Hidden in a laneway behind Taipei’s Zhongxiao Xinsheng metro station are ten dorms formerly housing Japanese civil officers. They line Qidong Street, one of the city's main roads during the Qing Dynasty. The small houses, obscured by shrubbery, feature the recognizable Japanese architectural style of slightly elevated wooden structures, tiled roofs and bamboo sliding-doors, while surrounding buildings reflect the cityscape of a modern metropolis.

This neighborhood has been a popular residential area for Taiwan’s government officials since the Japanese colonial era. However, these houses also symbolize one of the many eras often overlooked in Taiwan’s history textbooks.

Before the Japanese, Taiwan was colonized by the Spanish and Dutch. Even as remnants of architecture and introduced plants remain from those periods — like the wax apples brought over by the Dutch in the 1700s — for decades the history curriculum was centered around the Chinese and glossed over other colonial influences and Taiwan’s indigenous people.

“Taiwanese were never taught their own history so everyone adheres to the dominant narrative of immigrating to Taiwan with the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT) which leads to people to either stand with or against the KMT. Never anything or anyone else,” says 29-year-old Taiwanese Sara Huang (黃偉雯).

In recent years, however, there has been an emergence of a new cultural consciousness and a rejuvenated interested in understanding Taiwan’s past.

This came to a head in 2015 when protests erupted over government-issued history textbooks. Students said the official curriculum presented “a warped version of history slanted towards China and aimed at brainwashing them to accept a ‘One China’ policy.” Protesters argued that the “Sinicization” of Taiwan failed to accurately represent Taiwan’s diverse population of more than 23.5 million. Some argue by neglecting to properly teach Taiwan’s history, Taiwanese have developed something of an identity crisis, caught between an unrelatable past and an uncertain future. Education officials ultimately acquiesced to the students’ demands in 2016 after the election of a new government under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Sharing the sentiment of the student protesters are two small enterprises guiding people on walking tours through Taipei. While one targets English-speaking foreigners and the other Mandarin-speaking locals, both are composed of passionate Taiwanese dedicated to rediscovering their homeland and its true history.

Exploring Taipei’s residential neighborhoods. Photo credit: TourMeAway

What is Taiwanese?

Huang has been interested in her hometown of Taipei all her life. She found that walking tours hosted by fellow locals have proven to be more effective ways of learning about Taiwan compared to the selected “facts” she was taught at school.

In a lane near Qingtian Street, a 25-minute walk from Qidong Street, is another Japanese-style dormitory built by Masashi Adachi (足立仁), an agricultural science professor at National Taiwan University, in 1931. Repatriated to Japan following the end of World War II, Adachi left his home in the hands of the university. Abandoned, the house was left in a dilapidated state until the university partnered with a private firm in 2011 to restore and convert the dorm into a restaurant now called Qingtian 76.

“Only if you walk through this block are you able to notice the existence of these buildings, and only if you have an expert stopping to explain the history would you even care to pay attention,” Huang says.

Huang eventually joined Taipei Walking Tour which she describes as a social enterprise, a privately-owned company invested in social issues. Founder Chiu Yi (邱翊) believes most social issues in Taiwan stem from a lack of a cultural identity.

“A lot of Taiwanese don’t think Taiwan is special so they take visiting friends to Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum, the artifacts in the museum are not even from Taiwan but China,” he says.

After working in the tourism industry for 10 years, Chiu, now in his mid-thirties, founded Taipei Walking Tour in 2012. Rather than marketing his tours to foreign visitors with limited background knowledge, Chiu is more interested in exploring what makes Taiwan Taiwanese.

“The previous generations didn’t make this island their home, therefore the latter generation can only head towards the West for cultural education,” he says.

According to Chiu, the company has about 20 to 30 people on each tour, amounting to 1,000 per month. Eighty percent of the customers are local Taiwanese.

Huang says Taiwanese should not “worship” the West. Taiwan possesses distinctive qualities that locals should be proud of.

“Although we lack the intricately documented history of other countries, Taiwan was colonized by different ethnic groups, each leaving their own mark. That makes for a pretty fascinating story,” she says.

