Abandoned Railway Dorms (台鐵安東街宿舍案)

Urban Exploration? It’s been a while! Even though I continue to actively explore in my free time, I haven’t posted anything urbex-related in quite a while. There are actually a few reasons for this - The most obvious is that I’ve been way too busy with commercial work and have had a difficult time catching up with all of the personal photos and blogs that I haven’t had a chance to get to.

When it comes to urbex-related stuff, I’ll eventually get to it, but sometimes if the story behind a place that I’m exploring doesn’t really interest me that much, I won’t spend much time writing about it. There are of course also some more annoying reasons why I haven’t been willing to post much urbex-related stuff in recent months, but I’m not really going to get into that here.

All I’ll say about that is the reason you’re seeing this today is because the area I’m writing about is already gone.

With todays post, I had the luck to be able to combine my enjoyment of urban exploration with a bit of research about Taiwanese history dating back to the Japanese Colonial Era, something that interests me quite a bit.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll probably have noticed that I’ve lamented ad nauseam about the fact that when the Japanese Colonial Era ended in Taiwan, most of what was constructed that had anything to do with Japanese culture or religion was torn down or repurposed. Suffice to say, even though a lot of buildings were destroyed by the Chinese Nationalists, they didn’t actually tear down everything that the Japanese constructed.

In fact, a lot of the infrastructure that was constructed by the Japanese (in addition to the efficient way that they did things) was successfully emulated by the incoming regime, proving tremendously helpful when it came to further developing the country.

One of the best examples of this was the way the Japanese provided dormitories for employees of the state - So if you were a civil servant, worked at a school, university, hospital, were a member of the police force or the railway, it was likely that you had a dormitory assigned for yourself and your family.

It goes without saying that the “dorms” provided are not likely the university-style dormitories that you’re thinking - They were often large Japanese-style homes that were provided based on the importance of the work that you were doing with higher ranking state employees receiving larger homes for themselves while others would have received shared accommodations.

The dorms were also almost always constructed very close to your place of work, so if for example you were a police officer, the housing you were provided with was likely very close to the precinct you worked at. Likewise if you were a teacher or a principal, your home was likely constructed on school grounds or next door to the campus.

Link: Zhongli Police Dormitories (中壢警察局日式宿舍群)
Link: Jhudong Dormitories (竹東林務宿舍)

When the Nationalists arrived in Taiwan though they brought with them a couple of million refugees from China which instantly created a housing crisis. To solve this problem they moved many of the higher ranking bureaucrats that came with them into the existing dormitories constructed by the Japanese while at the same time emulating the Japanese and created “Military Villages” (眷村) of their own to be used as “temporary” housing.

As I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts, the Chinese Nationalists arrived in Taiwan with the mindset that they were only going to be here on a short term basis while the Japanese on the other hand developed the island with the mindset that they were never going to leave; This is why many of those “dorms” constructed by the Japanese are still standing today while the hastily constructed Military Villages built by the Nationalists are falling apart and being torn down.

It is unfortunate that most of the buildings of cultural and religious significance that were constructed by the Japanese have already been torn down, but we can at least take solace in the fact that the history of the colonial era hasn’t been completely erased as the continued existence of the “dorms” acts as a link to an important period of Taiwan’s history.

In recent years, the Taiwanese government has done an admirable job (and spent a considerable amount of money) restoring many of the remaining buildings constructed during the Colonial Era and has converted them into tourist destinations. This renaissance of sorts has helped to highlight the fact that Taiwan is in fact an interesting country with an interesting history, which is something that is often overlooked by the local people here.

A few months back I was invited to take a tour of the recently restored Taipei Railway Workshop (台北機廠) - The workshop, which is now open to the public for tours is an important piece of Taiwan’s history that dates back almost a century and is an excellent place to learn about Taiwan’s amazing railway system and how the railway was instrumental in Taiwan’s development.

While touring the workshop, one of the questions that came to mind was whether or not there were dormitories on-site - It seemed probable that one of the buildings in the administrative section could have been used for shared accommodations, but I was never able to confirm that. So while doing research for the article I was writing about the workshop, I took a bit of time to search out where the railway dorms were located.

One of the ways that I typically do research on this kind of stuff is to first take a look at the satellite view on Google Maps. The problem however in this case is that the Railway Workshop was located directly next door to the Songshan Tobacco Factory (松山菸廠), which would have also had dorms of its own. So without a definitive answer, I started doing some research.

