TAICHUNG, March 14 — Peter Pan and his Neverland. Alice and her Wonderland. Dorothy and Oz. These are magical realms filled with colour and charismatic characters we first encounter as children and never quite forget even when we grow up.
But have you ever visited a truly magical kingdom? (And we don’t mean Disneyland.)
In the city of Taichung in western Taiwan, long famous as the birthplace of bubble tea and sun-cakes (taiyang bing), there lies a sleepy village that can rival the aforementioned fictional realms for that indescribable fairy-tale feeling.
The Rainbow Village (its actual name is Kanchen Sixth Village) is thus named for its painted walls, windows and roofs that come in every shade of the spectrum. Even the streets are painted!
Originally the area was a military dependents’ village built in the late 1940s. It was used as communal lodging for the Nationalist soldiers of the period before being upgraded to permanent housing later. So how did a former army settlement get transformed into a playful, many-hued wonderland?
One of the village’s long-time residents, a former Nationalist solider named Huang Yung-fu (affectionately called Grandpa Huang) started painting the front of his home and when he was done, continued painting the rest of the near-deserted village.
Grandpa Huang’s lively and unique artwork first drew curious looks from his few remaining neighbours and later both praise and a loyal following. Thus encouraged, he painted more and more. As a result, the entire veterans’ village has now become a world of colour.
During our visit, we are fortunate enough to have a chat with the lively old man. We learn that he was originally from Guangdong Province. As such, most of our conversation is in Cantonese rather than the typical Taiwanese-style Mandarin.
As a young man, Grandpa Huang had enlisted with the army and later followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan. He subsequently lived in the island for decades before retiring in this military dependents village.
“I started painting around September 2008. In the beginning, I started painting my home mainly to pass the time but later it became my passion,” he says.
Stroke by stroke, it took Grandpa Huang an entire year to complete painting the entire village. At 90 years old (or thereabouts; he’s not too sure about his exact age), this is an amazing feat, especially for someone with no formal art training.
There is no fixed theme to Grandpa Huang’s paintings. There are animals, flowers, people and auspicious images. Celebrities are not left out; try spotting his renditions of Andy Lau and Faye Wong. Even the ground we walk on is exploding in surreal hieroglyphs.
The only common denominator here is that everything is painted in bright colours. This beautiful place is like a dream come to life.
In 2010 the Taichung City Government announced the planned demolition of this village. An online petition campaign was started by concerned citizens to preserve the buildings.
“Thanks to their efforts to save the Rainbow Village, the authorities decided to change their plans and instead protect this place as a park,” Grandpa Huang says with clear pride in his voice.
Although the village is now rescued under Taichung’s cityscape planning, most of the villagers have already moved away. Therefore, there aren’t many people around besides other tourists. The entire village is quiet, as though time has stopped here. We wander around with no hurry, taking in the visual splendour.
The whole village is but a canvas for Grandpa Huang. Indeed, have we ever seen such a huge painting in our lives? How does this compare to the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo? You could argue one has greater history and artistic merit, but both are equally impressive in our eyes.
The Rainbow Village is located close to Ling Tung University in the outskirts of Taichung City. To get there, take bus 27, 30 or 40 from Taichung Train Station and get off at Lindongsan Station. Then walk about 150m to Kanchen Sixth Village. Alternatively take a taxi.
If you get lost, just ask for directions; the friendly “Rainbow Grandpa” is a living legend amongst the locals. Consider buying some of Grandpa Huang’s beautiful postcards or donating some money to the Rainbow Village “fund” (just a small cash box) if you enjoy your time in there so he may buy more brushes and paint.
May the Rainbow Grandpa continue to paint rainbows for many years to come!
Kanchen Sixth Village, Lane 56, Chun’an Road, Taichung, Taiwan
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 13, 2014.