Xinhua Old Street 新化老街 is one of the finest old streets in all Taiwan 台灣. Located in Xinhua, Tainan 台南, the street is lined baroque revival and art deco buildings from the Japanese colonial era. Most of the buildings on the western side of the street date back to the 1920s whereas the eastern side features a more modernist style from the late 1930s.
I won’t say too much about the history of Xinhua Old Street in this post as it has already been covered in English here and here. Chinese Wikipedia also has an informative write-up for those who can make use of it. Xinhua itself has a rich and interesting history that predates even the arrival of the Dutch in Tainan but this particular street grew out of a brisk trade in wholesale fruit a century ago.
I visited Xinhua Old Street over the lunar new year holidays in early 2015. It was a gloomy grey day with intermittent rain so most of these photos aren’t great, though I have done my best to clean them up. These photographs are by no means comprehensive—there are several other sights to see in Xinhua apart from this old street, the focus of this particular post. Having done a little more research to prepare this post after the fact I realize I completely missed some of the Japanese colonial era buildings further north on this same street. Now I have an excuse to return sometime!
As noted elsewhere, the distinctive signs of Xinhua Old Street were originally designed for the illiterate. A few of the shops adhere to these conventions; others have plastered their facades with somewhat more garish displays as a means of attracting business. I don’t get the sense that there are strong laws governing heritage properties in Taiwan—the fact that Xinhua Old Street looks as authentic as it does today might have more to do with chance than anything else, though I understand there are now local groups interested in advocating for the preservation of Xinhua’s many historic buildings.
Perhaps the most interesting block extends from the central market up to the main thoroughfare through town. Unless I am mistaken this is the original block built by Lin Maoji, the businessman who kicked things off in 1921. The following series of close-up photographs depicts the timeless craftsmanship and attention to detail evident on these facades. One has to wonder how Taiwan went from this to today’s dominant concrete and tile aesthetic.
Turning to the eastern side of the street we can see slightly newer and more modern buildings dating back to the late 1930s. Here the style is far more restrained and angular. I am rather curious about the Star of David on one of the buildings—were there once Jewish merchants here or is this more or less random? There weren’t many signs or plaques around this old street—not that I could have made much sense of them anyway.
As with any other old street in Taiwan there are several “famous” restaurants and street food vendors scattered about. This can get to be rather overbearing in places overrun by tourists but not here—Xinhua Old Street still feels like an ordinary market street, one frequented by locals even after the tourists depart.
One of the more imposing features of the street is a big market building that looks to be newer than all the rest, though it generally adheres to the style of the other buildings on the street. Beyond the facade it is more or less just like any other central market in a small town like Xinhua. While walking down one of the side streets I was approached by a shopkeep who kindly led me down an alleyway to an impressive old house built in 1842—but that’s a story for another post.
Just off the old street you’ll find a number of other storefronts that look to be from Japanese times. Most of them aren’t as presentable as the main buildings on the old street proper; the building pictured above is a pleasant exception. I don’t know much about the laws governing heritage properties in Taiwan but it seems like there is room for improvement here (to put it lightly). I can’t see any reason for sheet metal additions to rooftops or ugly air conditioning units blocking the balconies of such historic properties.
The south end of the old street is home to a number of other structures from the Japanese colonial era, among them a training facility for local police to learn and practice kendo and other martial arts. The building features a unique floor, half of which is spring-loaded. There are several other Japanese dormitories scattered around this area, easily distinguished by their dark wooden exteriors.
Overall I would have to say that Xinhua Old Street is one of the best I have seen—and I have visited many around the island. Most historic areas in Taiwan follow one of two trajectories: restoration and overdevelopment or decay and ruin. Xinhua, thankfully, preserves the historic ambiance without turning the place into a circus, and for that reason alone it should be on your list of sights to check out down south.