Mystery in Xizhi – Solved!

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NB: Mystery solved. Some details are posted below the following story so that you can experience the thrill of the journey before the ending. You’re welcome! – L

It’s February 2018, merely a few weeks before I’m due to leave Taiwan indefinitely. With that in mind it would be downright rude of me not to squeeze every last drop of possible adventure out of the country, so after a long, cold winter it was time to get out into the elements again. Visiting places on motorbike – particularly in the mountains – had lost its appeal in recent months as I didn’t have many winter clothes to protect from the icy humid winds. You know, because I’m in a tropical country and all, and jackets aren’t necessary? In the interests of exploiting my final days I decided to put up with a bit of shivering.

Thanks to a couple of tip-offs I had one or two places to investigate in and around the Xizhi (汐止) area. The first one took me an age to get to after falling victim to my own stupididity and making several wrong turns, and at one point ending up in someones front garden underneath a highway bridge. Their English was non existent, and though my Chinese wasn’t much better we managed to piece together enough of an understanding for me to have at least a shred of an idea of where to head next. Anyway, the first place looked like the most exciting one during my Street view reconnaissance so I was eager to arrive and have a good nose around at an old looking house standing in the corner of a large garden. To my dismay, it was abandoned no longer. Several people were dotted around the gardens digging flowerbeds and laying turf while a couple in smart casual get-up stood in a meeting huddle pointing at things. Mission sadly aborted.

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Reeeeeeee.

Shortly after, I stopped in a Familymart to get my chocolate and tea fix, but equally to spend a bit of timing thinking about where to go next. As luck would have it, my Taiwanese mate who lives in the area text me so I told him I was prowling around his neighbourhood looking for abandoned houses. It didn’t take long for him to mention a building at the top of a hill that he’d found by drone, but had no idea how to access it. So, he sent me some potential locations to this mysterious area via messenger and my next target became clear! I had no idea what to expect, which sometimes can worry more than it excites. Mainly because of crazy territorial dogs.

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RIP BNW. Looks like dogs have been fighting over it. Should I be worried?

The area was covered in a low lying heavy mist which wasn’t ideal for driving in, and noting that a lot of the neglected mountain roads here had patches of slippery moss in thin coatings, bouts of thick fog must be a common occurrence in this area (well… Taipei). Adding to the equation that I’d planned to ride a steep uphill gradient in a low gear with no idea where exactly I planned to go didn’t reassure any doubtful thoughts, but my desire to find this mysterious place spurred me on. The winding country roads were quiet and fun to ride, until I saw a green wall – which clearly hadn’t seen a coat of paint in the last fifteen years – alongside an uphill road. I turned off.

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After a couple of dead end encounters with obnoxious dog jerks, I came upon a locked gate, and thankfully one with a Peps-sized hole to walk through. Not much of a deterrent. The road continues up in a spiral to the top as some carved white stone walls begin to peek over the edge into my line of sight. A couple of eagles fly overhead looking for lunch, their screams and the wind being the only sounds audible from such a height, waaay above the sounds of the roads and villages below. Soon enough I spot a few small shishi guardian lions and my route appears to have been successful. A large, mostly flat empty space rests at the top of the mountain, along with essentially only the concrete frame of a large three floored structure, which I’d boldly guess has never been finished. The weathered decay making it hard to say for sure. An Indiana Jones style stairway to the rear leading to overgrown grass (and what may have been a garden) definitely had a 40% of being bitten by a snake, so I didn’t dilly-dally up there for long.

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The Indy staircase, complete with snake factor of 14/10.

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Wall algae grimness.

I explored the building for a good hour or so with my deerstalker and magnifying glass but couldn’t find many clues as to what this place used to – or planned to – be. A building in this state could have been bloody anything as the majority are built with a relentless focus on function, and hence have a distinct Soviet concrete panache. The only possible personal effects were a single flip-flop and a couple of broken vases left in a sink at the back leaving me little to study and scratch my chin over. My lazy guess would be that it was built as some kind of restaurant, but my instinct tells me it may have been planned as an industrial unit with factory/office combo. The lack of trinkets and the presence of steel reinforcement bars with no trace of concrete attached at the front side leads me to believe that they were never completed, and the developer simply abandoned it.

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A sink fulla vases. And tiles. Too basic for me though. No pattern; no interest.

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Steel reinforcing bars that seem to have been set into the ground, but not used.

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It looks Buddha related. But what is it? I can’t read the text, but I’d guess it says “gas meter cupboard door”. Or maybe “Spot the grasshopper”.

One detail did arouse curiosity, however. And I’ve kept it until the end like I’m Columbo or something. Anyway, up the steep road to the building the stone wall – erected to stop weak drivers falling to their doom – appeared to have quite a lump taken out of it. Looking at the damage, it’s not out of the realms of possibility that a car crashed through it and ended up falling grill first into the trees below. Perhaps a fatal accident occurred during development which ended up labeling the site haunted?

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Possible crash site with the drop (see below).

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Anyone with info is encouraged to messaged me with some history detail, and shall be given a hearty pat on the back. Only metaphorically I’m afraid.

More pics of the “interior” below. Cheers!

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The first floor if you’re British. The second floor, if you speak stoopid… joke. Not stoopid. Just… different. Yes.

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A garage? Abattoir? Military bunker? Use your imaginations, people.

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The main view.

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Rawr. See ya later.

SOLVED: The winner of the metaphorical pat on the back goes to the distinguished explorer and researcher Alexander Synaptic; solving the mystery a mere 15 minutes after being posted on the Taiwan Blogs Facebook group. A news article in Chinese is available here. If your ability isn’t up to scratch or online translators aren’t doing the business for you, I’ll try my best to break it down:

It seems that back in 2006 a court ruled that the above structure (Chinese name is 天佛大道院) was constructed illegally, and the owner of which defrauded members of the public by selling plots – or “niches” – within a columbarium (a place where human ashes or remains are stored) knowing that the building wasn’t 100% kosher. I had to look up this word myself as it’s the first time I’d heard it. Columbarium, not kosher.

