An Explosion of New-Blood Tourism-Friendly Businesses in the Old City’s Old Buildings
TEXT / RICK CHARETTE
PHOTOS / RAY CHANG
They’re everywhere, another one popping into view almost every time you turn a corner, whether on wandering exploratory perambulations along the city’s age-old high streets or on wonderful serendipity discovery dip-ins into its neighborhood webs of slim-width lanes and alleys. Energetic entrepreneurs, mostly younger in age, are breathing new life into vintage buildings and hoary tight-knit Tainan communities, their colorful modern cultural-creative ventures adding bold splashes of color amidst the dense population of seemingly forever-in-place traditional hot-snack vendors, bakeries, temple-worship paraphernalia suppliers, hardware suppliers, furniture sellers, barbershop and hairdresser operations, mom-and-pop sundry merchandise stores, and myriad other types of run-by-proprietor-family small businesses.
During the famed Taiwan Economic Miracle of the 20th century, modern industry and finance dramatically changed the landscape of Taiwan’s cities on its west side, except for Tainan. The old capital never took to knocking down its old to make way for the more financially remunerative new with the alacrity its urban brethren did. This has left it with a vast treasure-trove of venerable low-rise architecture in its old quarter.
However, as initially discussed in our main article this issue, three new cultural/architectural currents are flowing powerfully through Tainan City as the year 2021 breaks. The first is the building of bold-design new works of large-scale architecture, such as the Tainan Art Museum Building 2, in the old quarter. Another example of this are the scores of sleek new modern buildings going up in the rapidly growing Tainan Technology Industrial Park, just north of the old quarter. A second trend is the renovation and repurposing of large-scale heritage works, such as the Tainan Art Museum Building 1. The third, which we dive into deeper as this article continues, is the gleeful remodeling of smaller senior buildings for cultural-creative enterprise use. The people of Tainan are in love with their heritage, and take great joy in saving familiar old places by giving them new looks, new life, and new direction.
Xiao Ban Lou
The cozy, quaint, and miniscule Xiao Ban Lou, in a side lane off Minquan Road, is very close to three bigger works of heritage architecture, the Tainan Confucius Temple, Tainan Art Museum Building 1, and National Museum of Taiwan Literature. This is a small cultural-creative studio/museum dedicated to the ceramic arts, established by a well-known Tainan ceramic artist and tea master and his wife. It is a space for artist-cum-teacher and his pupils to display their works, as well as his work and teaching space. He has taught for over 30 years.
The compact one-and-a-half-story building, constructed about 70 years ago, was originally the home of a Western-medicine pharmacy. Many of the elements of the original décor have been faithfully retained, exhibiting a combining of simple Taiwanese and elegant Japanese aesthetics. The many antique furnishings, paired with the racks of earth-tone pottery works, evoke a strong nostalgic air.
The site is a popular pilgrimage site for TV buffs because of its repeated appearance in a hit Taiwan drama series called Someday or One Day, aired in 2019~2020. It played the role of a record store in segments set in the 1990s. While visiting, you may well see other visitors retro-dressed as the show’s characters happily taking selfies.
VINTAGE AND RETRO GOODS
The concomitant to their cherishing of the old architecture that they have grown up with, and in, is that the folks of Tainan also have a deep fondness for surrounding themselves with antiques, vintage items, and retro curios. As an offshoot of this, some of the new cultural-creative retailer entrepreneurs are opening up chic old-building shops that save you shopping time by doing initial treasure-hunting for you, gathering the best of the best on their premises, waiting for your drop-by.
PARIPARI is in a renovated three-story commercial building in a lane/alley grid off Zhongyi Road. The National Museum of Taiwan Literature is just to the southeast, Great Queen of Heaven Temple to the west. Though one of the two entranceways is adorned with auspicious Chinese tiger god images, and the vintage Tainan terrazzo floors, ceramic tile walling/flooring, and significant original woodwork has been preserved, you step inside to a Paris 1930s world. “PARIPARI” is “Paris Paris” twice – think of the French pronunciation, the “s” silent.
