This downtown section is being regentrified, but it still provides a feel of the lively street life of old Taipei.
This downtown section is being regentrified, but it still provides a feel of the lively street life of old Taipei. By Brent Hannon / Photos by Yu Lu-Kuang Ximending has been the entertainment center of Taipei for more than a century. When the Japanese came to Taipei in 1895, they declared Ximending a leisure district, and built wide boulevards, theaters, restaurants, and bathhouses there. The neighborhood has of course changed considerably in the past 108 years, but it never lost its focus as a place to relax and have fun. It was founded as the city's premier entertainment center, and it still holds that title today. Ximending is not a big neighborhood -- about five city blocks in both length and breadth, bordered by Zhonghua Road on the east, Kangding Road by the Tamshui River on the west, Hankou Street on the north, and Neijiang Street on the south. Its compact size and streets blocked off from motor traffic make it ideal for a walking tour. Ximending took form over three eras, starting with the Japanese occupation, followed by the period of mainland Chinese immigration when the national government moved to Taiwan, and then finished off under the influences of modern Taiwan. These three elements -- Japanese planning, mainland immigration, and modern Taipei culture -- are still apparent in the old neighborhood. When the Japanese took control of Taiwan in 1895, they selected a prime piece of riverfront property just outside the city walls -- what is now Ximending, or the West Gate Area -- and declared it a pleasure zone. Eager to make a success of their first colony, they built broad tree-lined boulevards, majestic theaters, and lively restaurants and bathhouses. A separate neighborhood for eating, drinking, and theater-going was characteristic of Japanese planning. Ximending blossomed into the city's finest neighborhood, filled with graceful architecture and leafy public squares. After the Japanese left Taiwan in 1945, the Nationalist government took over, and about two million refugees from the civil war on the mainland poured into Taiwan. Most of them came to Taipei, and tens of thousands moved into stately Ximending, transforming it into a teeming ghetto of eateries, bakeries, temples, wet-market stalls, and tailor shops. Many of the mainstays of modern Ximending were created during this era. Hong bao changs (!red envelope shows!) offered gentlemen innocent entertainment, featuring cabaret-style performers singing old mainland favorites, for the price of a cup of tea. The more popular the singer, the more hong baos, or red envelopes filled with money, she received. The modern successors of these cabarets still thrive on Xining Road, in the heart of Ximending. The Shanghai Heavenly Bakery was also established at this time, on Chengdu Road. It featured authentic Shanghai cakes and other baked goods, and was such a hit that it spawned many imitators. Today two Shanghai Heavenly Bakeries are still operating -- the second on Wuchang Street -- each claiming to be the original. Both have signs proclaiming !Since 1949,! and both usually have long lines of customers at the door. Ximending thrived for the next four decades, but in the 1990s the old 'hood fell on hard times. Taipei's center of gravity shifted eastward, away from the river, as fashionable new neighborhoods opened up in eastern Taipei sporting modern multiplex theaters, glass-and-steel malls, and state-of-the-art Japanese department stores. The people of Taipei, attracted to the new districts, began to abandon old Ximending. !Movie Street! on Wuchang Road remained popular, but the rest of Ximending sank into seedy disrepair. Even the now-elegant Red House Theater touched bottom in the mid-1990s, becoming a haven for X-rated peep shows and other unsavory activities, until then Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian shut it down in 1997 during a crackdown on the sex industry. But in the late 1990s, Ximending underwent a renaissance. By that time, the main-trunk railway line that ran along Zhonghua Road -- causing frequent traffic congestion -- had been placed underground, allowing the boulevard to be widened. The Taipei City Government then moved to revive the district, opening a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway stop at Ximending, a convenience that lures visitors to the area in droves. The establishment of pedestrian-only streets -- a novelty in trafficky Taipei -- gave the area a boost as well, opening the lanes to window-shoppers, movie-goers, and people-watchers. The signature renovation was the Red House Theater (see sidebar). The efforts were part of Mayor Ma Ying-jeou's plan to revitalize the district, or as he says, to !give the old lady a makeover.! The improvements fuelled a renewed interest in Ximending, as the citizens of Taipei rediscovered the pleasures of downtown shopping, sightseeing, and movie-going. Encouraged by the enthusiastic public response, the city has unveiled new plans for the old district. A cross-shaped extension to the Red House Theater will re-open later this year as a retail market, with upscale shops and restaurants, as the result of a US$2.8 million renovation project undertaken by the Taipei City Government Urban Development Department. A new park, Movie Theme Park, will open next year on the west side of Ximending, between Emei and Wuchang streets. Movie Theme Park will feature a drive-in theater, and it will anchor the western edge of the neighborhood, where most of the movie theaters are concentrated. The park will incorporate the existing Taipei gas company chimney, which will continue to shoot its signature flames into the sky. The city also plans to bulldoze a squatter village that lies a few hundred meters south of the Red House, and turn it into another park. Zhonghua Road, on the eastern border of Ximending, will