Saturday, December 06, 2008

Art and Architecture in Yunlin

Another Saturday, another excursion, this time to Yunlin to look at some old Art Deco buildings dating from the Japanese period, guided by my friend the history buff Drew. We also took my 14 year old son along, so we'd have someone to abuse when we got tired of picking on each other. As always, click on any pic to visit its Flickr page to see it in a different size. Click on read more to see more...

Breakfast was still being served when we arrived in Hsiluo, a sleepy town on the plain between Changhua and Tainan.

For some reason many of the buildings in the downtown that date from the 1920s and 1930s have managed to survive.

The city has put in some parking areas walkways to give the area a special feel.

Some of the buildings still have romanized Japanese on the facades.

We also stopped by the Matsu temple, one of the island's most important ones. Drew told me it used to be on the big Matsu pilgrammage. It dates from 1717.

Things hoary with age.

A plaque donated by Chen Shui-bian, mayor of Taipei.

Figures by the altar.

I've seen these at several temples, carved lion figures under the table in front of the altar, but I have no idea what it means.

Square watermelons, in case the round ones roll off your scooter.

Agricultural deities.

Some of the older facades are quite interesting, especially the intricate window frames.

Our favorite building was this one, with a clock. Note how it has four different facades on the second and third floors.

A closeup of the clock. Note the two very cool art deco holes there, as well as the shape of the window, like a cathedral's, a common window shape on the older buildings. Drew explained to my son how the Japanese had borrowed this signal of "modernity" from the US and that it offered a vision of the future to the locals who experienced, something that everyone could participate in and be proud of. When you look at this inventiveness in small town Taiwan, and then at the hideously ugly buildings put up under the KMT in the 50s and 60s, it is easy to see why the Taiwanese were so disappointed with the new colonial regime in that period.

A name in Japanese.

A dog haunts the old street.

This careful fellow was weeding. With tweezers.

It took me three tries to get a good shot of his skill, and he obliged with a smile each time.

Drew spotted this old print shop storefront, with the old phone number still visible above the shop's name.

Our next stop was the old train station in Huwei, now a community center hosting the Yunlin Puppet Theatre Festival Tourist Celebration Government Money Thingy.

Inside there were zillions of puppets on display.

The performers look like an audience....

Inside the train station is a display dedicated to puppetry.

Here is shown how a puppet is carved from a block of wood.

Across from the train station is an old Japanese police, fire, and administration building, with an observation tower on top that was the tallest structure in the area in its day. It is one of the few remaining in Taiwan.

This magician, breath thick with betel nut, stopped to explain that he was performing today.

We strolled through the crowded downtown looking for something to eat, and watching the locals interact.

Goat's head, anyone?

Children riveted to the spot by the terrifying advent of foreigners.

We also hiked over to the old sugar refinery, but the guard there told us that despite its decrepit appearance, it was still in use, and wouldn't let us in.

A procession was in progress, so we jumped in.


Relaxing for moment.

Pilgrims in baseball caps.

Blue Shoes there wouldn't let me take her picture, though the other lady cooperated quite enthusiastically.

We left Huwei and decided to go back to Hsiluo to cross the river on the famous Hsiluo Great Bridge, a Japanese-era construction originally intended for trains. UPDATE: Nope. It was built in 1953. UPDATE II: Nope. See comments below.

Plenty of countryside to cross.

With people hard at work.

Near a gas station we passed another oddity, perhaps from the Japanese period, Oxford-on-the-plains.

This one also boasted a clock with porcelain tiles inlaid at intervals on the facade.

Winter melons on their way to market.

Look carefully at the top of the facade, with its flying hawk, resting hawk, pineapple, and assorted other ornamentations. Modernity in the southern Taiwan plains in the 1920s and 30s.

The bridge doesn't look like much, but it is well worth a diversion if you are in the area.

It goes on forever.

Affording stunning views of the river below.

I stopped to grab a shot of it from the other end.

And then it was home through tree-lined roads........

...past the lonely farmhouses...

...past the fathers reading with their daughters....

...past the men at work...

...past the powerplant...

...past the betel nut girl to home.


Taiwan Echo said...

When you look at this inventiveness in small town Taiwan, and then at the hideously ugly buildings put up under the KMT in the 50s and 60s, it is easy to see why the Taiwanese were so disappointed with the new colonial regime in that period."

I couldn't stop thinking the Maokong Gandola (貓空纜車) that Ma Ying-jeou claimed to be his greatest achievement during his 8-year Taipei Mayorship.

It spent 1,300,000,000 of Taipei citizens' money, but suffers probably hundreds of maintenance shutdowns starting from the very first day of its launch, and eventually leads to the end of it's ridiculously short life of less than 2 years.

Comparing to the Wulai Gondola in Yun-Hsien in Taipei county (烏來雲仙樂園纜車), which was built by Japanese and has never experienced a single maintenance shutdown during its more than 60 years of operation, it doesn't need a genius to see how impotent Ma Ying-jeou is.

Anonymous said...

Lived in Huwei for my first year in the country I(explains a lot). Still have a soft spot for the place. Really goes to show that history is everywhere in Taiwan, just most of the time we don't notice it. Great photo blog.

Anonymous said...

Great pictures of my wife's hometown (Hsiluo) and birthplace (Huwei). However, the Hsiluo Great Bridge isn't a Japanese construction. It was erected in the 1950's, primarily with foreign aid money from the U.S. government.

