Monday, October 27, 2008

Cho West (Red House Theater) Part I

I figure it's doubly OK to gank this photo off Wikipedia because I'm pretty sure my boyfriend took it and posted it there.

Many of you already know that I'm a huge fan of the Red House Theater in Ximen. I like the architecture, the history, the location, the food (it's cycled through various eateries and coffeeshops) and the performances. There's really no way to not love it.

A new cafe has opened up inside Red House, and I'll review it later (after a bit of history and my mangled love affair with the place).

Many others might know that the Red House has gone through some internal upheaval recently. When I first arrived in Taipei, the cross-shaped building was closed except for special exhibits, and at times the main hall was devoid of visitors. It housed a hodgepodge of things, all squished together: a gift shop, a mishmash exhibit on its history that was hard to follow, a performance hall upstairs, some smelly star lilies, a cafe and about ten aquariums.

I, personally, liked it that way - fun but not ordered, hidden but in plain sight, and as one person beautifully described in a metaphor for Taipei, popular (depending on tour groups) but not fashionable. The friendly, cozy but not hip, affable but slightly frazzled nature of the place was charming...again, much like Taipei.

I liked the ad-hoc feeling of the old cafe, with its amazing but overpriced coffee, friendly staff and mismatched seats. I liked the seat with the sockets (so I could use my computer) next to an aquarium that had, hanging inside, a plastic covered postcard advertising A Wayward Cloud. For those who don't know, A Wayward Cloud was a very - ahem - visually descriptive movie famous in Taiwan for its uncensored, unsimulated sex scenes. One of which - a pretty graphic blowjob - was on this postcard. For awhile Brendan and I called it "The BJ Aquarium Cafe" and considered it one of those fun, unique things you discover in the course of settling into a new city.

My first Chinese lessons were in Red House. I sat out plum rains in Red House (the staffers gave me free coffee because they knew me so well). It dawned on me that my back problems in 2006 were not going to get any better and I would need surgery while I was checking email in Red House. A big black dog peed on my old computer bag in Red House (and the owner had it immediately dry-cleaned).

In September 2007, I was naturally dismayed when the cafe owners told me that it was going to close. "But, why?"

"It's just not profitable. The gift shop is empty. The cafe is in the red, and when people come to Ximending they aren't looking for Red House."

"But...but...what will happen to it? It's a historical landmark. They can't just close it."

"The Taipei city government decided to auction off rights to set up a shop or cafe inside to a private entity."

"Which one? Who?"

"Nobody knows - it hasn't been auctioned yet."

"What will they do with it?"

"Nobody knows."

At the end of September they held a blowout yard sale, selling off all of the old gift shop and other items at discounted prices. We picked up some tea set items and a dragon batik. For the next few months it opened only for special exhibits.

Fast forward one year, and we are in the neighborhood poking around. A small cafe has re-opened but they only serve tea.

"We're not exactly open yet," the owner tells us. "Come back at the end of August and everything will be done."

For the time being, the rest of the interior holds one small store that sells things emblazoned with eyeballs - I still don't get that - and a lot of renovation materials. Wood planks, wires, sawdust.

To be continued...

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