Dadaocheng in the Eyes of Günter Whittome: A "Must-Visit" Tour Recommendation
Günter Whittome came to Taiwan, which he now calls home, from Germany, and came to Germany as a tot, just 5 years old, via England. His father is English, his mother German. The family packed their bags and headed to Germany when his mother found she could no longer tolerate the often gloomy weather of northwest England.
His father was a language teacher, and Günter developed the same love for language learning. He started university with English and French studies, then switched over to Chinese studies, spending time studying both in China and Taiwan during this period. Taiwan has been his home since late 2003, but the first time he came to the island was as a student in 1985, and he visited a number of times afterward.
Günter's master's thesis, published as a monograph, was on the infamous 2/28 Incident of 1947, a major uprising for which the spark occurred on Yanping North Road just outside Dadaocheng. In 2005 he wrote the Taiwan edition for Polyglott On Tour, a travel-guide series published in German, and handles all edition updates. These are done every 18 to 24 months, with the seventh edition to be brought out this spring, making Günter a regular Dadaocheng visitor for update research.
First Impressions and the Decision to Make Taiwan Home
"I first came in 1985 to study at Fu Jen University (輔仁大學). I found Taiwan quite open intellectually and economically, and was impressed. My master's thesis was on the 2/28 Incident, and I had long wanted to move here."
The island has changed dramatically since he first came as a student, he says. "Taiwan has become a democratic country – one of Asia's few true democracies – and more prosperous. Public transport has become much more convenient. I clearly remember cross-town trips, even into the 1990s, in rumbling buses over roads well short of 'good' condition, with drivers flying over the roads whenever space opened up, especially during evening rides.
Today's Taipei is a place of smooth Taipei Metro rides, and YouBike and scooters rentals, so convenient and pleasant. There are also far more cultural institutions in the cities today, and Taiwan has become more internationalized as a result of foreign travel becoming so common after martial law was lifted in 1987. These are among the reasons why foreign travelers are so positively impressed nowadays when they come."
Noting the steady increase in tourists from the EU in recent years, he states that among the reasons is Taiwan's reputation as a safe country to travel, as a free and democratic country, with very friendly people, great cuisine, and so much to see in terms of nature and culture. "And international tourists are always searching for new places, 'blind spots' on the world map. Another reason is positive news that sometimes pops up in the international media; for example, discussion regarding the possible legalization of same-sex marriage earlier this year, which younger people around the world, especially, have taken note of. This creates a positive impression of Taiwan as a progressive Asian country, a special place."
Talking about the experience of international travelers in general, he says that most do not have a clear idea about Taiwan, gleaning only "bits and pieces from the sporadic international media coverage, which generally runs stories only when there are tensions with China, big elections are held, etc. Sometimes there are stories that talk about strange or funny eclectic things, like the bubble tea phenomenon, for example." Most international travelers are very pleasantly surprised when they do come, however. "For example, one German writer I know was quite astounded at the great variation found on an island only the size of a single German state. High mountains so close to the wide ocean, such great cultural diversity. Based on the impressive diversity, she thought Taiwan must be 50 times bigger than its actual size."
A History Buff's Interest in Dadaocheng
The starting point of Günter's Dadaocheng interest, "of course, was my research for my master's thesis; many key events happened around, and in, Dadaocheng. It is a very important place to go to when visiting Taipei, the reason I cover it in my travel book." Dadaocheng is one of the places of origin for Taipei City, he says, starting as a village in the 1850s. It brims with history, and there are not many comparable places in Taiwan. One thing both locals and first-time foreign visitors criticize "is Taiwan's many ugly buildings; many neighborhoods have a few nice historical buildings, but they are almost hidden away amidst the densely packed architecture. Dadaocheng is one of the few places with clustering of many attractive old buildings in a small area. And since the 1990s, when Taiwanese began celebrating their own history, many rundown Dadaocheng heritage buildings have been renovated."
What you see on a Dadaocheng day-tour "is the history of an old riverport merchant settlement, with both Western trading-house merchants and local merchants, a thriving tea industry in the 19th century. And today, foreign visitors are also quite interested in the boutique museums popping up throughout the area, exploring both Chinese and specifically Taiwanese culture."
Five "Must-Visit" Spots for Day-Trip Foreign Visitors
After stating he had spent considerable time condensing the many possibilities to a list of "just five" that would do justice to Dadaocheng on a single-day walkabout tour, Günter offered a list of five "favorite must-visit spots": the Taipei Xia Hai City God Temple, Yongle Market, museum207, Ama Museum (阿嬤家─和平與女性人權館), and Dihua Street. "These offer a mixture of the various aspects historical Dadaocheng has to offer: merchants, religion, old-time culture, culinary specialties."
As an introduction to local culture, "No. 1 would be Taipei Xia Hai City God Temple. Though small, this temple is very important. It has always been the heart of Dadaocheng, as with major temples everywhere in the Chinese-speaking world, the center of local life, social as well as religious." Within the small interior is a legion of almost 600 deity statues. One is the Old Man Under the Moon (月下老人), Chinese culture's Cupid, so efficacious he is known far from Taiwan, with the number of Japanese tourists paying calls noticeably high. The temple was built in the 1850s, a few years after Dadaocheng's settlement.