be widened to include a roomy pedestrian strip, with winged shelters to protect people from sun and rain. When the work is finished, tourists will be able to walk from Movie Theme Park, through the heart of Ximending to Red House Theater, then through the new park to enchanting Lungshan Temple, one of Taipei's top attractions. The plans are not pie-in-the-sky, say city planners. Taipei has unveiled an innovative model to pay for the upgrades -- the city's eastward shift will pay for renovations in the west. All new buildings must pay an impact fee that will be used to rebuild western Taipei. The Red House was the first gentrification project, Movie Theme Park will be the second, and the pedestrian strip and future park will be the third. More will follow, according to city officials. As of now, however, the gentrification of Ximending has only just begun. The neighborhood remains a crowded maze of alleys and lanes, jam-packed with tailors, collectible shops, T-shirt stores, noodle stands, and book stalls. The back alleys are abuzz with tattoo needles and shouting hawkers, and the front lanes are clogged with sightseers and street vendors, those ever-present icons of modern Taipei. The street vendors, with their mobile food carts, are a highlight. All the familiar favorites are available in Ximending, including candied cherry tomatoes, fried onion pancakes, grilled fragrant sausages, roasted corn, spicy barbecued squid, and deep-fried tofu on a stick. The moji, a delicious snack made from sticky rice dough rolled in sesame sugar and sweet peanut powder, is exceptional. The grilled sausages are also tasty, and come with a clove of garlic. These are best washed down with a cold beer, as it is legal to drink on the streets in laissez-faire Taipei. Ximending also has some good sit-down restaurants. The Duck Restaurant at 98-2 Zhonghua Road, Section 1, has served steamed duck since 1950, and the recipe hasn't changed in half a century. The duck is steamed, chopped, and placed in a bowl on a bed of cilantro. Then a steaming ladle of hot broth is added, along with simple but superb soup noodles made from either rice or wheat, plus bean sprouts and roasted spring onion for flavoring. Another gem is Yi Tiao Loong, or !One Dragon,! just around the corner at 12 Emei Street. Yi Tiao Loong serves northern Chinese cuisine, and its best dishes are dumplings, sesame buns with beef, cold rice noodles with mustard and chicken, and onion pancakes. The friendly waiters may also recommend deep-fried meatballs dipped in salt and pepper, or blanched celery with spicy mustard. Their mainland accents lend an air of authenticity to their recommendations. The Fuzhou Restaurant (3F, 155 Xining South Street) is also worth a try. Fuzhou cuisine is mainly characterized by seafood, and its strong salty flavors and heavy use of organs are not to everyone's liking. But for the adventurous, Fuzhou Restaurant is an opportunity to try a relatively rare cuisine. The oyster omelettes are excellent, and are served sandwich-style in toasted sesame buns, while the house specialty, seafood rice noodles, is a mild and nourishing soup. Ximending is still the city's top theater district, boasting more than 20 cinemas, many dating from the 1920s and 30s. The venerable Lux, Hoover, and Sun theaters have been transformed into multiplexes, but the queen of Taipei movie houses, the Ambassador on Chengdu road, remains a grand old movie palace in the traditional style -- and is still one of the most profitable theaters in town. Movie-lovers flock to the Ambassador to see films the old-fashioned way -- on a huge screen, together with hundreds of other people. Many of the movie-goers are teens, which is not surprising. Teenagers were the first to rediscover the new Ximending, lured by its movie theaters, cheap shopping, Japanese collectibles, and tasty mainland snacks. Today, the district is the teen capital of Taipei. The crowded lanes and alleys are always chock-a-block with teens and twenty-somethings showing off their Japanese fashions, drinking bubble milk tea, eating soup noodles, and sometimes, working up the courage to get their first tattoos. The teens have adopted this borough as their Mecca, in the same way Western kids have taken over the malls of America. They gather every night to display their multicolored hair, platform shoes, tattoos, and cutting-edge Japanese fashions. On weekends, local pop stars play music on outdoor stages, and the fans go crazy. Stand back -- or you'll be trampled by teenagers. One recent Sunday, when local musician Harlem Yu took the stage -- resplendent in a turquoise shirt and brown polyester slacks -- the shrieking of teenagers drowned out Harlem's music and even extinguished the roar of traffic on nearby Zhonghua Road. Beatle mania lives on in downtown Taipei, with Chinese characteristics. The kids aren't just here to see Harlem and the other performers -- they are lured by the food and shopping. The streets are jammed with shops selling cheap school supplies, comic books, Japanese and American collectibles, and other knick-knacks. There are also dozens of tattoo parlors and as many hair salons that stand ready with their dyes of red, brown, yellow, and orange. But Ximending is not just for kids. It also attracts their parents, who frequent its old-style Chinese shops and restaurants, and Japanese tourists, who find something familiar in its layout and architecture. To the city planners, the diverse crowds are evidence of the success of their renovation programs. !Our ongoing plan is to preserve the area, develop its entertainment businesses, and create open areas for people to gather,! says Andy Fang of the city's urban development department. That is exactly what the Japanese planners set out to accomplish more than 100 years ago. Their plans succeeded, and now the new city architects are seeking to recreate the original vision. The old neighborhood has come full circle.