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An Account of Residency at Treasure Hill, a Hillside Fort beside Fuhe Bridge

The riverside “Historical Facades” at Treasure Hill Artist Village. Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong
Treasure Hillcultural participationart intervention

Ghostly Voices in the Lagoon

During the Taisho Era, an interpreter in the Governor-General of Taiwan’s Legislature named Iwao KATAOKA kept a detailed account of folk stories in the book Taiwan Feng Su Zhi. In a story named “Ghostly Voices in the Lagoon”, it mentions a temple near the mouth of the Xindian River on the coast of Leverage Street, called Treasure Hill. According to the account, the temple was built in the Qianlong Period of the Qing Dynasty by a native from Quanzhou called GUO Chih-Heng. Below the temple is a rock-cliffed lagoon, waves lapping at the shores with the gushing current. GUO had a son named Fo-Qiu, who was a monk in the temple. Fo-Qiu had a daughter, who died at the age of nine during an earthquake which hit Taipei, and thereafter, wailings of the ghost could be heard every night on the rock-cliffed lagoon, resounding through the hillside endlessly. 1

A few centuries later, the water flowing at the rock-cliffed lagoon has slowed to a trickle, and reflections on the calm water show cyclists and flower beds of love-themed sculptures. The mystical forests before the age-old temple are cleared to make way for parking lots, vending machines, and vicious stray dogs. Only when the northeasterly winds blow through the narrow corridors, making sounds of ghosts wailing, is one reminded of the cries of the girl in the water.

A Hillside Fort beside Fuhe Bridge

In the spring of 2020, I took up residence at Treasure Hill for 3 months. Each morning I stare out my window across to Fuhe Bridge, whose reflection in the river resembles a bridge spanning the realms of the living and the deceased. On weekdays, an unending stream of internet celebrities and hiking club enthusiasts pose for a picture in front of my studio. On weekends, the wet market across the river is abuzz in what was nicknamed the “black market” of Fuhe. Through the smoke of sausage vendors and looking back across the river, Treasure Hill looks like a hillside fort beside the bridge, perched between the mountain and the water.

In the Qing Dynasty, between Toad Mountain to the east and Mt. Xiaoguanyin  to the west, lay the Liugong irrigation system at the foot of a narrow passage  called Gongguan, which was a goods distribution hub for Monga, modern-day Wanhua. Prosperous trade led to the establishment of Gongguan Street, meaning officials’ residence street, for handling trade and land leasing between the Han and the indigenous people . On Mt. Xiaoguanyin, Quangzhou immigrants built a temple, which in the Southern Min dialect was called “giam ah”, meaning temple on the hillside. Treasure Hill Temple patrons included residents from Xindian and Jingmei Rivers. Not only did the faithful come by boat, but the educated intelligentsia also came to recite poetry on its waterways, leaving the mark of literature along its banks.

During the Japanese colonial period, the excellent quality of water supply became a military asset for the Japanese, and to this day the machine gun forts remain. After World War II, retreating military personnel and civilians built housing next to the temples, forming the basis of illegal settlement. In the economic boom of the 1980s, migrant workers settled here, raising the number of households to 200 family units. From old times to the new, R.O.C. veterans, Islanders, Hakka, the indigenous, migrant workers, students, foreign brides, and other wanderers gathered at this place, bonding in communities to create this exotic yet thoroughly local landscape. 2

The Half-Floor Plaza, ever attractive to internet celebrities. Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong
Artist residences and studios above the Cross Plaza at Treasure Hill Artist Village. Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong

Social Experiment

Treasure Hill, despite its isolation, is a mirror that faithfully reflects the world at its feet. It emerges from a social experiment, containing utopian political imaginings and social ideals, caught between factional machinations and municipal directives, a product of the tension between social movements, authorities, and artists.

According to residents, Treasure Hill’s fate had been crossing with the government from the time when former President LEE Teng-Hui was the Mayor of Taipei. Ashamed of the decrepit slum-like state of the settlement as he was passing through, he wanted to demolish it. Ever since that encounter, Treasure Hill was embroiled in a fight for its survival. From LEE’s earmarking of the site for park grounds, HUANG Ta-Chou and CHEN Shui-Bian’s unsuccessful relocation plans, MA Ying-Jeou’s contracting of planning and development of the site to the Organization of Urban Re-s (OURs), to HAU Lung-Pin’s establishment of the international artist village, decades of efforts of urbanization by a succession of mayors have shaped Treasure Hill as it is today.

Treasure Hill Traveler’s Hostel. Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong

The three organizational pillars of Treasure Hill today are the Treasure Hill Community, Treasure Hill Artist Village, and Traveler’s Hostel, as planned by OURs in 2003 under the commission of Taipei City Government. From the “Homeless Person’s Movement” and the Linsen and Kangle Park space housing relocation protests, one can find traces of OURs’ social movement past. In the past, driven by development campaigns, Taipei City Government handed out compensation funds then forced out residents. Seeing how this carrot and stick policy tended to drive out the underprivileged, the Treasure Hill Community proposed an alternative urban development mindset: under the premise of not disrupting the social fabric, it allows existing residents to continue living in their respective units. Treasure Hill Artist Village and Traveler’s Hostel seek to connect Treasure Hill to international travelers, arts and culture workers, and the overall art scene. From this perspective, Treasure Hill is a model home for the 1990s trend of community engagement through art. The artist is no longer just a producer of culture, but henceforth a pivotal agent which revitalizes rundown neighborhoods and vacant plots.

