This Nihonga painting (膠彩畫, a traditional Japanese style of ink and glue) was painted in the 1930s, and titled “Prosper on the Southern Street” (南街殷賑). It illustrates the vivid and lively life in the Taipei area of Dadaocheng (大稻埕) in its Golden Age. The artist Kuo Hseuh-Hu (郭雪湖), born and raised in one of the most commercially and culturally developed area in Taipei, brings us back almost a century ago, when the northwestern corner of the city was the spotlight not just for local inhabitants but for visitors abroad.
Look at the right side of this painting. Did you find it? Yes, the crowded temple with a golden and green flag above is the Xiahai Chenghuang Temple (霞海城隍廟), one of the three major temples this cosmopolitan 1920s downtown. The Xiahai Chenghuang Temple is the first stop of our journey in this old but still lively area.
Dadaocheng literally means “great grain plaza,” or “tua-tui-tiann” in the more authentic Taiwanese spoken here. Since the mid-19th century, there has been Han settlements here, migrating from southeastern parts of China. They carried their hardship, but also hope, to this new world. With nostalgia for home, they built a new life here like those who sailed on the Mayflower or settlers in Harlem of New Amsterdam.
With generations of immigrants and colonizers over these years, Dadaocheng is now not an official name for this administrative district, but a folk name referring back to its original days as a place for grain markets. The main commercial street is called Dihua Street (迪化街), which is also the bygone name of Ürümqi (烏魯木齊), capital of Xinjiang (新疆). When the KMT government renamed all the streets in Taipei according to the geography of China. As Dadaocheng is in the northwest, many streets and alleys are named after the northwestern region in China. In a way, this adds to the layers of nostalgia from divergent immigrant cultures here.
Dadaocheng is a neighborhood laid by a river port. As we stand at the Dadaocheng pier, let us imagine how the cargo being loaded and unloaded along the Tamshui River. In the 1860s, due to the defeat of the Qing Empire by the British, during the Opium Wars, Tamshui became one of the free-trade ports in Taiwan. Dadaocheng in turn became one of biggest cargo piers in northern Taiwan. In the year 1865, a Scottish merchant named John Dodd began a tea trading business in Dadaocheng, and thus Dadaocheng became a hub for trading in Oolong (烏龍) tea and other goods like herbs and dried foods. At the Dadaocheng Pier, we can imagine how tea packages from tea farms at Mucha (木柵) and Nankang (南港), still famous for their teas today, headed directly into British tea cups via Dadaocheng.
Let us stroll back to Xiahai Chenghuang Temple. As I mentioned, Dadaocheng is a cargo port since the 19th century. Chenghuang (城隍) is the folk deity in charge at Xiahai (霞海), a town in Fujian (福建). The deity came over to Taiwan when Fujian migrants brought their religion to their new settlement, and prayed for fortune and safety. But Chenghuang isn’t the only god watching over the neighborhood. Right by Dadaocheng Pier is the Cisheng Mazu Temple (慈聖媽祖廟). Mazu is the godness that watches over sailors, fishermen, and anyone traveling on the seas. And Fazhu Zhenjun Temple (法主真君廟), where, people prays to the Taoist sorcerer for good fortune and property, was built at the height of the tea business. These three major temples, the Xiahai Chenghuang, the Cisheng Mazu, and the Fazu Zhengjun, are very closely linked to the local commercial and cultural developments, watching over the river, settlements, and of course, the tea and cargo businesses.
Around Dadaocheng, we can also explore its stories from its buildings. Dadaocheng, as an important commercial area since the 19th century, the buildings are designed to be used for a range of purposes: shops, warehouses, and accommodations, so the inhabitants can live upstairs and run their business and cargo operations on the ground floor. These shophouses came to be long and narrow, jostling for frontage space on the busy main streets. We can find even today architectural flourishes from traditional Asian decorations to pseudo-baroque styles, which a trend during the Japanese era, to traces of old European designs. Step out from Xiahai Chenghuang Temple, you can see “A. S. Watsons & Co.” (屈臣氏大藥局) above. Yes, it is Watsons, the famous drugstore chain from the United Kingdom that is now all over Taiwan and Hong Kong. Back in the early 19th century, the Scottish merchant Dr. Thomas Boswell Watson was expanding his pharmacy business in Hong Kong, and the Dadaocheng location was the first of this franchises in Taiwan.
