Love Note #28: Discovering Taipei’s Living Historic Trail through Dihua Street

One way to fall in love with a city for me is to follow the trail of its history and culture. I embarked on a journey of discovering Taiwan’s early history and culture in Tainan two months ago, and that proved to be a complete success, simply because I was able to get to know the city from its essence, something that defines Tainan for what it is. However, as my time in Taipei quickly approaching the 4 year mark, it is rather unacceptable that I still haven’t made the effort to explore one of the most historic parts of the city. To help me learn about Taipei from a historical perspective, I made a trip to the prominent Dihua Street on a breezy Sunday afternoon in August.

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Dihua Street has long been known for its high concentration of stores selling large quantity of traditional Chinese medicine ingredients. A common scene at Dihua Street is seeing customers sort through a wide range of traditional Chinese medicines, and the collective smell of Chinese medicine somehow has a soothing effect on even the passersby. I was fascinated by how all the stores are able to sustain this niched ecosystem through friendly competition. Even though the idea is very similar to the traditional market in Taiwan, the coexistence of stores large and small is very intriguing to me. It shows not only how the culture of herbal treatment runs so deep in Taiwan, but also the demands remain so high even after hundreds of years.

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However, the most mesmerizing aspect of Dihua Street is the architecture and street view. Unlike many parts of Taipei, architectures in this area still maintain the style inherited from the Japanese colonial era. It is obvious that the window frames, facades, pillars, roofs, and even just walls are all designed with a heavy Japanese influence. Comparing to the modern buildings that we often see in Taipei, the houses here are more delicately designed and built, and collectively, they form a very coherent scene. The level of delicacy reflected through the architectures shows how vibrant Dihua Street was back in the colonial era. It’s not hard to imagine how the entire neighborhood, including the Dadaocheng Wharf nearby, was created to be a commercial hub in Taipei back in the days. As I stood at the middle of the street to immerse myself into the surrounding, it gave me a moment of false illusion that I were brought back to the colonial era, with bandwagons rushing past me, and men and women dressed in Japanese style clothes.

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If Tainan can be praised for its effort in preserving the most authentic historic and cultural elements in the city, Taipei’s ability to keep Dihua Street close to its original form is equally impressive. If the success of Dihua Street can be highlighted and copied over to other parts of Taiwan, it may be able to help reverse the negative images that Taiwanese people have about its urban centers.

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