Tianmu: A Tapestry of Exotic Charms

Author Jean Hsieh, Tina Teng  
Photographer Wei Wen Chen, Taipei City Office Of Commerce, Ching-Chih Lee

Tianmu (天母), a neighborhood located in Shilin District of northern Taipei, is known as one of the city’s earliest-expatriate enclaves. Home to the Taipei American School and the Taipei Japanese School, the neighborhood boasts an array of international cultures, unique shops, and exotic restaurants that contribute to its distinct community ambiance. 

The building is the former residence of Tianmu, now housing a Starbucks on Tianyu Street. (photo/Ching-Chih Lee)

In this article, we have the pleasure of being accompanied by Ching-Chih Lee (李清志), a renowned author and associate professor from the Department of Architecture at Shih Chien University (實踐大學建築設計學系). As a lifelong native of Tianmu, Lee will serve as our guide, unveiling the unique lifestyle and captivating spaces that define this vibrant neighborhood.

A native of Tianmu, Ching-Chih Lee has spent his entire life in this culturally diverse neighborhood.

Memories of an American Community

In his recently work, Ojisan on the Road, Lee recounts a remarkable tale of a road trip he embarked on with a school friend, exploring the breathtaking coastline of Taiwan. Driving an off-road Suzuki Jimny and navigating using an old-fashioned paper map, they embraced the spirit of cross-country travel reminiscent of the legendary U.S. highway network, Route 66.

The coastal road trip resonates with his long-time “American” lifestyle. Playfully referring to himself as a Tianmu “veteran”, he fondly recalls his upbringings in the neighborhood, as his father taught at Taipei American School. In his childhood days, Tianmu exuded an unmistakable ambiance of an American town, with both the aforementioned international schools attracting a diverse community of expatriates from around the world.

Lee’s family resided in a single-family home, complete with a chimney, and their yard connected with those of their neighbors. As he recalls, American Holidays were celebrated in Tianmu, with white pines adorning homes as Christmas trees. Even today, Tianmu continues to embrace Western holiday traditions. For instance, on Halloween, families still prepare rarely seen candies from abroad in preparation for the trick-or-treaters that roam the streets.

Wandering Through Tianmu

When it comes to weather, Lee says that Tianmu does not receive much rainfall. It is said that in the 1950s, when the U.S. military was choosing a location for its base and military housing, they took into account factors such as wind patterns and humidity. Based on the research conducted by the Central Weather Bureau (交通部中央氣象局), Tianmu’s location on a sunny slope made it an ideal candidate that met the U.S. military’s criteria.

Until now, there are still many exotic Western houses remained in Tianmu.

The former U.S. military housing forms the main street of Tianmu, running along the slope of Section 7 of Zhongshan North Road (中山北路七段). This crowded street is lined with a cluster of shops, and George Shoes (喬治皮鞋) , with its over 50 years of history, stands prominently as a recognizable presence. Another notable landmark on the same slope is the Mother of God Church (天母天主堂), embodying the influence of foreign religions in Taiwan. As visitors venture into the extended alleys branching off the main road, they will encounter the charming single-family homes that contribute to Tianmu’s distinctive ambiance, reminiscent of a small American town. As one ascends the slope of Section 7 of Zhongshan North Road, an elegant and tranquil atmosphere can be noticed.

Lee’s recommended walking route starts from Tianmu Park, following the riverside promenade downhill, leading to a forest retreat with abundant green trees.

To truly experience the serene seclusion of Tianmu, Lee suggests taking a leisurely walk downhill from Tianmu Park (天母公園), following the riverside promenade, and eventually reaching Donghe (東和) and Tianhe (天和) Parks. The parks’ lush greenery evokes a sense of forested retreats, providing a sanctuary away from the fast-paced urban life.

Joe’s Grill, the first beer pub in Tianmu founded by the legendary Joe, was a popular choice among Americans.

Joe’s Grill, a renowned beer pub and grill located on Section 7 of Zhongshan North Road, is temporarily closed. However, it’s worth noting that the building that houses the beer bar was built by the legendary owner himself. The building’s peculiar yet fascinating facade is worth a visit in and of itself. 

