Wenmeng Building Former Brothel And Area

Small photography exhibit in the Wenmeng Building.

Small photography exhibit in the Wenmeng Building.

In early 2013 I was invited to tour a former brothel, in what was one of Taipei's red light districts. I had just finished drawing Taipei, and was already interested in drawing the Dadaocheng area, so I went along. I've noticed a lot of my maps (Dadaocheng, Toad Mountain, soon Losheng) are born out of areas that are a bit special, and are in some way threatened with destruction. By the time I've visited these areas, met people there, and explored a bit, I almost can't help but draw them. 

The Area

This part of Taipei is centered around Guisui Street and Ningxia Road, in the east part of Dadaocheng. Guisui Street was formerly an important route from the wharfs on the Danshui River, to markets in the north of the city. It has a long history based around merchant trade and manufacturing. The stretch of Guisui between Chongqing and Ningxia Roads was once one of Taipei's red light districts. The other I know of is located near Longshan Temple in Wanhua, and though I just walked through, it seems it's very much still in operation. 

The Guisui area was designated a brothel district by the Japanese Government in the 1900's and grew quite large. Interestingly, the area's main police station from that era, along with the old police dormitory buildings, back right onto the street.

Wenmeng Building

The Wenmeng building is on Guisui near the intersection with Ningxia. It's housed in a small building from 1925. It doesn't look all that special from the outside, there are still a moderate amount of small three windowed brick buildings in the Dadaocheng area. But inside it has been preserved as it was when it was last a working brothel, and it is currently a small museum. 

The Wenmeng building exterior certainly shows it's age. 

The Wenmeng building exterior certainly shows it's age. 

It's like a time warp from the 70's or 80's. The inside was a strange mix of quaint and grim; the rooms are tiny and falling apart, and it's hard not to imagine what went on in them, but it was totally fascinating. The organization who invited me was COSWAS (Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters), and they showed me around and explained some of the history. The building had been a licensed brothel until 1997, when sex work was outlawed and the district here closed down. They explained many of the women had found it difficult to transfer into other occupations. I'm curious as to why the Wanhua brothel area is still active while this one is not. Perhaps that area's stakeholders have a bit more guanxi with the government. There's a small exhibition on the lives of the buildings former workers in the main room downstairs (main pic). 

Bedroom in the Wenmeng building.

Bedroom in the Wenmeng building.

Across the road is the main office of COSWAS. Here there were a couple of elderly former workers of the Wenmeng building. They currently give tours to people wanting to learn the areas history as well, though they can't speak much English. The area has undergone a lot of change in the past couple of decades, and they were worried their collective memories and heritage were going to be destroyed. 

The entire block that the brothel building stands on is slated for 'development'. I'm not sure what kind of development, but the block to the north is a huge modern Carrefour, so I expect something similar and high end is planned. The brothel building itself was designated as a city heritage site, so it can't be demolished. However the rest of the block is not, and has some interesting structures. It would be unfortunate if the whole block was destroyed leaving just the Wenmeng building marooned out of context around high rises. I've mentioned before my feelings on renewal in Taipei so won't go into it again here. There's currently an eviction battle going on with the brothel building itself, with a new owner wanting COSWAS out, to profit on development. I don't know the details of the eviction troubles, and the laws around it seem quite complex, but there is a recent Taipei Times article explaining some of this here.

the surrounding area

After the tour of the Wenmeng building I was taken on another short tour of the area by the COSWAS staff. The other buildings around Wenmeng are from the early 1920's. I particularly like the row with the circular windows and arches. I've not seen this style much in the city. 

Old structures on Guisui Street

Old structures on Guisui Street

We went through the brothel and out the back door into some narrow alleys. This was the former police officers' dormitory. It's a collection of wooden Japanese style houses that look original and are very atmospheric. I'm unsure if the location next to the brothels was for protection of the workers, or just for the officers' convenience. I did ask, but my guide was not sure either. 

Back lanes of the police dormitory houses.

Back lanes of the police dormitory houses.

Here we also saw a historic structure fronting Ningxia Road had recently been demolished. The workers were still picking over the rubble. I was told they were foolish, as the destroyed wooden beams are actually quite valuable. My guide told me that this destruction was a threat from the developers. It seemed silly to me, as over three years later (Jul 2016) the site was still in the same state. Money without brains I suppose.

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At the north end of the block there is a really ancient looking house that has seen better days. This I believe pre-dates everything on the block. 

Ancient looking house south of Carrefour

Ancient looking house south of Carrefour

To the north is the aforementioned Carrefour. It's not a pleasant structure, and seems overly bulky. Personally I'd have put it one block further north where there are just some small, desolate seventies buildings. I know from an old photo that there were some historically important places in the location prior to the Carrefour.

The first time I saw this next building I was standing in a bus, and didn't see the huge tower stuck on top. Sometimes, very rarely, this sort of old/new merge can be done well (the Hearst Building in New York being one I really like). But here the new tower is really inelegant, and seems to squat on and crush the old mansion. I suppose at least something was saved but it's an awkward compromise.

The next place we headed to was the 1930's Datong Police Station. It's quite a simple building, but I like the arched windows that were popular in that era. The perimeter walls are made using sulfur-stained stone that had been taken from Taipei's old city walls. It's currently being transformed into a museum.     

Datong Police Station and the stone from the Taipei city walls. 

Datong Police Station and the stone from the Taipei city walls. 

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On return to the COSWAS headquarters I thanked them for their tour, then went for a wander in the area myself. Heading east on Guisui you come to an area of winding streets and small houses. It's quite old and feels as though it may have been an old village before it was swallowed by Taipei (On the Hidden Taiwan Map I've called it Datong Old Village). Most of it is undeveloped, and the shops are mom and pop tea houses and sweet stores rather than 7/11's. There are also a lot of small one room factories; many have ancient looking machines that are fun to watch. The tours and wandering on this day was eventually responsible for the Dadaocheng map being stretched out eastwards. I've put a cutaway of the area below with some of the sites. 

That grand looking building near the 'Building' of 'Wenmeng Building' is a Catholic School. It's a modern building replacing a shorter Japanese era structure of the same design. 

That grand looking building near the 'Building' of 'Wenmeng Building' is a Catholic School. It's a modern building replacing a shorter Japanese era structure of the same design.