It sounds as though he took the money while he could, and built the structure slowly as tangible proof of the development to provide reassurance to potential customers, all the while knowing that it would never be completed, and laughing and throwing his money into the air like a cartoon villain in his dark mansion. Anyway, he got four years in the slammer as a result.

So there we have it. Now detectives, onto the next one…

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Piles of tiles (Tile-wan)

Tiles tiles tiles. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly when I started to go giddy over the sight of a new pattern of tiling spotted while on one of many jaunts around abandoned buildings in Taiwan, but perhaps it can be traced back to my photo archives. One thing I do distinctly remember is visiting the hot spring museum in Beitou with a couple of my Taiwanese friends and being blown away by the beautiful mosaic patterns on the floors within the bathing areas. When I commented on it, one of them replied indifferently that it was a pretty old fashioned look, and lots of old houses have them but not many new ones as they aren’t “the thing” these days. I’m paraphrasing obviously but you get the gist. I was appalled and disgusted with their anti-tile views and I never spoke to them again.

Is this the start of yet another age-old debate on whether the Eastern attitude towards rebuilding old structures (such as temples) exactly the same way multiple times is better than traditionalist Eurocentric building preservation methods of keeping an old structure propped up for as long as possible because of the historical significance and whatnot? No. It’s simply a way for me to plaster my lovely tile pictures on the innerwebs for every other tile freak to enjoy and compare with their own finds. Kind of like swapping football stickers (or baseball cards if you’re from over the pond). This obviously assumes that there are other tile fans in existence, but we’ll see eh?

I will do my very best to remember where and when the following photos were taken, and shall add more whenever I can. Please enjoy… and happy tile hunting.

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Xinglin hospital (杏林綜合醫院), Tainan. November 2016.

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Hostel kitchen floor, Green Island. March 2018.

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Bathroom floor in house on Green Island. March 2018.

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Toilet floor in house, Minzu Road, Tainan. March 2018.

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Wet room in abandoned house, Minzu Road, Tainan. March 2018.

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Abandoned fire damaged house near Fujian Road, Taitung, December 2016.

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Toilet floor in abandoned Japanese era mansion in Fenyuan, Changhua. November 2016.

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Fuhe Theatre (福和大戲院) in Yonghe, Taipei, January 2018.

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Patio at abandoned house along Dongning Road, Tainan. February 2018.

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Kitchen floor at abandoned house along Dongning Road, Tainan. February 2018.

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Kitchen floor at abandoned house along Dongning Road, Tainan. February 2018.

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Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院) in Huilong, Taipei. September 2017.

Murder on the staircase – The 99 Door Mansion story

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Having a week or so to kick around Malaysia, I thought Penang Island would be the ideal place to spend a few days. Within the boundaries is Georgetown; an old British colonial UNESCO World Heritage port city chock full of fascinating history, buckets of old buildings, and decent yet inexpensive Indian food. Two things were for sure: I was going to come back from there with a lot of photos and a few more lbs around the waist.

The town is an architecture and history enthusiast’s dream. I visited six years ago but since even then has clearly had a lot of investment pumped into it, apparently most of it from Singapore. Strict zoning laws – within Georgetown at the very least – mean it’s almost impossible to walk along a street and not be blown away by some form of architectural wonder. Ornate carved decorations and arches. Long stretches of coving absolutely everywhere. Visible beams on high ceilings with old style fans hanging below. Colourful and intricate tiled floors. Painted wooden window shutters. You know I could go on.

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A typical Georgetown street.

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While on a motorbike cum hiking trip to the national park in the north east corner of the island, a riduclous amount of wrong turns – and they are frequent around Georgetown’s ye olde one way road system – brought me to a couple of beautiful buildings, though seemingly abandoned they also gave me the impression of being rather secure. As a result, it didn’t take me long to get online and investigate the abandoned potential in the area, during which a couple of names came up but judging from the photos and comments online were either under redevelopment or completely locked up. Soon enough I came across the name “99 Door Mansion”. It doesn’t take a fully qualified mathemastician to tell you that this must be a pretty big house – and it is – although it got its name quite literally so there aren’t a particularly obscene number of rooms (10 still stand, I believe) but there are several doors per room. Maybe the owner just disliked walking around any further than absolutely necessary so it was an intentional design aspect. His keyring must have weighed a ton.

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Note the inappropriate amount of doors.

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Sadly there’s a lot of graffiti here, most probably done by the same hardnuts that are scared to be here past 6pm because of the spirits.

Known originally as Caledonia Estate, it was built in the 1840s by one of Britain’s weathiest families at the time – the Ramsdens – who had links with the British East India Company. Bringing their immensely fat wallets to Malaysia (then part of the British “Straights Settlements”) they set up a sugar cane plantation on the Malay peninsula, in Nibong Tebal, a stone’s throw from Penang island. However, the economy moved on and the demand for sugar cane waned substantially in the late 1800s, so the Ramsdens made the wise decision to make the shift to planting rubber trees and consequently did pretty well out of it. The winds of change blew again in the early 1960s towards the rapidly growing palm oil industry, so once again they totally changed their game and reaped huge profits. The mansion has remained throughout as a tremendous display of wealth, and serving a variety of purposes. Living quarters, dancehall, an administrative building for the plantation, and even the headquarters for the officers of the occupying Japanese army during World War 2.

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The dancehall I reckon.

But it’s not all palm oil and cream (ha). In June 1948, grandson of the family John Saint Maur Ramsden was shot twice in the back of the head as he walked up the mansion staircase. The murderer was never found, but the common rumour online is that a business competitor gone and done it, though I wager that this was one person’s conclusion that has since been regurgitated umpteen times, doing as the internet does. Various suspects were arrested, detained, and even put on trial – but no-one was found guilty, with the magistrate declaring that “there is no evidence against any particular person”. Another locally fuelled rumour is that John was a homosexual that employed only “young and handsome Malay houseboys” and that local residents “all remembered that no-one had been convicted of his murder, and they did not seem to care”*. In the period of his death there were a number of retributive attacks on British colonists, thus it would be foolish to ignore that as a potential motive, particularly when considering the local’s general apathy towards his lack of justice.

