Bathing in History
A little over one hundred years ago, in 1911, the Japanese colonial authorities in Taiwan commenced the building of a public bath house in the northern suburbs of the island’s colonial capital, Taipei. Beitou – or Hokuto, as it was then called by the Japanese – had developed a well-deserved reputation as a hot spring resort and its waters had achieved renown throughout the Japanese empire for their unique qualities. Yet bathing in hot springs was an exclusive, expensive affair, and beyond the means of even most Japanese residents. The Beitou Hot Spring Public Bath was opened to Japanese members of the public in 1913, and charged what was deemed to be an affordable price for entry. The building’s architecture combined strong Victorian characteristics – reflecting the Japanese empire’s admiration for, and desire to emulate, British imperial practice – with traditional Japanese style, particularly on the structure’s second floor and roof, resulting in an impressive and, for its time, brave architectural hybrid. Guests visiting the bath house for the first time must have been impressed by both the building’s cosmopolitan grandeur, and its peaceful rustic setting, sandwiched between the waters of Beitou Creek and the forested slopes of Datun Shan. Inside, the Public Bath contained a serene, contemplative lobby room, verandas with views looking out over the surrounding countryside and mountains, and, of course, the large hot spring bath itself surrounded by grandiose pillars, arched walkways, patterned floor tiles, and stained glass windows. Imperial Rome, too, was another of the building’s design inspirations.
A Community Cause
Within 80 years of opening, the building had fallen into a parlous state of disrepair and dereliction. Abandoned, unmaintained, and with its original identity fast disappearing from collective memory, by the 1990s the local government had planned to demolish the bath house in order to turn the site into a cable car station for the planned (but now abandoned) Yangming Shan gondola. When a local teacher began exploring the building on field-trips in the local area with her students, the bath house was an atmospheric ruin, desirable only to film crews looking for spooky movie sets. Ms. Huang Kuei-Kuan ( 黃桂冠 ), a teacher at Beitou Elementary School, was interested in the ‘hometown education’ movement, which promoted knowledge of local history and culture as a remedy to the restrictive, China-focused, curriculum administered by the government for decades after 1945. Many Taiwanese children and young adults had been left with little or no knowledge of their island’s own history, and in the case of Beitou this meant an ignorance of the area’s aboriginal, settler, and Japanese histories. Ms. Huang’s admirable efforts to advance local cultural knowledge among her students resulted in their (re)discovery of the old public bath house and the development of a strong community attachment to Beitou’s heritage. Ms. Huang, her students, and numerous other members of the community petitioned the Taipei city government to prevent the bath house’s demolition, request that it be listed as a designated historical building, and demand that it be transformed into a museum. In 1996 the government responded to this heartfelt movement and the building received listed status. By late 1998 the old public bath had been renovated and restored to its former glory, opening in October of that year as the Beitou Hot Spring Musuem. Through sustained activism and strong community participation, Beitou had succeeded in protecting one of its most important cultural assets and embarking on a voyage to rediscover its abundant local history.
Since opening in 1998, the Beitou Hot Spring Museum has seen a steady stream of both Taiwanese and foreign visitors. Operating as the focal point for a constellation of Beitou’s other historic sights, cultural centres, and museums, the old bath house has led the area’s quest to become an ‘eco-museum’, a rather opaque term, which refers to the area around the museum and Beitou park as a space for harmonious and active engagement between local residents and the area’s heritage. This means that visitors to the museum immediately notice the local volunteers welcoming guests and inviting them to take off their shoes and put on slippers as they enter the building. In addition, the museum’s Operating Supervision Committee is made up of local teachers and representatives from Beitou district’s community organisations, giving locals a direct influence over what happens.
The museum’s second floor contains exhibits and information pertaining to Beitou’s fascinating human history. Unfortunately this section of the museum currently has no English translations, however the story begins with the indigenous Ketagalan settlement of Patauw – meaning ‘The Place of Witches’, so named because of the mysterious plumes of smoke billowing from the mountain sides, and their accompaniment by an (at the time) inexplicable sulphurous stench – from which the name ‘Beitou’ derives. Settlers from Mainland China followed from the 15th century onwards, selecting the area as one whose volcanic soils meant the land made for fertile farmland, and inter-marrying with Ketagalan tribes-people. The Spanish and Dutch also made excursions into the Beitou area during the time of their occupation at nearby Danshui, and the famous traveller Yu Yonghe followed not long after the Dutch left in his quest to exploit local sulphur resources for use as an ingredient in gunpowder. Beitou was really put on the map, however, during Taiwan’s time as a Japanese colony and the district’s rapid development as a hot spring resort. As part of this development, in 1916 a 1.2 kilometre railway branch line was opened on the Taipei – Danshui railway line, from Beitou to the unimaginatively-named ‘New Beitou’ station. A number of fascinating old Japanese-era photographs have been unearthed from various archives and juxtaposed with pictures of the present giving visitors a welcome visual insight into the area’s history.
By default Beitou Hot Spring Museum also serves as a museum of Japanese colonial architecture, and the building’s upper floor is a fascinating place to explore the original lobby area which is kitted out in traditional Japanese style and whose wooden screen doors and tatami mat flooring have been restored, as well as a fine veranda overlooking Beitou Park and Beitou Creek. The upper floor’s remaining spaces have been converted into a multimedia auditorium, exhibition space, and small room displaying information on Beitou’s role during the late 1960s as a popular location for movie shoots; over one hundred Taiwanese-language films were filmed in the area during that decade. Exhibits on the ground floor of the museum focus on Beitou’s fascinating geology, hot spring formation, and the history of the old bath house. Again, the vast majority of information boards are only available in Chinese, but sections pertaining to Taiwan’s famous hot springs and the old public bath house’s renovation do have English translations. In addition, one of the lounge rooms situated next to the bath hall shows an excellent video documentary outlining the story behind the museum’s establishment and its role in bringing Beitou’s community together, which is well worth seeing and thankfully does have English subtitles.
The main bath hall itself is the highlight of a trip to the Hot Spring Museum, and besides admiring the ancient Roman style and motifs, there is a wealth of information detailing the painstaking steps (following international standards requiring ‘maximum preservation and minimum intervention’) taken to restore the building to its former glory. This included working with a local tile-maker to produce floor tiles that matched the exact hue of the originals, and using the extensive collections of local amateur photographer Ms. Chuang Hsiu-Luan, to accurately reproduce the design of the stained-glass windows which, by the early 1990s, had long been stolen. At nine metres long by six metres wide, the scale of the main bath is hardly overwhelming, but its architectural context and expert use of natural light result in an area that appears much grander and more spacious than its dimensions might suggest. On weekdays, when visitor numbers are relatively small, the main bath hall is a peaceful, meditative space, and thoroughly suited to its role as an occasional art exhibitions space.
After strolling back upstairs having finished the museum tour, visitors are left with a better understanding not only of Beitou’s history, the area’s endlessly fascinating geology, and its important role as Japanese Taiwan’s premier leisure (and pleasure) resort, but also of the power of communities in Taiwan to fight to protect their heritage. This beautiful old public bath house, an architectural and cultural relic unique in Taiwan, would not exist today were it not for the patient but devoted activism of Beitou’s children, teachers, and other members of the community. The Beitou Hot Spring Museum is, in short, an institution containing lessons from the past that are as important for our present and future.
By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei
Beitou Hot Spring Museum
Open: 9.00 am – 5.00 pm, Tuesday – Sunday
MRT: New Beitou
No.2, Zhongshan Road, Beitou District, Taipei
Phone: (02) 28939981