Cultural businesses revitalize historic Taipei neighborhood

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Thinkers’ Theater on Dihua Street in Taipei City’s Dadaocheng neighborhood hosts performances including live music and plays. (Taiwan Today staff phot...

Thinkers’ Theater on Dihua Street in Taipei City’s Dadaocheng neighborhood hosts performances including live music and plays. (Taiwan Today staff phot...

As Lunar New Year approaches, people begin to flock to an annual market in Dihua Street in the old Taipei City neighborhood of Dadaocheng. The atmosphere is festive as they shop for candies, spring couplets and other customary holiday items.

The area, bordering the Tamsui River in Taipei’s Datong District, was once one of the most prosperous in Taiwan.

It was home to a major trading port in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when numerous local and foreign companies set up offices and stores in the area. One of the major products was tea, which was exported to the U.S. and European countries.

During the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945), the economy continued to thrive, driven by a diversity of businesses from herbal pharmacies to fabric stores. However, by the 1950s, the silting of the river and rapid development in other parts of the city had erased most of its luster.

In an effort to boost the neighborhood’s economy as well as prevent the historic architecture from being demolished, shop owners came up with the idea of jointly organizing the Lunar New Year bazaar in the 1990s. But business still flagged during the rest of the year.

A turning point came about a decade ago when cultural and creative firms began moving in and revitalizing the area.

One of the biggest names, ArtYard, rents, renovates and repurposes the old houses on Dihua Street. In some of the properties it sells its Hakka Blue brand of ceramics and leases the rest to other cultural and creative enterprises including a bookstore, cloth merchants, tea shops and a small theater with a capacity for about 60 people.

This winter, the company is working with Taipei-based online media platform Bank of Culture to organize stalls featuring more than 90 local designs at the Lunar New Year market. With a mission to promote Taiwan’s homegrown products as well as its vibrant creative sector, it is also showcasing agricultural goods from across the country at the bazaar.

Throughout the year, crowds also come to worship at Xiahai City God Temple, completed in 1859 and renovated many times since as the religious center of the settlement. Also dedicated to the deity of love and marriage—better known as Yue Lao or the Old Man under the Moon—it attracts tens of thousands of visitors from home and abroad each year who come to pray for a romantic partner.

As fresh ideas revitalize Dadaocheng, some second-generation heirs are returning to their family business. Gradually, the picturesque community with diverse architectural styles, from old baroque-style buildings to modern structures, is regaining its prosperity by merging old and new.