It appears there is a strong market for domestic tourism in Taiwan. Spending by domestic travelers in 2015 was around US$11.3 billion, whereas outbound travel was US$20.9 billion, according to the Tourism Bureau.

“Of course it is important to explore the world but we are important, too,” says Huang. “Not everything produced in the West is necessarily better than what we have at home and that is something worth noting.”

Ling Zong-kui (凌宗魁) examining the inspirations behind Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Aesthetics of the ROC

To foster cultural education, Taipei Walking Tour attempts to cover different periods of history in its tours with topics ranging from Japanese colonial architecture to the lives of the homeless in the city’s red light district.

Tour guides are the foundation of Taipei Walking Tour as they provide the expertise and personalization. The company has around 100 guides with a range of experts from fields of Insectology to temple art. Long-time guide Ling Zong-kui (凌宗魁) focuses on architectural history and the preservation of cultural assets.

Taiwanese in their early twenties to late thirties make up the majority of customers. Most are simply curious about what makes their hometown and themselves unique. To Ling, the answer lies in Taipei’s buildings.

“Architecture is influenced by its environment. Every building, regardless of what style it mimics, will differ city to city because of societal influences. By simply talking about the elements of Taipei’s buildings, the uniqueness of Taiwan’s story is apparent,” he says.

Ling points to public buildings constructed in the 1950s to the 1970s by the KMT. Huang dubs this distinctive style as “Kuomintang Architecture” and says it is perceived negatively by many Taiwanese.

“People joke that when the KMT came over, they brought with them the ugly buildings,” she says.

“Kuomintang Architecture” follows Chinese palatial style, seen in wood-bracket supports and anthropomorphic figures on the roofs of buildings such as the National Palace Museum and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.

After the Kuomintang lost the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party in 1947 and retreated to Taiwan, they began to remove the evidence of previous colonizers. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the KMT attempted to maintain their status as the protectors of Chinese culture by replicating the aesthetics of Chinese palaces.

Ling contends that palatial-style monuments such as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall showcase one facet of “Kuomintang Architecture.” He prefers to focus on the pragmatically cobbled together urban homes of post-war immigrants.

These metal-roofed homes and neon signs are examples of Taiwan’s freestyling aesthetic born out of necessity. When post-WWII immigrants arrived in Taiwan, most believed they would soon return to China. They shoddily constructed make-shift shelters using cheap and readily available materials such as reinforced concrete and steel bars. Due to Taiwan’s unpredictable climate, metal sheets were added for further protection. Once people gradually settled, they opened businesses outside of their homes, marking their territories with signs, each one bolder than the next.

“In the context of Western architectural studies, the concrete and metal houses that we see on the streets can be categorized as utilitarian and minimalistic [and a] lack of government regulation led to the visual cacophony we see today,” he says.

As Taiwan’s population grew, people utilized vertical space and buildings expanded upwards, resulting in the dense, glaring aesthetic of Taiwan’s cities.

“In many ways, unrestricted construction method although garish, parallels the autonomous attitudes of the people it houses,” Ling says.

While Taiwan’s cities are criticized for its chaos and gaudiness, famous Taiwanese artist Kuo Hsueh-hu (郭雪湖) romanticizes the crowded, lively atmosphere of Taipei city life in his magnum opus “Festival on South Street” (南街殷賑) completed in 1930.

Born and raised in Dadaocheng District in Taipei during the Japanese colonial era, Kuo witnessed the prosperity and decline of Taipei’s oldest commercial district.

“Festival on South Street” now in the collections of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, depicts a local festival scene. The colorful, staggered signs, streets crowded with rickshaws and pedestrians, a mixture of European and Chinese-style structures echo modern Taipei’s cityscape.

By interweaving architecture and history, Ling hopes that his patrons leave with a different perspective on Taiwan’s city design.

“No two buildings are ever the same. The architecture of a city is what gives it character and sets it apart from the rest of the world,” he says.

