TAIPEI - Last August, after nearly 20 months of work, city officials unveiled the newly restored Qing Dynasty-era (1644-1912) North Gate in west Taipei.
At the opening ceremony, Mayor Ko Wen-je said the iconic arched structure would be the first landmark visitors see when they arrive in the city on the new rapid transit link from Taoyuan International Airport.
North Gate Square marks the latest project in the “western gateway” urban renewal program to rejuvenate a section of old Taipei along the Tamsui River, north and west of the monumental Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
Calling it “living testimony to Taipei history,” Ko might also have been mindful that the North Gate marks the site of an earlier move to reshape Taipei that began in 1895. When the Japanese arrived that year they began demolishing the defensive wall that connected the North Gate with four others that had been built by the Chinese only a decade earlier to secure the city as a new administrative center for the island.
Like many Qing attempts to modernize the wall was more backward- than forward-looking, and Japanese planners set about transforming the city in much the same way they were doing back home.
“Taipei’s rebuilding under Japanese rule was comprehensive and laid the groundwork for a modern city,” said Huang Chun-ming, professor of architecture at Chung Yuan Christian University.
The first step was to rationalize land use and improve access — first by replacing the wall with a three-lane road that surrounded the inner city and then by moving agriculture to the outskirts and adopting a more grid-like street plan, with mercury-vapor lights so people could go out at night.
Japanese settlers and administrators lived in the inner city, while Chinese lived along the river to the north and Taiwanese to the south. On the west side, near today’s busy Ximending neighborhood, engineers drained and leveled low-lying wetlands to make way for an entertainment district resembling Tokyo’s Asakusa. Among the buildings constructed in the zone was the Red House Theater, which still stands today.
Also erected at this time was a majestic governor’s office for the new colony, which became Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building after the Japanese departed and the Republic of China relocated there in 1949 from the mainland. In the early decades, the Japanese built banks, schools, hospitals, modern water and sewage systems, department stores, public parks, a post office and a central railway terminal in Taipei.
And to create an ordered urban space they assigned names to streets, established administrative districts, and passed laws governing land-use and building codes.
“By 1920, Taipei looked like a modern city,” said Su Shuo-bian, professor of Taiwanese literature at National Taiwan University.
It also functioned like a modern city, which proved a blessing when 2 million Nationalist Chinese troops and refugees began to arrive from the mainland after they lost the Chinese civil war.
Fifty years of Japanese planning meant that the necessary infrastructure was in place, said architecture professor Hsu Yu-chien of Taiwan’s Huafan University, and Kuomintang officials could focus on feeding, housing and employing the displaced newcomers.
Decades of growth followed as the city expanded across the flat, easily developed land to the east, and across the river to what is now New Taipei City.
As time passed and developers focused their attention elsewhere Taipei’s old city became run down, even as it remained home to key government facilities like the Presidential Office Building. Ximending evolved into a shopping district popular with young people untroubled by the growing decay.
However, by the late 1990s land in the wealthy eastern areas of Taipei was becoming scarce. That lead city planners to look once again at opportunities in the west, with former Mayor Ma Ying-jeou initiating a program to “reverse the axis” of development in the city.
Although it was later continued by his successor, Hau Lung-bin, Ma’s initiative bore little fruit and appeared at the time for all intents and purposes to have faded away after a high-profile case exposed corruption in bidding on government contracts associated with the project.
Yet in 2015, shortly after his election, Mayor Ko launched a new effort to redevelop Taipei’s west end with an ambitious plan to make the area more attractive to private capital. Upgrades in services and infrastructure promise a more livable environment for middle-class families, with an emphasis on parks, recreation and history.
Among Ko’s first orders was to tear down an ugly, multilane ramp leading to the Zhongxiao Bridge that passed just 3 meters from the old North Gate’s upper level, making it all but invisible to passers-by.
Flanking the gate today is a new hotel building and the century-old Beimen (North Gate) Post Office.
North across Zhongxiao West Road is the main Taipei Train Station, enlarged significantly to accommodate the new airport rail service, and the newly restored Japanese Railway Administration Building, which will open as a museum next year.
The stunning railway building is one of many Japanese-era structures that have been preserved to help retain the neighborhood’s historical character.
In doing so, Ko and his predecessors have followed the example of Japan’s fourth governor of Taiwan, Gentaro Kodama, who when he arrived and saw Taipei’s Qing gates rescinded the order to have them destroyed along with the wall connecting them.
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was similarly impressed, and except for the North Gate, which retains its original design, he ordered the others not only to be saved, but to be remodeled in the more elaborate Chinese palace style. All are within walking distance of each other and can be visited on foot in an afternoon.