Jùkuíjū 聚奎居 is an abandoned mansion in Wuri, Taichung, built in 1920 by Chén Shàozōng 陳紹宗, a wealthy businessman and landowner. The architecture is a combination of the traditional Taiwanese sānhéyuàn 三合院 (a 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 rundown, industrial margins of the city, along an otherwise unremarkable lane 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. Stately country manors like Jukuiju are relatively uncommon, although not completely anomalous; I’ve already written about several of them1. At first I wasn’t particularly impressed by this example of the genre, but it has really grown on me over the years.
Jukuiju was formerly one of the most well-known abandonments in central Taiwan, having been featured by countless Chinese language blogs. Consequently, the entire building has been picked clean—almost nothing remains of its original occupants. As recently as 2010 it was a minor tourist attraction complete with stamps for entry and a security guard on site2, but it underwent another period of abandonment around 2013. 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 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 simply means house, residence, or dwelling place. Taken all together the name implies a gathering place for students of the literary arts3.
If you peruse government sources4 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 itself5. Are you really all that famous if you are essentially just a footnote in the history of the place you lived? 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 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 Shaozong 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 descendants to fight over the remaining pieces.
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 monument6 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—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 Wuri, Taichung. 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 1: 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.
Update 2: as of June 2020 the newly restored Jukuiju is open to visitors!
- For more old mansions check out Minxiong Ghost House (abandoned) and this musician’s residence in Changhua (occupied). ↩
- As indicated in this post (中文). ↩
- Corrections here are welcome—I am no expert in Chinese translation! There are also likely to be some fēngshuǐ 風水 considerations involved here that I won’t know very much about. ↩
- There used to be a link here but government URLs have a half-life of six months in Taiwan—and this reference is long gone by now. ↩
- Here’s an article sent to me by reader Katy Biggs about Chen Roushi founding a poet’s society in 1923. ↩
- Here is one such account in popular media from 2012. ↩
Great stuff, mate. Really enjoyed this. Well-written and researched.
“naturally suspect of land-owning elites like Chen Shaozong who had prospered under the Japanese, instituted a sweeping land reform program beginning in 1949 …”
This makes it sound like they land reform program was instituted merely as a vengeful land-grab. While individual expropriations (indicated by the officers grabbing the upper floor) were obviously widespread, the policy was obviously not instituted for this reason.
Some of my friends, who personally lost ancestral land, will disagree (though even they wouldn’t say it was just to “get the Japanese collaborators”) but the main reason was to correct an inequitable distribution of land. The policy was formulated at the behest of the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction.
Finally, what of the dodgy recent history? I was waiting for the payoff about the cult – or have a got the wrong place?!
Just thought I’d drop a line to say ‘Thanks’, as that was a very informative and enjoyable piece to read. Plus, I know that it makes a difference when you hear appreciation for your work. Having spent many years in Taichung I feel sad and slightly embarrassed that I was unaware of this place until recently. I will definitely take the time to find it next time I visit.
They are busy renovating the building now, which I guess is a good thing.