The 800m long Dihua Street (迪化街) is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Taipei. Built in the 1850s, the street is lined with a mix of buildings in diverse architectural styles, from southern Chinese to Baroque and contemporary.
The Dihua Street market, also known as Dadaocheng (大稻埕), has been the city’s major trading hub for herbal medicines, textiles and fabrics, tea, food specialties and many other goods since the late 19th century.
The street, which in recent years has undergone extensive renovation and refurbishment, has emerged as an attractive site for those wishing to experience the Lunar New Year atmosphere, and the area tends to draw huge crowds seeking special holiday treats in the run-up to the holidays.
Over the past few years, some “cool” stores have sprung up in the area thanks to the efforts of a new generation of creative entrepreneurs.
These new shops, including cafes, tea houses, art galleries, studios and bookstores, aim at making Dihua Street market a more interesting and inspirational place by imbuing it with a touch of modernity, culture and creativity.
“The old stores and their stories remain the heart and soul of the Dihua community. We are just supporting actors. We aim to silhouette the glamor of century-old shops, historic buildings and culture in the community,” said the project’s mastermind, Jou Yih-cheng (周奕成).
“We want to be charming supporting actors, because sometimes people will go to see a film specifically to see the supporting cast,” Jou added.
Jou, a former political activist who founded the Sedai Group two years ago to pursue his dream of turning Dadaocheng into the nation’s new cultural center, said the area was home to the Taiwan Cultural Association in the 1920s.
Noting that the creation of the cultural association symbolized the birth of Taiwan’s process of modernization, Jou said he looks forward to contributing to the resurrection and expansion of Dadaocheng’s innovative heritage.
According to Jou, the district boasts Taipei’s largest concentration of historic buildings.
Now that the city government has spent a large amount of money to renovate lanes and buildings, including the Yongle Market, Jou said his group aims to inject new life into the region.
“We want to set-up new ventures based on the region’s unique commercial and cultural resources, such as tea and fabrics,” Jou said.
Jou first rented a renowned old building near the Yongle Market as the first step in implementing his plan to open new stores that complement existing ones in the area and also offer new perspectives.
“I love the building and have invited like-minded young people to develop it into a new space that houses creative and cultural ventures,” Jou said.
Dubbed the “Art Yard,” the refurbished space now houses a 5m high performing arts center known as the Thinkers’ Theater; a bookstore that specializes in selling books on history, culture, fashion and life in the 1920s; a fabric studio and a cafe.
Jou has also rented another historic building near the well-known Xia Hai City God Temple (霞海城隍廟). The southern Chinese-style building has been divided into six areas that house different ventures, including a tea house, a pub, an art gallery and a pottery studio.
Jou said that within two years, all the stores have managed to establish themselves in the area.
Unlike their predecessors who came to Dadaocheng in the hope of “reforming” it, Jou and his partners have kept a low profile.
“We have told our neighbors, many of whom are wealthy businesspeople, that we have come to do business and want to make friends with them,” Jou said, adding that many local residents have become his group’s most important clients and customers.
Meanwhile, a fusion store called Fleisch that combines culture, creativity, food and beverages also recently opened in the area.
Fleisch is also housed in a century-old building. The owner of the business, which includes a private club on the building’s third floor, said he hopes his store will help enrich the food culture of the old community he says he has loved since his student years.