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Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past

By Courtney Donovan Smith
Translated by Anna Yang

In July of this year, the 12-story, multi-block structure previously called First Square was renamed ASEAN Square at the behest of Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung. The mayor had previously campaigned on embracing new immigrant families, many of whom come from Southeast Asian states, and has responded to the central government's "New Southbound" policies by reaching out in the areas of business and culture to nations that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), most notably Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. In total, central Taiwan hosts well over 100,000 people from that region.

In many respects, the mayor's name change reflected the existing reality--the building and the area around it has long been a popular draw for people from ASEAN countries, who started arriving in large numbers in the 1990s. The complex hosts a wide, multi-cultural mix of shops, groceries, restaurants, services and nightlife options. Many cater to specific immigrant nationalities, though some traditional Taiwanese businesses are still there from years past. There is riotous jumble of options to choose from and surprises abound--you never know what to expect from one shop to the next, or even within individual shops. It's a packed warren with tattoo artists next to suit tailors, a Thai grocery adjacent to an Indonesian Islamic women's wear shop, and electronics retailers surrounded by everything from underwear to toys and who knows what other interesting things....

Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past

The multi-cultural side of this place gives it a vibe unlike the rest of the city. Particularly on the third floor, there are clusters of restaurants and karaoke bars of specific nationalities, with Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai and Indonesian being the most numerous. Passing through each little national cluster brings a different set of sounds and the hunger-inducing aromas of the various ethnic cuisines. The food, signage, service, music and shows being shown on TVs, decor and people are all fully authentic and feel like they have been transported in from their homelands. Grocery shops stock food supplies and exotic fruits and vegetables. There's no need to leave Taichung for an authentic and inexpensive Southeast Asian experience--this is the place to go, with no passport needed.

Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past

Taichung's mayor has embraced this multi-cultural facet and the city government has been organizing concerts and events on the plaza in front of ASEAN Square to highlight different cultural heritages. On the third floor is a service counter staffed by speakers of different languages. Additionally, there is a cultural center with friendly volunteers from the National Chi Nan University Center for Southeast Asian Studies (check out SEAT南方時驗室 on Facebook for more current information) as well as a small exhibit space and two classrooms that currently host free weekend classes teaching Thai, Vietnamese and Bahasa Indonesia.

Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past

Though ASEAN Square is a cultural melting pot, it still has a strong Taiwanese presence and the site boasts a long history (see below). Many of the shops are run by Taiwanese and pre-date the arrival of the Southeast Asians. There are a fair number of elderly suit tailors, numismatic shops and the tattoo parlors appear to be targeting Taiwanese, at least linguistically. Many of the KTVs and the MTV in the complex also seem to be mostly focused on Mandarin speakers.

From Yourongding to Tiyi Shihchang to First Square to ASEAN Square
Taichung has long had traditional markets and there may or may not have been such a market on this location in the 19th century. In 1907, the Japanese colonial government began a project to modernize these markets to bring order and modern sanitation. It was on this location that they founded Yourongding, or First Market, in 1908 along with the Second and Third markets. However, it was First Market that reigned as biggest, selling all the necessities people needed, and it included a wet market offering fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood and meats.

By the 1930s, downtown Taichung was a thriving hub of local commerce and government, with many monumental structures showing off Japan's colonial might including the Taichu (Taichung) Prefectural Hall, Taichu Train Station and Changhua Bank building, all of which you can still see today. In 1934, for example, Yourongding boasted 147 vendors serving an average of 3,500 customers daily.

Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past Vibrant, fun and friendly ASEAN Square and its storied past

With the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, the incoming Mandarin-speaking ROC government referred to the market as Tiyi Shihchang (First Market). By the mid-1950s, an increasing population and influx of illegal vendors had brought disorder to what was once an orderly Japanese institution, with the government periodically cracking down on illegal vendors.

In 1978, the venerable market was destroyed in a fire but illegal vendors made a comeback on the site, building their own stalls. In an effort to bring order at the market, the government awarded a contract to a developer in 1980 but resistance from resident illegal vendors dragged the issue out through the following decade. Finally, on July 15, 1987, the very day that martial law was lifted on the main Taiwan island, the city government cut off the illegal vendors' water, power and gas and fences were constructed around the site to forcibly vacate the area.

Three years later, the 12-story complex that stands today rose up. In 1993, First Market was officially moved in, occupying the first three floors and the since-abandoned first basement level. The entire complex was labeled First Square, a name it held until July, 2016. The original market temple was also recreated on the site and remains there today, to the right of the front entrance.

When it first opened, it was a strikingly modern building and initially quite popular. However, stories of a 'ghost' or 'phantom' ship appearing above First Square circulated, causing some more superstitious people to shy away. Over time the difficult parking situation in Central district and fashionable new department stores led to a gradual decline in status and popularity. Curiously, today there remain several, apparently-abandoned luxury cars from that era in the basement, including two huge Cadillacs and a Mercedes Benz--all covered in a thick layer of dust, looking very much like they have been there since the heyday of First Square.

While the traffic woes were a problem for more well-heeled clients, the low rent and convenient access to public transportation made it popular with students and, as they began to arrive in greater number, so too did the Southeast Asians, making ASEAN Square what it is today.

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