On 1F is the PARIPARI Shop, filled with retro-style items referencing Taiwanese culture. International travelers especially like the coasters with old Tainan lane/alley images, scented candles that look like chunks of Hualien marble, jade, and other locally valued stones, and handcrafted vintage-style baskets, handbags, etc. The 2F café, featuring dark woods and exposed-ceiling piping and wiring, offers imported/Taiwan coffees and teas and Western-style hot foods and sweet treats.
A few doors down from PARIPARI is Asuka Antique, run by the same entrepreneur. Here, two old street-level shop spaces have been gutted and joined, fully exposing the cement walls. Matched with the interior’s dark-hue woods and metal furnishings and the cornucopia of antiques and vintage items on display, the visuals are dramatic. I kept thinking of Victorian-era Dickensian curio shops brimming to bursting with rarities and oddities. There are far too many item types to describe; I was most taken with a series of handcrafted rectangular glass vials each containing representative Taiwan plant specimens, their back panels made of stained patterned glass taken from Tainan old-home windows, and a set of old, battered green-painted Japanese field-trip plant collection boxes that looked like WW II metal mess kits.
Art 11 Vintage
Art 11 Vintage is the tiniest of cubbyhole shops, with the feel of two stacked treehouses. It is hidden away in a lane/alleyway maze off Zhongzheng Road, immediately east of Hai’an Road Art Street and, just beyond that, The Spring. An unusual feature of this neighborhood is that along Zhongzheng Road the buildings have been extended right over the lane entrances, creating a tunnel effect and, once inside the warren, a bottom-of-crevasse ambience.
The shop is a font of 1950s apparel and adornments – American, not Taiwanese – sourced from the US of A by the fresh-out-of-university proprietary team. These are non-Tainan fellows who wanted to stay after graduation. They also sourced expert craftsmen to return this long-abandoned space, 70-plus years old, as close as possible to its original look. Their choice of classic Americana attire and paraphernalia stems in part from the sense of nostalgia induced in local folk, because US military personnel were stationed in Taiwan from the ’50s to late ’70s. Looking around the two ultra-compact, ultra-goods-stuffed floors, the second reached by narrow ladder-like stairs, I was reminded of my father and his five brothers back in my North America youth, who seemed to prefer living in the 1950s well into the 1970s, decked out in the exact-same ’50s-era denim, leather jackets, and decals like a retro music band.
Nuofu Rice Cake
The Nuofu Rice Cake eatery’s setting is a bit different from the other enterprises presented in this file. It is visible through an ornate temple gate inside a lane/alley grid from a main thoroughfare, Fuqian Road, standing right beside a classically ostentatious temple on its plaza. Immediately east along Fuqian is the Tainan Art Museum Building 2 and Tainan Judicial Museum.
Migao, or rice cakes, was one of the signature Tainan snack treats mentioned in our main article. Served hot in a bowl, the classic Tainan version is made with glutinous rice and contains soy-braised minced pork, mushroom, peanuts, fish floss, and often dried Sakura shrimp. The Nuofu Rice Cake version is made using the recipe of the mother-in-law of one of the young owners; she spent decades selling her edition from a peddler’s cart. Her “secrets,” shared freely by the owners, are the added use of rock sugar made with Tainan-region sugarcane and jijiu (“chicken wine”), made with rice wine, which gives a light flavoring akin to sesame-oil chicken, another classic Taiwan hot treat.
Enough migao for just 100-plus bowls is made daily. The place opens at noon, and the 100 go quickly. Get there early, for no matter how early you do get there you’ll find eager hungry folk already lined up across the temple mouth. The Nuofu Rice Cake home is an old two-story former private residence that the owners have renovated and much beautified, giving it a kiosk-style first-floor façade. It is owned by and rented to them by the temple – “not the management,” say the owners, “our landlords are the gods.” When deciding on which competing entrepreneurs to rent the place too, management let the resident main deity decide using divining blocks. “With the gods smiling on us,” say the owners, “how could our business not thrive?”
