Monday, March 14, 2011


Some old advertisements pasted up on one of the walls along Bopiliao

On Saturday, as a side trip to our planned visit to Naruwan Indigenous People's Market (good food and good coffee), we stopped by Bopiliao - a newly restored segment of Qing Dynasty and Japanese era architecture in the historic Wanhua district. Bopiliao is basically a segment of intact Japanese-era shophouses, and behind that an alley of older, one-story late Qing shopfronts which have been turned into an exhibition space with a lot to interest kids (at least, kids who speak Chinese).

To get there, take the MRT to Longshan Temple. You can use any exit, but the easiest way is to head to Guangzhou Street - cross the street to Longshan Temple itself but turn right instead of entering (walking away from Huaxi Street Night Market). Walk past all the shops - this is also a nice area in which to look at cool old buildings - and you'll eventually come to the intersection of Kunming and Guangzhou. You'll notice that around here there are entire sections of shophouses - walk along those until you see an entrance to the inside, which will be directly next to the largest house on the end, which is a children's museum/history learning center.

Alternately you can exit at Longshan Temple's Heping W. Road exit, turn right, pass Sanshui Street and then turn on Guangzhou.

The section of old shophouse facades from Guangzhou Street

This is a lovely, atmospheric place to wander if you're in the neighborhood - perhaps sightseeing at Longshan Temple, but it's too early to head to the night market or dinner (for the record, I recommend the food in the night market along Guangzhou Street but don't bother with the food in the covered market along Huaxi Street unless you are dead set on trying snake - which I have).

The alley behind the shopfronts - main part of Bopiliao

The large building at the end - the only one open to the main street - houses a children's activity area on the first floor - kids can watch cartoons of George Leslie Mackay, James Maxwell and David Landsborough talking about bringing modern medicine to Taiwan. You can also see displays on "your grandfather's Taiwan" and learn about Lu A-Chang, a local doctor who also contributed quite a bit to the development of medicine in Taiwan.

The best exhibit? Clearly the one where you can pick up the receiver of a rotary phone to hear stories about old Taipei - the highlight is watching kids look at the old black phones like they're a relic of deepest, darkest history!

Upstairs there are more exhibits on medicine in Taiwan, mostly in Chinese.

The center is free to enter, but closes at 5pm.

It's a nice place to wander a bit, if only to see the inside of an old brick house, but it would be even better if there was English language signage so that tourists with kids would have it as an educational and kid-friendly choice for their non-Chinese speaking children.

Out back you can also play several easy, old-fashioned children's games, such as old-fashioned pinball:

I am completely in love with the old-skool robots.

...or "fish for the glass bottle" or that stick-and-hoop game:

After that - a pretty quick walkthrough if you don't have kids, don't speak Chinese and aren't fascinated by vintage robots (which I totally am because robots are awesome) - you can head into Bopiliao itself.

The entrance has a plaque in English and Chinese signed by "Dr. Hau Lung-bin". Apparently he really is a doctor (I didn't believe it so I looked it up), despite looking like a Muppet. Oh well, never judge a book by its cover. Apparently he has a PhD in Food Science from UMass-Amherst. Either he got into a PhD program because his father pulled some strings, or he's a genuinely smart guy who would have been a fantastic food scientist - but is just not that good at being a politician (although he keeps winning despite giving off the impression that he's all cotton between the ears). You know how sometimes being in the wrong vocation can make a person seem less motivated or intelligent than they really are? (I would know - I worked in back-office finance and probably seemed to others as about half as quick as I truly am because it was the wrong career for me).

Maybe - just maybe - if he'd stayed a food scientist and his company had hired me as his English trainer, Id've come home after class praising my clever, brilliant, insightful and intelligent student, Dr. Hau.

Or not.

Anyway, just thought I'd share.

Buildings are marked at the front with what they used to house - a tea shop, a barber etc. - and are now exhibition spaces. Most excitingly for foreigners interested in Taiwanese cinema is the room housing sets from the movie "Monga". This is also one of the areas where some of the signage is in English, and if you've seen the movie, you can appreciate it regardless. It is not clear if the scenes were actually shot here or the set was relocated here.

You may remember this set from the film

Nearby is the Daoist shrine where the young brothers prayed, the seating area where the older gangsters would congregate and displays of clothing and weapons from the movie, which I saw without subtitles and could only barely follow.

Not everything was open, but some of the storefronts looked authentically well-restored:

...but others didn't:

I'm glad they saved that Qing Dynasty painting of Astroboy.

The next section of the exhibit focused on famous artists of Taiwan, including an area dedicated to an old guy who makes heads for lion dancer costumes: well as a Taiwanese opera singer, two puppetry masters and a few other people. This was entirely in Chinese so while it was fun to look at, there was nothing to keep us lingering.

The final few shopfronts are exhibits on naming statistics in Taiwan. Did you know that the largest percentage of Taiwanese people are surnamed Chen, with the next highest being Lin?! Wow, that was so totally unexpected! Heh. They also had breakdowns from census data on given names - I found a lot of my friends' names, but neither mine (白蓮) nor Brendan's (百川) were there - probably because nobody actually names their kid White Lotus, and Brendan's name, though much more common, is a bit old and stodgy - it's like the "Harold" of Chinese names.

What was interesting was that throughout each list of Top 50 names, male and female, girls with the most common names were consistently about twice as plentiful as boys. The top name for a girl (淑芬) - Shufen or "refined and pure with a sweet smell" - clocked in at about 33,500 girls in 2010, whereas the top boy's name (志明) - Zhiming or "bright aspiration" only came in at 14,200 or so.

First, I'm not such a fan of the boys getting names reminsicent of willpower, strength, learning and brightness whereas women get a lot of grace, purity, sweetness, quietude, demureness etc., but hey, I guess that's how traditional cultures go. If we ever have a kid (not saying we will!) she's getting a Chinese name that means "Fierce Warrior Dragon Princess Who Kicks Ass" or something!

Second, clearly there is a greater variety of boys' names out there, with a longer statistical tail: either that or twice as many girls were born as boys in 2010 ( So we can conclude that families who have sons have about twice the number of common given names to choose from than families who have daughters - of course with the stroke order, elements, fortune teller etc. issues to deal with, nobody really has that much choice if they follow traditional mores.

A cool old advertisement on a wall in Bopiliao - I like the "Scientific Headcooler" ad.

The verdict? Bopiliao is worth a visit if you are in the area, and great if you have kids who can speak Chinese or are interested in 19th and turn-of-the-century architecture.

Otherwise, the tourism department needs to do a few things to generate more interest in the area. My suggestions:

1.) English signage please - it'll get foreigners interested in Taipei history to linger and help us learn more; and

2.) The exhibits are nice, but stick a coffeeshop, teahouse, restaurant, even a few snack or souvenir shops in there so we can linger and enjoy the atmosphere.

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