dining partner Eugene Djohan.  

“I think Jakarta is really a mix – you can find all kinds of flavors there,” says Djohan, who studied tourism management at Chianan University of Pharmacy and Science. He adds that as part of his program involved an internship at the restaurant of the Shangri-La Far Eastern hotel in Tainan, he feels qualified to weigh in on culinary matters.  

While both young men recommend a restaurant in Changhua City called Ummi as “the absolute best,” they regularly meet at Jakarta 1 because of the overall package. “It’s probably the best, because the food is good for the price and it’s in a convenient location,” says Djohan.  

“What I like most is that it’s an open space where you can talk loudly and socialize just like back home,” says Sugihartono. After they finish up, they plan to hit one of the clubs in the West District or Xitun. Djohan lists the options: “18TC, Alta, X-Cube, or Muse – not the ones around here. We prefer an international vibe.” 

Did the tales of fires and ghost ships perhaps put them off the nightlife at ASEAN Square? 

“Ghosts? Oh, come on,” says Sugihartono with a scoff. “Those are just some old people’s fairytales.”