The layout of the Eastern Block of the Taipei Railway Dormitories

In no time I discovered that the Railway Bureau had a few separate communities of dorms available for employees at the workshop and beyond. The largest of which was the nearby “Eastern Block” (臺北機廠東宿舍) community in the Songshan Area which dates back to 1937 (昭和12年). Although that community no longer exists today (the dorms were later moved), the interesting thing is that the land they were constructed on is currently home to the popular Wufenpu Shopping District (五分埔商圈) near the Raohe Night Market (饒河夜市).

Link: 臺北機廠東宿舍 (臺北市信義區文史地圖)

Link: Songshan Railway Residences (Synapticism)

If you were wondering about the other large community of railway dorms, namely the “Western Block” (台北西區鐵道宿舍群) you don’t have to look much further than the area between Taipei Train Station (台北車站) and the North Gate (北門).

The area was once home to the historic Taiwan Railway Hotel (台灣鐵道飯店) as well as a large community of dorms, both of which are currently in the process of being restored and will be open to the public in the near future - Unfortunately though, most of the dorm section has already been torn down and converted into a public park.

While it was actually quite simple to research the history of the Japanese-style railway dorm communities, the situation with the modern “Eastern Block Railway Dorms” was a bit more difficult to understand. The majority of the information online is either from some local news sites or real estate sites that were looking to rent out some of the apartments within.

So here’s what I can tell you - The modern high-rise style Railway dorm community was constructed in Taipei’s Eastern District between Zhongxiao Fuxing (忠孝復興站) and Nanjing Fuxing (南京復興站) MRT Stations. Constructed in the 1970s, the Taiwan Railway Andong Street Dorms (台鐵安東街宿舍案) became the new home for most of those who were living in the original dorm community in Songshan.

The apartment block consisted of several buildings in a walled-community and at full occupancy had enough space for two hundred apartments. After several decades however many of the people who were living in the apartments started to move out due to rising rent prices and employee layoffs, leaving many of the apartments abandoned.

At the turn of the century, the abandoned apartments started to become a problem for the local community as they apparently started to attract homeless people and drug users. Likewise the parking lot for some reason became a local dumping ground for abandoned cars, which attracted garbage, mosquitos and other pests.

The local Village Representative (里長) complained to the Taipei City Government on several occasions about the situation but nothing could be done as the community wasn’t completely abandoned and those families still living inside were unwilling to relocate. The Taiwan Railway Administration likewise was losing an insane amount of money every year in property taxes on a plot of land that would otherwise be considered prime real estate and the central government was none-too-happy about the accumulating losses.

Link: 台鐵安東街宿舍荒廢淪車輛棄置廠 (民視新聞)

In 2015, the community made headlines across the Taipei culinary scene when the Railway Administration issued eviction notices to the occupants of the 3600 square meter area. This meant that all the occupants and businesses in the area would have to relocate as the community would eventually be torn down. The most famous occupant, Lin Dong-Fang Beef Noodles (林東芳牛肉麵), a staple of the local food scene, likewise would have to find a new place to operate their business - sending late night foodies into a frenzy. Where would one get their late night beef noodles fix if they closed?

Link: 台鐵局收回宿舍用地 林東芳牛肉麵年底前要搬家 (ET Today)

The good news is that they found a new place nearby to cook their noodles.

When I blogged about the Taipei Railway Workshop, I wanted to check out the dorms, but I found out that it would ultimately be a race against time as the buildings were about to be completely demolished. So, I found some time to get myself to the area, found a way in and explored a few of the abandoned apartment buildings. To tell the truth though, when I arrived, they had already started tearing down many of the buildings, so I was really limited as to what I could take photos of.

As you’re reading this now, the buildings are already completely demolished and the future of the land is yet to be decided. One would hope that the Taipei City Government in conjunction with the Central Government would follow through on their campaign promises and use the land to construct affordable public housing, but only time will tell.

Still, I’m glad that I was able to get into the apartments to check them out and document an interesting part of Taiwan’s history that is likely to be completely forgotten.