The case is still unsolved, and the grave of John S. M. Ramsden lies in Georgetown’s Western Road cemetery.

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The mansion’s main staircase, where the killing occured.

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The research on this place is both interesting and hysterical. In addition to the above, it’s said that locals believe that the Japanese killed all of the Ramsden family present before taking over the property during the war; but this doesn’t really tie in with the fact that the grandson was shot in the head 3 years after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Another compelling factoid is that after the house itself (not plantation) was abandoned in the 1960s, a local Bomoh (kind of like a witch doctor in this neck of the woods) took residence and used the building as his little workshop, contacting spirits and whatnot. Supposedly the locals are more scared of the Bomoh’s spirit mates than they are of the entire Ramsden family. Visitors have reported hearing “growling noises”, the sound of drums inside the house (not sure why unless the ghost of Keith Moon is holed up in the loft), and some have even become possessed by a demon. I wouldn’t disagree that they are possessed by something but it’s probably not an evil spirit.

To say that I’m saving the best one for last is an understatement. The legend is that at midnight every day, the 99 door mansion’s 100th door appears as an entry point to and from the spirit world, allowing all of the naughty rascals that the witch doctor summoned to come and cause mischief in the human world. Unfortunately I wasn’t there at that time so can’t possibly comment. Ahem. Well, that’s the history out of the way, time for my story.

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The fence gate wasn’t as impregnable as it looked from the outside so I was soon making careful crunching footsteps along the gravel path, consisting of two narrow strips originally created by vehicle tyres. The palm oil trees, as always, are laid out in rows which satisfied the symmetry junkie within me, but displeases my inner tree-hugger. My senses are always extremely heightened whenever poking around places I’m unsure of how I will be welcomed, so even the sound of a falling leaf is startling. Seemingly out of nowhere the soft yellow stone mansion pops into view between several bushy oil palms on the plantation. To my right, or the front side of the mansion, there appears to be a small outbuilding being used as a shrine that may have once been used as a toolshed. Otherwise, there is no sign of life beyond the millions of bugs and insects that reside in this vast palm oil plantation. The front has a intricately decorated carved stone balcony above and an archway below, which I spend several minutes taking pictures of. Soon enough it seemed wise to go and have a look around inside lest any of the plantation workers spot me and react negatively, so I made my way into the building. The heightened senses I mentioned before came into action again as I heard a scraping noise outside, and then followed by rapid footsteps, though not human ones.

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Looking outside to face my paranoia brought me within about ten metres of an angry snarling dog. Contrary to previous encounters with wild dogs, I decided to change my tactics and try to act friendly while encouraging it to come over for a head scratch – rather than just shitting myself and going all Steve Irwin by looking for the nearest distraction stick. The dog didn’t fall for my charm, and ran around the outside of the building with the look of Satan in his eyes, still growling, presumably heading for a set of stairs to enter the mansion.

“Oh well, I’ve had a nice life” I thought to myself, resigning my final moments to being eaten alive by angry dog and his mansion pals. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I decided to walk back the way I came and face them out of the front door, but from the shroud of shade inside the entrance hall of the house I only saw angry dog and what I assume was his Mrs both frantically looking around and sniffing the air. In retrospect, I managed to get the drop on them by coming from the darkness of the mansion interior and whistling, beckoning them to come over for cuddles and belly rubs. It caught them off guard, causing them to jump out of their skins and run off into the depths of the plantation, but not before one of them stopped a safe distance away to drop their trousers and continue with their retreat. Initially my concern was that they were heading towards the plantation workers to raise the alarm, but I heard nothing more from anyone (dead or alive) for the hour or so that I was there.

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The landing, facing the front balcony.

IMG_6161sigIMG_6173sigIMG_6174sigIMG_6179sigWalking up the main staircase was something that required a lot of courage. Looking at the upper floorboards from below showed that they had suffered typically as floorboards do after decades in the middle of a humid, boggy, termite filled oil palm swamp plantation. Even though treading extremely carefully with a slow and wide stance like someone walking around the house looking for a new roll of toilet paper, it was stronger than I gave it credit for, but it seemed at first glance that a higher level of caution was needed at the top around the arguably less structurally sound floorboards. Bar a few creaks and obvious areas that would have been suicide to attempt to tread on, there was nothing to be too worried about. If you do go there, please choose your walking path carefully and be respectful of this majestic building!

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Yikes. Mind that beam.

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Another reliable rumour I heard is that the spirits will take the names of everyone that has written graffiti on the walls and will stalk them in their sleep until they pass away, which will be 99 days exactly. No more, no less. Creepy eh? DON’T WRITE ON THE WALLS YOU TACKY SCUMBAGS, OR GHOSTS WILL KILL YOU.

*Source: Lynn Hollen Lee’s “Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects”, 2017

 

The Fuzhoushan Challenge – lung busting, leg burning, short speed hike

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In a desperate bid to haul myself out of my apartment every day and to attempt to increase my football fitness, I’ve been speed hiking a local mountain based right within Taipei city that I’m particularly fond of, called “Fuzhoushan” (福州山). I started doing this a good few months ago, but gave up for a period around December and January as the incessant rain made the running surface too slippery, an all too common downside of old, slightly mossy, wooden steps.  Fast forward to early February where the Taipei city government have splashed out on an entirely new set of stairs for what seems like the whole park. The new ones look lovely and varnished, and most importantly pretty non-slip. Hurray! So the fun continues. Let me describe the route that I take.

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Shot on the stairs of FZS.

