I was quite unprepared for Taichung’s downtown area, a district not like any other I had encountered in a big Asian city before. It was perhaps a little bit like the similarly-declining Japanese resort town of Atami, or the grimy 1930s Chinatown of Manila, or even a little touch of Sao Paulo? Once the beating heart of this proud industrial centre, the old downtown had hollowed out after a series of disastrous fires and a demographic and economic shift towards the newly-developed “centre” around the National Theatre, further to the West. What was left were scarred derelict towers which loomed over still-busy but distinctly downmarket streets. The crowds on the pavement were, I was surprised to find, largely Southeast Asian in parts. Signs were in Thai and Vietnamese and Filipino. Indonesian pop music blared. There were also surprising numbers (for East Asia) of vagrants and obvious drug addicts, hanging around the busy central train station in its nineteenth century gingerbread station. The fact that I took all this in while buzzing on betel nut perhaps gave it even more of an edge.
And yet there were signs of gentrification too – a new Meridien hotel on the way up, and “Eye Icecream”, an amazing, almost Willy Wonka-esque high concept ice-cream store in a refurbished 1927 Japanese colonial optometrist clinic. This now drew a tremendous line of instagram happy-snappers to its Hogwarts-like interior and ridiculous icecream confections.
Here too were “Think Think Culture Space”, an arty and intellectual coffee shop heavy with the smell of weed and sporting leaflets for all manner of interesting local events (“Cycle for a free Tibet” anybody?) and the city’s dingy basement gay bar, named (screamingly) “My Sister’s Husband.”
It was a weird mishmash of characterful decrepitude, outright decay, immigrant energy and the tantalising possibility of a looming full-hipster turn around, a little bit edgy (although I never felt unsafe.)