NONE said...

I think the KMT took some liberties with history on this bridge.

Construction of the bridge commenced in 1937 at the advent of Japan's invasion of China.

The construction project required the labor of a significant number of local people from in and around Xi Luo.

The difficult work of laying the bridge foundation and the 32 support pillars was completed by 1941. During the finishing process, the steel beams for the trusses were reassigned for military use and construction was halted following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The bridge was finished and opened in 1952 and was, for a time, the longest bridge in East Asia and ranked only second in length to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

NONE said...

More info on the pictures:

Xi Luo and Hu Wei were both very large Hoanya (ping-pu/plains aborigine) villages during the 17th and 18th centuries. The southern end of Xi Luo near the bridge is still called "Village Door" and "Old Village".

The little "tiger" under the altar is 虎爺 the little tiger god who protects the temple from evil and uses his claws and jaws to both protect the donations and bring in more money and prosperity. He is to be worshipped with cooked meat, so he does not turn to eating humans (note the taming aspect applicable to many other areas). He is often worshipped as a protector of children due to his small size.

Xi Luo is also a famous melon producing area and that explains the watermelons.

The building with the telephone number is very striking. It implies that in this now remote area of Taiwan's forgotten countryside, telecommunications had been adopted widely enough for the local printer to include his number on his sign as early as the 1930's. He was obviously not calling himself and it points to a standard of living that was much higher than much of the world at that time.

I am not saying there were no poor people or that everyone in Taiwan lived like this, but one must consider that at the same time Xi Luo was installing telephone lines, fancy streets, electric lights and planning massive infrastructure projects, caravans of desperate Americans were heading to California to live in squalor picking oranges.

It makes it easy to see how Taiwanese could envision themselves as a part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and take ownership of "their" achievements.

Anonymous said...

That figure under the altar is not a lion but a tiger--Hu Ye ("Grandfather Tiger"), a protective spirit.

Jason said...

A fine post, Michael. One question: What the HELL is up with the melons of Yunlin?

Anonymous said...

The buildings and the details you show are not examples of modernity! How can taking Gothic elements be about US modernism? Or flying birds? Wouldn't it be more precise to say that the use of western design elements in Taiwan was a purposeful act by the Japanese to reduce the local sense of place, and thereby instigate a new urban face? US modernism by the 1920s had two components: skyscrapers, and grandiose Classicism a la the City Beautiful - not flying birds or fenestration of implied Gothic manner.

Tommy said...

Lovely photos. Now all that is missing is some thoughtful restauration. I shiver at the thought of these beautiful old buildings being knocked down to construct some modern monstrosity.

Actually, I love how many of Taiwan's small towns have architectural gems nestled among the other buildings. Taiwanese really should value their heritage more. In fact, if the government wants to attract more tourists, one way to do it would be to get started on preserving these structures so that Taiwan's towns offer their history up easier.

Anonymous said...


That was Art FUCKING Deco.

That was as pop as pop. Authenticity at it's finest.
You can practically see jazz in the designs.

Anonymous said...

I love to read your blog!

Anonymous said...

How long until the tour bus hordes discover Hsiluo's "old town"?

Anonymous said...

The building doesn't have the overall geometry of Art Deco; the middle and left sections of the third storey look more Art Nouveau to me. But those holes could be Art Deco -- or Art Nouveau. And a gothic window; and is that clock tower or cupola Romanesque? Each of the six sections on the upper two stories is different, but the whole facade doesn't much resemble Art Nouveau in the differences. Mannerist? Even mannerist architecture wasn't this irregular in its facades, but the structure itself is quite regular -- very non-mannerist. All told, whatever the building's decorative design is, it's definitely eclectic "modern."

The building with the hawk looks a little older in style -- more Baroque or Rococo. Looks like Japanese architects got chances here in Taiwan to make whatever they wanted off the pages of the books they studied in school. Musta been a kick in the pants for them. Fun stuff; interesting post.

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of the old story of the Meiji Japanese trying hard to be modernize, so they bought an American or British ship. They reverse engineered the entire vessel and based all sequential copies on this process... resulting in brand new ships, complete with patches in the hulls.

NONE said...

I think there are several popular styles on display, but the geometry of Art Deco was incorporated into most of the designs.

I don't think the advent of the styles is as important as the purpose.

The Japanese policies in the post Meiji era were predominantly modernist and seeking international acknowledgement for Japanese "progress". The predominant themes of Social-Darwinism that were prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th century put a premium on modernity as dichotomized by socialized and racialized concepts of "forward and backward", "advanced and primitive", "civilized and savage", "higher and lower", "wild and tame" etc...

The Japanese colonial project sought to locate itself
in the position of the "advanced, higher, civilized and modern" among the peoples of East Asia as a pretext for their colonial project in deference to "Western" ideas of civility and civilization.

To the Japanese, the "West" became the model for modernity and therefore to demonstrate that the Japanese were equally modern, they modeled their structures after "Western" cities.

Although the designs may have fallen out of fashion by the time of construction, and many of them reach back to the 18th Century, the broader idea of the "Western city" as a whole, had significant resonance with the Japanese in being representative of modernity... and that is what they tried to import.

Anonymous said...

Great photos + commentary + follow-up comments.

Perhaps these buildings were part of a reconstruction effort after the 1935 earthquake?

The small tiger looks like the same design on the old 1895 R.O.T. flag. I wonder if it represents the same spirit? (Guard the $)