So. Start at the left entrance on Wolong street (the sloped trail on the north side of the park) and start on the slope. Actually, there is a very convenient start line that I use which is nothing more than a conveniently placed join between concrete sections. After taking the first two corners on the hill there is a staircase on your right at the crest of the hill which takes you to an even bigger staircase on your left hand side (it’s huge). Once you’ve nailed that beast, head for the non-paved stony trail set slightly downhill and just on the right as you reach the top of the big staircase, and keep heading in the same direction you were while on the staircase. The finish line is at pavilion number 3, which has an incredibly scenic view of Taipei city and Yangmingshan as a reward for your hard work. When your foot reaches the final concrete viewing platform, you’re done!

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Follow the light blue line. That might be easier than my incoherent description.

My first attempts were around about the 7 minutes 45 seconds mark, but – as of Monday 12th March – I’ve shaved it down to 6 minutes 42 seconds. Please rub it in my face and comment below if you beat me.

Go for it! But beware: it’s addictive.

A brief dig at “rooftopping”

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During these cold rainy days in Taipei, I discovered it’s easier than you might think to spend dozens of hours pitifully slouched over your phone on Instagram, scrolling, judging people, abusing random bot commenters, enriching your hatred of the human race and so on. While doing all of the above I saw a growing number of “rooftopping” photos and it became very clear very quickly how silly it is.

(By the way, just to nip this in the bud I’ll be using the abbreviation RT rather than “rooftopping” from now on, lest I sound like a stuffy old teacher trying to be “down with the kids”.)

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I tend to shoot landscapes considerably more than people out of personal preference, so undoubtedly I appreciate a decent vista from a high vantage point; whether it’s from a mountain or top floor of a tower block. Taipei has plenty of buildings that allow pretty simple access to rooftops which are fantastic for photography. It’s enjoyable to try and find new ones around the city, take some photos while enjoying the view and a beer, then leave. I’m somewhat actively involved in this side of the pastime, but not so much the “professional rooftop photographer” area.

In this valiant field, some ‘grammers will take it a little bit further than the above and post selfies atop huge rickety advertising billboards or of another person sitting precariously on a building’s highest edge. A healthy mixture of simple nob-measuring and a wretched cry for attention. To increase the eye-rolling to retina-detaching levels, 99% of the time any picture will have either a cringe-worthy masked mystery superhero-cum-bankrobber standing in an X-Men style pose, or the old like-winner: a cute girl model with panda eyeliner smeared all over half her fizzog. Sigh. Both options reek of desperation, but especially considering their fearless macho personas using another model seems like a real cop-out on the photographer’s part – cowardly even –  and also detracts from the beauty of the view, and focuses on how cool they are to be somewhere so high up and dangerous.

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At the risk of sounding patronising I feel a fair old chunk of pity for most of these people; that they appear so desperate for validation, and will go to such extreme lengths to gain the throwaway approval of online rubberneckers that they will put their own and very possibly other people’s lives on the line. But this is nothing new. I’m sure even the least social media addicted among us have seen videos of crazy Russians hanging from scaffold towers or factory roofs. Doped up or not, the behaviour is something I can’t get my head around.

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CKS memorial during sunset.

Maybe it’s not all motivated by ego and showboating, as apparently it can be a big money-maker. Sadly just a few months ago Wu Yongning fell to his death from a 62 storey building in Changsha. Reports from the always reliable and insubordinate free Chinese press state that at the time of the accident he was attempting to win an unspecified contest to pay for his wedding (to his girlfriend but soon-to-be fiancee), and to fund his ill mother’s hospital treatment. Though I assume Wu Yongning operated at a much higher level than the RTers in Taipei, any accidents – whether you are nine stories high or thirty-five – will still ultimately be fatal. Admittedly, it’s only an assumption that no RTers in Taipei hold anywhere near the same level of training or experience as that of “The Chinese Superman”, but it’s a fair assumption. Here’s another one. They don’t make anywhere near the same amount of money, if any at all.

Rooftopping is a fun way to explore, take photos, escape the crowds and have a cold brew. It is not badass. Stop trying to make it seem that way with your teenage antics, silly masks, and moody looking girls.

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When you can get shots like this, why do you want some pseudo-perhero in a hockey mask with a pair of pants on his head getting in the way of it? On second thought, I think I’d enjoy that. Bring on the Rooftop Rogues!

 

 

Tainan’s Cat Ghetto – AKA N.C.K.U Sheng-li school dormitories

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Everyone living in Taipei will know that recently the weather has been god-awful. As if the constant humidity, incessant raindrops and general dampness weren’t quite enough of a nuisance, a painfully icy wind has been terrorising the northern population, transforming our jaded tears into ice cubes. For this reason it seemed like an inspired idea to catch a bus south for a few days, as according to the weather reports Tainan not only didn’t have any rain, but I might be lucky enough to catch some sun too. Plus Tainan rocks and I fancied riding around on a bicycle for a few days. All the weather reports were bang on the money so I had a pleasantly warm(er) break from Taipei for a few days.

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Interesting Taiwan shaped logos adorning the gate here.

It didn’t take much for me to spot a couple of clearly uninhabited blocks of houses from cycling along Dongning Road, one of the main routes to and from Tainan railway station. The first was a well preserved stone bungalow with the classic old-style turquoise doors and window frames that we know and love. A couple of dogs in the front garden saw me coming and decided to slink away with guilty faces, as though they’ve already been told to several times. My attempts at finding an open door proved futile, although there didn’t seem to be much of interest inside after my nosey peek assessment through the mosquito screens; just some plastic or glass cases on pedestals, the kind you’d see at an exhibition or museum. Maybe the nearby school are using it as a storage room.

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First cat of the day, wondering what the hell I’m doing in his garden.

