Grace Hill (麗庭莊園)

Weddings here in Taiwan are a bit of a weird and wonderful thing for a foreigner like myself - Seeing the ancient traditions that are still practiced today and being able to compare them to (what I’d consider) the bland style of weddings I’ve gone to at home has given me the feeling that what happens here in terms of a ‘ceremony’ has a little bit more meaning.

There are on the other hand quite a few aspects of a Taiwanese wedding ceremony that I find a bit pointless and in some cases quite hilarious.      

As a photographer, I’ve shot a couple of weddings here in Taiwan and the experiences were something that I’ve told myself I certainly would never make a habit of doing often.

Shooting a wedding here is nothing like what happens back in North America and not only is something that lasts an entire day and in several different locations but offers photographers very little time for taking a break or thinking about composition.

I have a lot of respect for the hard working wedding photographers here as they constantly work under extremely stressful conditions and in turn get paid very little for their effort.

Over the past few years the wedding industry in Taiwan has had to face a bit of a crisis and is one that has ended up forcing the closure of quite a few businesses. 

In the city I live in for example, there is a long street that locals refer to as “wedding street” where several large wedding studios were set up side by side.

Over the past two years most of them have closed up shop and the streets look abandoned nownthwt they’re gone.

The reason for the closures is simple - These companies became complacent failed to adapt to changes in the market.

In days past all a young couple would have to do is select one of these ‘wedding studios’ which would take care of the wedding photos and the clothes worn on the big day.

Then they would have to shop around to choose the proper venue for the both the engagement ceremony and the wedding ceremony to take place.

The industry was set up in a way that everything was made to be really simplistic but at the same time very formulaic.

While that formula did work for a while, people started to lose interest and instead wanted more freedom and control of their wedding to offer a much more memorable experience.

This changes in the market opened up an opportunity for smaller wedding studios to offer more intimate services (while undercutting the large studios) as well as allowing for more modern styles of themed banquet halls and other venues for ceremonies to take place. 

An example of these new trends can be found in the city I live where one of the most popular places to hold a wedding is a former golf course that was converted into a beautiful wedding venue.

The venue not only offers a beautiful wedding banquet hall but a large park and forest-like area for couples to enjoy their ceremony outside with nature.  

In a city as densely populated as Taipei however, large open spaces like this are often hard to come by, which means that wedding venues need to think outside the box to be successful.

One of the most successful of these businesses in recent years was the Grace Hill Wedding Chapel (麗庭莊園) which (for a period of time) was the place to go if you were lucky enough to be able to make an appointment at one of the nation’s premiere wedding locations.

The popularity of the Grace Hill Wedding Chapel and its demise is a bit of a strange and mysterious story as the once successful business is now completely abandoned and in ruins. 

Grace Hill (麗庭莊園)

The Grace Hill Wedding Complex was established in 2004 in Taipei’s Neihu Industrial Park (內湖工業區) on an over 6,000 square meter plot of land. The extravagant venue for weddings claimed that it was the nation’s first ‘House Wedding’ (莊園婚禮) operator and offered its customers an ‘alternative’ style of wedding compared to the traditional banquet style.

The original owners of Grace Hill wanted to capitalize on the changes in the market to offer couples the opportunity to plan a ‘House Wedding’ style of ceremony (which was all the rage in Japan at the time). The problem was that as space in Taipei is often a bit hard to come by (and also extremely expensive), finding a location for such a venue was difficult.

The owners eventually settled on a large plot of land in the Neihu Industrial Park but met with further complications when zoning laws prohibited them from running a kitchen on site.

Once the issues were overcome though, Grace Hill opened to the public in 2004. 

At first business wasn’t so great but after receiving a bit of attention from the local media it became a popular filming spot for local television shows and music videos.

The exposure from the local media helped to introduce the venue to the general public and almost over night it transformed into a dream location for the young lovers of Taiwan.

In 2007, management of Grace Hill was transferred to the large and extremely successful Japanese ‘House Wedding’ company Dears Brain (迪詩). The new management brought with it fresh ideas for transforming Taipei’s wedding ceremony culture.

The agreement involved leasing out the operational rights to Grace Hill for the price of US $2.4 million while the original owners would become landlords leasing out the facility.

The agreement appeared to be quite beneficial at the time as the Taiwanese ownership group sought to reduce its involvement in the everyday operations of the company while the Japanese group was looking to diversify its business due to the low birth rate in Japan.

Business at Grace Hill was great for almost a decade (or so it seemed to be) with young couples planning their big day around the extremely long and exclusive waiting list.

With prices per table varying between $NT18,000-23,000 though, a wedding ceremony at Grace Hill was ultimately only a dream location for most of Taipei’s young couples.

In 2014, even though business seemed to be doing quite well, Dears Brain, the company which managed Grace Hill decided to abruptly end their lease and pull out of the Taiwan market.

The closure, which appeared only as a notice on its official website caused a lot of speculation in the Taiwanese media. The official statement was extremely brief and attempts to contact the company for a clarification were denied.

