This part of the city has a fairly long history, at least by Taipei standards. There are a lot of historic sites in a small area. It's also been changing a lot over the past couple of years, and will continue to do so (the Zhongxiao Bridge elevated highway has just been demolished). I'll probably come back and update this after the museums in the TRA HQ and the post office are open. I'm going to go through each of the existing sites chronologically from the Qing Dynasty to the modern era where I can. They are all located within a few minutes walk of each other.
North Gate (北門) and the Old Walled City.
In the very early days of the Taipei Basin's history it was not a single unified city. Rather, it was a number of scattered settlements. These were mostly separated along clan lines, or were aboriginal lands. When immigration rates from China increased in the 18th and 19th centuries most immigrants settled with people who had moved from the same province or city. A lot of people from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou settled in Wanhua. After a conflict between different groups of these migrants in 1853, many moved to Dadaocheng. People from these two settlements (and other groups) continued to be hostile to each other, and there were frequent small battles.
The walled city was built between these two enclaves. It encompassed government buildings and the city's main Matzu temple (formerly located in the present 228 Memorial Park). This central area was intended to be insulated from the various conflicting settlements. The walls could also defend this area from marauders and bandits, which were still a problem back then. The walls and gates were completed in 1884. There were five gates, North, East, South, Little South, and West. Little South Gate (小南門) was apparently built for the wealthy Lin clan, who also built the south wall. This was so they and their clan didn't have to mingle with undesirables and enemies by using the other gates. Archaeological remains of the city walls and the nearby city arsenal from the 19th century can be seen on the first level of Beimen MRT station.
The Japanese demolished the city walls as they were constricting development of the city and the railway. Of the five gates, four remain. West gate (西門) was demolished along with the walls. North Gate is the only gate to retain it's original architectural style. The other gates were remodeled in a Chinese palace style by Chaing Kai Shek, as part of his sinicization drive. The North Gate was left unaltered after scholars petitioned to have it preserved in its original style.
From the Japanese era to the present day the gate itself has changed little but the area around it has completely transformed.
Now the Zhongxiao Bridge Road has been demolished the gate is free. The area feels much more spacious and people friendly now. There were a lot of visitors to the gate when I went, as it has been getting a lot of publicity lately. I'm glad to see people connect with this piece of Taipei's history. Previously this area was deserted by pedestrians and largely a forgotten part of town.
Futai Street Mansion
The Futai Street mansion is a small European style building on Yanping South Road. It was built in 1910 as the headquarters of a Japanese-owned construction company. It has a quite distinct Mansard roof and it wouldn't look out of place in Paris. There is a bookshop focusing on history on the ground floor and usually a small exhibition on the second floor. The exposed roof beams are quite complex. Some of the other buildings in the vicinity date from the Japanese era, but are much more ordinary.
This is an early 20th century building used by the Mitsui Company, and then the railways. It's the only remaining interesting building on it's block. The structure is in a fairly perilous condition and has no roof. It is listed as a city heritage site so it will be saved. I've read in a couple of places the city government plans to move it to aid traffic flow. It's almost the sole representative of this type of old warehouse building in the city center, and it rounds out the Historic North Gate circle. I would support moving it a little to the north, in a similar way to how one of the TRA HQ workshops was moved, but moving it too far would separate it too much from the gate. (Update 2018 - The warehouse has been moved and rebuilt a little to the east. In my view it looks a bit over-restored and I’ve seen some criticisms of the job. It’s still shielded by construction fence so I will take a look when it’s open).
The First Taipei Railway Workshop and TRA HQ
After the demolition of the walls, the railways expanded down present day Zhonghua Road towards Wanhua and Banqiao. The North Gate Workshop is a collection of buildings dating from the early Japanese era that were designed to service and repair the trains. The Railway Administration built their headquarters in 1911 here, in an unusual mock Tudor building facing the gate. This particular structure has recently been restored, after being disused since 1990. It is scheduled to house a branch of the National Taiwan Museum. The exterior was recently unveiled however the interior seems a while away from completion. Sadly it seems most of the interior has been ripped out and will be replaced by generic white gallery space. (Update 2018: The site is still not complete but it looks like opening day is near).
The other buildings on the site are a few small wooden workshops and one large brick workshop. The smaller buidlings are mid-restoration, and it seems they have been stripped down to just the wooden beams. While Beimen MRT Station was under construction, the big workshop was slid backwards on rails in a very complex looking operation. As such, for most of the past few years it has been hidden under a green shed.
The TRA Worker's Village
On the block next to Beimen MRT there's a group of quiet alleys and large trees. Among these are a lot of Japanese era wooden houses, in various states of repair. This was, and perhaps still is, a small housing area for railway employees. Almost all of the buildings are abandoned, but a few are still inhabited. In the center of the group there is a larger brick building that looks as though it was either a warehouse or tenement housing.
I last visited on July 2016. Already about half of the village had been cleared by Feb. I think almost all the wooden houses are uninhabited now. One row was very recently demolished in Feb and the old clinic to the north is undergoing demolition too. Work seems to have ceased for a while.