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I saw an intriguing narrow alleyway sandwiched between the school basketball courts and a row of old stone dilapidated houses as I rolled past, but initially decided against going in because there were three people standing at the far end chatting. Then I thought: what’s the harm in going down there and taking a few pictures over the wall? So I did. The three consisted of a young couple speaking to an older man in a fluorescent jacket; which I mistook for a hi-visibility vest and therefore also that he would be involved in the demolition and/or development of the site and could give some info on the place. As I propped up my bike they all studied me curiously. I broke the ice with a quick ni-hao and a nod, which they all warmly returned in unison. I casually and innocently poked my head over the top of the walls, sneaking a peek at the ruins and took a couple of quick shots on my phone. At this point I realised the conversation between the three had moved on to me, which I think continued for a few minutes as I wandered up and down the alley looking for decent photo angles. The younger man said hello again.
    “Are you looking for something?”
He reacted flattered to my enthusiastic reply about the buildings; and that they are my favourite reason to come to Tainan. The old man chimed in at this point, also speaking excellent English.
    “Almost all abandoned now. But some people still live here, they don’t want to move.”

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A shot from the alleyway.

He explained that they were a block of dormitories that belonged to the nearby National Cheng Kung university in days gone by. There are no plans to refurbish or even redevelop that he is aware of, so these old places are being left to rot. However, even the empty houses aren’t strictly abandoned. A pounce of cats (yes, that’s the collective noun apparently) are the new owners of these neglected icons of the city, making full use of any available space. Crumbling wooden beam above? There’s a cat on it. Old sink clinging on to the wall for dear life? Cat in it. Rusty bucket on the floor? You get the idea. It’s normally a potential issue when exploring places like this that you might run into a pack of stray – and often territorial – dogs, but cats? It’s definitely a first in my books. After researching a little into the immediate area, pretty much all I could find out is that there is a lady that lives in one of these houses that runs some sort of cat adoption agency. That would explain the vast feline population, then. Anyway, I asked the old gent if it would be a problem to have a look around inside the buildings, to which he obligingly responded “as long as you close the gates when you leave and watch out for the dangerous roof, it’s OK.”

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Well that mattress needs turning over, for a start…

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Meow about that, then?

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I’m too lazy to think of a “purr-fect” pun. Oh, I just did. Ha… Cats.

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Not much further down the road were a conspicuous row of terraced houses – five in total – all clearly empty and abandoned. Nothing particularly interesting to see there, except some cool tiling and a continuation of the cat theme: loads and loads of bowls of water and cat food left inside the old buildings. One of them stank to high heaven before I’d even walked through the door, just as I noticed an XXL rat hunched over one of the bowls, thoroughly enjoying some poor kitty cat’s lunch. It looked at me in that cocksure fashion that scavenger animals do when you catch them eating something, as if to say “what, human?” I gave the door a quick rap and he scuttled off. After that I decided not to venture inside. Who knows how many are in there? And I doubt the smell will get any better as I go into the house. Therefore, F dat.

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Sorry about the rank quality, this was taken through a mesh screen on the door. Didn’t fancy going in there, to be honest with ya.

No more than a minute’s walk from Casa de la Rat are yet more rows of houses, three overall.  At least two rows are completely empty, with one row sporadically occupied by a few residents. It seems that way judging by the myriad of CCTV cameras and police-themed deterrent stickers on the front gates of some. Oh, and speaking of deterrents, how does the police station located right at the end of the damn lane sound? It wasn’t too difficult to gain access to the clearly empty ones, but they had barely anything inside. Simply just walls and old toilets. After checking one row I assumed the other would be the same so passed up the opportunity to have a look around. The most interesting thing about this row was that one of the end houses was clearly a rebuild, and a nice one too. Good condition, high ceilings inside, 3 bedrooms, parquet flooring, and multiple bathrooms. Some brooms and whatnot left in the kitchen suggested that someone was coming to clean up occasionally, but judging by the dust on the bedroom floors it hadn’t been for a while. I was surprised that no-one was living in such a nice, modern place. But then there’s a lot I don’t understand about Taiwan…

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Ghost town. Not even a cat here.

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Raiden hats.

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Now I’m no detective. But if I was, I’d say a cat has used this toilet bowl at least once with serious intent to snuggle.

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NOOOO! You’d better save these damn windows, Mr House-dude.

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Seeing an unappreciated floor like this makes me sad. Now there’s a sentence that 18 year old me never thought I’d say.

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Ahoy, new tiles.

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The standard living room for each house in the row.

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Scared this little fella off by accident when I walked into one of his houses. Then he tried scaring me off. Pretty intense evils.

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One of many bowls of cat chow. Or rat chow, depending on how you look at it.

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View from the car park.

Apologies for any disappointment from a lack of information on these places. The only lead I have is a sign on Google street view that says “University creative centre”. I tried asking some of the locals and no one seemed to have a clue. My limited Chinese skills weren’t able to unearth anything notable on the ‘net either. If anyone knows anything, personally I’d be interested to hear what you’ve got and will update this article accordingly. Cheers.

Fuhe Grand Theatre (福和大戲院)

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I hadn’t planned writing much about this one but to my surprise there isn’t a lot of English info online which is available without a bit of sifting. So, I’ll write more than I intended but less than usual. Satisfied?

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Eh? Eh?! I know, it’s cheesy. Luckily I couldn’t find an ‘end’ part, so you are spared 50% of all potential cheesiness.

The Fuhe Grand Theatre (福和大戲院) in Yonghe closed after 30 years in 2002 following the introduction of the DVD and various multi-screened plush modern cinemas. Unfortunately a pretty common way to go for smaller independent Taiwanese theatres in the early noughties. The huge difference is that this place had the honour of being used as the set of practically an entire movie called “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” made by acclaimed director Tsai Ming-liang, which was released in 2003 just after the theatre closed down.  It’s also worth mentioning that the film is set during the final day of business of a once great theatre in Taipei closing after years of dwindling interest, and the final movie shown there is the 1967 martial arts classic “Dragon Inn”. Whether intentional or not, capturing such an important part of local history forever in the most appropriate way is bloody touching and a lovely send-off.