The ‘official’ stated reason for the closure was simply that the lease had expired and that the Japanese company decided to pull out.

Media speculation and gossip fuelled a lot of sensational claims that continue to persist.

Since the closure of Grace Hill, the property has been left in limbo as the land owners seemed only to be interested in leasing out the grounds to another management group.

The high cost of rent, which is said to be around $900,000 NT (US $30,000) per month, has likely caused any interested parties to get cold feet from actually becoming serious about it.

In the years since Grace Hill has been abandoned, it has attracted the curiosity of local residents and also young couples who ‘jokingly’ take photos of themselves on the steps of the chapel.

What was once extravagant has been transformed into a collection of derelict buildings filled with garbage, graffiti and occasional squatters.

The complex consists of two large buildings where the wedding receptions were held - Each of which has a large open room with a different design theme on each floor. 

Today those rooms have all been more or less gutted but you can still find some wedding-related garbage.

There is also a beautifully designed ‘chapel’ on site which was one of the main reason why people wanted to pay so much money to have their wedding on site in the first place.

The design of the chapel I’m sure allowed for beautiful wedding photos, but like the other buildings on site is now full of garbage and the walls have been spray painted by graffiti artists.

Nevertheless, the shape and design of the interior would have been quite nice and very photogenic. 

The other building on site would have been the administration area where the management team and consultants once had their offices.

The building came with a fully functional bar and looked to be quite inviting as the walls were all made of glass.

The second floor of the building was where brides and grooms would go for their fittings but is currently full of so much rubbish that I didn’t even attempt to check it out.

In terms of urban exploration, the Grace Hill Wedding Chapel is about as easy of an exploration as they come - Everything is open to the public and you’ll often find quite a few people on site taking photos.

It differs quite a bit from the places that I usually explore as the history is all relatively new, but it still comes off as an interesting place that suffered an unfortunate fate.

The future of the property is still up in the air and the latest news is that the land has been put on the auction block looking for someone to take over.

It’s highly unlikely that any future developments on the land will be anything wedding-related as the land is more valuable than what is currently on it, so it seems that the days are numbered for this once popular place where thousands of couples said their vows. 


Sanzhi Seashell Temple (三芝貝殼廟)

A few weeks back I found myself driving along the North Coast on my way to take photos of the scenic Laomei Green Reef. While driving I noticed sign on the side of the road that pointed towards the famous “Sea Shell Temple”.

The temple was one that I had been aware of for quite some time and was always on my list of places to visit, but had never found the time to visit.

It was still quite early and as I preferred to take photos at Laomei a bit later in the afternoon, I decided to visit the temple first.

I was under the assumption that as the highway was next to the ocean that the so-called Sea Shell Temple would naturally be a short detour from the main road. To my surprise however the temple was a twenty minute drive up the mountains and the ocean could only be seen from a distance.

Pulling up to the temple gave me the strange feeling that I found myself in the wrong location. There was a large, but shoddy parking lot full of pot holes which led up to the rear of a building that looked a little bit like a poorly pieced together mountain shack.

I thought to myself that this couldn’t be the famous temple that I’ve heard about. The pictures I had seen made it look like it was a glittering palace but what I was seeing from the outside were nothing of the sort.

Instead of turning around and leaving though, I figured after driving all the way up the mountain that I should at least check it out - and I’m lucky I did!

The Sanzhi Sea-Shell Temple turned out to be is one of the strangest, yet most beautiful temples that I have visited in Taiwan. I’m always in awe of the craftsmanship and artistic prowess that goes into constructing Taiwanese places of worship, but this one takes it the extra mile.

Sanzhi Sea Shell Temple (三芝貝殼廟)

Strangely, even though locals and street signs refer to the temple as the Sea Shell Temple (貝殼廟), it is actually named the “Fufuding Mountain Temple” (富福頂山寺). I’d argue that the English translation loses a bit of its lustre. Nevertheless, the Sea Shell Temple is a bit easier to remember in both languages.

Unlike most of the temples that I write about, this one is not a place of worship that attracts people for its long history - What attracts crowds of tourists is obviously unique design and thus the reason why its nickname is more widely known than its actual name.

It may seem gimmicky, but the design and art in the temple is the main attraction and even though people make sure to pay respect to the gods enshrined, its obvious that the religious aspect of it all is less important.

The temple is primarily dedicated to Buddhist monk and Ji-Gong (濟公) and the Eighteen Arhats (十八羅漢) and as is common in Taiwan is somewhat of a mixture of Buddhist and Chinese folk religion traditions.

The "Mad-Monk" Ji-Gong

The Eighteen Arhats were the original disciples of the Buddha who followed his instructions and achieved enlightenment. The Arhats are popular figures within Buddhism and Chinese folk religion and it is common to find their images in temples. The Arhats are thought to be tasked with preserving and spreading Buddhism throughout the land and each of the monks are thought to have supernatural powers.

