Groups work to preserve Japanese colonial architecture in Taipei

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

Toward the end of World War II, Japanese authorities in Taiwan began to prepare for a possible invasion the United States, which would have included a blockade of the island’s ports and isolation of major population centers from sources of essential supplies.

Among these preparations was the construction of an emergency food storage facility in Taipei.

A long, low, gable-roofed building, surfaced with gray stucco and with small ventilation windows in the walls, the No. 1 Granary was not meant to be pretty.

But had an invasion materialized, the facility would have fed city residents once private stores ran out. And in a protracted struggle, it would have saved lives.

The invasion never eventuated, of course, and the facility fell into disuse, eventually becoming a neighborhood eyesore.

Given its historic significance, however, the city refused to have the No. 1 Granary torn down, and in 2006 it was designated a historic structure, which protected it from developers who coveted the property, now a choice location in central Taipei.

Unfortunately, protection did not include money for preservation.

Over the years, government spending has focused on maintaining buildings of major historic importance, such as the Qing-era city gates and the Japanese governor’s residence, now the Taipei Guest House, while others receive funding from independent trusts and foundations.

Other than saving them from the wrecking ball, historic buildings of lesser significance like the No. 1 Granary were neglected, allowing many to become derelict.

Until recently, that is.

Seeking to preserve the city’s cultural assets, Taipei’s Department of Cultural Affairs came up with the Old House Cultural Movement, an innovative program to foster partnerships between the city and private enterprise to restore historical sites that fall between the cracks of traditional public and private funding sources.

Records show that Taipei has 400 such buildings, half of which were constructed during the Japanese colonial period.

More than 30 have been listed under the program, with nearly 20 receiving sponsorship from private businesses.

One of these is the No. 1 Granary.

In 2013, a year after the program started, Lead Jade Life and Culture Co. applied for the necessary licenses to restore and manage the building.

Leaving the exterior largely as it was, Lead Jade completely overhauled the inside, turning the ground floor into a farmer’s market, and adding a second level with an Italian restaurant.

While purists might balk at historical restoration reduced to such financial ends, others think turning historic sites into museums is not the only way to preserve them.

The methods of preservation should be adjusted over time and according to circumstances, said Pierre Yang, a professor of the Graduate Institute of Architecture and Historic Preservation at the Taipei National University of the Arts.

However, he added, “no matter what changes are made, inside or out, the value and meaning of a historical property must be preserved or it will become nothing but a worthless shell,” he said.

Indeed, the city sets strict rules governing the suitability of such projects, which include not using historic buildings as private homes.

Authenticity is another concern, with some proposing that special efforts be made to preserve the exterior character of the buildings — advice clearly taken by architects who worked on the No. 1 Granary. Except for repairs and a few potted shrubs, it looks much like it did in 1944.

Another Old House project is Rinbansyo, the onetime residence of the head priest of the Nishi Honganji Temple, a major Buddhist temple in Kyoto.

Completed in 1924, Rinbansyo was part of the largest Japanese-style Buddhist temple in Taiwan at the time.

A fire destroyed the main wooden structures in 1975, leaving only the foundations, which were soon surrounded by a squatter settlement before the city designated it a historic site in 2006.

Located in Taipei’s Ximending district, often called the Harajuku of Taipei, Rinbansyo caught the eye of Chou Hsing-yu, founder of Eighty-Eightea Co., who won the management contract in 2013 and has since been running it as a shop selling locally produced tea.

Chou’s philosophy of managing her second shop at Rinbansyo is simple.

“I’d like to see more people savor quality Taiwanese tea in a Japanese environment that offers a serene retreat from the busy world,” she said.

A second collaboration between the Old House program and Lead Jade Life and Culture also produced Leputing, a restaurant housed in a one-story wooden building constructed in the 1920s as a dormitory for high-ranking Japanese civil servants.

Seeking to preserve the 600-sq.-meter building and its Japanese garden, Lead Jade spent 1½ years renovating it using traditional construction methods and hiring landscape experts from Japan.

The complex is not only a restaurant offering fine food and wine, but also a masterpiece of art blending old and new, tradition and innovation, said marketing supervisor Hank Tsui.

The Old House Cultural Movement is not the only organization working to preserve historic buildings in Taipei by partnering with local companies.

National Taiwan University has many colonial houses, among them a professor’s dormitory located in Daan District, the city’s most expensive neighborhood.

The one-story Japanese-style wooden building, with a swimming pool and sun room, was designed and built in 1931 by its first occupant, Masashi Adachi, an agricultural science professor at what was then called Taihoku Imperial University.

But like the others, Adachi’s house eventually fell into disuse and crumbled.

Realizing its historical value, however, NTU struck a deal with a private firm, Goldenseeds Education Organization, to fund the building’s restoration, with a plan to run it as a restaurant.

That was 2011, and the restaurant, named Qingtian 76 after its address, has remained popular ever since, attracting customers young and old.

“Older visitors feel nostalgic about the good old days,” said Archer Jean, cultural director of Goldenseeds, “and young people like it because they can take pictures and post them on their Facebook.”