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Bear with me here… the above boards are the showing times for each of the two screens at FGT: one is showing “Dragon Inn” (the movie shown in the theatre during “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” which was set and filmed here) all day, and the other is showing a slightly pornographic movie called “Love Stuff” or something. Interestingly, the handwriting used here matches exactly with the writing in a scene of GDI, meaning it must have been used during filming and left there. This should debunk the reports that the movie was shown here on its last day, because it appears as though it was out of business before filming even started. Phew.

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The main screen.

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Raunchy film posters all over the bloody shop.

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Finally found a decent movie among all the pap that was shown here once.

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Translated to “Four suicidal girls”…

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Ceiling wallpaper throughout the corridors. Fetching, eh?

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The old front entrance, totally unrecognisable from one of the final scenes of Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

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Small projection room. Full of old film canisters.

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FGT was built in 1972 within a familiar type of social housing structure in Taiwan which I could best describe as a self-contained community; the ground floor has a sheltered marketplace, the next floor houses the theatre along with dozens of small shops and the levels above provide typical basic apartments. It’s fair to assume that the closure of the aforementioned marketplace didn’t help the fortunes of an already struggling and ageing cinema that isn’t conveniently accessible by MRT. However, with over 40,000 people per square kilometre in Yonghe district it’s hard to imagine a place like this not thriving even when past its heyday.

P.S 15 years since closure and Taipei’s destructive climate is definitely taking its toll on the wooden sections of the building so tread carefully if you get in. But, when I returned to take some extra shots the entrance I found was locked up again. It took me over a year between visits so be patient, eh?

P.P.S thanks to various Taiwanese for putting up with my endless barrage of questions. You know who you are.

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Hooray, more tiles for my collection.

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Well well well, if it isn’t a big pile of guā zǐ (瓜子), aka melon seeds. Back in the day they were a common snack to graze on while watching the movies. I’m not sure that Vieshow sell them in 2018. Why would they be poured onto the floor like this? The blue cushions suggest someone wanted to make a melon seed bed. Regrettably, I didn’t test it out.

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Exit.

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Various pictures of various scantily-clad women in the smaller screen’s projection room.

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A hooker’s business card? I wonder if her number still works. Maybe she’s retired.

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Back room full of old toot except a charming old rocking chair and a traditional hand painted movie poster. This would have hung on the huge frame on the corner of the building illuminated by spotlights. The poster, I mean. Obviously.

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Seen loads of these bad boys on my adventures.

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Upstairs entrance and the snacking area.

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The gent’s has seen better days. It lseems to be the room chosen for a particularly amusing scene in the movie.

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Sometimes Mother Nature is a resilient bugger. Back in my day, this used to be a urinal…

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One of the first scenes is from this angle. Roughly.

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“One team, one target”. Taiwan high-speed rail’s slogan during construction in 2003.

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See ya soon, boppers.

Taiwanese character building – ugly blocks or a beacon of culture?

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I’m BACK. Christmas laziness combined with seeing friends and family back home, then returning to Taiwan to act as a personal tour guide for my dear Mother for two weeks has given me a legitimate excuse to have not written anything recently. Apologies. But it was a lot of fun, so you should be happy for me. And if you aren’t, well you’re just selfish aren’t you? Anyway. Let’s get stuck in.

One of my favourite pastimes while travelling is to have a good look at the local architecture. Generally one of my first planned activities when arriving in a new city or country is walking around to suss out what my new neighbourhood has to offer, and to have a thorough but leisurely gander at the buildings – ideally in the older part of town.

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I recall my first visit to Taipei in 2015. After a couple of hours catching up on sleep in the most sweaty and strange hostel I’ve had the misfortune of staying at in Taiwan (possibly anywhere) I decided to go out for my first stroll around town. The most nearby and attractive point of interest seemed to be CKS Memorial hall, so ambling along Linsen South Road in the warm afternoon sun I looked up at the surrounding buildings. I wasn’t that impressed. Basic concrete and metal with barely a hint of decoration, my immediate thought was “Soviet Ukraine” followed by “1970’s British office block”. During the next 6 weeks, my opinion didn’t change much.

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Ouch… needs a bit of love.

I returned in the Summer of 2016 after developing a slight crush on Taiwan and spent several months here as a result. As an amateur photographer with a love for shooting alleyways and backstreet disarray, many hours were spent wandering around my local area in search of moody shots. I think it was during this first period of off-road exploration that I started to notice little things about the buildings in Taipei.

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Interesting curved window frame I reckon. But I bet it’s a bit of a ballache to get the end ones replaced… hence the boards on the right hand side.

After looking closer than a passing glance, I noted that each building is different here. Undoubtedly, there is a particular style that is most common: tiled cladding, square windows, and often attached to one of them is a sheltered laundry drying cage. But, minor variations of the common formula create an individuality of sorts, ensuring that it’s rare to find exactly the same building (unless they are side by side and were clearly constructed by the same developers). Some abstractly designed apartments have diagonally laid out floorspaces with triangular balconies that jut out into the street. Many architects have experimented with curved (gasp) balconies and windows.  Some have fully tiled Juliette balconies, sometimes clad completely in a different colour, or often at least a different trim. Occasionally residents will decorate an entire alley with plants (below), making a journey through a dingy walkway much more pleasant.

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The tiled cladding seems to have been an initial afterthought to try and improve the drabness of concrete apartment blocks. They look cleaner and nicer than grey concrete, and as a bonus reflect sunlight into otherwise dingy roads and alleys. But they aren’t perfect. A common problem is that the tiles are rarely – or have never been – cleaned, so many suffer from huge staining that give it a tired and grimy look. Tiled flooring on the other hand is only magnificent, and it should be compulsory to have it in every Taiwanese household. If you’ve looked through any of my urbex stuff, you may know that I have a mild obsession with this and document most vintage floor tiles that I discover. In fact, the preview picture for this blog is a damaged kitchen floor I stumbled upon in an old wooden house in Taitung city.