Gallery / Flickr (High Res Photos)

Asia's First Mass Same-Sex Wedding (凱道同婚宴)

On May 24th, 2017, the Constitutional Court (司法院), Taiwan’s version of the Supreme Court, ruled that the right to equality and freedom of marriage under the constitution of the Republic of China must also be guaranteed to same-sex couples.

The ruling, “Judicial Yuan Interpretation No 748” (釋字第748號) became a hot topic of public debate throughout the country and would result in a couple of referendums opposing changes to the definition of marriage. The decision made by the High Court however wouldn’t be reversed, so the government had two years to come up with a solution that would bring marriage laws in compliance with the ruling. 

Instead of being proactive, the government procrastinated and pushed the topic aside for as long as it could. The ruling of the Constitutional Court however demanded that action be taken before the deadline of May 24th, 2019 when registration of same-sex marriages would automatically come into effect.

In February 2019, with time running out and pressure from both sides mounting, the cabinet introduced a draft bill to the Legislative Yuan (立法院) titled the “Enforcement Act of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748” (司法院釋字748號解釋施行法) for consideration. Likewise, opposing parties also introduced their own draft bills to be debated in the legislature.

The draft bill introduced by the cabinet granted same-sex couples all the rights available to heterosexual couples under the Civil Code, with the exception of certain adoption rights and the inability for certain transnational couples (those couples where one partner is from a country that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage) to wed in Taiwan. 

The government used its majority in the legislature to push through their bill and with little time to spare, it was passed on May 17th, 2019 (the last possible day under the courts ruling). It was then promptly sent to President Tsai Ying-Wen who signed it and passed it into law on May 22nd.  

You might be reading this and thinking that Taiwan’s road to marriage-equality was a short one, but indeed it was more than three decades in the making. Historians often look back to 1986, when the Legislature first debated marriage-equality initiated by LGBTQ rights pioneer Chi Chia-Wei (祁家威) who filed a petition with the government to revise the law.

It would take well over 10,000 days since Chi first started his crusade, but the persistence and hard work of so many dedicated people throughout the country ensured that Taiwan’s LGBTQ community would finally have the right to marry - and on May 25th, 2019, over 526 couples did just that.

This is the short version of Taiwan’s road to marriage equality. Now if you’ll indulge me for a few moments, I’d like to talk about myself. 

I’ll surely lose my blogger membership card if I don’t talk about myself for a bit.

If you’ve been following any of my social media or know me in person, it should be fairly obvious that I’m a vocal ally, and always have been.

I don’t often talk about this stuff but while growing up I had to deal with a fair amount of bullying during my junior and high school years.

When I wasn’t getting shoved, tripped or hit, I’d often hear the words “faggot” shouted in my direction. These kinds of things generally have a damaging effect on a young person’s self-esteem but truthfully I always had a bit of a hard time understanding the point of it all.

Sure, I realized that the word “faggot” was meant to be demeaning, but what I could never understand was what was so wrong with being gay.

One of my best friends was gay - He did however do an exceptional job of keeping himself in the closet - despite his love of Celine Dion, Cher and Paula Abdul.

He was an inspirational person - He was kind to everyone, respectful, polite and good looking. He was the kind of kid that you’d bring home and your parents would automatically approve of. You were a better person by just hanging out with him.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He wasn’t weird; He wasn’t different.  

This kind of put things in perspective for me - The bullying was meant to hurt, but physical violence was really the only leverage they had over me. Calling me a fag? That didn’t hurt. I’d much rather be gay than someone “cool” in the eyes of ignorant kids like that.  

Upon graduation my friend and I ended up being accepted to the same university.

This was around the same time that Canada started to take the issue of marriage-equality seriously and was also the time when my friend was finally confident enough to come out of the closet and introduced us to his first boyfriend.

As one generally does in university, I soon started attending meetings and protests and eventually became much more vocal in my support for marriage equality. I strongly felt the situation was similar to that of the Civil Rights movement in America and if I simply stood by and let my gay friends protest for their rights, then I’d be doing them a disservice. I felt it was my responsibility as an ally (and for all the other allies) to stand up and use my own voice to achieve the change that was necessary.

My involvement caused quite a few arguments with my parents who were (at the time) opposed to changes to the definition of marriage - and despite the fact that I always had I girlfriend were probably worried that I was going to come out.

During one Christmas Eve dinner we got into one of our typical political arguments while we were all sitting around the table and in frustration I angrily exclaimed that I wouldn’t marry until my friends had the same privileges that I have.

