Japanese-Era Shop Houses
Tainan has beautiful historic temples and attractive modern sky-rises, but through most of the city, the clutter of signs, shop-houses, and apartments are pretty unappealing to the eye. Lets face it. Much of what was built in Tainan from the fifties through the eighties is nothing short of ugly. Most apartments and shop-houses from that time were completely utilitarian. They were often just concrete boxes whose only aesthetic achievement was being coated from top to bottom in bathroom tile. One could blame a building materials shortage in the fifties and sixties, a push for cheap housing for a growing population, a simple neglect for exterior aesthetics, or even a KMT party that was more concerned with national infrastructure and military spending than being a beacon of local planning. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that it’s hard to delight the eye when checking out the domestic architecture of Tainan. If you pay attention, however, there are always some old buildings that are visual treats mixed in with the urban clutter, and almost every one of these buildings stems from the Japanese-era.
One of Japans great legacies on the island is certainly the architecture. They introduced modern building practices and European aesthetics to Taiwan and to Tainan City. The old Prefecture Hall, Tainan Railway Station, Tainan First Boys High School, and the Tainan Meteorological Station are just a few examples of civic buildings left by the Japanese. European-trained architects from Japan brought blends of Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco into their designs, adding decorative qualities to large and durable structures.
Two of these styles, Baroque and Art Deco, also made it into the exterior designs of homes and shop-houses. The decorative patterns of these two styles were merged into the typical Fujian-style shop-houses that dominate the island. Most of these buildings are either two or three stories and made from either cement or a mixture of brick, stone, and cement. Typical to the Fujian style, the front part of the upper floors hangs over the sidewalk to protect it from the elements. These upper floors are where you get the decorative balconies and cornices. Flowery and curving Baroque ornaments in a building’s cornice are the most common sight, but linear Art Deco elements also appear either on their own or blended with other styles. Rounded or octagonal windows were also fashionable during this time period.
The Baroque designs in particular were a real sign of opulence and wealth for home and shop owners of the period. Art Deco was more contemporary, but its linear designs may not have been as easily readable as a sign of affluence, and that may be why there are fewer example of this style in domestic housing. One of the best remainders of an Art Deco influence exist in the architecture of the Chin Men Theater.
In the nearby town of Xinhua, you can find an old street that is entirely constructed with Baroque ornamentation. In Tainan City, these shop-houses are a lot more scattered. They are mixed in with various other buildings that have popped up through the ages, and so it becomes quite an egg-hunt to find them. They are not as grand as some of the stone and brick Baroque buildings in Taipei from the same period, but some of them are still quite impressive. You can find them randomly throughout most of the city, but the most concentrated area of them is around Minchuan Road and Minzu Road in the Ximen Road area.