Ah, Taipei, so grey. many foreigners — and native residents — bemoan this city’s lack of architectural pulchritude.
It’s true that Taipei is a mass of concrete and that many of its most gorgeous structures, including the Baroque-style storefronts built during the Japanese colonial era in what is now Datong District (大同區), are poorly preserved. Taipei is not like London or San Francisco, where you are bombarded with breathtaking views every time you turn a corner. Its beauty is something you have to look for. But that’s one of the things I love about living here. Every time I stumble upon something that I find lovely, it feels like my own private discovery, even if it is a structure that has been documented on Web sites like Remembering Taipei (記憶‧台北). Sometimes it’s not even a particularly interesting building. I love the little house above because it is so typically Taiwanese: the bright red doors, the bit of sloping slate roof topped with a graceful finial, the blue paint that still looks cheerful despite being coated in layers of grime, the green and white address plate, and the bicycle parked outside. It is a home struggling against urban decay, but it still looks cozy.
I wouldn’t mind living in a little house like that, but at the same time, I do recognize that a lot of people would not feel the same way. Tainan Old House Inn (台南謝宅), which runs bed and breakfasts in several former residences, recently posted a photo of a Japanese colonial era residence that is waiting to be demolished. The inn’s fans were dismayed, but a lot of people consider those buildings an eyesore and would rather tear them down then restore them.
I’ve lived in Taipei long enough to see similar houses replaced with gleaming luxury apartment buildings and every time I witness another pink marble monstrosity go up, my stomach lurches. Most of them lack any design merit and they don’t even look that fun to live in. I’ve peeked inside a few apartments and many interiors are covered with the same faux Rococo ornamentation as the exterior. How do you make a home your own when its entire appearance and atmosphere has been dictated for you? It’s like living in a mausoleum. I prefer things that are a bit irregular over perfect but lifeless.
But then I realized that I am approaching the question from a privileged point of view. My parents are residential architects. We lived in several houses while I was growing up, but for most of my life those houses were brand new. I took them for granted and the old became exotic to me.
I remember telling my Dad about Mooi Trouve and he recounted the years his family spent living in a similar timber building nearby. It was very hot during the summer and so many cockroaches lived in the woodwork that my Dad, then a small boy, made a game of killing them (to my grandma’s dismay).
I found that story eye-opening, because it made me realize that what I think of as “vintage” or “historical” symbolizes a drastically lower standard of living for many people, one that they worked very hard to get away from. I adore exploring renovated houses like Mooi Trouve and Qingtian 76 (青天七六). Peeking into them fills me with glee and wonder, but I never had to raise a family in one without the benefits of air conditioning, refrigeration, running water and flushing toilets. When I look up at concrete apartment buildings built during the 1960s or 1970s, I look past the stains left by smog and exhaust and instead admire their Modernist lines. I don’t see them as worn or drab (even though I live in one and it gets damp and chilly during winter, and then damp and stuffy in the summer)
I grew up with comforts and luxuries unimaginable to people from my grandparents’ generation. I constantly search for ways to understand how they once lived, but doing so just makes the gap between their lives and mine wider and wider. That fills me with both wonder and longing. For the past four years, I’ve lived in the same neighborhood my family did during the 1960s and 1970s. I keep turning corners, hoping that my view of the world will somehow align with theirs, even if just for a second.