Dino Chen leading a tour on the history of 228 Memorial Peace Park. Photo Credit: Phaedra Fang

Filling in the 'blank'

Non-profit organization TourMeAway leads tours through the same areas as Ling, but for a different audience.

In their Vintage Taipei Tour, guests explore the shops of Dadaocheng, search for Hakka-print fabrics in Yongle Market, dried goods on Dihua Street, and end the tour by praying to the city gods at Xia Hai Temple. Guides impart a brief overview of Taipei’s oldest trading port. Known as Twatutia in Hokkien, Daitotei in Japanese and Dadaocheng in the post-war era, the district is famous for its local delicacies, traditional markets, and old buildings as well as being the location of the 228 Massacre.

Anticipating an audience unfamiliar with the political history of Taiwan, TourMeAway improvises through simple narratives. Their objective is to present facts in a fun, casual way. Providing free walking tours to tourists with limited time and budget, TourMeAway employs English-speaking volunteers to introduce their home to a predominantly Western audience, known to confuse Taiwan with Thailand.

TourMeAway began as a club at National Taiwan University in 2015. Its mission, according to co-founder Arthur Chou (鄒奕笙), is to give Taiwan a global identity.

“If you look at major cities in Asia, there are certain characteristics associated with Beijing, with Shanghai, with Bangkok, with Hong Kong. When I mention these names, immediately scenes come to mind but you say Taipei and the mind goes blank,” Chou says.

TourMeAway attempts to fill that “blank” with daily tours hosted by their 70 volunteers. Routes range from exploring Taiwan’s temple culture to the city’s nightlife, including night markets and nightclubs.

According to Chou, the organization is composed of volunteers who love to travel and socialize, and most importantly, love Taiwan and wish to share their stories with non-Asian travelers.

The members created the nickname TMAyans (pronounced Tuh-mah-yuan) to refer to one another, reflecting their fun-loving, cross-cultural image. TMAyan is an acronym for TourMeAway and a reference to Taiwan’s indigenous people, whose existence on the island spans 15,000 years prior to the arrival of Han people in the 17th century.

Standing in front of the Presidential Office Building on Ketagalan Boulevard, volunteers recount the history of the indigenous Ketagalan people who once inhabited Taipei. Instead of presenting a picture-perfect facade of Taiwan, TMAyans wish to be as authentic as possible.

Half of TourMeAway patrons are from Europe and Northern America, while Southeast Asian tourists constitute the other half. Chou believes explaining Taiwan to tourists unfamiliar with the region is key to connecting the country with the outside world; TourMeAway caters solely to English-speakers. He argues that Taiwan’s tourism industry is too heavily focused on tourists from nearby countries who already possess background knowledge of Taiwan.

Erin Morris, a Welsh backpacker, admits she once thought Taiwan was a city in China. Joining several TourMeAway tours helped revise her understanding.

“It’s probably the most convenient place I’ve ever been. Everything is right on your doorstep. Nothing is impossible in Taiwan,” she says.

Most of all, Chou hopes that tourists like Morris can leave Taiwan with a distinguished impression rather than just a place where “people are very nice.”

“When you say that someone is nice, it means they have no personality at all. You don’t know how to describe them so you use the easiest, least harmful terms. Whatever people take away from our tours, I hope it’s not just ‘nice,’” he says.

Patrons picking “fortune sticks” while praying to the city gods at a local Taipei temple. Photo Credit: TourMeAway

Students rather than tourists

While TourMeAway offers an informal introduction to Taiwan and Taipei Walking Tour provides in-depth cultural education, others wish to use walking tours to promote environmental conservation.

“Walking tours can enhance people’s cultural consciousness by explaining their environment through historical, social, and ecological details,” says Phaedra Fang (方慧詩) a research assistant at the National Taiwan Museum.

With a background in biology, Fang heads the museum docent program that trains local students to give tours on the history and the architecture of the museum in English and their native language.

Tours focus on municipal relics such as the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum and Landbank Exhibition Hall.

