An Imperial Edifice Born of the Xinhai Revolution
By Lin Tzung-Kuei ∥ Translated by Mike Fu
Sep 20, 2023

Designed by Yang Cho-cheng of Hemu Architects, the Yuanshan Grand Hotel is a classic example of postwar architecture in Taiwan that is often cited for its symbolism and historical significance in the annals of architectural discourse. Scholars including Fan Ming-ju and Joseph R. Allen have analyzed the hotel using political, cinematic, and other frameworks. Given that most academic texts focus on the yellow glazed tiles of the hotel’s roof, the title The Red Mansion feels like a rediscovery that compels the reader to consider the overwhelming presence of red in the building, rather than simply gaze at the rooftop, where one’s attention may naturally be drawn when beholding antique palaces. This title uncovers the stories that take place within the walls of the hotel, and that exist beneath the contours of the building’s silhouette that remains so dominant in architectural history. Through a cast of colorful characters, the reader gets to know the fascinating history that this edifice contains.

Why was the yellow roof such a striking feature during the era of authoritarian rule? To answer this question, we must return to Taiwan before World War II, when it was still a Japanese colony. By 1929, the 34th year of Japanese governance, Ide Kaoru had already long served as chief architect of the Taiwan Government-General’s Building and Repairs Section. In this capacity, he’d made many observations and formed insights into the architecture of the island. Ide believed that every metropolis had representative colors and palettes, such as the hazy hues of London, the vivid light of Paris, the earth tones of Rome, and so on. It was the task of the architectural designer to harmonize with the environment, rather than try to bend it to his will. In addition, the urban palette was created by not only static buildings, but the replaceable signage of shops and the dynamic movements of carriages and motor vehicles. Buses traveling back and forth on the streets were among the important elements that influenced one’s overall impression of a city, as well.

Taihoku, as Taipei was then known, needed a long-term plan in order to create its own urban palette. Situated at a relatively low latitude compared to the Japanese mainland, Taihoku was well-suited for brick buildings in colors that would be enlivened by the bright sun. These facades would convey a sense of modernity and create a unique style for the city; they would also be easy to clean and maintain in such a humid climate. The brick buildings that were planned and designed under Ide Kaoru’s guidance included the pale green Taihoku Civic Hall (today’s Zhongshan Hall) and the High Court of the Taiwan Government-General (today’s Judicial Building); the tawny-colored Taiwan Education Hall (today’s National 228 Memorial Hall) and Taihoku Imperial University campus (today’s National Taiwan University); and the red ochre of the Taihoku High School campus (today’s National Taiwan Normal University). These structures have a cohesive style when viewed together, while each building also boasts its own colorful details.

After World War II, Taipei’s landscape was shaped by architects who were well-versed in European and American modernism. They seemed to be on the verge of developing a unique urban palette for Taipei, but ultimately still fell short of Ide Kaoru’s ideal, which called for a blending of colors that could express calm and restraint while retaining a sense of vigor. Taipei’s postwar style instead deployed white tiles on building exteriors in order to convey a sense of spaciousness. The rapid economic development of this period produced mass quantities of buildings with uniform interiors and a limited range of exterior colors. The architects of the Republic of China were quite obsessed with white facades that emphasized volume, a modernist principle embodied most visibly by the New York Five in the 1980s. This group of star architects, also known as the Whites, was idolized and imitated around the world. We all know how the rest of the story went. In the rainy climes of Taipei, the white brick exteriors were not cleaned as regularly as the mighty building management committees had envisioned. They quickly became stained by exhaust and grime in the era of the automobile and no longer highlighted the spatial or structural features of the buildings as originally intended. The tiles were successively removed and restored, but no longer did they convey the modernist ideal of the city of white. In this city of pale hues filled with people of all social strata, how could the Republic of China’s blue bloods show off their elite status during an era of authoritarian rule? Landmarks with yellow glazed roof tiles thus became the symbol of a ruling class pining for their lost homeland.

According to Professor Yang Hongxun of the architecture department of Tsinghua University in Beijing, Confucian temples and the habitations of the highest classes of the imperial family were the only structures allowed to use yellow glazed tiles during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Even the households of other nobles, including princes and lords, were limited to green or black tiles. The Kuomintang government took credit for overthrowing the Manchu Qing empire and leading the Xinhai Revolution. After relocating to Taiwan, the KMT used public resources to successively construct places like the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine, the National Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, and the National Theater and Concert Hall. In a twist of historical irony, these buildings all proudly make use of yellow glazed tiles, that most potent symbol of the imperial power toppled by the Xinhai Revolution. In the so-called Republic of China, the ruling party was essentially creating symbols to demonstrate they were the successors to the imperial palace. That the KMT inherited this mentality from dynastic times is absurd and paradoxical, a fact that has largely been overlooked beyond the communities of architectural researchers.

If you looked out over the cityscape of postwar Taipei, you’d see glimmers of golden roofs in the midst of endless rows of white buildings, a brazen imposition of the shadow of the ancient Chinese capitals of Luoyang, Chang’an, Nanjing, and Beiping upon the Taipei Basin. The tallest of these buildings with yellow rooftops was none other than the Yuanshan Grand Hotel, the protagonist of the book in question.

Ultimately, neither white nor yellow became a representative color of Taipei or the urban style of Taiwanese architecture. All that remains is the massive red mansion that still towers on Yuanshan, a location chosen for its excellent feng shui to house a shrine during the Japanese colonial era. The Yuanshan Grand Hotel has borne witness to tumultuous events like the establishment of the Democratic People’s Party, a great fire on its roof, the hiring of “lion-hearted” general manager Stanley Yen, and the controversy over the national flag during a Chinese delegation’s visit in 2008. The elite pretensions that the authoritarian government-in-exile vehemently maintained have faded away over time. A palace that once wielded immense power has ultimately reverted to the competition of the free market. Thanks to the stories recorded by T.H. Lee, we are able to glimpse Taiwanese history in the hotel. As for Taipei’s future and the question of how to create a national style, we’ll leave this in the hands of generations to come.