As I was walking out of the southern portals of 228 Memorial Park onto Ketagalan Boulevard on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by the Russian philologist Professor Viktor Gisin, whom I had bumped into as I made my way through the park, the sight of the ostentatious building on the corner with Zhongshan North jogged my memory.
The Taipei Guest House (臺北賓館) is open once a month on seemingly random Sundays and, having enquired in passing the month before, I had a feeling the next occasion was soon. Leaving Gisin to his misgivings about late-19th Russian bourgeois loafers as exemplified in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (he is quite happy to witter away to himself), I approached the gate to enquire and – bingo – it was open to the public the very next day.
Rather the worse for wear, I returned the following afternoon and finally got to have a good look around the premises. The remnants of Gisin’s sketchy vodka that were still refluxing up my gullet probably didn’t help but, I have to say, I was disappointed.
Completed in 1901, the guest house was originally the Governor General’s residence, while the Presidential Office Building down the boulevard was his office. Short stroll to work, then. The building is easily one of the most attractive in Taipei, but inside there’s really not a great deal of any consequence to see. For this reason, and the fact that you’re not allowed to take photos inside, I wasn’t too gutted that I’d forgotten to charge my crappy camera.
The spacious rooms are largely empty, stripped of any indication of the grand events and visitors that they played host to – there are long red-carpet type red carpets splicing most of them, some nondescript furniture on the ground floor and some rather incongruous faux-Georgian chairs upholstered in blue floral on the first floor, but that’s about your lot.
Oh, in another room there’s a bronze statue of the ROC’s then Foreign Minister Yeh Kung-chao (葉公超), or George to his mates, Japan’s representative Isao Kawada and other officials signing the Treaty of Taipei, but I’ll come back to that in a mo.
Much of the wood in the skirting, moulding, walls and doorways of the interior has been restored. This has been done in a tasteful enough manner whereas the gold-leaf gilding of the corridors and stairways is of such a gaudy hue that it is hard to believe it is representative of the colonial era.
The one item I found interesting was a hefty mahogany box with openings in each of its four sides. I’m pretty sure there was some kind of book propped up in one of these windows and church/temple-style kneelers in front of them. All of these elements – the last two, admittedly, perhaps the result of the hair-of-the-dog cans I downed on my walk from main station – plus the resemblance of the whole to a palanquin, bespoke a religious function. “I think the Japanese used it for reading,” one of the attendants shrugged.
And that was the problem. No one had much of an idea of what was what and there was no information whatsoever about the history of the place. At the far end of the ground floor, on the right, there is a corridor-cum-room with a row of information boards, none of which tells you a shred about the building.
I tried earwigging on a tour in Mandarin but couldn’t glean much “Hold on a second,” said Richard, a well-meaning, if not ever-so-slightly officious fellow who seemed a bit more clued up than most of the people working there.
He went into the foyer to grab a couple of leaflets. As I was thanking him, I think the bewilderment on my face was obvious. The ROC-Japan Peace Treaty Q&A leaflet I can understand.
OK, it contains very little about the actual signing of the treaty (the observation that Foreign Minister Yeh “has [sic] a master’s degree in literature from Cambridge” is clearly indispensable) and much more about Cairo, Potsdam and the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, most of which was on the info boards anyway.
It is also littered with the usual ludicrous claims of the territorial sovereignty of Taiwan being “restored” to the ROC, which some people seem to think is a fair description of the historical record. But, however tangential, at least this leaflet has some connection to the history of Taipei Guest House.
What to make of the second one entitled The Diaoyutai Islands: An Inherent Part of the Republic of China? Your guess is as good as mine. I am, of course, being facetious, as it’s pretty plain what is going on here. Even a quick flick through makes it clear that undisguised Japan-bashing is the order of the day, with talk of the dwarf pirates’ secret plans and clever tricks that might have come straight from Roald Dahl.
And with the latest round of posturing over the uninhabited islands having just occurred it’s great timing. The government’s refusal to comment on the fact the “activists” involved in the latest skirmish were bearing PRC and ROC flags fits perfectly with the tone of this leaflet which emphasizes how the Diaoyutais have always been Chinese.
In a building constructed by the Japanese, one of Taipei’s great landmarks; a symbol of Taiwan’s transition from disease-infested badland to the second most developed territory in Asia outside Japan proper; a testament to the indelible change for the better that the colonial power – despite all their ills – effected on this country; this is what the current administration have to say.
It’s petty, spiteful, and just plain baffling. Above all else, it’s a real let down for anyone expecting an appetising slice of local history.
P.S. I was interested to discover that Matsunosuke Moriyama, who rebuilt the guesthouse in 1911, was also responsible for Beitou Hot Spring Museum, just down the road from me. Moriyama was probably the most important Japanese architect of Taiwan’s colonial period and his work can be seen all over Taipei. That’s why I laugh when people say silly things like “there is nothing Japan-like” left in this city. Read more about Moriyama and how he helped shape Taipei here.
The opening dates and times for Taipei Guesthouse are here. It’s supposedly the first Sunday of every month, but that doesn’t look right. The one for this month says it was August 4 and that it was temporarily suspended, whatever that means. Best to call ahead/pass by and check.
Finally, here is some footage of the Presidential Office Building, the old Bank of Taiwan building and the environs from dated 1950 (though perhaps from earlier as it has Japanese commentary). I’m not sure but I reckon the guest house can be seen for a few seconds around the 32 second mark. The facade certainly looks less grand but the colonnades and the rest seem to fit.