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2018-12-27

[Hidden Treasures] Let’s Go to Tugou!


A Village Transformed into an Outdoor Art Museum

Text: Han Cheung
Photos: Vision

Among the hundreds of villages you will find on the fertile plains of southwestern Taiwan, Tugou stands out. While it is – like many other villages in the region – surrounded by flat farmland, consists for the most part of old houses, and has a citizenry dominated by old people and young children, the village also has an abundance of something rather unsuspected: ART!

Fun with public art at Tugou

Tugou village, located in Houbi District in northern Tainan City, doesn’t have any famous sons or daughters, nor does it have an intriguing history. Even its scenery pales in comparison to neighboring Baihe town, which boasts an expanse of lotus fields and red cotton trees that bloom in stunning deep-scarlet in March/April.

“In the past, Tugou was just an ordinary, simple farming village,” says local resident Huang Kun-yi. “We like to say that our uniqueness comes from not being unique. We started from nothing, but we slowly created something that’s fun and also intriguing.”

Before Tugou began the community development efforts that brought these changes in 2002, the village had been fading into history, with its young people leaving to find work elsewhere. Many houses had been abandoned, and much of the village had fallen into disarray. The remaining residents were mostly seniors and children.

“When we traveled elsewhere we didn’t dare say that we were from Tugou, because nobody had ever heard of it,” Huang says. “My generation wanted to do something that would inject new life into this village so we could be proud of living here.”

Huang and other residents in their 40s and 50s formed the Tugou Rural Cultural Development Association (togoartmuseum.blogspot.com; Chinese) with the aim of cleaning up and beautifying the environs. By 2012, the area had morphed into a 400-hectare outdoor art museum, with installations and creative businesses sprinkled throughout.
Although the art creations were primarily realized by students of the Tainan National University of the Arts, the artwork is deeply connected with the village way of life, and the local farmers and other landowners were involved in every step along the way.

Colorful mini-pavilions

“It’s difficult to persuade a conservative farmer to allow you to build something completely alien on their land. After convincing them, we then had to make sure that they could relate to the artwork and feel moved by it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have cherished it.”

The initiative not only put Tugou on the map, it also attracted many creative new residents, including Hou Chia-fu, a sculptor from Chiayi who settled in the village after a stint as Tugou’s first artist-in-residence in 2006. After completing their studies, a number of former art students who had worked in the village decided to move in as well.
Tugou residents like to say that it was a single water buffalo that transformed their village. Once home to more than 300 water buffalo, only one remained by the time the art students arrived in 2004. The first art project involved building a cowshed for the animal, and the water buffalo was soon adopted as the spiritual symbol of the village.

“The water buffalo is closely tied to rural life,” Huang says. “It works hard and endures, and we understood that we should learn from its persistence, adopting the same approach in efforts to develop our community.”

  • Curious-looking sink

    Curious-looking sink

  • Water buffalo sculpture

    Water buffalo sculpture

  • Art and farmland

    Art and farmland

Visitors can call in advance to book guided tours by local villagers (in Chinese or Taiwanese), and rental bicycles are also available in the village center. The Tainan government has converted the railbed of a retired narrow-gauge line used by a nearby Taiwan Sugar Corporation plant into a 12km bike path that cuts right through the idyllic local fields, making for a calm and pleasant way to explore Tugou and neighboring villages.
The tours begin at a former pig shed that was converted into a classroom, a kitchen, and a social space, where visitors are treated to a type of traditional pork rice that family members used to bring to farmers in the fields. From the door gods holding farm tools instead of their usual weapons to the terrazzo images of pigs inlaid in the floors, the connection to the village way of life is apparent throughout the facility.

  • Former pig shed

    Former pig shed

  • Rest pavilion

    Rest pavilion

Such playful design details can be found in every corner – even in the bathrooms, which have colorful, irregularly shaped walls. By way of example, Huang explains the concept behind a curious-looking sink. The faucet protrudes out of a flower-art chamber pot, which represents the past, two scooter mirrors “reflect” the present, and the water flowing from the faucet symbolizes hope for the future. The basin is made in the shape of two large hands, which serves as a reminder that water is precious and should be conserved.
None of the artwork is without profound meaning. The hibiscus-flower murals on a concrete fence harken back to the old days when plants were used as barriers. A cartoonish fish “standing” at the side of a waterway symbolizes the association’s desire to clean it up so that the fish can jump back in and swim one day. Two sets of mosaic-tile chairs and tables at the edge of a rice paddy allow farmers to rest and take in the great views of the mountains to the east.

  • Dining room at Togo Graceful Farmer

    Dining room at Togo Graceful Farmer

  • Colorful room

    Colorful room

A unique establishment opened by a former art student is Togo Graceful Farmer (www.facebook.com/togo.graceful.farmer), which helps farmers to market their products through art, design, and special events, and provides meals using locally-sourced ingredients. It also organizes family-friendly craft workshops.
The second-floor dining rooms have been entirely painted over, from floor to ceiling and even the curtains and furniture, in a bold, unbridled style by resident artist Wang Guo-ren. There’s also a large area behind the main building filled with whimsical creations, such as colorful giant chairs, that present perfect photo ops.
From nearby Yongan Elementary School you can take in some great views of the local fields and irrigation canals, but the building itself is also noteworthy. Redesigned in 2012 by Tugou-based architecture firm Atelier Buffalo, the eco-friendly, solar-powered structure exists in harmony with the surrounding landscape, making full use of its natural environment. It has an ecological pool filled with recycled rainwater that is busy with aquatic creatures.
Another village attraction is Hou Chia-fu’s eccentric red-brick house, which is decorated with colorful windows. Designed and built by the art students, it is in tune with the artistic style of most of the installations in the village, and stands out amidst the paddies.

Practical Info

The train station nearest to Tugou is Houbi Railway Station, from which the village is reached by cab in a few minutes. Those using the Taiwan High Speed Rail service can get off at THSR Chiayi Station and take a cab from there.
Houbi Railway Station is an attraction in itself. Built in 1902, its original appearance has for the most part been retained, except for some slight alterations made after earthquake damage suffered in 1941.

Nearby Attractions

In addition to its iconic red cotton tree-lined pathway, the neighboring district of Baihe is also home to expansive lotus fields, rightfully earning it the nickname “Lotusville.” Many restaurants here serve “lotus banquets.” All parts of the plant are used in the dishes, from the roots to the seeds to the flowers. The best time to visit is June through August, when the flowers are in full bloom.
About 15km from Tugou village, in the mountains to the east, is Guanziling. This village is well known for its muddy hot springs, which are said to have healing properties. Among the attractions close to Guanziling is the Water and Fire Spring. Methane and boiling-hot water pour forth from a cliff-face fissure here. The methane has ignited, and it looks as if the water is on fire.
You’ll also want to visit the ornate Huoshan Biyun Temple, go for a walk in the Red Leaf Park, and drive/ride on the scenic Dongshan Coffee Highway (County Route 175), along which roadside cafés serve locally produced coffee.

English and Chinese

Atelier Buffalo 水牛建築師事務所
Baihe 白河
Dongshan Coffee Highway 東山咖啡公路
Guanziling 關子嶺
Hou Chia-fu 侯加福
Houbi District 後壁區
Huang Kun-yi 黃坤益
Huoshan Biyun Temple 火山碧雲寺
Red Leaf Park 紅葉公園
Wang Guo-ren 王國仁
Togo Graceful Farmer 優雅農夫藝術工廠
Tugou Rural Cultural Development Association 土溝農村文化營造協會
Tugou 土溝
Water and Fire Spring 水火同源
Yongan Elementary School 永安國小

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