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Another element that I’m fond of are the famous window grilles. They are far more prevalent in older parts of the country, such as Dadaocheng (大稻埕) in Taipei or throughout olde Tainan, and come in all kinds of shapes and designs. In their heyday they were used as a means of showing your social status; so the more well off the owners were, the more intricate and pretty the design. Luckily for me and anyone else with the same enthusiasm, there is an instagram page dedicated to old floor tiles and window grilles in Taiwan. Yippee!

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I think it goes without saying that I (and probably most people with eyes) am a big fan of the older houses in the country. Siheyuan (四合院) buildings, Japanese era wooden homes, and the vast majority of brick built houses with purdy little wooden framed windows all hold a special place in my heart. It’s a crying shame that there is such indifference towards keeping the old style alive with renovations, meaning that a huge number are left to rot and slowly become reclaimed by nature. House forests. Forest houses. Dirty great trees growing out of the roof. Yeah, that’s a thing.

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So, out with the old, in with the new. Unfortunately, modern builds often will not utilise these pearls of traditional Taiwanese architecture. There are many newly built examples of toned down Neo-Baroque style apartment buildings with carved decoration on the exterior (and vomit-inducing gaudy gated entrances) but far more commonly than not they look horrendously cheap, seeming as though they have been moulded from PVC. It looks too perfectly polished, but there must be some appeal to these places otherwise developers wouldn’t be erecting so many of the ugly sods.

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An example of what I mean on Guangfu S. Rd. Not a great one though, if I’m being honest. But the railings are rank. And if you have a look through the windows downstairs it’s full of tacky but obviously expensive furniture that I suppose they imagine all wealthy Europeans have in their homes. Maybe quasi-European is a better term, which seems generous.

What’s your point, I hear you cry. Taiwan has a lot of unspectacular functional buildings which were knocked up pronto during the post war population boom at a low cost, meaning aesthetic quality would be sacrificed. Despite this, just as one could distinguish a street in the United States, Japan, or Spain; Taiwan holds a particularly recognisable identity. Although it may be considered a fairly new city in the grand scheme of things, it is teeming with life, energy, and history, and has its own identity and soul. Back in the UK it seems that every new development or housing estate is being built with the same cheap yellow bricks, roof tiles, and plastic window frames. The character and traditional sight of beautiful stone decoration on British homes is slowly disappearing into history. Conversely in Taiwan, while the buildings look the same at a glance reveal unique features on closer inspection which gives them a personal identity. Even though it may not be considered technically alluring, the style has grown on me to an amount that I never expected. It made me wonder if I am an isolated case.

Like ’em or loathe ’em, Taiwan’s apartment blocks have a personality. And isn’t that what your Mum always told you? Go for a good personality not good looks? Respect your elders and embrace the beauty of function and tile grime.

What’s so good about Taiwan? A brief look into tourism marketing

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Not too long ago while on a hike at Wuliaojian (五寮尖) with a mate visiting from the UK, we bumped into an American chap taking his dog for a mountain stroll. It transpired that he had been living in Taiwan for around ten years now, so it’s safe to consider him an ex-pat-vet. We chatted enthusiastically for around half an hour about several things; the best routes to walk on the mountain, the latest news in English football (that’s “Soccer” to the ignorant) and swapped information of other local hikes and nearby scenic spots that we should investigate. Following on from the latter conversation, the topic of Taiwan’s tourism promotion came up. Well, lack thereof.

Though I’d wager many long time resident ex-pats would argue against this, but Taiwan is criminally overlooked by Western visitors. It seems to be principally known as a convenient and pleasant place to study Chinese; the accent is generally softer and easier to understand than that spoken in Mainland China, the Internet is unrestricted (Wi-Fi is available seemingly bloody everywhere), and the culture shock factor is considerably lower on this little island compared to it’s mahoosive next door neighbour.

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A rainy evening in an alley off of Tonghua night market ( 通化夜市).

I’ve lived here for a combined total of about 12 months now, and am frequently asked by folk back home and even some of my local friends here: what’s so good about Taiwan? Not in a tone that implies rudeness, but intrigue. Half of the people at home think I’m talking about Thailand, not Taiwan, and the other half seem to have no idea what exists here beyond microchips and factories. So, I enthusiastically tell them about my main hobbies here; biking, motorcycling, camping, hiking, river tracing, wallowing in wild hot springs, et al. I’ll mention the dirt-cheap travel fares, that you can surf within a couple of hours of Taipei City, and the fact that – unlike China – people don’t seem to give a chicken’s arse if you’re white skinned and don’t want to constantly take photos of you (some people may consider this a negative). To summarise, it’s cheap to travel, there’s lots to see, and it’s a pretty clean, developed country with a friendly population and decent grub. Suffice to say they are often shocked that they hadn’t already heard of this outdoor paradise. So why does no-one seem to know anything about it?

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The roof of Pingxi (平溪), just an hour or so out of Taipei city. Lots of steep, spiky-ass mountains here.

My first observation would be that traditionally the vast, vast majority of Taiwan’s tourism trade came from China, so most of the promotion handled itself. However, President Tsai Ying-Wen’s landslide victory of 2016 caused a sharp drop in visitors from the Mainland as the PRC see her as a pro-independence, and were clearly sending her a message by introducing a cap on the number of visas issued to Chinese tourists. Despite this, in 2016 Taiwan had a record amount of visitors from abroad, yet a drop of 20% less Chinese visitors still wasn’t enough to sabotage that.

However, data can be misleading. Did the other visitors spend more or less money than their Chinese counterparts? Conversely, where would the tourists spend their money? Are Japanese visitors more likely to spend in local restaurants whereas Chinese would rather pay all of their money to the tour company? Beyond speculation it’s impossible to tell. One Taipei-based tour group has told the NY Times in an article that holidaymakers from Thailand and Vietnam have increased sharply since 2016, alleging that they will spend around $400US per day – not including accommodation. This is a lot of dough, compared to my own daily expenditure while travelling as a tight-fisted backpacker anyway.

