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Military Dependent Villages
In this edition of Travel with me, I'll be taking you all on a tour of a very curious location deep within Taipei's most modern and urbanised areas. Called the South Village 44, it is a village situated just minutes walk away from the built up financial district of Taipei also known as the Xinyi district. It is a classic example of aged buildings mixed in with the ultra modern, a fairly common sight in Taipei and also one of the reasons why it is such an exciting metropolis to visit and explore.
The South Village 44 is a well known location for photography because of the opportunity to capture the ultra modern sky scrapers such as the Taipei 101, together with the urban slums. Though the village is no longer inhabited, it has become an important landmark for cultural and historical preservation, visitors will discover the history of the village beyond being an early settlement and in-fact, connect the dots with how Taiwan went about it's own development after the second world war. This era was of course a pivotal time for the cultural and societal development of people living in Taiwan. After all, the island was no longer the home of just the natives, but also for the followers of Chang Kai Shek and the Republic of China.
In the years that followed their retreat from the mainland to Taiwan, many villages similar to South Village 44 were constructed to rehouse the over one million soldiers and their families. Originally intended as temporary residences for the anti-communists - who shared a common belief that they would shortly retake the mainland, the houses in these villages were constructed very poorly; as a result, they suffered from many urban problems such as dereliction, decay and even social unrest.
South Village 44 was the first of these purpose built villages, but very quickly these "Military dependants' villages" as they are now referred to, became wide spread across all of Taiwan. This of course had dramatic societal impacts as the mainland visitors sought to make Taiwan their home whilst the natives felt that their turf was coming under threat.
During the 1990s, the government of Taiwan recognised some of the urban problems presented by these mostly abandoned villages and began a program of systematic demolishing of these villages, and in their place, high rise buildings. It wasn't the case of eviction and forcing the remaining residents to become homeless because they were granted rights to live in the new apartments. Today, the number of Military Dependent's villages number at 170, and are mostly used as historical sites with a cultural value instead of actual places to live. At the peak, there were nearly 900 villages scattered across all of Taipei.
Being the first Military Dependent Village, South Village 44 has weathered the decades very well, and despite looking like a derelict urban slum, it has tremendous character with it's vibrantly colourful doors, adornments, and cartoons stuck all over the beaten down buildings. Some of the walls looked no more than the rock, stone and dirt they stand on. It's hard to believe that most of the walls were originally built with mud consolidated bamboo walls, only to be replaced with bricks some ten years after.
In-fact, the villages were constantly a work in progress, starting off with the necessities and gradually adding in things like sewage systems for toilets, kitchens, real roof tiles (instead of straw) and even electricity.
The properties in these villages were continually improved until they reached parity in standards with the buildings of the natives. The residents of these houses were provided with around 3 square meters of space, and they were given no ownership rights to the property nor the land. This became a problem when the real estate market boom happened in the 1970's and many of the village properties once again fell behind the developments.
Settlers isolated themselves from the rest of society and developed their own cultural defaults. For many decades, the military villages had their own social systems which in practice were brought over from China. As they say, birds of a feather, flock together and this certainly applied to the two distinct groups of people sharing Taiwan.
The military villages used to be heavily guarded and thus, access to the village was restricted to those who could produce resident permits. In addition to having access to the village, the resident permits also provided them with the necessities they would otherwise be unable to afford due to low salaries. Necessities would include : rice, flour and vegetables.
South Village 44 in the modern day.
In the 1990's, the government began demolishing swaths of military villages which by then were largely uninhabited or abandoned entirely. Many of the original houses of village 44 were destroyed and new properties were erected in their place. What remained became a historical site promoting and educating people about the tumultuous tides of history.
Right at the front gate, you will find a child day care centre, hence the colourful doors, cartoons and statues, but you'll also find an art centre, a store, a cafe named Good Cho's and a museum exhibiting some of the living environments of the original settlers as well as the kinds of things they used to live, day to day.
Outside the museum, there are many different photo opportunities and it will be part of the fun to try hunt for them. One of the most obvious ones would be this "instagram" like frame at the entrance to the museum.
The Taipei 101 is a five minute walk away from South Village 44 so I would recommend visiting both on the same day. I really like this photo of the village but with the Taipei 101 skyscraper in the background. It's a really distinct contrast of landscapes but also a representation of the history and development of the city.
Military dependents' village and rest of society.
As I mentioned briefly before, the military dependants villages (also known as Juan Cun) were largely segregated from the rest of society. All of the villages were built to house the KMT military and their families, and were enjoying welfare provisions far better than the rest of the people in Taiwan. In-fact, this imbalance of resource allocation become a point of contention through out the martial law era.
All of the military families believed that their stay would be temporary and that they would very soon retake the mainland. They did not treat Taiwan as their home and thus developed isolated but organised social systems of their own. As the stalemate drew out longer, many of the soldiers became more and more integrated with the rest of Taiwanese society, even marrying Taiwanese women. This turned out to be the source of tranquillity and harmony between the two groups of people in society, and also the beginnings of cultural exchange between the ethnically different Chinese people.
It's fascinating when you think about the KMT militants and their families who came over to Taiwan expecting a swift return to the mainland. It wouldn't be until 1987 that they were allowed to return home and see their loved ones who they left behind during the retreat. For nearly 40 years, they militants lived under perpetual uncertainty, not knowing when they'll retake the mainland, or whether the communists will attack the island. More than that, they were uncertain about their families back home and whether they would see them again. Even though many of the militants became integrated into local communities, they were never truly able to forget the hardships they endured all these years, as well as the homesickness which developed.
Tightly knit communities within the military villages meant good relationships with those within the community, but it also meant isolation from the local Taiwanese. Being an unwelcome minority meant a constant fear of local uprisings against the mainlanders.
