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Donghe Bell Tower and Soto Zen Temple in Taipei

One evening I was walking along Ren'ai Road (仁愛路), close to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, when suddenly I noticed a peculiar old building on my left. I was surprised because I had never seen it on any Taipei guide. On second thought, though, I wasn't sure whether it was an old building at all. It actually looked brand new. Was it one of those neoclassical oriental structures so beloved by the old KMT guard? After all, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, too, looks like an ancient building, but in fact it was constructed in the 1970s. 

I drew closer and saw that it was a bell tower. It stood lonely behind a huge high-rise building and next to a gloomy construction site. I looked around to see if there was any plaque that explained its history. I went into the archway at the centre of the tower. Suddenly I heard a coarse coughing and the sound of steps, and I stopped. An old man emerged from the other side of the tower. His scrawny upper body was naked, his skin was dark, and he looked as if he hadn't taken a shower in a while. In the distance I saw an improvised bed made out of several blankets. It was probably a homeless man that I had disturbed in his sleep. I turned around and decided to return another day.







On the left side there is a construction site and some illegal houses

The following morning I searched online and found out that it is the Donghe Bell Tower. It was built in 1930, during the Japanese colonial era, as part of a larger religious construction, the Donghe Zen Temple, which later was demolished.

Donghe Zen Temple


The original name of the temple was Soto Zen Daihonzai Temple (曹洞宗大本山別院). It was built in 1908 in Dongmen District (東門町). It served the community of Japanese worshippers of Zen Buddhism, and at that time only Japanese nationals could go to pray there. But because the temple also attracted Taiwanese believers, other halls were added which could be used by Taiwanese Buddhists, as well. In 1914 a hall for the Goddess Guanyin was built. The temple underwent major renovation works between 1920 and 1923 and again at the beginning of the 1930s. A school was attached to the building, which was used by children of monks and worshippers. 

The bell tower was built in 1930 and served as the main entrance and welcoming hall of the temple. It was constructed in a Zen Buddhist style popular in Japan.

After 1945 this historic building was left to decay, as many other old structures of Taipei. When the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan in 1949 the compound of the temple was used as barracks for soldiers. Over the years, common people built illegal houses and shops around the original temple buildings, without any regulation or supervision. A shanty town thus grew around the bell tower. Such illegal residential clusters can still be seen in that area.

The Demolition of the Temple


The whole complex remained in a state of neglect for decades. In the shanty town improvised restaurants sprouted which were very popular with students of National Taiwan University who went there to buy their lunch from food stalls. Such shanty towns can still be seen in other sections of the neighbourhood.

In 2000 the Taipei government decided to clean up the area and relocate its inhabitants and shops. According to the original project the temple as well as the bell tower would be demolished to make space for a new modern building. But citizens' protests moved the government to save at least the bell tower and the Guanyin Hall. 


The right side of the bell tower

The main temple halls were torn down, and in their stead a huge modern Youth Activity Centre was built. The bell tower was renovated and the surrounding area was turned into a pedestrian zone. The Guanyin Hall is now cut off from the bell tower, and no one could ever guess that they were formerly part of the same temple complex. The Guanyin Hall is in a state of neglect, although it is still used by Zen Buddhists. It is surrounded by a wall on one side, an empty construction site, illegal buildings and a parking lot on the other. The average passer-by probably won't even notice that this temple exists. 

The Donghe Bell Tower, as it is now called, is a melancholic remnant of a long gone Taipei, of a city that exists only in old, black and white photographs
   

Additional sources:

趙莒玲: 台北古街漫遊. Taipei 1999, pp. 143-145.

ibid.: 台北城的故事, 台北, 民國 82.


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