On a breezy afternoon last week, a rainbow appeared overhead when 89-year-old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) veteran Chen Pang-hsin (陳邦信) met Kent Mathieu, a 71-year-old American veteran who left his Texas home to serve “in a place called Formosa” in 1965 when he was 23 years old.
Reminiscing through a translator, the two men exchanged old photographs and compared memories. Their conversation revolved around life at the Taipei Air Station, an American base operating in the area surrounding Toad Mountain (蟾蜍山) between the 1950s and 1970s as part of the Military Assistance Advisory Group’s effort to facilitate military aid to Taiwan.
“Only military men were allowed to work there … We were ordered not to reveal anything [inside the base] to people outside,” Chen recalls.
Chen is one of the few surviving KMT veterans who worked at the American base during their residence in the military settlement built along the lush Toad Mountain, which today is also home to 200 residents, half of whom are other remaining veterans and their offspring.
Demolishing a community
Like the ramshackle quarters of Huaguang (華光) and Shaoxing (紹興), the Toad Mountain neighborhood — known as Huanmin Village (煥民新村) — will probably be demolished to make way for new development.
In 2000, the Taipei City Government allotted parts of the area to the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST).
This year, NTUST sued two households for illegal occupation of the land, even though the urban renewal plan stipulates that all residents in the community must be properly relocated before any development plan is carried out. But there is currently no government budget for this relocation.
Meanwhile, the university asked the Ministry of Defense (MND) to bulldoze the 39 dormitories left vacant by villagers relocated in 2011. If the MND complies, the dorms will be gone within two months.
Preserving a plot of history
In response to the planned demolition, a group of residents, artists, university students and professors have come together in a bid to preserve the area’s unique history.
“This is a place where we can see the changes of Taipei over the period of more than 200 years,” says Lin Ting-chieh (林鼎傑), a documentary filmmaker who has lived in the settlement for five years.
Adjacent to the perpetually jammed intersection of Roosevelt Road (羅斯福路) and Keelung Road (基隆路), the solitary settlement feels like a world apart.
Huts and houses abut narrow, winding paths. Some are remnants from the Japanese colonial era. A few were built with bricks and other material that came from the American base, which has disappeared. An ancient trail that’s almost 300 years old is covered by a layer of asphalt — a sign of the times.
The settlement dates to the Qing Dynasty, when the Han Chinese drove away the Aboriginal inhabitants. Then came the Japanese, followed by the Americans and Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) troops as they retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s.
Dormitories were subsequently set up for KMT Air Force officers, while soldiers and other low-ranking military personnel were allowed to build houses. Over the next few decades, old tenants moved out or passed away. Others remained, living next to newcomers looking for work in the capital.
For residents like Chang Pei-mei (張貝梅), although the neighborhood may look shabby, it’s a good place to live and raise a family.