In the old days, when Tianmu had a sizable expatriate community, Joe — whose full name has faded into obscurity — started an auto repair shop that specializes in American vehicles. However, his restless spirit led him to embark on a new venture: introducing Tianmu’s first beer pub, aptly named Joe’s Grill. The restaurant, conveniently across the street from his shop, was such a hit with American expatriates that later in the 1980s, a slew of beer pubs opened along the main street and stretched all the way to Zhongcheng Road (忠誠路). According to Lee, during his childhood, it was common to see people waving to hitch a ride with oncoming cars on Zhongcheng Road, much like what’s depicted on American television.

Starbucks on Tianyu Street

The iconic building on Tianyu Street (天玉街) that currently houses Starbucks was once home to the famous American ice cream brand Haagen-Dazs, a beloved establishment that served as a community cornerstone for over two decades. Repurposed from a traditional Tianmu single-family home, the building now boasts breathtaking floor-to-ceiling windows and expansive outdoor seating. A few decades ago, most expatriate families in Tianmu lived in one or two-story single-family homes with large yards. Today, the neighborhood still retains its nostalgic charm throughits unique residential architecture. 

The Starbucks building on Tianyu Street is a standing testament that perfectly preserves the essence of the past. As visitors turn onto Tianyu Street from the roundabout at Section 7, they are greeted by a tranquil walkway adorned with trees and western-style homes, reminiscent of the picturesque streets of San Francisco.

Mother of God Church

Constructed in the 1960s, the Mother of God Church on the main street served as a place of worship for numerous foreign parishioners. The church would ring its bell every morning at 8:00 am as a gentle reminder for the community to gather for worship. Given the significant American population in the area at the time, a multitude of stores specializing in the sale of imported everyday goods from the U.S. could be found on the main street. Today, the church’s foreign architecture serves as a quiet reminder of the street’s 1960s small-town vibe.

Wenism Cafe

Wenism Cafe in Tianmu bridges the empty lot and the park with a casual ambiance.

Lee’s appreciation for coffee extends beyond its taste; he embraces it as a gateway to solitude. Rather than seeking the finest brew, he views ordering a cup of coffee as a cherished moment for writing or simply relishing solitude. 

As for grabbing a great cup of coffee, Lee highly recommends Wenism Cafe (走馬咖). The cafe occupies the ground floor of an intriguing building designed by Lee’s architect friend, Jay Chiu. Playfully dubbed“the LV of illegal constructions” by Chiu, the building embodies a fusion of unconventional elements such as pedestrian arcades, and sheet metal houses. Chiu ingeniously blends these eccentric features to create a truly distinctive space. Situated alongside a spacious open area and several nearby parks, the cafe offers patrons the opportunity to savor their favorite brew in cozy seating areas seamlessly integrated with the natural surroundings. The serene and invigorating ambiance breathes new life into this corner of the neighborhood.

🍺2023 Tianmu Beer Festival

Tianmu Beer Festival (Photo/Taipei City Office of Commerce )

As mentioned earlier Tianmu experienced a wave of beer pubs in the 1980s that swept through the neighborhood. Reflecting the community’s enduring love for a good brew, the 2023 Tianmu Beer Festival (2023天母啤酒節) serves as a vibrant continuation of this culture.

Taking place from June 21st to July 23rd in Tianmu Sports Park (天母運動公園), the festival is a collaborative effort between the Tianmu Marketplace (天母商圈), local exotic eateries, department stores, and a wide array of beer brands. The festival reignites Tianmu’s beer fever with themed marketplaces, stage performances, fun photo props, and exclusive limited-edition beers crafted specifically for the event. 

Bringing new energy to the Tianmu Marketplace, the festival takes visitors back to the nostalgic days when the streets were alive with bustling beer pubs where patrons could enjoy a refreshing drink outdoors. After all, it’s always five o’clock somewhere.

This article is reproduced under the permission of TAIPEI. Original content can be found on the website of Taipei Travel Net (www.travel.taipei/en).

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