Jùkuíjū 聚奎居 is an abandoned mansion in Wūrì 烏日, Taichung 台中, built in 1920 by a wealthy businessman and landowner by the name of Chén Shàozōng 陳紹宗. The architecture is a combination of the traditional Taiwanese sānhéyuàn 三合院 (an inverted U-shaped building with three parts surrounding a central courtyard) and the Baroque Revival style of the Japanese colonial era. It is located on the margins of the city along an otherwise unremarkable lane in a poor, industrial part of town next to a military base, looking completely out of place in space and time.
Japanese colonial era buildings can be found all over Taiwan but most of them are in historic city centers (for example: Yanping Old Street 延平老街 in Xīluó 西螺). Stately country manors like Jukuiju are fairly anomalous, though not completely unprecedented. I have already blogged about two such buildings, the Minxiong Ghost House (abandoned) and a musician’s residence in Changhua (occupied), but Jukuiju is another matter entirely.
At first I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the place. It is one of the more well-known abandonments in central Taiwan, having been featured by countless Chinese language blogs, and the entire building has been picked clean—almost nothing remains of its former occupants. As recently as 2010 it was a minor tourist attraction complete with stamps for entry and a security guard on site, as indicated by this post (中文), although nowadays it is once more left to the elements for reasons that will soon become clear. A consequence of this notoriety and aborted tourist development is that Jukuiju lacks a sense of mystery and wonderment that I find in so many other Taiwanese ruins. Yes, there is a definite sense of history, but it is at arm’s length. It is a beautiful but empty shell.
The name of the building, Jùkuíjū 聚奎居, is inscribed above the upper balcony. The first character, Jù 聚, suggests a gathering place. The second is an archaic reference to Kuíxīng 魁星 (old style: 奎星), a minor deity of bureaucracy, imperial examinations, and scholarly prowess. The third and final character is Jū 居, which simply means house, residence, or dwelling place. Taken all together the name implies a gathering place for students of the literary arts. (Corrections here are welcome—I am no expert in Chinese translation! And there are no doubt some fēngshuǐ 風水 concepts involved here that I won’t know anything at all about.)
If you peruse government sources (in Chinese, of course) you will find that Jukuiju is typically described as the residence of a famous poet by the name of Chén Ruòshí 陳若時, presumably one of Chen Shaozong’s sons. As such, Jukuiju is sometimes referred to as “the abandoned poet’s residence” in English. The conventional historical narrative suggests that Chen Shaozong, the wealthy owner, fostered a fertile space for the development of the arts in rural Taichung, with Chen Roushi’s poetic prowess cast as a kind of natural outcome of these noble intentions. And doesn’t it just look like the sort of place a poet would have created great works?
There are, however, several problems with the accepted narrative. For starters, one is hard-pressed to find any mention of Chen Roushi’s poetry outside of articles discussing the history of Jukuiju itself. Are you really all that famous if you are essentially just a footnote in the history of the place you lived? (That being said, my search skills in Chinese are not so great. Here’s an article sent to me by reader Katy Biggs about Chen Roushi founding a poet’s society in 1923.) Moreover, there is no reason given for the abandonment—we go straight from having a famous poet in residence to descendants squabbling over the ruins (more about that later). Although this tale appeals to our sense of romanticism it leaves many questions unanswered.
My curiosity (and a little help from a local friend) led me to this detailed history (also in Chinese, just like everything else of substance about Jukuiju). Here we find a far more gritty and realistic explanation of how and why Jukuiju came to be abandoned. I shall henceforth summarize the salient points from this article—which should be read with an appropriate degree of skepticism.
The end of Japanese colonial rule brought enormous changes to postwar Taiwan. The Kuomintang forces, naturally suspect of land-owning elites like Chen Shaozong who had prospered under the Japanese, instituted a sweeping land reform program beginning in 1949, reducing rent by a third and eventually reselling huge swathes of agricultural land to tenant farmers. These policies deprived Chen of much of his income and he fell into debt sometime in the 1950s. Additionally, it is alleged that KMT soldiers—officers, most likely—occupied the upper floor of Jukuiju for five or six years, a plausible story given the home’s proximity to the Chénggōng Ridge 成功嶺 military base. Chen Shaozong died suddenly in 1956, leaving no will. His estate was struck with a crippling inheritance tax and much of his remaining land appears to have been seized by the government through court actions, leaving his descendents to fight over the remaining scraps of the family fortune.
Nowhere in this alternate history do we hear about Chen Ruoshi, the famous poet. The article I have been summarizing alleges that the two Chens aren’t related despite sharing a surname but has little more to say about the issue. I went out in search of actual evidence and uncovered this well-researched article identifying Chen Ruoshi’s actual home—just down the block from Chen Shaozong. In an interesting twist it would seem that no poet ever lived at Jukuiju!
Fast forward to the present day. The local government has long expressed an interest in designating Jukuiju a historic monument and developing it into a tourist attraction. Unfortunately it would appear that the current owners, of which there are as many as six, have not been able to come to an agreement with the government. Without an agreement the government is unable to proceed with restoration work—and given that the current owners show no interest in maintaining (or even securing) the property Jukuiju continues to decay and fall apart.
One thing we are left to ponder is what happened in the many decades following Chen Shaozong’s untimely death. Who lived here up until at least 1985? This part is more opaque to me but some insight can be gleaned from the article about the dispute with the current owners. Here we can read that one of the current owners, surnamed Liu, purchased the house along with several of his brothers, and that his father, a hospital administrator, grew up in the house. The subtext of all of this is that the current owners, likely related, do not agree about what to do with their father’s childhood home.
Jukuiju has been featured in countless Chinese language blogs over the years but—as with most things in Taiwan south of Taipei 台北—hasn’t come up quite as often on the English language web. If you’re interested in reading a little history (in Chinese) and checking out more photos (good for anyone who can see) try here, here, here, and here.
Finally, if you’d like to check out Jukuiju for yourself just take a stroll down Xuétián Road’s “It’s All Good” Lane 學田路便行巷 in Taichung 台中. As always, please be a good guest: take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints. And drop by Rainbow Village while you’re at it!
Update: as of November 2016 the property has been purchased by the city government and fencing has gone up to protect the site until restoration work is complete. No word on when that’ll be.