Memory and Fulfillment

During my residency as an artist, I often smoked in front of the office that was once YEH Wei-Li’s “Small Garden, staring blankly at the yard once full of unusual rocks, now overgrown with weeds, watching memories and actual sceneries crisscross through the fumes. Sometimes, ghost wailings from the mountainside seem to remind the living of the things we collectively lost on the tortured path of modernization.

As a member of the generation born in the 1980s and growing up in the 90s, I spent my childhood in the southern part of Taipei. The Taipei of my recollections was a city always at war, punctured by war veteran villages, abandoned houses, and military bases. In my childhood I walked my bicycle along Heping East Road, watching the Mucha Line of the MRT, now renamed the Wenhu Line, being built, its street-level pillars standing up like Easter Island statues. Occasionally a tank would roll out from the Army Refurbishment Base in Xinyi District, accompanied by deafening noises. Across Jianguo South Road lay an expanse of veteran villages and shanty towns, which to a native Taiwanese child seemed like an exciting adventure-land, full of leader CHIANG Kai-Shek’s unrealized missions, Shandong style Chinese steamed buns, and mean-looking retired soldiers.

As I grew up, Taipei evolved, and through my pubescence the veteran villages were demolished one by one, military campuses became parks, and illegal houses rebuilt as high-rises.

In the early 2000s, I stepped into the world of Treasure Hill as a college student. Its chaotic, makeshift, and decrepit existence captured the essence of Taipei of those early days. At that time I climbed along its wandering paths, while mosquitos buzzed in the summer heat. I looked at residents tending vegetable patches and airing laundry amid the ruins full of weeds and trash, admiring mankind’s tenacity. Behind the candle-lit columbarium, a bonfire was lit in front of several ramshackle housing units, the home studios of artists YEH Wei-Li, LIU Ho-Jang, LEE Kuo-Min, WU Chung-Wei, and younger generations such as Zijie YANG of National Taiwan University Department of Sociology, and later artists ATI. Collectively, they called the place the “Treasure Hill Commune”. 3

The Treasure Hill Commune had a fragile and fleeting existence, its protests coming to a quick and pitiful end. Though I was not part of the Commune, nor had I participated in the Occupy Movement, I still remember the feeling at the time. Though the place was falling apart, it gave out an air of vitality that anything could happen. In that self-contained quarter of openness and freedom, any childish act and every half-fleshed idea would be tolerated and accepted. In contrast to today’s tightly integrated government and industry managed cultural space, the ethereal laid back atmosphere, poorly packaged, anti-establishment underground scene is no longer extant.

The once “Small Garden.” Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong

In the early 2000s, I stepped into the world of Treasure Hill as a college student. Its chaotic, makeshift, and decrepit existence captured the essence of Taipei of those early days. At that time I climbed along its wandering paths, while mosquitos buzzed in the summer heat. I looked at residents tending vegetable patches and airing laundry amid the ruins full of weeds and trash, admiring mankind's tenacity.

Future Development

In the spring of 2020, when I stepped into Treasure Hill again, the formerly derelict buildings were now reinforced with steel and timber, becoming pleasant habitats for living. In the evening, dishes and laundry are done on classic Taiwanese mosaic tiles. In the morning, the door opens on to a peculiar view of the intertwining Xindian River landscape and the elevated highways. The hillside security staff patrols the grounds night and day, and the cleaning lady makes her rounds, toiling to keep the entire place spotless like the rest of Taipei’s prime-location neighborhoods. Overgrown vegetation conceals the concrete walls underneath, and thriving vegetable patches are intensively cultivated by residents at the foot of the hill. Perched on the hillside are two cafes, Cheer Home and Tadpole Point, in which one finds refuge from the hustle and bustle of Taipei.

Since the opening up of the village over a decade ago, the hillside town has earned a place on the arts and culture scene. Among the annual Treasure Hill Light Festival, performances large and small, and art exhibitions, there are exemplary works which resonate with the unique history of the place, an example being HSU Fong-Ray’s 2017 piece Times of Unauthorized Occupancy: A Restated History of Treasure Hill, curated in a manner of deconstructing the past, kneading and rubbing in the spectrum of Treasure Hill’s time, happenings, recollections, and life.

Treasure Hill Artist Village invites international artists each year to develop their creative works on site. In contrast to predominant curative residency practices, Artistic Director Catherine LEE stresses the openness of the artist village by providing time and space for artists to freely create artworks of any concept and form.

