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Rundown urban areas in Taiwan get a new lease on life

Restoration efforts revive cities and help youth redefine their identity

Renovated shops integrate well with Dihua Street's retro look.

TAIPEI -- Along Dihua Street in northwestern Taipei, late 19th-century redbrick buildings reveal a glimpse of the district's past as a bustling wholesale center. Today, the street is as busy as back then, but the new tenants reflect the times, the factories and attendant businesses replaced by art galleries, stores, cafes and other shops.

The change is part of a movement to restore old architecture and reshape cityscapes, a quest of sorts by Taiwan's youth for a unique identity.

"I feel I can understand myself more deeply by finding expression in old things," said Michael Li, a 27-year-old local artist whose life revolves around the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park in Taipei.

Gallery Life Seeding, an art gallery in the area, was the home of a prominent doctor about 100 years ago. From a distance, the building looks its age, the stone walls and wooden window frames reminiscent of a bygone era. Once inside, however, such notions are instantly dispelled by the rich dark hues of its chic interior.

Curator Wang Wo-ting said that the old house was "an important asset filled with history and stories. Nothing could replace it if it were destroyed."

The gallery, which opened in 2016, exhibits and sells ceramics and other works created by young artists from Taiwan and abroad, providing a space where artists can both show their creations and mingle. Its three-person staff also holds ceramics and woodwork workshops on the second floor.

According to Wang, 31, the staff can "do what they really want to do, rather than working for an ordinary company."

Dihua Street once flourished as a commercial center. But as the city center gravitated east in the late 1990s, some districts on the west side lost much of their luster.

This changed around 2000, when debate ensued over the need to inject Taiwan with a more creative spirit to counter its stodgy image as a base for manufacturers of information technology devices.

The debate spurred authorities in Taipei to propose turning a shabby factory district into a vibrant cultural hub. Young artists and others have since streamed to Dihua Street. The look of the old town remains, but scores of new businesses have transformed the feel of the area. 

Similar movements are sweeping the island as many young Taiwanese shun the previous era's relentless pursuit of economic growth in favor of alternative lifestyles. In Tainan, Taiwan's ancient capital in the south, old houses are being converted into cozy bed-and-breakfast inns.

Cheng Jia-lin, a former designer for a general store, purchased a vacant building that once housed U.S. military personnel and remade it into a modern inn decorated in white and red. "Seeing abandoned buildings inspires me to think of how to put them to use again," Cheng, 35, said.

Enterprising entrepreneurs are turning Tainan's old buildings into inns and other establishments.

Behind the renovation movement lies Taiwan's complex modern history.

From 1895, the island was ruled by Japan until the end of World War II. After the Kuomintang, known as KMT, was defeated by China's Communist Party in the country's civil war, its leaders fled the mainland to Taiwan, where they set up a one-party dictatorship.

Until former President Lee Teng-hui democracy movement in the 1990s, education in Taiwan was heavily influenced by the resident's Chinese roots.

But as the urban restoration movement shows, the island is distancing itself from its tumultuous and repressive past, with many young Taiwanese discovering a new shared identity.

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