They told me I was being dramatic. It was my only leverage though. I’m the only male in my family and it would seem that ‘carrying on the name’ is my responsibility. (Children…. Eww..)

When same-sex marriage finally became the law of the land in Canada in 2005, we heard some of the typical comments that you hear when this kind of thing happens: “Its the end of society as we know it”, “I guess we’re all going to be gay now.”, “What’s next? Human’s marrying their pets?”, etc.   

It was nauseating.

But Mr. Chi is cute.

But these things have been said so many times in so many different countries and yet none of them have actually come true.

My parents, I’m sure like a lot of people at that time, started to discover that many of the people in their social circles (who had been living in the closet) were finally free to come out and get married. They suddenly realized that they had friends like I had and they started receiving invites to weddings. 

In retrospect, I’m sure they’d rather forget about their opposition to marriage equality but I’m glad to know now that they’ve come around. 

They would later sarcastically tell me that now that same-sex marriage was legal that I would have to fulfill my promise and find someone to get married to.

That scared me, so that same year I hopped on a plane and moved to Taiwan.  

When I arrived here, I assumed I didn’t really have to worry that much.

Taiwan was home to Asia’s largest Pride Parade and it seemed like LGBTQ members of society here were generally much more accepted than other places in Asia.

There were also large and very active civic groups that skillfully lobbied the government, planned protests and generally did a great job of advocating for marriage-equality. 

I wrongfully assumed participation wasn’t really as necessary as it was back home. I thought I could continue to be an ally but I wouldn’t have to be as active as I was before. I could just sit back and let the people of Taiwan do their thing.

I was wrong.

Fast forward to the referendums of 2018 when the government (ambiguously) allowed a couple of (really ignorant) questions regarding marriage-equality to be put to popular vote.

In the months leading up to the referendums I was unhappy with what was happening. Others felt optimistic - But I’ve seen how ignorance and discrimination rears its ugly head.

I’m of course a fan of democracy, but we’ve had recent experience with good people being fooled into voting against their own interests. (Cough.. Cough.. Brexit..)

I was also convinced that the rights of a minority should never be put to a popular vote - Human rights are something that need to be protected at the highest level of governance. 

While marriage equality advocates and LGBTQ groups were doing a great job mobilizing the youth vote there were also extremely well-funded religious groups spreading messages of hate, discrimination and the damnation of society if such a thing were to come to fruition in Taiwan.

Messages like this were damning, especially in what is still considered a semi-conservative traditional Confucian society.  

When the crushing results of the referendums came in, like many I was heartbroken.  

The Taiwan that I loved suddenly wasn’t the same anymore. 

Cheers! 乾杯

You should be well aware by now though that even though the results of the referendums were a set-back for marriage-equality in Taiwan, this story isn’t a sad one - It does have a happy ending. 

The reason for this, as I mentioned above is that the Council of Grand Justices gave the government a deadline of May 24th, 2019 to legalize same-sex marriage. The results of the referendums couldn’t change the constitutional decision made by the judges, so it was up to the government to come up with legislation that would allow same-sex couples to wed.  

With the May 24th deadline quickly approaching, the various political parties came up with their own plans for legalization and it became a heated issue. Fortunately, the DPP-led legislature led by President Tsai Ying-Wen bravely used their legislative majority to push through the best possible compromise to make the dream of marriage equality a reality. 

Was the final result a perfect victory?

No, not at all.

There is still a lot of work to do to realize full marriage equality rights in Taiwan, but for now, same-sex marriage is legal in Taiwan and as scheduled, on May 24th, lines started forming at Household Registration Offices around the country with the full attention of the world’s media.  

Taiwan was finally the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.   

And to celebrate, LGBTQ groups planned a grand wedding banquet to be held on Ketagalan Road (凱達格蘭大道) in the shadow of the Presidential Palace. 

The massive wedding banquet was organized by TAPCPR (台灣伴侶權益推動聯盟), otherwise known as the “Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights” which was one of the groups at the forefront pushing for marriage equality.

Held on Ketagalan Boulevard with the Presidential Palace as the backdrop, the banquet was a basic Taiwanese “Bandoh” (辦桌) outdoor wedding banquet with over 160 tables, a full course menu and lots of entertainment - including messages of support from some of Taiwan’s top celebrities.   

