Devouring street food at Raohe Night Markets, reaching the sky at Taipei 101, or shopping at Ximending – these activities usually spring to mind when one thinks of the land of bubble tea. For good reason, Taiwan’s capital is a fave among many foreign visitors. However, the oft-overlooked Taichung City is equally deserving of a spot on the island nation’s must-see list.
Much of Taichung City’s history is similar to that of Taipei. Taiwanese indigenous people were the first to inhabit this centrally located basin before it was colonized by the Dutch and then the Qing Dynasty. In 1895, the area came under Japanese rule when the Empire of Japan annexed Taiwan. During this time, Taichung ( 臺中市) received a major upgrade. Essential infrastructure, such as roads, dams, and factories, was constructed. As a result, Taichung grew from several scattered hamlets to a center of commerce and culture.
Since the Republic of China (ROC) took control over the island nation in 1949, Taichung has continued to evolve into a world-class city. Though less popular than Taipei, the city is a center of higher education, commerce, as well as a major tourist destination. In fact, Taichung is often referred to as Taiwan’s Cultural City thanks to its abundance of cultural attractions.
1. Taichung Old Town
At first glance, Taichung appears as a modern city filled with high-rise and broad avenues. Yet within it exist an Old Town where the flavor of the yesteryear seems to permeate every single street and building. Due to its history, Taichung’s cultural heritage is a blend of Taiwanese, traditional Chinese, and Japanese.
Many heritages in this area bear the mark of the Meiji period.
Taichung Old Town refers to the area around the old train station which was the center of prosperity during the Japanese era. Sought to make it the first “modern” area of Taiwan, the Japanese planned and invested heavily in this district’s infrastructure. Hence, many heritages in this area bear the mark of this time period.
With a nostalgic feeling, I walked through the street grid of Taichung Old Town. Unlike Wanhua in Taipei, the buildings here exude a Western vibe, with red brick walls, granite stone roofing, and intricate design. They reflect the architectural style during the Meiji Restoration, which was defined by direct copies of the European style. Through dedicated preservation efforts, many of these cultural relics remain in good shape. Some are re-designed but still retain much of their old charm. Even the “chessboard” street plan from the Japanese era has also been retained.
1.1 Taichung Railway Station
My starting point is the old train station – a red-brick structure with high ceilings, a large arcade window, and a central bell tower. Originally constructed in 1905 and then expanded in 1917, the building had served as the main gateway to Taichung City for nearly a century.
When the new elevated station was inaugurated in 2016, the old station was shut down. The architecture itself, however, remains as an icon of industrialization in the memories of many Taichung citizens.
1.2 Taichung Park
A short walking distance from the train station is Taichung Park – the city’s oldest green space. Since it was opened in 1903, this has been one of the most popular places for people to relax. The park features many pretty landscapes, including an artificial lake, pavilion, and arch bridges. There are also a lot of recreational facilities such as an outdoor stadium, playground and tennis court.
1.3 Taichung Prefecture Hall
Whitestone pillars, elaborate entrance, and intricate ornaments, Taichung Prefecture Hall is probably the crown jewel of Meiji architecture in the city. The building has a street corner style configuration, with two sides extending back like wings, intended to make the structure even more imposing.
During the Japanese era, this grandiose mansion was the seat of the Governor-General in Taichū Prefecture (former name of Taichung). The building was first constructed in 1913 but had its current appearance in 1934, after four expansions. Today, it’s used as the office of the city’s Urban Development Bureau and Environmental Protection Bureau.
1.4 Natural Way Six Arts Cultural Centre
Another unmissable place is the Natural Way Six Arts Cultural Centre. Constructed in 1937, this dojo complex is an outstanding exemplar of the Japanese martial arts hall in Taichung City. It features an elegant wood structure, hip-and-gable roof design, as well as an elevated base.
The buildings are surrounded by a serene garden, giving visitors a mentally soothing feel. Aside from its role as a training place, the complex serves as the venue for various cultural events, such as tea ceremonies, flower arrangements, or themed lectures.
On my way back to the station, I made a stop at one of Taichung City’s most popular sweet shops, the Miyahara. Owned by Japanese optician Dr. Miyahara Takeo, this red-brick architecture had been the city’s largest eye clinic before it became Taichung Health Bureau in 1945. As time passed by, the office was suspended and the building slowly fell into demise. Fortunately, Dawn Cake – a local pastry company renowned for its pineapple cakes – acquired the building and preserved Miyahara’s original red-brick walls and archway. A stylish modern glass roof was also installed in the place of the collapsed roof.
Pushing through the doors, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a Harry Potter set. It’s a dreamlike place filled with high ceiling bookshelves, faux-antique decoration, and opulent chandeliers. However, the main magic lies in Dawn Cake’s signature ice-creams and pastries which enchanted me after the first bite.
2. Cultural Heritage Park
South of the Old Town is the Cultural Heritage Park – an open-air art gallery that features multiple styles of art. It’s built on the site of an old beer factory and spans over 5.6 hectares. After the factory moved out of the city in 1998, the government transformed this place into a public recreational area.
Out of 28 buildings in the Cultural Heritage Park, 16 are designated as historic monuments. The remaining twelves are re-designed into exhibition halls. However, the architects only alternate the interior of these buildings. They intentionally retain chimneys, metal frames, and brick walls so that the park’s industrial beauty can be maintained. Even the old water tanks are left intact. They only covered them with new, eye-catching illustrations.
3. Rainbow Village
In Taichung, art and culture are not only confined to the city center. Located in the western suburb of Nantun, Rainbow Village is another artwork that should not be missed. At first sight, you might mistake this area for a playground. From roofs, walls to the front yards, every inch of this village is cloaked in vivid childlike illustrations. It’s like stepping into a child’s world, full of colors and imaginations.
The Story of an Unexpected Artist
The man behind this unusual village is Mr. Huang Yung-Fu, a former soldier of the Revolutionary Army. After Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeat in 1949, he fled to Taiwan with his troops. At that time, numerous military villages were built across Taiwan to accommodate thousands of soldiers, including Mr. Huang. As time passed, the villages became run down and urban developers began buying up the land for redevelopment. They offered residents compensation or new housing to relocate. However, Mr. Huang refused this offer. He felt attached to this land as he had spent most of his life there. After his neighbors had moved, Mr. Huang was left alone with eleven abandoned houses.
Bored with being the only person in the village, Mr. Huang started painting. At first, he painted a bird inside his room. From there, his artwork grew to the living room, the outer wall, and to the front yard. When his house was entirely covered in illustrations, he started painting the nearby houses. Under Mr. Huang’s hands, the former military settlement was transformed into a vibrant village. Soon after, this colorful art project got the attention of students from a nearby university. They were awed by Mr. Huang’s effort and started spreading the news about this extraordinary place.
4. Taichung National Theater
Not every cultural attraction in Taichung City looks old or running down. Standing at the heart of the financial district, Taichung National Theater is an outstanding example of modern architecture in the city. It’s the work of Toyo Ito – a talented architect who is famous for his out-of-the-box thinking.
Similar to the DDP in Seoul, Taichung National Theater doesn’t have any established shape. It appears like a gigantic cube, with wave-formed glass facades running around the building. Its interior is also characterized by powerful, curving structures, for instance, the walls, the stairways, and the rooftop garden. In fact, you can hardly see any straight line or sharp angle in the building.
Toyo Ito wants to build a theater that people can “feel freedom within it”. By eliminating those linear features, he successfully created a flow of space. He also went a step further and interconnected all the floors, making the whole structure even more spacious. To enhance the feeling of freedom, the Japanese architect brings natural light and air into the building through numerous air holes on the wall. He also let water from outside flow into the theater via a stream on the ground floor. By doing these, visitors can still feel the warmth of light, the breeze of air, and the coolness of the water, despite being indoor.
Aside from its main role as an opera house, Taichung National Theater serves as a meeting point for home-grown designers and artisans. They gather here to present their creations, ranging from wooden toys, eco-friendly clothes to exotic jewelry.
Tips for visiting Taichung City
- As a major transportation hub, Taichung City is easily accessible by High-Speed Rail (HSR). From Taipei, it takes less than one hour to reach Taichung. Please note that Taichung HSR Station is outside of the city centre.
- Private vehicle is the most convenient way to explore Taichung City, as public transportation is still under development. The city doesn’t have a metro system, but it’s covered by an expansive bus network. It’s free of charge when travelling within the city (10 km). However, you need to wipe the Easycard on the card reader when getting on and out of the bus.