Offering glimpses of “Old Taipei” and all manner of unexpected surprises, Taipei’s West District is a great place to explore.
By Stuart Hill
One of the most interesting districts in downtown Taipei — and another super-easy Top Taipei Day Trip — is a section of DaTong District (大同區) stretching from the NanJing Circle heading west to the river wall along HuanHe Road, and north heading to MinChuan West Road along ChongQing North Road.
The area represents the old commercial heart of Taipei, where barges carrying tea, fabrics and other commodities made the journey back and forth from the DaDaoCheng Wharf (at the end of NanJing West Road) along the DanShui river out to DanShui. This transport route was a part of Taiwan’s export infrastructure, with DanShui being one of Taiwan’s key international ports in the second half of the 1800s. Further south and you bump into the area around Taipei Main Station, as well as WanHua, Taipei’s oldest district, including XiMenDing.
The streets and lanes, especially around YanPing North Road tend to be narrow — and often treeless — yet still retain arguably one of the most essential pedestrian friendly architectural designs in Taiwan: the QiLou, or awninged shopfront, that allows people to walk protected from both Taiwan’s heavy rains and burning sunshine. Every street in Taipei should have these. DiHu Street is possibly one of old-Taipei’s most renowned commercial zones, which is still a very popular area for buying locally grown and imported dried foods, snacks, and traditional Chinese medicines. During the lead up to Chinese New Year, the area is packed with people stocking up for the holidays.
In contrast to the globalized fashion and modern consumerism epitomized by Taipei’s DongQu “east district” shopping areas, Taipei’s West District offers a modest and laid back approach, with smaller family run shops dealing in all kinds of products. Whether its knives, buckets, bolts and nails, brushes, suits, incense, buttons, or anything else you can think of, DaTong seems to have it somewhere. The fabric market near DiHua Street including the nearby wholesalers and garment markers offer a fantastic range of fabrics to choose from.
Around 100 years ago the Taipei districts of both Wanhua and DaTong that line the DanShui river were a hive of international trade. Luckily there are still physical remnants of the wealth of these businesses in the forms of the houses and stores that were built at the time. Most are still centered around DiHua Street stretching between NanJing at one end and MinChuan at the other. On the cultural side, the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum (worth a look) and the XiaHai City God Temple of the matchmaker god are both in the area.
With so much contemporary investment, commercial trade, and city politics centered around the XiYi District, it’s almost hard to imagine that Taipei’s West District really was THE place to be. In its heyday, what is now Taipei’s West District, was a leisure hub as much as a commercial district. The area boasts Taipei’s first department store (DaQianBaiHuo) located on YanPing North Road, and also the earliest western food influences.
However over the decades, as the gravitational pull of economics and politics has shifted to Taipei’s East District, it’s left behind an aging, declining economic and cultural center. Even until very recently, the west district was a run down mix of residential and commercial buildings, and except for pockets extending toward ZhongShan North Road (such as Taipei Station, NanJing MRT, and XiMenDing areas), the architectural and cultural history of the district was poorly maintained. That said, today the original heartland of Taipei’s commerce is having something of a renaissance. This time it’s not centered around trading in tea, medicines, and fabrics, (though these businesses are still present) instead Taipei’s west district is developing into a growing micro-economy of handcrafts, small-scale brands, and personalized services.
At the same time, co-operation between the city government and business is seeing the restoration and/or reconstruction of the buildings in the area, rejuvenating the old warehouse-like trading houses and local homesteads. In amongst the old-money businesses trading in tea and textiles, are the new cottage industries like handcrafted leather making, laser etching, customized bicycle designs, and other eclectic and slightly idiosyncratic endeavors.
Taipei’s West District has a lot to look at, eat and buy, but it does have its own old-school trading hours (ie earlier closing times). It’s a place best explored on foot, and like most of Taipei is a safe place to walk around even at night.
Some Useful Links
- Where is Taipei’s East District (Dong Qu)?
- Finding the Perfect Taipei Tea Experience
- The Life & Times of a Taiwan Tea Trader