If you’ve lived in Taiwan for any length of time you might think that this kind of traditional wedding banquet certainly isn’t the “fabulous” kind of same-sex marriage banquet that you’d expect. There were tables covered in plastic, traditional Taiwanese dishes, lots of local liquor, an “electric flower car” (電子花車), an MC and local entertainment.

It was something similar to what you’d see while driving through the countryside or the mountains.

It was extremely basic and I think that was the point - These people have waited all their lives for the opportunity to marry and even though they’re gay, they’re not different, they’re just like the rest of us.

The wedding banquet was everything that you’d expect from a traditional celebration in Taiwan and the media was there to show the world - and of course those in Taiwan who aren’t yet convinced - that the love and commitment these people share with each other is no different to the love that straight couples share with each other.

With 160 tables and over 1000 people formally in attendance, the atmosphere was an exciting one. People were eating good food, drinking and sharing their happiness and excitement with their families and those closest to them.

Attendance at the banquet turned out to be one of the hottest tickets in Taipei and those who couldn’t get in decided instead to take part and show their support in their own way by having picnics around the perimeter of the banquet in order to be a part of the historic evening.

Chi Chia-Wei - Taiwan’s Superman.

I wanted to be a part of that historic night, so I figured I’d have to have a picnic of my own.

Fortunately, a few days before the banquet was to be held I received an email from the editor at Goldthread in Hong Kong enquiring whether or not I was free on Saturday to take photos for them.

When I read the email, I could hardly contain my excitement.

I’d be receiving a media pass and would be able to walk around, take photos and soak up every minute of this historic evening. I’d also get to meet some of the heroes of the marriage equality movement in Taiwan.

I was paired up with talented journalist, William Yang, someone I’ve known for quite a while through social media. William has made quite a name for himself in recent years for his work as the East Asia Correspondent for Deutsche Welle News and as a contributor to several other publications.

Our mission was simple - Interview a few of the couples, take some photos of the banquet and enjoy ourselves. It was an ideal opportunity.

The article had a tight deadline though and I had to work quickly to get the photos ready to be published. 

I had lots of fun at the banquet, but once I got home and loaded the photos onto my computer I started feeling a bit stressed - I put a lot of pressure on myself to capture the magic of this historic evening and didn’t want to fail all those people who waited so long for such an opportunity.  

It was relieving to hear from both William and the editor at Goldthread that the photos were great.

Later that day when the article started picking up and was being shared all over social media I received a lot of appreciation for the photos which made me feel a bit better.   

Link: In Pictures: Taiwan’s First Mass Gay Wedding (Goldthread)

Taipei Popcorn

I’ve gone on for a bit here and as I’m not particularly known for my writing skills, I’d like to share with you some related articles that I think you should read to help you understand the situation a little more clearly. I’ll likely add a few more articles in the coming days and weeks, but for now, here are some that I think really capture the magic of the battle and the victory celebration.

Two Days of Celebrations in Taiwan With Historic First Gay Marriages in Asia (New Bloom) 

Gay Marriage Legalized in Taiwan, but Challenges Remain for Full Equality (New Bloom) 

The 30-Year Crusade behind Taiwan’s Same-Sex Marriage Law (Commonwealth)  

What’s Next for LGBTQ Rights in Taiwan? (Ketagalan Media)  

My closing thought here is something that I think will stick with me for as long as I live. I’m not the kind of person who gets all emotional at weddings, but on this occasion I couldn’t help it.

Imagine standing there with your eyes in the viewfinder of your camera looking directly at a happy couple preparing to put rings on each others fingers.

This is a couple whose love has had to endure almost indescribable pressure from a society that would prefer for them to just be “normal.” - Yet they’ve endured.

They’re a couple who for their entire lives have never imagined that it would be possible that they would be able to be standing where they are at this moment in time with the opportunity to express their love and commitment to each other and also have it recognized by law.

They’re a couple that are now recognized as equal members of society, just like you and me. But unlike most of us, they’ve had to fight for their human rights. They won’t take this victory for granted.

As I watched them with tears in their eyes sliding the rings on each others finger, hug and then share a kiss, I couldn’t help to feel emotional. This is what marriage is all about. Its about love.

And as the saying goes, 愛最大.

Congratulations Taiwan.