Saturday, February 15, 2014

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Taiwan Railways Beimen Dormitories, Taipei

2/15/2014 Taiwan Explorer

The Taiwan Railways Beimen Dormitories 北門台鐵官舍區 are located in a deteriorating area north of Beimen, the old North Gate from the Qing Dynasty, and awaiting revitalization which sadly means removal, because it's part of the Taipei Twin Towers project. The area is according to some renders designated to be a future convention center. I'm not anti-modernization, I'm pretty excited to see the Taipei Dome and the new China Trust Headquarters being built in the newer part of the city commonly referred to as the East District, but I find it sad whenever a historic site disappears from the Western part of Taipei, where the city originated. Therefore I went there to see it with my own eyes and take some photos to share them here, and researched online sources about this area.

LOCATION

The dormitories are located between Tacheng Street and Xining North Road (click on the photo on the left, or check Google Maps). They are right opposite of the Old Ministry of Railways, which is today covered with a protective box and awaiting renovation. This part of Taipei today looks like a village in a forest. The old wooden Japanese houses from the early 20th century have mostly collapsed or are about to, trees and bushes have seemingly taken over the whole area, which is not a bad thing. There are some residents living here, but a lot of houses are empty.

HISTORY

Taiwan's Railways have its origins in the late 19th century when the island was part of the Qing Dynasty. The first rail line from Taipei to Keelung was completed in 1891 (source). When Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1895, one of their first major projects was improving the infrastructure and expanding the railway system from north to south. The Taiwan Governor-General Transportation Bureau Ministry of Railways 臺灣總督府交通局鐵道部 was established in 1899, and it had its seat right here near Taipei's Beimen. Being the center of Taiwan's railways, this area needed a work force, and hence they needed dormitories. I stumbled upon a video by Taiwanese blogger Da Hsieh, who explored this area in 2012, wrote about it on his blog (in Chinese), and interviewed locals and made video. Check this video below (in Chinese) with a resident who explains the history behind the Beimen dormitories, and talks a little bit about the current situation (see below some excerpts in English for your convenience):


Here are some things mentioned in the video that I want to highlight:

- There were different levels of houses based on a person's rank.
- For people with higher rank they were bigger and better quality, smaller houses were meant for lower workers.
- Houses for single workers had no kitchen, only toilet. They had public showers.
- Wall built by Japanese 90 years ago is in good condition, wall built by Taiwanese 45 years ago is crumbling.
- KMT built some houses on former horse stalls.
- Sometimes homeless are making damage to abandoned houses in the area.
- There is a machine warehouse from Qing Dynasty. When KMT came they turned it into a dormitory for workers.
- Residence of the former Japanese Minister of Railways still preserved. Used to be 2 houses, one was destroyed.
- Dormitories were also located on today's Yuquan Park, but they were destroyed around 20 years ago.
- Why are the trees so beautiful? Because the Japanese planted them.
- Before there was the biggest day market in Taipei (pointing at Zhongxiao Bridge), but it was moved.

One of the things I found interesting is when he pointed at a stone wall (at 7:36):

It turns out that this is the stone from the old Taipei City Wall from Qing Dynasty, that was dismantled by the Japanese. It was actually used to build several houses in this area.

Let me show you my photos of the Beimen Dormitories (early February, 2014):

This is Zhengzhou Road Lane 38 (鄭州路38巷), which splits this neighborhood in half.

Locals like to use it as a shortcut from Wanhua to Datong. I didn't expect a scooter motorcade, when I was taking photos here. Keep that in mind, if you decide to visit.

This is the former machine warehouse from the Qing Dynasty, that was turned into a dormitory after WWII. Blogger Da Hsieh says the city government proclaimed the house a historic monument in 2007, but the date of renovation is uncertain.

The central part of Zhengzhou Road Lane 38.

A look into a side lane. I didn't go further inside, because I didn't want to be intrusive.

This used to be Taipei's Beef Noodle street in the past. According to Da Hsieh, at its peak there were 20 shops serving noodles. In 2006 city government moved the shops to other parts of Taipei, only 2 are still operating today.

The trees in today's Yuquan Park were planted by the Japanese.

Decaying roofs of the old wooden Japanese houses.

This one has collapsed.

The trees are working their way through the wall.

An abandoned house.

THE FUTURE

Most Taipeiers, especially those of older generation associate this area with beef noodles (see Google image search with "鄭州路38巷"). This part of Taipei has a rich history spanning over 3 eras: Qing dynasty, Japanese occupation, and the ROC period. A lot of it was altered, destroyed or is invisible, because something was built over, or trees have covered it. I have absolutely no idea why would anyone want to build a convention center in this area, it completely doesn't make sense. This is historically and strategically part of Taipei's main railway station, and due to its historic importance it should be rebuilt into a railway museum and park, spanning from Yuquan Park all the way to the Old Ministry of Railways and Taipei Workshop, both very important historic buildings waiting for restoration (which is scheduled to commence in 2014 by the way). Luckily I wasn't able to find any concrete plans for the convention center, so it may be very unlikely that it will be built. We will have to wait and see. One thing is sure: So far there are no concrete plans for this part of Taipei, but construction tycoons are already waiting to get their hands on this precious piece of land and build something ugly like this. I really hope that Ministry of Transportation and Communications, as well as the Taipei City government still have some sense for historic preservation. Recent indicators with restorations of the Nanmen Park and the Nishi Honganji Square are indicators of that. There still is hope.