Iron Butterflies

A little heaven in disaster areas
Gazing into the scorched ruins of a building behind old Taichung Station.

The new year dawns and I’m out on the streets with a ragtag group of approximately 50 people convened by the man behind Writing Taichung 寫作中區, a blog dedicated to exploring local history and culture through writing and illustration. The event is essentially an urban exploration walking tour, and while my Chinese proficiency isn’t high enough to understand much of what’s being said I am intimately familiar with most of the places we visit over the course of the next two hours.

One stop I hadn’t been to is located immediately behind Stock 20, a renovated row of warehouses next to the old Taichung Station (closed only a few months ago. Here in the tight confines of laneways choked with leaf litter, garbage, and charred scraps of wood we crept single-file around several buildings of indeterminate age, all former railway worker dormitories1. I overheard that homeless people had moved into this complex after the original residents were evicted years ago. More recently there had been a catastrophic fire and few people remained to observe our passage through the ruins.

Pictured here is an iconic feature of the Taiwanese urban landscape: a tiěchuāng 鐵窗, literally “iron window”, with a twin butterfly pattern. I have actually seen this same window grill in other buildings (and butterflies in many more) but this particular piece of ironwork was cut to accommodate an air conditioning unit, a fact gleaned from the photographs that accompanied news of the recent blaze.

  1. In Chinese these are generally known as Táitiě Sùshè 台鐵宿舍. I have previously written about railway worker residences here and here if you’re curious to read more.