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Carved in the Heart of the City: Taoyuan’s City Story Houses

Story houses link memories of the past and visions of the future. Experience them for yourself!

Story houses link memories of the past and visions of the future. Experience them for yourself!
 

How to get to know a city? “City story houses” have been popping up like mushrooms lately, offering new perspectives on urban life.

Old houses often serve as story spaces. The buildings encapsulate time, preserving residents’ memories and emotions. Vestiges of the past are every­where, each scene and object a story unto itself.

 

Taoyuan is a city of immigrants. Early on, people from central and southern Taiwan flocked here in search of work, diversifying the area. But rapid development altered the cityscape and old gave way to new.

“A city of immigrants especially needs to record its stor­ies,” says Chuang Hsiu-mei, director of Taoyuan’s Department of Cultural Affairs. “Unlike Tainan, where residents can trace family history through seven or eight generations, Taoyuan only goes back a generation and a half.” That’s why the municipal government is working hard to preserve old buildings, setting up story houses to acquaint citizens with the city and engender a sense of belonging. Currently, Tao­yuan boasts over 30 story houses, each a community “living room” where residents can gather to relax and reminisce.

Today we are visiting Zhongping Road Story House and Matsu New Village Cultural and Creative Park, both in Taoyuan’s Zhongli District, to tell their stories.
 

Over 90 years old, the Zhongping Road Story House preserves citizen memories, telling the city’s story.

Over 90 years old, the Zhongping Road Story House preserves citizen memories, telling the city’s story.
 

Zhongping Road Story House

Life’s true texture

Zhongping Road Story House, Taoyuan’s first, was built in 1930, a single-story Japanese-style structure.

Our guide, Huang Yukun, takes us back to the begin­ning. The building first served as quarters for Japan­ese officials. In the post-World-War-II era, the families of civil servants Wang Guozhi and Liao Yuquan lived here for over six decades. After the families relocated in 2008, Wang descendants petitioned to preserve the structure. The building was registered as a historic site in 2010 and became the Zhongping Road Story House in 2015.

Entering through the vestibule, we first pass through a tatami room, the equivalent of a modern living room, with an alcove (tokonoma) where it was customary for Japanese families to display flower arrangements or heirlooms such as religious icons or samurai swords. Another alcove served as storage for quilts and pillows. Today the spaces are used for exhibits. Bay windows (tsukeshoin) built into the walls offer ventilation, blocking sunlight and cooling the interior. A bedroom alcove contains various artifacts collected by the Wang family. Huang Yukun points out a microscope that one of the Wang brothers used in medical school. Also displayed are a 1950 copy of the Central Daily News reporting the outbreak of the Korean War and a gramophone with shellac records. The Wang family often return to rotate the exhibits.

Huang also shows us an early collection of movie theater advertisements, featuring casts, stills, and plot synopses. One of them is marked “January 9, 1951,” making it over 70 years old. We can imagine a happy family strolling to a local theater, a glimpse of ordinary people’s lives in days past.

Never-ending story

Now in its sixth year, Zhongping Road Story House is as popular as ever. Before the Covid pandemic, monthly visitors numbered in the thousands. Tour guides barely had time to catch a breath.

Am Top Marketing & P.R. founder Carol Chen oversees the 90-year-old house’s operation. “Good people, good fengshui, and good energy. We owe it all to the Wang family. They kept the place in tiptop shape,” Ms. Chen says. One of the Wang brothers often comes back to make repairs, water flowers and trim trees, and other family members also still volunteer there.

The Wang and Liao families are Hakka, so many activities held here feature elements of local Hakka culture such as leicha (pestle-ground tea), citrus jam, decorative paper cutting, and bitter orange tea. Visitors are invited to write down their thoughts or stories to pass down to the next generation. “There’s no shortage of story houses selling coffee,” says Carol Chen, “but few telling stories of everyday people’s lives.
 

Old trees, cats, pavilions, dependents’ village cuisine, and wooden chairs are part of Matsu New Village’s charm.

Old trees, cats, pavilions, dependents’ village cuisine, and wooden chairs are part of Matsu New Village’s charm.
 

Matsu New Village

A beautiful past

Matsu New Village was built in 1957 to house dependents of the ROC Army’s 84th Division, then stationed on the Matsu Islands. Homes in the village are styled after American garden houses, with red bricks and gray tiles, red-and-white-striped doors, and apple-­green window frames. Every residence has front and back yards, one of the village’s distinctive features. Many high-­ranking officers used to live here, which is why the place is also known as the “Generals’ Village,” and the roofs of many houses are adorned with stars.

By 1996, the once-bustling community was facing demolition. But in 2004 it was registered as historic architecture. The first military dependents’ village in Taoyuan to be preserved as cultural heritage, the site is managed by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Unlike most story houses, which are single dwellings, Matsu New Village occupies 2.6 hectares. Con­sequently, some areas are open to the public while others undergo renovation. Oral histories provide a record of village life in the postwar era.

Interview transcripts offer vivid reflections of life in a military dependents’ village. Before shipping out for a tour of duty, men always asked neighbors to look in on their families, and families would care for one another. Home alone, mothers raised children singlehandedly. Often they’d take on work such as tailoring, using their practical skills to make ends meet.

The streets were safe in those days; kids were allowed to play outside, and families did not lock their doors at night. Residents treated each other like family, and children would often eat at the homes of friends. And if kids got out of line, neighbors were free to spank them.

On lunar new year’s eve, many village children would recite the addresses of family homes in mainland China, but as time passed, Taiwan became their new home. ­Every family had its story, a tale of the times.

Based on those stories, the Department of Cultural Affairs sought to show the village as it existed in the postwar era, renovating a home to recapture the flavor of the period. Chen Wei-hong, chief of the department’s Cultural and Creative Audiovisual Section, recounts how one elderly woman visitor broke into tears when the scent of Ming-Sing Florida Water perfume and the sight of an old sewing machine brought back mem­ories of those difficult times. Old men, former residents, return daily for a stroll through the village, recalling their soldiering years in thick regional accents. Gone are the days but the setting remains, bringing some consolation in the evening of their lives.

A creative space

Once a feature of Taiwan’s cultural landscape, military dependents’ villages have all but disappeared. So besides preserving cultural assets, Matsu New Village Cultural and Creative Park focuses on “living creativity,” renting out the space for film and television productions. Owing to its historical ambiance, the village has been the setting for the Taiwan­ese TV show A Touch of Green and the movie Tigertail.

Oral histories have also been dramatized as a way to introduce the village, immersing visitors in the environment and generating interaction. The Department of Cultural Affairs has teamed up with the design firm Migratory Creation to produce creative cultural articles for sale at the village’s monthly market.

The renovated community center is now the Taoyuan Arts Cinema. In addition to recreating the atmosphere of watching movies in the military dependents’ community, it also serves as a space for cultivating documentary film talent. There’s also a bed-and-breakfast. “Staying there puts visitors in a good location for activities in the surrounding area,” Chen Wei-hong says. During the day they can shop or attend workshops, see a movie, or ride a YouBike to Longgang Playground, Zhongzhen Market or the Poppy Story House to better understand military culture. They can hear stories of the withdrawal of the “lost army” of KMT troops from Myanmar to Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s, sample the local rice noodles, and get to know the entire Longgang area.

We can know a place through words and images. But to truly get a feel for its past and present, there’s nothing like going there and experiencing it yourself. Linking with memories of the past and imagining the future, city story houses tell the stories engraved in a city’s heart.