The National Taiwan Museum itself, built in 1915 during Japanese rule, is positioned in front of Taipei Main Station. In Japan, the Imperial Palace is located directly in front of Tokyo Station. The architect of the museum and the original train station Nomura Ichiro (野村一郎), strategically designed this “central line” between the two structures to highlight the importance of the buildings.

Part of the second generation of modern Japanese architects, Nomura studied Western architecture in England. A conservative Japanese society led Nomura and others like him to move to the newly colonized Taiwan. Here, they were free to hybridize Japanese and Western elements to create their own architectural style known as “eclecticism.” Remains of their experimentations live on in the temple-like dome of the National Taiwan Museum and the Spanish colonial exterior of the former Taipei Broadcasting Bureau, which was later repurposed as the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum.

Built in 1930, a traditional Southern Chinese-style roof was added to the Spanish-style broadcasting building in an effort to shift away from European culture as Japan expanded its colonial territories. Seventeen years later, in the aftermath of the 228 Massacre, the radio station was overtaken by Taiwanese who transmitted information about the incident from Taipei to the rest of Taiwan.

“When I first came to the museum, I realized that I’ve never even heard of this side of history so I recruit young students knowing that they might feel the same way,” Fang says.

Not only does she hope to provide an educational environment, Fang also sees this as an opportunity for young people to participate in shaping the future of Taiwan.

Taiwanese student Dino Chen (陳華元), 20, is one among the dozens of new docents who receiving training this year.

“I feel more confident as a Taiwanese after becoming a guide. Whenever I meet Germans, they really like to talk about their history, culture, and politics. I would like to be able to share that excitement,” he says.

Chen, who studies German at National Chengchi University, is preparing to study in Europe at the end of the month. He hopes his experience at the museum will allow him to share his culture with foreigners he encounters in his travels.

Fellow tour guide Iago Valin who hails from Spain, believes Taiwanese are relearning their own history.

“I assumed that Taiwanese students would be tired of hearing these facts from their textbooks, which is what happens in other parts of the world but I’ve encountered Taiwanese guests who were so surprised that a foreigner knew more about their history than them,” he says.

Becoming a docent forced Valin to deeply familiarize himself with his adopted country.

“Having to teach others about the materials we’ve just learned has led me to a better understanding of the past and present of Taiwanese society and why people might feel certain ways towards certain topics,” he says.

Patrons listening to Ling’s session on “Kuomingtang Architecture”

The future of Taiwan

According to Arthur Chou of TourMeAway, walking tours are an alternative form of education. They take place outside of the classroom. Roles are undefined. Information flows freely. Unlike reading books or attending lectures, walking tours offer participants an empirical, visceral experience.

“For our generation, it is naive to think that textbooks are the only source of information especially when we have so much at our fingertips,” he says.

Taiwanese Suni Yen (顏志豪) says he did not understand his lack of connection to his own country until he left Taiwan to live in Cambodia.

“I found the community I was living in very much connected with their land and with one another. I asked myself where do I come from and how do I explain my country to these people?”

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Tourism Bureau, Taiwanese who traveled abroad had a 8 percent higher chance of traveling domestically compared to that of non-outbound travelers.

Inspired by his time spent abroad, Yen now works full time at Taipei Walking Tour and volunteers with another organization, Like It Formosa.

In his experience, Yen has found that a textbook-based education is insufficient as Taiwanese people “all have different ways of understanding our shared history.”

Chou echoes similar sentiments when he encourages his guides to be personal and share their stories so that visitors can leave knowing at least one Taiwanese person.

“I can’t tell foreigners what to feel about Taiwan but I know they will feel something because of the people they have just met. I think not to label is extremely important,” he says.

From exploring the history of Taiwan’s trade industry in Dadaocheng to examining the civic buildings constructed by various ruling parties, Taiwan’s walking tours are as diverse as the people that host them.

“No matter which tour company, at the end of the day, we are all passionate about where we come from and this island we call home,” says Yen.

Read more:
Re-Imagining the Formosan Flag: Taiwan's First Appeal for International Help
Blending In or Standing Out: Immigration and the ‘Cultural Quality’ Problem in Taiwan


Editor: Olivia Yang