“Why wouldn’t you like to live in an old Japanese-style building?”, I once asked a Taiwanese friend of mine. “They are uncomfortable,” she answered, “too small and the floors squeak all the time.”
Japanese residential buildings in Taipei were indeed not ahead of time. In 1935 the population of Taipei amounted to approximately 270,000 (章英華: 臺灣的都市體系——從清到日治, 1997). By 2017 the figure had swelled to 2.7 million.
The buildings that were constructed in the Japanese colonial era were designed for a comparatively small population, and many areas that are nowadays a concrete jungle used to be scarcely populated prior to 1945.
The below picture of the old Electric power station in Ku-t’ing (Guting) area shows a broad street with low-rise buildings, an urban landscape that greatly differs from the bustling streets one sees today.
In the post-war era, a large number of old buildings were demolished. The Kuomintang (KMT) did preserve many government buildings erected by the Japanese, such as the Presidential Office, the Judicial Yuan, Chung-shan Hall (Zhongshan Hall), Taipei Guest House etc.
However, many residential and commercial buildings were torn down or left in disrepair. Constructing high-rise buildings offered advantages in terms of technology and comfort, and it also allowed for a more intensive use of land. According to Reginald Kwok, housing construction was also driven by considerable real estate speculation (Reginald Kwok: Globalizing Taipei: The Political Economy of Spatial Development, 2006, p. 115).
Like in Hong Kong, Taipei, too, has seen a preference by both property developers and residents for modern buildings, although there are a number of notable exceptions which I will explain in the next article.
According to the Department of Cultural Affairs of Taipei City, there are around 2000 Japanese-era residential buildings in Taipei City’s Chung-cheng (中正, Zhongzheng), Chung-shan (中山, Zhongshan) and Ta-an (大安, Da’an) districts alone.
The result of the general neglect for Japanese-era residential architecture is that many old buildings are in state of dilapidation or face demolition.
In 2016, the Department of Cultural Affairs refused to declare the former residence of a Taipei-based Japanese university professor (中村三八夫) as a site worth preserving and allowed its demolition. The house is located in Ch’ao-chou Road, near Ku-t’ing station.
Even buildings that have been renovated and are occupied are not safe. A cafe and designer studio called Wen-yü-tso-ma (文魚走馬), located in the famous Ti-hua Street, might be demolished in 3 years.
The photos below show some dilapidated Japanese-style buildings near Ku-t’ing MRT station and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
However, there are also many examples of citizens and business people who invest in old buildings, realizing that old architecture is unique, historically valuable, and that it can be used as a marketing asset. In the next article I will write about a few Japanese buildings converted to cafes and restaurants.
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