Yesterday’s impromptu ride around the riverside bikeway network delivered me to the palatial Grand Hotel (Yuánshān Dàfàndiàn 圓山大飯店), a famous landmark in Zhongshan, Taipei. Located on a hilltop overlooking a bend of the Keelung River (基隆河), it was established in 1952 at the behest of generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to provide the ruling elite with a luxurious place to host and entertain foreign dignitaries. The distinctive building seen in these photos was completed in 1973 and was the tallest building in the Free Area of the Republic of China until 1981.
The story of the Grand Hotel also fits into a broader narrative of (re-)Sinicization, the process by which the Kuomintang imposed Chinese culture upon Taiwan during the authoritarian decades of the White Terror. This was partly to counter the Japanification of the previous decades—but also to legitimize the colonial ruling class and make the millions who sought refuge from the Chinese Civil War feel more at home. One of many ways in which this was accomplished was by destroying culturally Japanese sites and replacing them with a traditional Chinese equivalent. In this case the hotel occupies the site of the former Taiwan Grand Shrine, the highest-ranking Shinto shrine in Japanese-ruled Taiwan, and was built in the style of a Chinese palace complete with interior decor representing a different Chinese dynasty on each floor.
The opulent lobby of the Grand Hotel provided a bizarre spectacle that immediately brought to mind the idiosyncratic work of filmmaker Wes Anderson. It was absolutely ostentatious—and filled with rowdy groups of Chinese and Japanese tourists. I am somewhat surprised that nobody stopped me to ask what I was doing wandering around with camera in hand and a look of wry amusement on my face.
There is something oddly unsettling about this garish monument to the culture of another land—but this is precisely what made it so interesting to photograph. Something about the rigidity and regularity of the design speaks to the dark history of the oppressive regime that built the Grand Hotel.
I spent a night at the Grand Hotel in May of 1999, in the days before it was overrun by Chinese tourists. Even back then, the hotel had an atmosphere of faded glory. My room was large, but it felt old and dark, and its only saving grace was a great view of the city (and Songshan Airport) from the balcony. At that time I didn’t know the hotel had been built on the site of Taiwan’s biggest Shinto shrine (as fate would have it, my traveling companion at that time was Japanese), otherwise I would have looked around for any traces. I wouldn’t recommend the hotel to any travelers, but at the same time I don’t regret having stayed there.
And one good memory about the night – we had dinner at the Shilin Night Market, long before the Ma administration destroyed it by moving the market to its present, sanitized location.