Treasure Hill Artist Village may not be on any official tourist maps of Taipei, but that is even more reason to seek it out. It’s a super-cool contemporary art space and café quarter within a historic housing estate on a hill

There comes a time in every traveller’s life when you tire of tourist attractions and just want to spend a day in a new city like a local would, away from queues and national monuments (and other tourists!), simply enjoying a quiet stroll somewhere interesting. In Taipei, there can be so much fuss, bother, heat and humidity on the congested streets that finding such a place can seem impossible.

When a Taiwanese friend suggested I visit Treasure Hill Artist Village during a recent stay in her hometown, I must admit to feeling a little ho-hum at the prospect. I pictured stalls full of handicrafts, hung with folksy landscapes in pen and ink, or a cavernous yet still somehow stuffy gallery space teeming with people wearing iPods, silently following a dour tour recorded stiltingly in their mother tongue. Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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Photo courtesy of Taipei Artist Village – Treasure Hill

Treasure Hill Artist Village is as contemporary and cool an institution as you will find anywhere in the world. It is made even more appealing by its location – its eclectic mix of galleries, coffee shops and handmade homewares stores are secreted away among a confounding maze of alleyways that dissect a historic housing estate. You’ll find art installations, jewellery makers, ceramicists and sound installations hidden inside the poky apartments, subterranean bomb shelters, empty swimming pools and vertiginous attics of this tiny township, which appears as a series of concrete and brick cubes balanced one on top of the other on a steep hillside.

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Photo courtesy of Taipei Artist Village – Treasure Hill

The estate perches high on Taipei’s Guanyin Hill, giving it both expansive regional views and many teetering stairways to climb. It is due to this unique topography that Treasure Hill was zoned for military use after World War II, when the Chinese Nationalist government took over from Taipei’s preceding Japanese rule. Originally built for military personnel in the 1940s, many of Treasure Hill’s higgledy-piggledy apartments are now home to an Artist-in-Residence scheme. Contemporary and emerging artists from all over the world are invited to live alongside local creatives, who display their own works and collaborate on others in an organic, artsy think tank inspired by the proximity of like minds.

But artists are not the only residents here. Wandering among the rat-run-like alleyways, you’ll encounter incongruous little old men sweeping stoops and hauling groceries. They are war veterans left over from the community’s military days, who live side by side with some of the Asia’s most promising young contemporary artists.

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Photo courtesy of Taipei Artist Village – Treasure Hill

I spoke with I-Hua Lee, who has been manager of both Treasure Hill and its twin arts community Taipei Artist Village since 2013, about this interesting juxtaposition of residents.

“From the late 1940s until 1979, various Army personnel, the Navy and Military Police were quartered here,” she said. “When the military left the area in 1979, old soldiers, demobilised military personnel, disadvantaged community groups and many people from the countryside that had come to Taipei looking for employment in the city took up residence here.”

It soon became an overpopulated, illegal squatter’s settlement.

“In 1980, the settlement faced demolition due to an unprecedented urban-development plan,” said I-Hua. “The arts community and social activists started campaigning to save it. In 1999, the government announced that Treasure Hill would indeed be saved, and that an artist village would be established here. Just over ten years later, Treasure Hill Artist Village was opened.”

2015寶藏巖環境藝術燈節 陳松志《無關的意外(2015)》
Photo courtesy of Taipei Artist Village – Treasure Hill

It’s not just the housing estate that made Treasure Hill worth preserving in the eyes of the local community. As you enter the gates, the first thing you’ll see on the hillside below you is an ornate Qing-dynasty temple. Originally called Shibitan (“Stone Wall Lake”) Temple, it was repurposed as a Buddhist temple during the Japanese Colonial Era at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1897. After World War II, with China regaining control of Taiwan, it was renamed Treasure Hill Temple. This unique mix of histories means that the temple is home to artefacts across not only centuries but religious and political disciplines. There is said to be over 1000 relics dating from the early 20th Century here alone.

Should you walk up the hillside as you enter Treasure Hill, rather than down towards the temple, the first clue that Treasure Hill is an artists’ community can be found in the form of a ten-foot-high golden statue depicting a man casually dressed but for a cape. He is standing wide-legged and holding a camera to his face, pointing it out way over your head, as if about to snap a photo of the view. His shiny visage is a shock among the decaying concrete walls and garden blocks of the old residential estate, but it is a good indicator of what’s to come.

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From there, it’s a matter of exploring your surrounds, stumbling upon open doorways and secret staircases, all of which lead to either someone’s private home and a locked door or a fascinating array of artworks and cute retail businesses. In an apparent dead end, I came across a pair of giant fortune cookies – playful outdoor chairs designed by star Taiwanese architect Shu-Chang Kung. In another, I found a room full of aquariums made from old bubble-backed Mac computers. Underground, a dark room came to life in a motion-activated, strobing fluorescent light show.

An eclectic series of graffiti and stencils appeared every now and then on walls and eaves around the estate, too, including the recognisable work of Kiwi street artist Hayley King (aka Flox). She completed a residency at Treasure Hill in June this year, and her colourful mural of a bear (the animal symbol of Taiwan) can still be found here.

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Local sound performance artist Betty Apple in Treasure Hill’s bunker. Find out about her work here

Another unexpected find in Treasure Hill was cool loft-style café Tadpole Point – it was there that I found the best coffee I’d tasted during my ten-day stay in Taiwan. If you are yearning for a “real” coffee while in Taipei, you will find both it and much more at Treasure Hill.

Do it yourself

Treasure Hill Artist Village > No. 2, Alley 14, Ln. 230 Dingzhou Rd. Sec. 3, Taipei. Opening hours: Tuesdays to Sundays, 11am–10pm; artistvillage.org

Closest train station: Gongguan MRT on the green line.

Take a tour: Should you prefer to take a guided tour rather than wandering around Treaure Hill aimlessly and discovering its surprises for yourself, book in for an informative local guided tour at viator.com (search “Treasure Hill Taipei”; expect to pay around AUD$70pp). It’s made more fun than your usual walking tour by the inclusion of a scavenger hunt, complete with maps and clues.

For more on what to do and see in Taipei and Taiwan, go to www.welcome2taiwan.net

Four more Taipei art galleries explore

Taipei Artist Village: The sister project to Treasure Hill, Taipei Arts Village is a four-storey gallery space in the government-office district and a self-proclaimed cultural exchange and home for nomadic artists. As well as exhibitions, they host workshops and talks. Open from 11am to 9pm Tues-Sun. 7, Beiping East Rd, Taipei; artistvillage.org

Taipei Fine Arts Museum: A great collection of contemporary Chinese art and international travelling exhibitions. 181, Section 3, Zhongshan North Rd, Zhonghshan, Taipei City; tfam.gov.taipei

MoCa Taipei: Behind the façade of an historic elementary school, the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei has an increasingly international focus. You will also find some of Taiwan’s best modern art here. 39 Changan West Rd, Datong District, Taipei City; mocataipei.org.tw

1839 Contemporary Gallery: If you love photography, this is your place. 1839 was the year photography was invented and this gallery is all about the snapped image both in China and beyond. B1, 120, Yanji Street, Da-an District, Taipei; english.1839cg.com

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Photo courtesy Taipei Artist Village – Treasure Hill

[NOTE: This story first appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine]