The modern city of Taipei grew from a foundation of three market towns in the late Qing dynasty: Bangka, Dadaocheng, and the Taipei Walled City (臺北城). Judging from various large-scale maps preserved from the period, it’s clear that at the end of the imperial period the three urban centers had not yet merged. The three continued to develop on their own, each its own master.
Taipei’s Birth, 130 Years Ago
Bangka and Dadaocheng were the first two market towns to form. They took root on land opened up by Han Chinese immigrants along the Tamsui River (淡水河). The commercial streets of the first formed in the early 1800s, of Dadaocheng in the latter half of the century.
In its early years, the wealth of Bangka was built on the transport of local Strobilanthes cusia, and camphor for ultimate export. In those days, the majority of its settlers were from China’s Fujian Province – and more specifically, from the Sanyi (三邑) area and Tong’an county (同安縣) in Quanzhou Prefecture (泉州府). Struggles between the two groups concerning different deities, and dominance of the port area, led to major strife, called the Dingxiajiao Conflict (頂下郊拼), in 1853. The term refers to the dominant and secondary commercial guilds associated with the two homeland areas in mainland China and the areas in Bangka they controlled. The secondary, i.e. Tong’an guild lost, and to Dadaocheng, establishing what is today called the Taipei Xiahai City God Temple (台北霞海城隍廟).
The displaced Tong’an folk threw themselves into building up their new settlement, and it quickly thrived. Western merchants arrived and built Western-style “mansions” (洋行), which combined trading house and merchant residence. The prospering commercial center specialized in the processing and export of tea, and in a few short decades, overtook Bangka in economic power, additionally benefiting from Bangka’s decline due to silting up of the river. It became ever more difficult for river craft to reach Bangka, and transport eventually shifted fully to its rival. In the late years of the Qing dynasty, Taiwan Governor-General Liu Mingchuan undertook a series of modernization projects, including the building of Taiwan’s first railway and a station at Dadaocheng, the western terminus. Completely eclipsing Bangka, it became north Taiwan’s commercial and trading center.
In 1878, the Qing Court, seeking to avoid favoring either Bangka on the south or Dadaocheng on the north, chose land in between on which to build the Taipei Walled City. Work was completed in 1884, Taiwan was made a province in 1887, and Taipei became Taiwan’s political, cultural, and economic nucleus. Bangka, Dadaocheng, and the Taipei Walled City were called “Taipei’s three market towns.”
City Planning – Beautifying the Urban Landscape
When the Kuomintang government moved to Taiwan, many temporary buildings were constructed. As they have aged, demolition, reconstruction and redevelopment have become key government tasks. Today’s garden-like Linsen Park (林森公園) and Kangle Park (康樂公園), side by side, are good examples of the improvement work undertaken. Some structures have also been demolished to accommodate transportation construction projects. Many Taipei residents still remember the multi-building Zhonghua Market (中華商場), which ran alongside Ximending (西門町), razed because of age and to allow unfettered traffic flow between Zhonghua Road (中華路) and Ximending. Since this area opened up, The Red House (西門紅樓), a National Historical Relic of the Third Grade (三級古蹟) located just off Zhonghua Road, has become home to the Red House Creative Market (西門紅樓創意市集). These and other progressive changes have attracted a far greater flow of people to the city’s west side, rejuvenating the old commercial district, which has become a favorite fashion and entertainment quarter for young people.
Another project involved the demolition of Guanghua Bridge (光華橋), razed due to its age to make improvements to the area’s transportation infrastructure. Its demise also meant the loss of the old Guanghua Market (光華商場) underneath, but the sleek Guang Hua Digital Plaza (光華數位新天地) built to replace it on nearby Civic Boulevard (市民大道) offers much-improved orderliness and safety and is a far more competitive hub for digital consumer goods. Elsewhere, after years of effort the former impressions of the Taipei and Songshan stations (臺北/松山車站) as tired and worn facilities have been swept away, and the transportation hubs are now places of both convenient services and fashionable aesthetics.
Creative Neighborhoods – Reinventing Alley Culture
In the Taipei of over a century ago, the three market towns had a total population in the tens of thousands, and a thousand-plus businesses and shops. The population of today’s international city of worldwide reputation is 2.68 million, there is vigorous economic development in all kinds of industries, and there are over 55,000 registered businesses. The journey from traditional to modern has been short and swift, powerfully demonstrating this city’s vitality and energy.
The hard infrastructure of a city quarter can rise abruptly from the ground, but the formation of a rich cultural heritage is more amorphous, and takes time. In the face of a fast-changing cityscape, Taipei can encounter difficulty preserving its irreplaceable cultural characteristics and creative style. In keeping with both landscape and cultural-creative industry development, and with the Taipei City Government’s successful two-year campaign for 2016 World Design Capital selection, design has been energetically incorporated into public policy, and this has become a design-driven city. Cultural-creative vitality has come streaming down along the city’s lanes and alleys, and an attractive alley culture of distinctive and dynamic character has taken shape.
Cultural-Creativity and Art – Vibrant Neighborhoods
Long an area in decline, the recent injection of cultural-creative dynamism into the city’s west side has reenergized it. The Nanxi Commercial District (南西商圈) refers to an area with the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store’s Taipei Nanxi Store (新光三越百貨臺北南西店) at its center, extending north to Minsheng West Road (民生西路), east to Section 2, Zhongshan North Road (中山北路2段), south to Chang’an West Road (長安西路), and west to Chifeng Street (赤峰街). A walk through the grid of alleys here brings many pleasant surprises, especially so along the narrow arteries around MRT Zhongshan Station, where many attractive creative shops have been opened in old residential buildings. Each has its own one-of-a-kind style and charm – gift shops, hair salons, cozy cafes, international restaurants, design studios, art spaces, etc.
You’ll witness even more of this pioneering creative spirit down the lanes and alleys of the city’s east district, and in Gongguan (公館), and Yongkang Street (永康街) areas. The east area is known for chic international fashion, and you’ll find all the latest in haute designer clothing from South Korea, Japan, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Gongguan is a student enclave, and the many eateries, cinemas, and bookstores will bring you back to your school days. Experiences of different character can also be had at the district’s Taipei Water Park (自來水園區) and Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park (臺北市客家文化主題公園). The already very popular Yongkang Street area has become even more so with the opening of MRT Dongmen Station (捷運東門站) on its doorstep; the lanes here teem with tea shops and teahouses, antique shops and novel restaurants, and satisfy the tastes of gourmets and gourmands, cultural sophisticates and pop-culture enthusiasts alike.
From west to east, and from the simple and down-to-earth to the original and sophisticated, over its 130 years Taipei has seen much in the way of evolution, transformation, and cultural impact. What hasn’t changed is the industriousness and honest, heartfelt hospitality of the people, their vitality and warm enthusiasm inevitably making visitors want to come back again and again. The emergence of creative neighborhoods in recent years has brought culture and art into the daily life of Taipei’s denizens – no need for reservations or tickets: a simple walk through a neighborhood brings a taste of art. These are explorations of the relationship between people and environment, and for both resident and visitor each is an adventure through the curious and the amusing, an encounter with both small wonders and big surprises.
Taipei is 130 years old, and whether it’s the old Taipei Three Market Towns or today’s flourishing creative neighborhoods, city living and travel never lack for excitement. Around every corner, something good and beautiful awaits.