In Chinese culture each urban agglomeration has its own City God, who watches over the behavior of district citizens and judges their fate upon death, calculating good and bad deeds on an abacus often displayed prominently in such temples as a reminder to the living. "If visiting, ask at the main counter for Titan Wu (吳孟寰). Titan is a volunteer who speaks English, and gives enjoyable in-depth tours of the temple's history, gods, cultural significance, and other spots to visit in Dadaocheng."
His No. 2 must-visit is Yongle Market, "another interesting place, even for foreigners who've lived in Taipei/Taiwan awhile. After seeing the many types of traditional-style fabrics here, and how the shops are operated, there's also a good food court with traditional treats. Street performers also entertain in front of the market, especially on weekends and holidays. The temple and market are right by each other, on old Dihua Street."
Today's market is in a modern-era multi-story edifice. The original street-level market was established in 1896, at the beginning of the Japanese era (1895-1945). Then as now, it was home to almost one hundred fabric merchants; the fabric emporium lives on today on the building's second and third floors, catering to regulars from DIY-adept housewives through fashion designers through overseas tourists looking for unique gift and souvenir buys. Fabrics range from delicate Hakka (客家) floral prints to gaudy neon themes. On-site tailor shops can custom-craft a wide range of apparel and other practical-item desires.
Go further north along Dihua Street, Günter advises to visit two small museums that are intriguing windows into the island's history and culture, "my No. 3, museum207, and No. 4, the Ama Museum. The latter covers the history of Taiwanese women during the Japanese period, especially the 'comfort women' issue." This may not be the type of place that many international visitors would normally visit, he understands, "but the issue is important in many senses, including modern political relations, and is a key to understanding the island's modern-era past."
The Ama Museum is designed as a memorial hall honoring wartime comfort women. There are displays of historical materials on the related rights movement, cultural artifacts, and cultural-arts creations by former comfort women. "Ama" (阿嬤) is a term of affection equating to "grandma." The on-site Ama Café serves fair-trade coffee and sells museum-theme goods and consignment goods on behalf of female entrepreneurs and charity partners, and is a sanctuary where support and training for survivors of domestic violence is provided.
At museum207, housed in what was originally a pharmacy built in 1962, the exhibits showcase the Taiwan of the past, such as the widespread use of terrazzo flooring and the complex art of Taiwanese gift-giving, with items ranging from lucky red envelopes to mirrors adorned with auspicious messages on display. A bonus for visitors is the roof access, from which precious panoramas of the community and points beyond are enjoyed.
"My No. 5 is Dihua Street as a whole – the food and many other specialty items found in the old shophouses along this long heritage street. As you walk along Dihua Street, you see the open-front displays of spices, fried fish, fried seaweed, Chinese medicines, and countless other intriguing things, reminiscent of how everything looked a century ago."
He specially recommends a famous bakery, Lee Cake, located not far from the City God Temple. "There's a direct connection between the two. Traditionally, their goods were the type used in temple offerings, made in large sizes, but now are also made in small sizes as take-home treats." Something that makes it especially appealing to tourists, he adds, is that the interior has been renovated, with an appealing layout, and there are many traditional bakery instruments on display. "Lee Cake now also offers enjoyable DIY classes. You are taught how to make old-time Chinese-style treats, which you can take home afterwards." These are generally on weekends/holidays.
The Lee Cake shop was opened in the 1890s, and the fifth-generation proprietors, like the owners of many local businesses, have in recent years thoroughly refurbished their traditional-style shophouse, in a cooperative effort to once again make them attractive works of art, in particular the facades. The shop's best-selling traditional treat, the ping'an turtle (平安龜), is a cake shaped like a turtle, a traditional symbol of longevity, stamped with the characters ping'an, meaning "peace and safety."
Bonus "Must-Experience" Attractions
"I think one fantastic Dadaocheng experience is the annual City God birthday festival, which foreign tourists can experience if they are here at the right time of year. This provides a great look into religious life in Taiwan." The Taipei Xia Hai City God Cultural Festival (台北霞海城隍文化節) includes timeless deity processions and ceremonies, theatrical shows, markets, exhibitions, and guided tours.
"I also strongly suggest just walking around, not just on Dihua Street, but up and down the Dadaocheng side alleys, breathing in the atmosphere. This may well leave an even deeper impression for the foreign visitor compared to Dihua, where the tourists congregate. There is a fun atmosphere"
The director of the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum (台原亞洲偶戲博物館), located on Xining North Road (西寧北路), is a Dutchman, Robin Ruizendaal, who is also director of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company (台原偶戲團). "This is an especially suitable experience for children. If your kids get a little bored looking at all the heritage buildings, this colorful museum provides much of playful interest. The resident troupe provides live performances, mostly on Saturdays." The museum collection surpasses 8,000 pieces, and there are tourist-oriented sessions in puppetry skills and puppet-making.
"Wang Tea is a little further away from Dihua Street. On weekends traditional performances of Chinese music are presented here." This is a heritage tea-seller established as a tea-trading business way back in 1890, still run by the Wang family. A prime witness to the evolution of the Dadaocheng community, through the years it has proudly maintained its charcoal-roasting traditions, which are explained to interested visitors on tours.