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I noticed during a recent trip to Hualien (花蓮) that I heard some train announcements in Vietnamese and Indonesian Bahasa, and there are new language options on the Taipei MRT ticket machines to include more South East Asian countries. It would be prudent for the tourist board marketing department to set their sights on this demographic and push hard if the spending numbers in the above paragraph are to be believed, and it looks like they are heading in that direction. Thai nationals now temporarily have 30 days visa free until August 2018, and Malaysia benefit from the same arrangement, though permanently not temporarily. Indonesian and Vietnamese tourists are currently only granted 30 day visas if they are travelling with an approved tour group. It’s a slow process, but relaxing the tourist visa laws is heading the right way.

Promotion of Taiwan in the UK is pretty minimal, but getting better. The effort is going into it at least; I remember my shock when I saw a ‘Come to Taiwan’ advert on the side of a London bus for the first time in 2016, and when one of my mates sent me the following picture just two weeks ago.

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“Oh!Bear” (喔熊) giving Londoners the lowdown on Taiwan. Though he looks like he’s threatening that woman. No need to resort to those tactics yet.

They are clearly trying, but I’m not sure exactly what or how effective their tactics are. On the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website I found a few pseudo-artsy short promo videos, one of which follows the clearly fictional adventures of a group of perpetually over-excited Japanese girls that want to shop and eat absolutely everything in sight like a human Ms. Pacman, a milderly (middle aged/elderly) North American couple having what seems to be their last ever holiday due to the unintentionally ominous overtones during conversation, and a backpacker that sports a shark-tooth necklace (not joking) looking to “see the world through [his] own eyes”. It’s terribly cheesy, but the lack of a low production value makes it more difficult to laugh at, and easier to cringe and pity. I haven’t yet decided which is worse.

One idea that I genuinely believe has legs is to invest into and promote the film industry. Encourage Taiwanese production companies to create movies that appeal to other nations, and persuade foreign producers to use Taiwan as a filming location. If I had a penny every time someone told me of their plans to visit somewhere just because it’s in a film… well, I’d have a shitload of pennies. Probably couldn’t retire though. Anyway, Taiwan has that – to a very limited extent – with Juifen (九份) commonly believed to be the inspiration for Hayao Mayazaki’s “Spirited Away”, the internationally famous Japanese anime film from 2001. That’s what people say anyway, but after researching it myself some months ago I quickly found out that it was untrue. Sorry chaps. Another is Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” which, although set in Japan, was filmed entirely in Taiwan around the Taipei area. But I wonder how many people know that, as I certainly didn’t until today.

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Yangmingshan ( 陽明山) in the north of Taipei. Scenes from “Silence” were shot around these grassy volcanic hills last year.

But back to my original point. You only need look as far as the aforementioned Thailand as an example of how film creates tourism demand. The Man With The Golden Gun. The Deer Hunter. American Gangster. The Beach. The Hangover II. As far as Western audiences are concerned, I feel that the latter two have the biggest influence in painting Thailand as a desirable holiday location; an exotic, sun-baked land full of friendly people (unless they are drug cartels), perfect beaches, delicious food, and cheap sin. Speaking of which, in the case of The Hangover II I dread to think how many groups of lads/ladettes tried to emulate that night. And succeeded.

One of the things I like about Taipei in particular is that it oozes a thick “cyberpunk” atmosphere; and by that I mean it blends futuristic architecture and technology with basic concrete buildings, tight alleyways, bright lighting, often drab weather and a high density population. On certain nights in certain locations I feel like I’m an extra in a Sci-fi movie, so I definitely wouldn’t have been surprised had Dennis Villeneuve wished to use it as a filming location for Blade Runner 2049. You missed a trick there, Taipei.

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It’s a fair assumption that people are generally afraid of the unknown. What crazy person would book a holiday in some random country that they had no idea of what to expect? Seeing exotic locales within movies give them more familiarity and creates a desire to see these places, especially if the film is enjoyable. Taiwan has some of the most amazing landscape I’ve ever seen, and it’s not out of the realms of possibility for moviegoers to fall in love at the first sight of the island’s countryside beauty.

I know I did!

How do you think Taiwan can promote itself to more visitors?

 

Green Mansion – Xizhi (汐止區)

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This is another popular ruin that I marked on my map a while ago, in fact it’s hard to remember exact when and how I found out about it. Being located in the mountains on the outskirts of the city is probably the main factor to explain why I haven’t checked it out until now, but on October 31st, the spookiest day of the year, I finally decided to go and have a lookie.

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The exterior. Loads of girders, bags of stuff, and things. No-one around though, not even any dogs. Phewie.

I won’t write a lot about it for two reasons; firstly there are a few decent articles on the history of the place (particularly this one) and secondly there isn’t really anything to see there as of November 2017. Comparing my photos to the ones on the previous link, it’s difficult to mentally picture how they were taken in the same place. Literally everything that isn’t cemented in place has been taken or rotted by now – even the coving around the windows – and the buildings have some sort of periodic construction (or maybe de-construction) work going on but as with most of the abandoned places in this state, progress is rather listless.

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Nice try, kid. Although, if they meant to write “life is whale shit”, then I might have laughed. Oh, I just did. Ha.

I doubt any non-Taiwanese will be aware of this, but the building was used in the popular Taiwan soap of the early 2000s called ‘Meteor Garden’ (流星花園), as the set of some rich bloke’s mansion. Previous articles state that the buildings were used in conjunction, as a filming set, editing studio and possibly accommodation for the crew and actors.

If you’re looking for a stage to take some grimy photographs, this might be your thing. If you’re looking for old nik-naks and interesting forgotten possessions then expect to be disappointed. This is a total shell. Except for one creepy item I happened upon…

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Boo. Like always, my senses were particularly heightened while looking around this place, so bumping into this little lady gave me a nice spike of adrenaline.