I decided to wander around the clinic in the north of the site, as it looks like it'll be gone by next week. Looking at old satellite photos a small portion of this building dates to before 1945, but the interior is totally modern. The interior was largely stripped and didn't have anything that interesting inside (except some incongruous flowers on a bookcase). There were some graffiti murals being painted on the 3rd floor that looked quite vivid. To the artists' credit there is very little graffiti on abandoned historical sites, even in the center of the city. Most artists seem to concentrate on more mundane, modern ruins like this. Other than the murals I was intrigued to find a shrine outside. It looks like it has been cut away to be moved, as I imagine demolishing a god is believed to bring bad luck.
The future of this site is the most uncertain in the area. On some plans it looks as though it will be almost totally destroyed. It typifies the city governments lopsided approach to history that no expense has been spared on some of the historic buildings in the area, yet equally interesting and historic structures from the same era are cast away. If the area becomes a few glossy restorations scattered in an expanse of glass and concrete it will lose a lot of it's character and appeal. There are plenty of empty plots in the area already for new buildings, so there's no need to lose what can't be brought back. Especially since this is one of the most complete remaining areas of Japanese style homes in the city. In the video below it seems about half the village will be kept, but in the image underneath it seems it will mostly be destroyed. From the look of things too much has already been lost.
Beimen Post Office
This large building from 1930 is the second post office on the site. The first was a flimsy looking wooden one. Originally there were only three floors and it had a large covered entrance. But this has gone and another floor has been added. For a long time it was decaying and tiles were falling off. There were long veins of concrete filling-in cracks on the facade. It's now been restored and the finishing touches are being made to the interior. Inside it looks as though there will be a small museum, and it still is still Taipei's main post office. It faces the TRA HQ and the Mitsui Warehouse across the North Gate circle. Together they show the progression in Japanese colonial architecture from the cozy domestic style of the earlier buildings to the imposing neo-classical design or art-deco of later buildings. I've seen plans as of Sept 2016 to build a large skyscraper directly behind the office. Both the design and size of the tower are totally inappropriate for a historic site. As of 2018 this tower is yet to be started.
Haggler's Row (Zhonghua Market)
Although this site no longer exists I think it's interesting enough for a quick mention. These long white buildings in the middle of Zhonghua Road were built in the '60s. They were meant as a gleaming showpiece of modern Taipei. They stretched the entire length of the old west city wall alongside the railway. At first they were a busy and popular place to shop, and they became homes for many people. The blocks located closest to the Hengyang and Zhonghua intersection (present day Ximen MRT Station) were often very busy. But the ones towards Beimen and Xiaonanmen received less custom as the years passed by. As such only very low profit enterprises set up here, such as VHS sellers and other cheap electronic goods shops (I have a feeling many of these moved into Xining Market). The huge neon billboards that sat on their roofs were pretty cool.
By the '80s decay had set in and the fabric of the buildings was crumbling, especially in the extreme northern and southern blocks. I wonder if the constant close passing of trains damaged them but I'm just speculating there. The project to move the railway underground gave the government a useful opportunity to demolish them, despite strong opposition from those living there. There's absolutely no trace of either the railway or these buildings on Zhonghua Rd now; only tarmac and green median lines. I was perhaps a little harsh earlier when I said they were a complete failure. That was based both on their short existence and how quickly they became decrepit. Also a Chinese language source that said the blocks at the extremities were quite unsuccessful commercially. Thanks to Yuzhi in the comment below for providing some great information.
The Zhongxiao Expressway, or Zhongxiao Bridge on-ramp was one of those pieces of transport planning typical of the '50s - '70s that put the importance of road transport above everything else. It was built in the early '70s, and little concern was shown for the close to 100 year old city gate adjacent to it. One of the off-ramps practically touched North Gate. In some plans I've seen from that era the gate was originally going to be demolished so this was not the worst possible outcome. The multiple ramps you can see in the picture above were knocked down earlier leaving just the main section until 2016. The road has long been hated by Taipei residents (at least by those who don't use it to commute) and its demolition took place over Lunar New Year 2016. Originally this operation was scheduled to take between 1-3 months, but it was condensed into a week in a huge operation. Personally I'm glad it's gone. It made that environment harsh and it was unpleasant to walk under. Maybe commuters from New Taipei will be angered by it's demolition, but frankly I'm sure they'll adapt. One of the most common misconceptions about transport planning is that more roads lead to less congestion. At some point yes if you make every road an eight lane highway. But in real cities often building more roads just creates more drivers.
Xining Public Housing
Sometimes a place will capture my attention for no particular reason at all. Xining Public Housing is one such place which always drew my gaze. I think probably for it's blunt and brutal design, and how it reminded me a little of British public housing from the same era. I later found out it is consistently voted as one of Taiwan's most haunted places, so it seems I'm not the only one who finds it a little intimidating. It seems its reputation was based entirely on outside appearances. Inside there is a market selling retro audio equipment that was quite interesting to look around.
All the sites covered here can be found on the Hidden Taiwan Map here. I realize the area is continually changing so will try to keep this updated. If you’d like to see the full map of old Taipei I drew, which features North gate, I made a page for it here and it’s also available to buy if you’d like to support some future work like this.