If you have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am obsessed with social history, old houses and vintage items (in particular goods from the 1950s to late 1970s). One of my first posts was about the house my waigong built in the 1960s and feeling a connection to my family’s past that was bittersweet because its immediacy was so novel for me. When I was a little girl, I loved visiting places like the History Museum of San Jose and the different Spanish missions, including San Juan Bautista. American history intrigued me (and it still does), but my family had only lived in the States since the late 1970s and I was curious about their experiences.
Since moving to Taipei, I’ve been able to get a better sense of what their lives were like in Taiwan during the 1960s and 1970s, when this country was undergoing rapid cultural, economic and political changes.
Fortunately for me, an interest in 懷舊 (nostalgia, huáijiù) and 復古 (retro, fùgǔ) items has taken root here as a trend over the past 10 years. The equivalent of all this in the States is “Americana,” but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent word in Taiwan (if I am wrong, please let me know). A lot of restaurants and cafes decorate with old movie posters, Tatung babies and heavy Chinese juniper (檜木, guìmù) wood furniture. The Formosa Vintage Museum Cafe (秋惠文庫) takes a more serious, curatorial approach, but still seeks to make Taiwan’s social history easily accessible.
Of course, I love being able to visit different places and feel like I’m getting a glimpse of what my parents saw as teenagers, but after a few years in Taiwan, I’ve become used to 懷舊 decor, which is really not that hard to find or create. All you need to do is line up a bunch of Tatung babies next to some Hey Song signs and, kabaam, it’s 懷舊. It makes me wonder what separates kitsch from meaningful attempts to preserve facets of history that would otherwise be overlooked (not that I’m knocking kitschy things, Hey Song signs and Tatung babies… I love them.)
Two Tainan establishments that I think do a wonderful job of accomplishing the latter are Old House Inn (謝宅) and Iron Flower Windows Inn (鐵花窗). (Inns and bed and breakfasts are sometimes referred to as “hostels” or 民俗 here). During our trip to Tainan last month, Ron and I stayed at Iron Flower Windows, a 40-year-old house owned by vintage furniture collector and entrepreneur Lin Wen-pin (林文濱). A couple weeks later, I returned to take a peek at Old House Inn and interview its young owner Kyle Hsieh (謝文侃), whose family once lived in the Ximen Market (西門市場) structure. My article about both places appeared last week in the Taipei Times (all photos in my blog entry are from our stay at Iron Flower Windows. For Old House Inn photos, check out their Facebook page).
Both men had different reasons for opening their inns, but their goal was the same: to preserve a sense of Tainan’s recent past. Older residences in that city are constantly being torn down (much of the wood Hsieh used while renovating Old House Inn came from demolished structures) and the character of an entire neighborhood can change within the space of a few years. Tainan is famous for its historical architecture and gorgeous temples, of course, but both Hsieh and Lin want to make sure that people also appreciate what ordinary life was like for residents a few decades ago.
Iron Flower Windows is named after the clover-shaped ironwork that covers most of its windows. Lin originally purchased the house last year to serve as his own residence and filled with pieces from his giant collection of vintage furniture. Around the same time, however, he adopted a bull terrier puppy who also turned out to have a taste for vintage furniture — as in, he liked to gnaw on it. After several weeks of deliberation, Lin, who also owns two nearby cafes, decided to let the building out as an inn instead.
Hsieh grew up in the house that is now Old House Inn (it was located right above fabric stores owned by his father and uncle). After his father had a stroke, Hsieh’s parents decided to move, but they were afraid their longtime residence would be torn down like so many other buildings in Tainan. Hsieh, who had moved to Australia, returned to his hometown to renovate his childhood home and open it as an inn.
I think both inns do a good job of giving foreign guests a sense of daily life in the 1960s and 1970s, while at the same time faciliating conversations and serving as madeleines for people who grew up in Taiwan. Hsieh was very careful to keep his family’s furnishings and the original layout of the rooms while updating Old House Inn’s utilities to make it more comfortable; Lin carefully decorated each room to emphasis the house’s architectural features.
It was fun to show my parents around Iron Flower Windows during our stay because the things inside prompted them to recall details of their childhoods that I had never heard before. After seeing an ornate cabinet television, my Dad told me that his family did not get their first TV until he was in high school.
Broadcasting only started in the evening, but before the first show began, a grayscale test pattern would appear, accompanied by some music. Families turned on their TVs just to enjoy the novelty of seeing something flicker on their screens. People who didn’t have televisions gathered in front of electronic stores and watch the TV sets in the windows.
My Mom’s grandparents had a sturdy circular dining room table similar to the one above. I could imagine my great-grandparents gathering with their families for cozy meals. My father once told me that, like most other households, his family didn’t have a fridge when he was little, so my grandma had to spend much of the day preparing food for her five kids. Running water was another luxury, so most people washed their hair only a few times during a week, even during summers. Many of the things we take for granted — popping leftover takeout in the microwave or taking a shower just to cool down on a hot summer night — were unimaginable to most Taiwanese people only a few decades ago. The most mundane things took a lot of mental and physical energy.
These anecdotes made me wonder how my grandparents felt as their worlds changed rapidly around them and everything — from the government to the way information was exchanged — underwent a paradigm shift. It wasn’t so long ago that they were marveling at their brand new cabinet television. Now their grandchild, who grew up in another country and speaks a completely different language, is slapping photos of similiar consoles on the Internet and going on how about awesomely retro and intriguingly exotic their lives were. But when my relatives read my posts or stories about “vintage” Taiwan, I hope they realize how much I really appreciate the most minute details of their lives in the past, because it helps understand my — our — present.