The so-called “Mad-Monk” Ji-Gong, whom the temple is primarily dedicated to is a figure who is commonly associated with the Eighteen Arhats in Chinese folk religion. Ji-Gong was a 12th Century Chinese monk who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋朝). Thought to have possessed supernatural powers, Ji-Gong spent quite a bit of his time helping the poor and standing up to injustice.

The Main Shrine

Known also for his wild and eccentric behaviour, Ji-Gong is said to have performed miracles and spread Buddhism while at the same time violating his monastic vows by consuming meat and alcohol and enjoying some alone time with women. By the time of his death he was given the title “Living Buddha” (活佛) and also thought to be the reincarnation of the Arhat Nantimitolo (慶友尊者) as well as being deified as a Chinese folk-hero deity.

The main shrine of the temple is dedicated to Ji-Gong, but there are also a number of other Chinese-folk religion deities most notably including images of the Earth God (福德正神) at the entrance and exit of the cave that leads visitors behind the main shrine.

The main attraction of the temple is its “Eighteen Arhat Cave” (十八羅漢洞) which is a man-made cave dedicated to the Arhats. The walls are lined with spiky white coral and there are several beautifully designed enclosures where shrines are set up.

Shrine to the Earth God (福德正神)

A walk through the cave doesn’t take that long, but you need to be very careful not to hit your head which would probably be quite painful. Before you enter the cave and when you exit you are asked to take a sniff of a large kettle of hot rice wine. I was a bit confused as to why they’d ask guests to smell the wine, but considering the temple is dedicated to Ji-Gong, a notorious alcoholic, it makes a bit of sense.

The small temple, which was completed in 1996 is said to be home to over 60,000 sea shells and its construction took over two years to complete. The design of the temple is similar to other temples in Taiwan but has a very ocean-like appearance thanks to the sea-shells and marine-related imagery making it seem almost as if you were visiting a temple under the water.

The front facade of a Taiwanese temple typically features beautiful stone carvings of lions and dragons but at this temple the stone carvings are replaced by sea-shell dragons pillars and sea dragon door guardians. The rest of the facade includes sea-shell lanterns and a sea-shell incense urn as well as having images of marine life on the walls.

Like most Taiwanese places of worship, the artistic design and the attention to detail put on display here is beautiful, but this one takes it to the next level. You could easily spend an hour looking at all of the artistic detail of the front facade of the temple alone.

Like all of Taiwan’s temples, entrance is free of charge and you won’t be hassled for donations. You will be asked though to burn some incense and pay respect at the main shrine if you want to enter the cave. While the rules may not exactly apply to foreigners like myself, if you are Taiwanese, they will request you first pay respect before entering. 

Environmental Concerns?

Watch your head in the cave! 

One thing I don’t like to do too much when introducing religious stuff in Taiwan is criticize. I’m a guest in this country and even though I’ve lived here for over a decade, there are still a lot of things, especially culturally that I don’t fully understand.

What I do understand however is that the world’s supply of healthy coral reefs is decreasing at a catastrophic rate. If you are unaware of the importance of coral, let me explain: Earth’s coral reefs are home the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Reefs are found all over the world in tropical and subtropical oceans and are home to at least a third of the planets marine life all the while taking up less than one percent of the total area of Earth’s oceans.

Currently more than 75% of the coral reef on the planet are considered threatened and unfortunately many have already been lost. Factors that include the warming of the oceans, ocean acidification, overfishing, sewage and the collection of reefs as ornaments (among others) are putting massive strain on the livelihood of the remaining coral environments. 

Coral everywhere. 

Having spent quite a bit of time scuba diving and snorkelling here in Taiwan, it is easy to observe the year-by-year degradation of the reefs which are extremely important eco-systems for aquatic life.

The amount of reef that it took to build this temple is not insignificant and as they are currently in the process of building a second and even larger branch, I think its only natural to question where the coral reef is coming from and whether or not it was dead before being taken out of the water.

When it comes to the environment, the Taiwanese government boasts that its on the ball, but in most cases it is easy to see that environmental sustainability and punishing polluters is not really high on their list of things to do.  

The people who run the temple insist that the coral used in its construction has all been imported, that the coral used was of the variety that isn’t considered to be “protected” and that it was already dead before taking it out of the ocean.

I sincerely hope that they are telling the truth, however it is also a good idea to remain skeptical and ask lots of questions.  

Getting There

 

Getting to the temple is a bit difficult if you don’t have your own method of transportation. The temple is on top of a mountain a short distance from the Sanzhi (三芝). If you are intent on visiting you could take a bus to the village and walk up the mountain, but that would be a long walk. The easiest way to get to the temple is by car or scooter and all you’ll have to do is follow the map provided above!

There is no denying the beauty of this temple - It is one of the coolest temples that I have visited in Taiwan. The attention to detail and the craftsmanship required to successfully design and build something like this are remarkable. I just question whether it is necessary to contribute so much destruction to the oceans for something like this.

Ultimately that is not for me to decide. I hope you enjoyed the photos.