The Hsinchu Prison Butokuden and Dormitories

Hsinchu unusually still has a large prison complex not far from the center of the city. It was established in 1895 and extensively rebuilt in the 60's and 70's. According to its website it houses male inmates serving sentences of less than ten years or those going through rehab and detox programs. It was the first prison in Taiwan to specialize in juvenile prisoners. The prison buildings themselves are not especially interesting, and of course as an active prison it's not open. 

However either side are the former living quarters of the wardens and officers. From when the prison was built until the 1960's there were only fields around it. Staff living quarters were arranged around the prison for convenience. Housing and communal structures were built to the east of the prison in the mid-1930's. There were possibly some earlier structures but I haven't found any reference to them. Later, a second set of houses were built in the early 1940's to the west of the prison. This wartime aerial photo shows the prison and the groups of housing either side.

With the exception of some row-houses lost to a CPC gas station both sites are intact. They have been abandoned for a long time and most structures are fairly decayed. The entire area is listed as a historic protection zone but so far no one has bid to undertake the likely complex and costly renovations. One newspaper estimates it'll cost about 160 million ntd to fully repair the sites, though that seems too high.

I first visited the site in a rush before dark while trying to survey it for my Hsinchu city map. I didn't expect both sites to be sealed off and had no time to explore them. The prison was also a challenge. There are no tall buildings to the south to photograph from and no possibility of entrance. I recently returned to try again. The deep interior of the prison is still a bit of a mystery but I wanted to draw the old houses as accurately as possible. That meant some fence-hopping.

There's a house in that tree somewhere

The west side dormitories are of two types. There are some small wooden houses, that were subdivided, and a couple of long brick blocks. The brick blocks are an unusual design and look a little like the central part of sanheyuan.

The condition of these houses deteriorates the further north you go with the northernmost ones just collapsed piles of wood. The streets are sealed off by a high brick wall and, while I could have jumped it, it was going to be difficult without being seen. From the perimeter I could see the buildings had been stripped of everything inside and weren't especially interesting architecturally.

West group house

I made my way to the east group. From a book I saw at an architect friend's house later that evening I learned that the East side dormitories are ranked. The higher status the employee the further south they lived culminating in the head warden's house. This house is the only structure from that era that isn't abandoned. It's ringed with high walls and barbed wire. What with Taiwan's organized crime syndicates I'm not surprised an obvious target like this is so fortified.

Furthest north are typical wooden row-houses. They don't have much ornamentation or space and were meant for low ranking single people or couples.

After the warden's house an area has been cleared. This was previously occupied by a large building divided into a few homes. It wasn't in terrible condition but by about 2012 it had been removed.

Unexpectedly there was a gap in the fence blocking off one of the former lanes so I entered. Usually I like to go through a place fairly quickly and then come back and take some more careful photos. Sadly I was interrupted by dogs so the photos aren't all that great. The first house on the right is pretty much intact. Next to it is a long row-house that hasn't been so lucky. Parts of this building are just piles of sticks and tiles now.

The first house has a recent red paint job and some nice woodwork.

These buildings are all made of wood and a kind of wattle and daub material. They don't fare well in tropical environments once the roof is damaged. I made my way inside one of the more solid parts of this house, passing by an abandoned Guanyin.

At the end of the house I could see another building through the tree cover. After jumping out of a small window I came up to the side of Hsinchu's own butokuden hall.

I'd visited the butokuden, which translates as martial arts hall, in Taichung before. It is next to where Taichung Prison once stood and was built in 1937. Incidentally it's no coincidence that as Japan militarized in the 1930's a lot of grand martial arts halls were built or expanded. Japan wished to instill a nationalistic culture based on the discipline and loyalty of the samurai ways. Butokuden were a good means to get the public on board with this. There are a few excellent posts on restored butokuden here. I vaguely remembered some online comments about Hsinchu having an intact hall.

The grand Taichung Butokuden

The Hsinchu iteration is a lot smaller but I recognized the similar distinctive grey walls and the high raised floor. Butokuden were places for Japanese police officers and prison workers to practice the martial arts they'd need for their jobs. Each prison complex had one, and so did military and police sites. According to this article people practiced judo and kendo in these halls, and outside there was usually an archery ground. Large butokuden were often very elaborate with high gabled roofs and sturdy cypress wood and stone construction.

The butokuden seen from a nearby lane. A note on language: I've seen these halls called both butokuden and budokan. After reading this thread on Japanese language I've gone with butokuden. It seems butokuden are more for training and budokan are more competition venues.

The Hsinchu Hall was built in 1935 and is no exception to this. It's partly made of steel which has probably saved it from collapse. Although it is hidden in the trees it is clearly the grandest structure in the complex. While I haven't found exact dates for the other houses in the area the style, particular the round art-deco windows, puts them at around the mid 1930's too.

All the buildings in the complex have had a lot of additions tacked on over the years. After the KMT took over in 1945 lots of buildings like this were used to help house Chinese refugees. This was the only side of the original building that was visible from outside. I climbed in a window and started to tread very carefully through the hall. The interior floors are in quite good condition considering their age, despite some breakages.

The overgrown front door and a calendar from 1999.

The interior has been subdivided and the roof covered by office ceiling. It could be a beautiful light filled space with these taken out. There were a couple of more modern kitchen and bathroom areas and a lot of small rooms so I guess it was residential for a time during the KMT era. After the KMT took over in 1945 lots of buildings like this were used to help house Chinese refugees. I came out of one door, walked around, and entered into another self-contained home within the hall. For some reason I could hear running water near one side, despite no rain, but I couldn't find the source.

An unusual floor outside a building next to the hall. I think this may have been a bathroom or kitchen but the door was jammed. I haven't seen many round stones like these before and am not sure what they are for.

Across another sealed off lane there are another couple of wooden buildings, each divided into two units. These are in fairly good condition with mostly intact floors. They also have a lot of original features including sliding lattice windows. These look as though they’ve been cleaned up a bit and the gardens are clear.

The complex is such a maze of add-ons I forgot how I had reached these houses. I ended up going back through a window into the very broken row-house. It was warped and decaying with some fairly dodgy raised floors. A lot of buildings from this era have raised floors to help with air circulation and humidity. Parts were also very dark, but I found a way through.

A bit sketchy in here

As I was heading towards the buildings on the left of the entrance I disturbed some dogs. They were not very happy to see me. As there were five of them and I had a clear shot of the exit I decided to just run. They gave chase but didn't get close or follow me out. I'm not sure if they are there as guard dogs or if they're just a pack of strays. Although it could have been ugly if they'd caught me in one of the houses I'm glad they are there. They should stop anyone heading in to damage the site but they also limit innocent visitors. Have a look on the Hidden Taiwan Map for intros to some grumpy-dog-free places.

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