Momocha, a rustic teahouse/eatery, is steps down a lane off Beimen Road just south of the Tainan Railway Station. The owner rents this space, a narrow-width two-story former private residence built in 1967, from one of his former high-school teachers. “No,” he states, “he didn’t give me especially good grades back then.” Before he set up, the building had been abandoned for 15 years and leaked badly. He spent 18 months fixing up the place, completely redesigning the interior with a friend’s help. The main dining area is on the wood-theme second floor, filled with period furnishings. There are also a couple of tiny tables on the first floor before the sales counter, with the kitchen in view behind.
The menu is the simplest of simple: teas and cold tea drinks, guabao, and tea-flavored brownies. His parents have run a tea shop for 30 years, specializing in high-mountain oolong teas. He wanted to differentiate his spot from other chic teahouses, which he feels too much emphasize Western-style teas and afternoon tea-type snacks, with more quintessentially Taiwanese offerings. “Mocha, better known as matcha to Westerners, is actually from Tang Dynasty China, not Japan. I have paired mocha/matcha beverages with guabao, or ‘Taiwanese hamburgers,’ as a classic Taiwanese duo.”
Guabao is a cut-open steamed bun stuffed with soy-braised pork, pickled mustard greens, peanut powder, and cilantro. Here, Dongpo pork is used, and there are also chicken and fried chicken versions. There are three types of cold drinks: high-mountain mocha original and mocha with either Taiwan strawberry or passionfruit. The owner learned to make brownies simply because he loves them; he offers two mocha-flavored creations, with either white chocolate or coffee flavoring, both truly mouthwatering. All the mocha used is fresh-ground daily using a traditional mortar and pestle, with demonstrations and, if you like, DIY opportunity.
Lao Cuo 1933
This is, the owners say, a unique Taiwan take on the bistro concept – a combination of traditional Taiwanese-style beerhouse and BBQ joint and located in a sanheyuan heritage structure. It is located off Minquan Road very close to the above-presented Xiao Ban Lou and Tainan City God Temple.
A sanheyuan is a traditional Chinese three-sided courtyard residence. The chosen name for today’s in-residence enterprise, Lao Cuo 1933, translates as “Old Residence 1933,” with the number referencing the year the facility was built. This type of architecture is usually found in the countryside, the courtyard area used for sun-drying harvest riches. This place is unusual in two significant ways – built so late in the modern era, and built right in a city. It sat abandoned for many years before the young Lao Cuo 1933 team, two Tainan brothers, purchased and thoroughly renovated it. Much of the original structural and decorative woodwork has been saved; the wood is primarily the highly prized cypress from Taiwan’s high-mountain Alishan region. Various wall-inlaid artworks were also saved as well, and period paintings, old merchandise signs, and other adornments have been brought in. The vintage furnishing and retro seating in the interior and courtyard, the latter old-look wooden tables and benches, have been newly introduced.
The menu is extensive, filled with inexpensive savory goodies. Specially recommended are the pork/chicken/duck kebabs, lettuce-wrapped beef/pork slices, bacon rolls with shrimp, sausage stuffed with onions, chitterlings, fish chin, roast king oyster/shiitake mushrooms, tempura, fish-paste bars, and shrimp rolls – all roasted. The accompanying sauces have a pleasant and harmonious hint of sweetness, in the traditional southern Taiwan manner. Taiwan Beer offerings dominate on the libations front, and there are also Taiwan craft beers, imports, and of course non-alcoholic choices.
About the author
A Canadian, Rick has been resident in Taiwan almost continually since 1988. His book, article, and other writings, on Asian and North American destinations and subjects—encompassing travel, culture, history, business/economics—have been published widely overseas and in Taiwan. He has worked with National Geographic, Michelin, APA Insight Guides, and other Western groups internationally, and with many local publishers and central/city/county government bodies in Taiwan. Rick also handles a wide range of editorial and translation (from Mandarin Chinese) projects.