Ruin Raiding in Tainan

by on Wednesday, 20 April 2011 6731 hits Comments
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Ruin Raiding

Strolling down crumbling alleys of all shapes and sizes, all the woes of the busybodies are forgotten, in between colourful temples and Japanese-era colonial buildings, under the moonlight, an exercise in escapism.

Tainan, the ‘first’ capital of Ilha Formosa, sidesteps the prevailing metropolitan global cities view; Mediterranean in its fiery temper - emotive and irrational. Quirky cafes, extra sugar with all orders, and a endless temples are all associated with Tainan, but one less known hobby is that of ruin raiding, empassioned urban exploration in derelict buildings, where the dust has fallen….

People often come to Tainan to escape the dog-eat-dog mentality of Taipei, Taichung & Kaohsiung. While there sometimes seems to be an assumption that to be anyone in Taiwan you need to first slave away in Taipei, barely scraping by, just to payoff your landlord-masters; those who can make their way in Tainan seem to appreciate the lighter side of life. While Taipei tries all to compete with Shanghai and Shenzhen in urban brutality, attempting to destroy the last forces of architectural humanism and connection to nature, Tainan (comparatively) seems to let the buildings flow beyond the pale as romantic smatterings of diversity in destitution, deterioration and degeneration.

I begin my journey at Tainan’s Lutai (台南小露台), in itself a ‘ruin’ of sorts. The 3-storey building overlooking the train-tracks has been renovated into a vintage store and art space and gathering point for the nostalgic. On the first floor, it’s filled with old collections of miniature Vespa bikes, as well as several obsolete full-sized vehicles, and a selection of bike horns to accompany (I left with the yellow rubber ducky – nothing says ‘get out the way’ with more authority). Meanwhile, on the second floor they have continuously evolving photography exhibitions, this time I visited it was all about cats – hungry + diseased kittens, patrolling cat gangs, sleepers, blindcats, Persian – even through this cat exhibition you're given snapshots of Tainan mentality. Finally, after getting past the three resident cats, all rescued (Yes, Lutai is also a part-time cat rescue and home finding centre). I make my way to base camp; a room on the third floor with my host Gao Pu-chi.

It’s fitting, that this hub of nostalgia for the class of the past is the base of explorations for Tainan’s underground culture of ruin raiding. Indeed, much of the stores wares are treasures recovered from derelict buildings, long abandoned. This is where I will discover the underground world of ‘space’ raiders, snappershot-storytellers and hopeless romantics hunting down traces of unwritten history.

Xinglin Hospital

The walls were stained with the screams of bleeding patients. The stone slabs were carved with doctors legacies, the deserted medical cabinets stunk of junky, and every shard from the shattered windows was a testament to the will to survive.

The first ruin I am taken too – is a long abandoned Hospital. The Xinglin Hospital Complex (xinglin zonghe yiyuan 杏林綜合醫院). It’s a fitting first destination since Gao Pu-chi started out studying hospital management at university in Taipei before deciding to escape Taipei and spend almost a year working random shifts and focusing on his photography.

When Xinglin Hospital ceased to run, it was the days before Taiwan had National Health Insurance. At the time it was split into workers insurance, farmer's insurance etc. The worker's insurance meant that the worker would pay an annual sum, guaranteeing an allowance for medical costs; however, if you had not spent these costs by the end of the year, the credit was lost and the money dissapeared, never to come back. At that time the hospital started having some deals with the triads in order to profit from this system, cooperating with them to falsely recieve the insurance money. Eventually the boss of the hospital was caught for his dealings and sent to prison. This meant he was no longer able to give a salary to his employees, so everyone left the hospital, it became derelict, and has remained this way all the way until today. Nonetheless all of the drugs, beds and other equipment remained. Eventually anything that could be sold or used has been taken - including the metal and wood holding together windows.

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Photo by Chen Po-I from his collection 'Remain'

When I arrived there in broad daylight, at the centre of Tainan city from outside the building looks like the remains of a blitzkrieg. Not a window was still standing, nonetheless these vacant walls were stained with poetry. Poetry of the past patients, doctors, nurses and corpses that inhabited these now barren and broken walls. Reading the stone slabs above the different doctors office, I realised that from explorations into a 30 year old building – untouched apart from lootings – that you can sometimes learn a lot more about history than any museum.

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This stone slab above a doorway gives praise to the ingenuity and skills of the doctor who occupied the room. Traditionally a grateful patient may contribute one of these slabs, this one details the remarkable recovery from a horrific car accident in which the author had  fractured his skull.

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wangziReliving the Blitzkrieg

“I dreamt that you had come down south”

Love letter dated 1981 (民國70年)

The ‘Today’s Showings’ board at the Prince Theater (王子大戲院) is empty today. I feels like its been empty a long time too, a couple of slightly ripped and faded posters remain outside – on one of them you can make out a western film perhaps from the 80’s that I never knew. At some point in the 1980's this complex suffered from a great fire leaving much of the building destroyed and pushing the variety of entertainment businesses out of the building. After the fire it suffered another form of destruction, torn apart for its wood, nails and ladders – anything that could be sold or reused. This however doesn’t bother Bibi (B-Boy), people don't loot the things that he is interested in - the pictures, the posters, the marks left on the wall from the posters, and loveletters - everything that tells a story.

The building used to be at the heart of Tainan's more controversial entertainment scene. The second floor used to be a karaoke joint and had hundreds of old VHS videotapes. The 4th floor - a strip club. While Bibi explained to us that all the seats had bins underneath to throw away your issues, we found an abandoned G-string, used perhaps 25 years ago and the posters that they used to use to promote the club. There were three theatres in the building in which all the seats had been ripped from the floor, at the back of the theatre were a set of couches, these were the more expensive seats where you could take a partner and engage in more questionable business. Perhaps the most beautiful moment, however, was when Bibi found a 30-year old love letter and its reply. The story was of a girl from Tainan in the south of the country and a boy form Taipei in the north. Reading the handwritten letter we could almost feel the emotions from the two lovers, their dreams and their life pressures and their chances for a future together. We were only able to speculate on how the relationship concluded.

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After the dust settles...

During my few days exploring these ruins in Taiwan, I gained a great affinity for these independent spaces. I was left wandering, what memories would I leave for someone exploring my ruins 50 years into the future. This touches on our very permanence, and sustained being. After the dust settles, what mark would you leave on this world?

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:33
Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

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