But Dadaocheng is not just about entrepreneurship and commerce. The economic boom brought cultural and social movements, especially as modernism took hold in the early 20th century. The newfangled ideas that were widely spread in the parlors of Paris, the salons of New York, and the cafés of Vienna made their way with cargo ships to Dadaocheng. New Bourgeois ideas like democracy and self-determination found a foothold within the minds of Taiwanese intellectuals living under Japan colonization, and these intellectuals began pursuing individual freedom and liberation of thought. Jiang Weishui (蔣渭水), a medical doctor from Yilan, made a career in political mobilization in Dadaocheng. His name is repeatedly mentioned in Taiwan for his endeavor in cultural and social democratic movements. His memorial foundation, located right in Dadaocheng, hosts many exhibits about his quixotic stories.
Jiang Weishui was an iconic character in 1920s Dadaocheng, representing the vivid and lively history of Dadaocheng’s Golden Age. His rally cry “We must unite! Unity is power!” (同胞須團結，團結真有力) is also repeatedly quoted amongst Dadaocheng, as Jiang founded the Taiwan Cultural Society and later the Taiwan People’s Party, the first modern political organization in Taiwan.
How is his spirit and endeavor in the golden 1920’s being revitalized now? I interviewed Chang Ning-Tian (張寧恬), the organizer of Sedai Talks (世代談), an intellectual salon, on how the new generation revitalizes the spirit of Dadaocheng. She said the keywords for her are “entrepreneurship” and “compatibility.” “Sedai Talks invites entrepreneurs to share their experiences, and allows them the chance to collaborate on further innovation. Dadaocheng, like a hundred years ago, is becoming somewhere for people to gather and create something new together. Chang says that from the Sedai Talks salon, attendees can now brainstorm with potential partners from all walks of life, like mobile app designer with architect, or fashion designer with agriculture entrepreneur. By now she has already hosted 25 events, with speakers from design, tech, media, to performance, literature, and art.
As for compatibility, Chang pointed out that Dadaocheng still retains very long living histories. She said newcomers should not try to supplant the traditions, but should instead appreciate and respect the histories here. For example, a designer explored the special features of Dadaocheng building styles and incorporated the into fashion design, or Dadaocheng Theater (大稻埕戲苑) came up with new ideas on putting modern detective story elements into traditional plays. New cafés and shops are popping up all over town, infusing it with new dynamics over the old historic fabrics.
But for Holly Harrington, an American expat who finds her second home in Dadaocheng, these trendy cafés and shops popping up everywhere could actually overshadow the authentic beauty of this traditional area. Growing up in a small U.S. town, Holly told me how much she is fond of Dadaocheng’s warm and friendly people. She told me that Dadaocheng is about taking in outsiders, like how Tong-An (同安) immigrants of fled the Monga (艋舺) area of Taipei after local conflicts, and how the Scottish merchant John Dodd built his tea business in Taipei. “My neighbors in Dadaocheng love to tell stories, share food, and introduce me to new things, and I’ve learned so much, from temple rituals, to Taiwan’s tea and coffee history, to Chinese medicine,” said Holly. Even though she has been living in Taipei for ten years, she hadn’t felt like home until she got involved with an urban regeneration station (URS) as a resident artist a few years ago. She started to immerse herself in more traditional Taiwanese cultures and histories during her stay in this slow town. And if possible, she would like to find more ways exploring and introducing more people to Dadaocheng, where newcomers would become more like local people here rather other parts of Taipei.
After we have shopped for bamboo-baskets and other handworks and sampled traditional herbs and marvelous local snacks, we end at the Yongle Textile Market (永樂市場). Yongle, meaning forever happiness, is the name of the neighborhood during the Japanese period, Eirakuchō. In October, we find many youngsters turning the Yongle Market plaza into a scene from The Great Gatsby, dancing, laughing, and talking about the history of Dadaocheng. The Dadaocheng International Festival of Art just began this year, and it was a great festival held by hundreds of artists bring back the vibrancy of 1920s Dadaocheng, with its art but also its civic power.
There are still too many stories to tell on this journey. The Wenmeng Pavilion (文萌樓), Tianma Tea House (天馬茶房), and other corners around Dadaocheng still waits to be explored. But maybe next time. Ciao!
(Feature photo of “Prosper on South Street”, Ministry of Culture, Taiwan)
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