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Timeless Restaurant brings a century-old house back to life

Once old, but now trendy

Words by Li Chen-ching Translated by Anna Yang
Photography by Reflection Photography
Photo by Timeless

A fateful encounter with an old house
Timeless owner Rita recalls the first time she saw the old house in 2013: "It was a dump with bushes growing high; the road beyond wasn't visible and the roof was damaged. It seemed like a house that was going to be torn down if it wasn't fixed up right away."

Before this encounter, Rita and her friend, Ah-Wei, had in 2011 renovated another old house on DaCheng Street in North District. The two of them spent about half a year cleaning up the place, restoring water and electricity, and furnishing it with furniture before opening "Timeless Store #1" restaurant. Rita, who seems to have limitless energy when it comes to such projects, felt a similar attraction to the old house on ZiZhi Street.

Timeless Restaurant brings a century-old house back to life Timeless Restaurant brings a century-old house back to life
Left: 'Timeless' is hidden quietly on an alleyway and surrounded by tall buildings and houses.
Right: A walk down a hill brings the century-old house into view.

Working in the public relations field, she has years of hands-on experience with media PR, advertising, marketing, department stores and traditional companies. In 2010, she was inspired by a speech given by Citizen of the Earth chairman Liao Ben-chuan, who encouraged everyone to participate in public events to make life more meaningful. It was that same evening that the dim glow of light from a window drew Rita and her friend to the first old house that became Timeless Store #1.

When I asked Rita when she started paying attention to old houses, she replied, "I can't say exactly when, but I would cry when I saw an excavator destroying a house. A century-old house would become a pile of debris in a few hours after an excavator arrived."

Spending big to repair a rental house
When Rita decided to rent the old structure, even the landlord told her that it was fine to destroy it if she only needed the ground floor. Later, however, the landlord found out that Rita really meant to renovate the building instead of destroying it. Several friends also teased her about her "true love" for such old houses after taking a look at its condition. Repairs would cost millions of NT dollars but Rita took out a bank loan and hired workers to pour concrete, weld and remove the old cement from brick walls with the limited funds. Friendly workers also provided her with additional tips on how to save money and manage parts of the renovation.

During the seven months it took to complete the project, she would work alongside the others from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Besides the ceiling, Rita painted the rest of the house herself. Family and friends stopping in to visit would see her busy painting on a ladder, laugh and ask what kind of woman could do any job like this and actually enjoy it.

Sometimes she would be too tired to raise her arms but, savoring the sunlight on the roof during breaks, would think, "I'll be glad when this house is happy and clean."

Timeless Restaurant brings a century-old house back to life Timeless Restaurant brings a century-old house back to life
Left: Different dining areas at Timeless provide a wealth of perspectives.
Right: A number of nostalgic knickknacks help restore the original ambiance of the old house.

Nevertheless, this didn't mean that all would be perfect when renovations were completed, as marketing was the next consideration and phase.

When she rented the building, Rita knew it should be renovated but had thought completely about the final product, thinking that it could perhaps be a nostalgia-themed shop. Today, her sign is small, as she wants visitors to first lay their eyes on the old house instead of the restaurant's name. Although the seating area is spacious, no chairs and tables have been placed in the center of the house and the yard, perhaps expressing the idea that the building should retain more of its own space. All menu items feature smoke-free preparation methods, as smoke could easily stain the clay walls. Rita notes, "I repaired this old house because I like it; however, I can also provide the best for my customers" and her establishment serves authentic, rarely-seen Taiwanese teas, Hualien healthy teas and Hakka-style tea smoothies.

Growing 'old-house' business competition
Although Rita's "old-house" business has become a favorite hangout for hipsters, she notes that running it isn't as easy, as new shops open too frequently in Taichung, making it less likely that local customers will visit the same business repeatedly. She also observes that similar businesses operating out of old buildings have increased dramatically as investors from Taipei, Kaohsiung, Singapore and Hong Kong are drawn to Taichung due to its comparatively low rental rates and abundant human resources. This means that customers can perhaps visit three or four restaurants and cafes per week without going to the same business for a month or more. This also means that independently-run businesses could be driven from the market as landlords raise rents and erase the profits of even successful stores.

It's unlikely that every month is profitable, meaning that it's probably not possible to see a return on what was invested. Like many other "old-house" shop owners, Rita relies on an outside main job to support herself. However, she laughs and says, "You will notice that people who invest in old houses in Taichung don't seem to be good at accounting. Life is hard, but we seem to enjoy what we do."

"If I was a customer visiting my own shop, I'd tell the owner, 'Don't do it!'", she adds. From an entrepreneurial perspective, it's probably a bad idea to invest in a shop around Taichung's 5th Market area, where fewer shoppers make purchases, not to mention take out a five-year rental contract, overspend on renovations, and see the business open a year afterwards. The time and money spent will probably not be made back. However, all this doesn't seem to bother Rita, who says, "We will only manage this old house for this period of time, as it belongs to the landlord after all! We are happy to take care of this place in such a short time."

Letting the old house tell its story
For Rita, every old house is precious because it tells tales of the city. She says that old homes from the Japanese colonial period in Taichung, Lugang and Tainan vary in style and size due to local lifestyles and locations. "Old houses are gradually vanishing and with the demolition of more of them we feel more pain. What we can do is to allow a house to remain alive in our own way."

Rita likes to view her old house as a person and has given Timeless the nickname "Aniki", which means "big brother" in Japanese. And, truly, if this "big brother" could speak, it's likely he would praise Rita's faith because, after all these years, he has found an understanding friend.

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