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Ongoing creativity evolution within the Zhongshan blocks

By Gloria Cho
Staff Writer

Guanyin Stone is a frequently adopted decoration method by people in 60sFor those who crave for a sip of creativity in Taipei, Zhongshan North Road promises an inspiring experience. The block comprising Alley 20, Second Section of Zhongshan North Road and the neighboring linear park and lanes densely inhabited by theaters, stores, publishing houses, department stores, high-end hotels, and old houses turned into restaurants always wow visitors.

Only 300-meters long, the alley has formed a small cluster of creativity, says Liou Wei-gong, Commissioner of Department of Cultural Affairs, Taipei City Government. Over decades of development, the lanes and alleys have become creative workers' favorite locale, observes Liou. "Creative species on bustling roads in Taipei are much less abundant and dense if compared to those in tiny alleys," he says. Liou calls such trend as the creative city's Darwin Paradox.

Liou points out that this lane is so unique that it simultaneously satisfies functions of creation, office, exhibition, and consumption needs. On the entrance stands the Spot-Taipei Film House, a white complex that includes a movie theater, dinning service, and a shop that sells cultural creative items. Spot Taipei is the former residence of the US Ambassador to the ROC and now rated as the third grade historic site. 
To distinguish itself from commercial chain theaters, SPOT Taipei is more like a shelter for urban elites who support independent movies made in lesser-known areas around the world and has consequently become a giant cultural landmark in Taipei.

Shu Guo-zhi, center, famous cuisine and travel author in Taiwan gives a tour of Zhongshan lanes March 31st, 2013 in Taipei. (Photo by Gloria Cho)Marching forward, people strolling through the alley will be dazzled by a bunch of designers' shops such as '0416 × 1024', Carole Chang Taipei, OBEIOBEI, CHUNG's SILVER WORK STUDIO, cafés, restaurants, wedding gown stores, and more along the way. From shop windows to merchandise, all are incarnations of creative ideas. 

Among them, OBEIOBEI is a brand specialized in leather goods and jewelry accessories. The founder was inspired by the O' bei O' bei market in Milan, Italy, and came up with the name that means 'beautiful, beautiful' with the hope that its brand items will stun every customer.

'0416 × 1024' on the other hand owns a much more direct name—it represents the birth dates of its two founders. They started off as witty illustration artists and later moved into the territory of stationery and T-shirt designs.

Carole Chang Taipei is the brainchild of designer Carole Chang, who specializes in female dresses. Her education background in France has had a great impact on her works, which sufficiently reflect French urban feminine style and is popular among young professional women in town.

Chung Haw Bank located at the intersection of Zhongshan N. Rd. and Changchun Rd. features L-shaped building and a hanging garden. (Photo by Gloria Cho)In the area of accessories, CHUNG'S SILVER WORK STUDIO is a highlight. As its name suggests, the studio, which was established ten years ago, focuses on silverware and top quality service.

 "Creativity is the common language for all operators here regardless of business genres," notes Liou.

All the way at the end of the alley, one reaches the well-known cultural brand The One, a store that provides service on home furnishings, designer items, delicate cuisines, wine, and cultural events. This original Taiwanese brand, nourished with Oriental aesthetics, is dedicated to convey the simple concept of "One," the starting point in everyday life.

Across the tiny alley, just opposite the complex store, is a linear park adhering to Taipei's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Zhongshan Station. This tiny area houses the fascinating artwork, BIGPOW, which attracts passersby's attention.

BIGPOW, a robot with a passion for music, is the brainchild of the artist Akibo.
The wish to create a space better equipped with music players for young people, helped generate the idea, says Akibo. Now, anyone who loves to showcase his or her skills can play music by hooking up an MP3 or cell phone through the interface on the robot.

Other feature shops in the neighborhood include, Lovely Taiwan Shop, located on Nanjing W. Rd. The Lovely Taiwan Foundation founded the store as a distribution platform for local business, dedicated to fulfilling the idea of fair trade.

Given the fact that many community businesses and creative merchandise practitioners lack long term steady sale channels, has led to failure in establishing a sustainable industry, Lovely Taiwan Shop was set up to tackle the problem. For the time being, the shop has maintained nearly fifty products, ranging from design T-shirts, paper items, to hand made bags. 

A Japanese-styled architecture in Zhongshan blocks in Taipei. (Photo by Gloria Cho)Also situated on the same road is the Booday, a brand widely popular among young people. In addition to original products, the shop owner further provides exhibitions, music performances, and hand-made bread and coffee, in a wish to offer abundant life experiences to locals.

Bomb Metal & Fry Jewelry in the nearby Chengde Rd. was founded in 2005 as an unconventional jewelry shop. They provide limited hand-made artworks touting passion, joy, and colorful designs.

Also an accessories shop, the DE STIJI 20th Century Vintage Jewelry store in Chifeng St. is the only conceptual shop in Taiwan specializing in European and American vintage jewelry.  It is worth mentioning that DE STIJI's display space employs a great deal of Taiwan cypress wood and geometry shapes to create an infusion of the past and presence.  

Hair salons dotted here and there in the area is also a phenomena that cannot be ignored. Of all, In Circle, which sits on Zhongshan N. Rd, is a representative one. Simple and neat decorations convey the owner's efforts to create a welcome environment and send messages of trustworthiness to its customers.

The boutique, mistymint, offers a wide selection of garments and living supplies from around the world. In the meanwhile, it also sells limited items by designers and artisans. Mistymint now maintains several series of collections such as budding international designers, reproduction designers, Taiwan independent designers, selective vintage second-hand garments, and more. It also holds painting, design, and photography exhibitions from time to time.

A building in Zhongshan blocks erected in earlier days. (Photo by Gloria Cho) As for exhibition space, Shin Leh Yuan Art Space is of cultural significance as one of the few existing alternative spaces from the 90's. It is now a NPO jointly run by a group of avant-garde artists, serving as a platform where contemporary art workers can be seen and heard.

Similarly, the URS21 Chung Shan Creative Hub situated on Mingsheng E. Rd. is a space used to promote cultural creative industries in town; the hub facilitates "Urban Regeneration," "Local Linkages," and "Culture Creative Industry Cluster."   

Creativity not only flourishes on the ground level in the area, but also finds its way under the ground. Near Exit 10 of Zhongshan MRT Station is a hybrid of an exhibition and an art market--the Shopping MOCA. It makes art more accessible for people even when they are traveling the city.

Legacy hidden in lanes 

Beyond modern time design concepts, the area in the meantime preserves old style architecture, which lends us a glimpse into the evolution of the city. "You can see the particular ventilators installed above the windows," said Shu Guo-zhi, famous cuisine and travel author in Taiwan, pointing to an old green building.  "They are the outcome of humid weather in Taipei," he said during a tour given on March 31st. 

"Using Guanyin Stone to decorate the front door is a method widely practiced by people in 60s' northern Taipei," noted Shu, referring to a fourth-story apartment.  He continued to say that green ceramic tiles were also favorite choices of people in earlier days.

Such particular architectures still include the Chung Haw Bank standing tall at the intersection of Zhongshan N. Rd. and Changchun Rd. It's a L-shaped building with a lower structure in between. Shu reminded participants to the tour that there is a hanging garden on its roof. "It is used for tea party and other special occasions," said the author.

During the Japanese Colonial Period, Zhongshan N. Rd. was the imperial messenger road to Taiwan Shrine and therefore enjoyed a grand reputation. Nowadays, it is still the artery communicating the north and south end of the capital city. The excellent blending of past and present has made the blocks surrounding Zhongshan N. Rd. so unique, irreplaceable, and worth an exploration.