One of the most famous gangs which spawned from these villages was called the United Bamboo Gang which is still active today. Together with their unofficial ties to the KMT, they have been involved in a lot of organised crimes ranging from the murder of the dissident journalist, Henry Liu in 1984, to murders, drug trafficking, sex trafficking and much more. They were originally formed by adolescents in the villages who feared threats from the locals but were later unofficially supported by the KMT to uphold it's dictatorship.
Coming from China, I found Taipei to be quite unique in terms of architecture, particularly around the Xinyi District. This is because the Taipei 101 dominates the skyline making everything else seem like low rise buildings. It is even more impressive that South Village 44 was not entirely demolished and replaced with the modern buildings we just five minutes walk away.
Cultural conservation efforts were able to save a large part of this particular village, but also many of the others. For example, the Act for Rebuilding Old Quarters for Military Dependants was revised to provide for this cultural conservation in 2007.
Higher ranking officers of the KMT military were allocated more space, in larger and nicer houses. These two story houses are examples of such houses.
Meanwhile, these long and narrow alleyways were the result of crammed housing which was hastily built for the lower ranking soldiers.
The village museums and exhibitions
South Village 44 has several exhibits inside it's museum. The purpose is to show what the way of life was like for people living at these military dependant's villages. All of the items displayed in the museum are real items donated to the museum by people who used to live in the village. Seeing all the home wares and reconstructions of living quarters give you a much better idea of how people lived in those times.
The exhibitions are broadly grouped into four different categories, each showing a different angle of life in the village. These groupings are shown by the circular signs at each of the "rooms". There is a history section, living space section, food and kitchen, as well as education section.
These are some of the historical records of the village as well as a model reconstruction of the full village before most of it was demolished.
Because the mainlanders came from all areas of China, they brought with them a wealth of different cuisines and cooking styles. Later on, all of these cooking styles blended into the native Taiwanese food culture and helped it to become the popular food heaven Taiwan is known for today.
Early on, the villages would have communal canteens where food would be served. Below, you can see some ox the examples of the foods that were served as well as some photographs of the original villagers eating at the canteens.
Next up, we'll have a look at some of the living areas.
Mahjong was the most popular leisurely activity and was frequently played by women who also worked on the sewing machines.
These are some examples of currencies issued during the KMT dictatorship.
A typical living room would have a sofa and then a small tea table in-front. This layout is very common in Chinese homes even today. The only differences would be today, the sofa would be facing a large TV, where as in those days, people might instead choose to read, and drink tea.
The dragon that you see in the pictures below is significant because it was once considered the guardian of the south village 44. The dragon that you see is actually a small replica version of the original. It was placed here to remind the younger generations of the original protector of the village.
These are the chairs and desks used for the children in primary schools while in class. Amazingly, these are still very similar to the ones used today in China and Taiwan.
This is an example of a living space for a low ranking officer. This includes two bedrooms, one high, and one low, with the bottom one using a crude modesty dividing curtain.
These are some of the early resident permits of the village and also pictures of the retired soldiers.
Midori ice cream is one of the home run businesses in the village, but you'll also find an art center, a souvenir store, and a cafe. These small businesses help support the locals as all of the products are locally sourced. On Sunday's, there is also a farmers market in the courtyard.
Jian Hong Beef Noodles
After a quiet afternoon at the South Village museum, it was time to eat. A lot of the time, restaurants which local Taiwanese people like to visit are not found in the popular social media channels. These are restaurants serving truly authentic Taiwanese food, how can you tell that it's all about the food? Well one look at the venue and you'll see how raw it is. There is almost no branding or marketing, no fancy logos, or intricate interior designs. It's all about food after all.
Without being recommended this by a Taiwanese friend, I probably wouldn't have even noticed this restaurant which is tucked away in a corner just outside of Ximending in a run-down old looking area.
The restaurant has a good selection of side dishes, ranging from pig's ears, pickled cucumbers, sliced potatoes, seaweed and thousand year eggs with tofu.
I opted for the seaweed, pickled cucumber, and thousand year egg with tofu. All cold dishes which go very well with the soup noodle that is up next!
Voila! The star of the show, the beef brisket noodle soup. You can add some pickled cabbage and caviar which are provided free at the table. The beef slices are a good size and very tender. So much so, that it pretty much falls apart in your mouth whilst releasing a chorus of flavours making you wonder how much taste can be in a slice of meat.
One things for sure, the noodles whilst chewy do a lot to calm down your taste buds from the explosion of flavours of the beef in the soup.
It's amazing that serves such a good for value bowl of beef noodle soup can taste as good as some of the most up-market posh venues in town. The environment may not be luxurious, but the positive side is you get to experience it like a local would and that's the whole point!
And that wraps up our visit to the South Village 44 Military Dependant's Village. Even though the activities and things to see at the village are quite limited because of it's small size, it does possess a certain degree of historical character with it's old retro buildings and colourful windows and doors. Photo opportunities aside, the village is an important part of the cultural heritage of modern Taiwan, filling in the bigger picture of how history played out after the Chinese civil war, resulting in the societal landscape we observe today between Taiwan and China.
Do you remember the movie "Brokeback Mountain"? Or "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon"? What about "Life of Pi"?
These are all movies directed by the highly acclaimed and respected Taiwanese film director. His background is very interesting because he actually grew up in one of these military dependant's villages. Many second generation military villagers went on to lead very affluent lives, another example of a person who grew up in a military village was Teresa Teng, one of the absolute most famous singers in China and Taiwan.
From visiting south village 44, I felt as though I travelled back in time to observe and learn another dimension of Taiwanese history. The tranquil setting makes the South Village 44 a wonderful place to spend an hour or so reflecting on the tides of history.
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