Besides short term residency, Treasure Hill provides Micro Lofts for terms of up to 9 years, with occupants as diverse as dance troupe Assignment Theatre, illustration studio 3 Cats Club, e-waste upcycler KJohn’s Robot DIY Studio, and darkroom and film camera classroom Mechanman Lab. Overall, Micro Loft residencies are not as focused on contemporary art as they are on community art, creative industry, and hosting serial events, on maintaining a friendly and open communal facet to all participants. Every weekend, various visitors drop by and strike up conversations in artist studios, in the manner of rural village life. Unlike the passers-by in short term art residencies, long term occupants tend to develop a deep and collaborative relationship with the locals, such as the organic garden created and run by residents with artist Julie CHOU.

Mechanman Lab, a learning place for darkroom and film camera techniques in one of Treasure Hill’s Micro Lofts.Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong
Treasure Hill Village Grocery Store. Photo by CHANG Ting-Tong

As to the site facilities, Treasure Hill with the exception of its woodworking workshop does not offer abundant open spaces and professional workshop equipment for artists. The terrain also prevents large pieces of prefabricated artwork or equipment to be moved in and out of exhibition areas, further restricting creative endeavors with material and physical space constraints. The venues adapted from residential houses provide artists who focus on sites with intrigue challenges, while for  those accustomed to state-of-the-art video processing studios and art gallery standard facilities, the provisions are frustratingly basic. The office is run on a lean team of administrative staff and interns, who despite their youthful energy could be lacking in experience. On the whole, it is a self-driven team which in the end accomplishes the task, despite limited resources and an ad-hoc appearance. Even then it outshines complex organizations with communications overhead which obscure the overall vision.

Treasure Hill has many operational challenges owing to its uniqueness. Its narrow lanes create logistical challenges between exhibition spaces. Haphazard rooflines and perpetual dampness make structures hard to maintain and result in increased equipment failure rates. Mosquitos abound, with extreme weather conditions resulting in fluctuating visitor numbers. Being prohibited from listing its properties on popular web services to secure reservations, the Traveler’s Hostel suffers from low occupancy rates. After so many years, the Treasure Hill Community is in decline, with the elderly moms and pops sitting in the shade next to the Grocery Store, bantering. To them, “resident” artists are but fleeting guests in a village, where their friends and families have spent entire lives, defined through generations in life’s marriage, birth, sickness, and death. Their words betray a sense of anxiety for the future, as the 12-year lease with the city government comes to an end. The undecided fate of the original residents and possible newcomers bring a sense of uncertainty to the community.

A Real-Life Utopia

In the spirit of social justice and cultural participation, Treasure Hill is a utopia created by political ideals and artistic imagination. It resists the encroachment of urbanization, fought for by efforts of the people, becoming a collective memory in the process of modernization. At the same time, like so many historic buildings across Taipei City, it is a digitally restored photograph, details softened by resolution and color enhancements, becoming a “non-memory” in defiance of the past. As a historic settlement, Treasure Hill lacks a systematic organization of its history, with the result that visitors have no clue as to what they are looking at in parts of the village. As a cultural office, Treasure Hill is split between a gallery, an alternative exhibition space, and a culture park, being neither here nor there, ambiguous in its role. Yet this ambiguity affords artists more creative freedom. The complex state at Treasure Hill leaves the management embattled on financial and operational fronts, somewhat like a microcosm of the Taiwanese society, straddling along with the tides of the times, staying firm in the face of adversity.

On the day my residency ended, I picked up my bags and looked one last time at this mountain village by the Fuhe bridge, the stream of ghost wailings seeming to come from the rock-cliffed lagoon, telling old tales no one hears anymore, crossing into the heavily polluted river and vanishing into the smog-filled Taipei sky.

Treasure Hillcultural participationart intervention
Taipei Legend Studio, Original Stories of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters. Kiwifruit Studios: Taipei, 2016.
For the background and history of Treasure Hill, see: “Settlement. Art. Treasure Hill” by CHANG Shih-Lun, Taiwan Panorama Magazine, May 2006.
The original blog site of the Treasure Hill Commune is offline, leaving only its Facebook page. Another article about the Treasure Hill Commune protest is “Treasure Hill redevelopment controversy ongoing, some artists continue protest” by YU Wei , February 3, 2007 (article originally published in ARTouch, Vol. 172, January 2007, pp. 86-87).
CHANG Ting-TongTaiwanese artist based in the UK. Master of Fine Arts, Goldsmiths, University of London. His media include installation, painting, performance and video, combining disciplines of science, biology, and animatronics to contemplate the relationship between people, technology, and society. His recent solo exhibition has been held at the Digital Art Centre at Kunstkraftwerk Leipzig, Asian Art in London, and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He has also participated in group exhibitions and commissions at Taipei Biennial, Guangzhou Triennial, Saatchi Gallery, Crafts Council (UK), and the Wellcome Trust. Recent awards include the RBS Bursary Award of Royal Society of Sculptors and the RISE Award of Art Central Hong Kong. His works are collected by The Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Embassy of Brazil London, Noblesse Collection Seoul, and private collectors in Asia and Europe.
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