Hukuisu Restaurant

Rejuvenating a Colonial-Era Gastronomic Icon

2018 / November

Sanya Huang /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Bruce Humes

“As soon as the decorated lanterns were hung, a constant flow of brightly attired highly placed officials, influential personalities, and well-connected geishas from Tai­nan’s Shin­ma­chi pleasure quarters arrived by rickshaw at the entrance. Although Hu­kuisu was classified as a ryo­tei-style Japanese restaurant, in reality it played the role of a major underground decision-making center in Tai­nan during the ­Showa Era and as such was intimately connected with the city’s modern-day historical development.” —Tai­nan City Cultural Affairs Bureau



In his Diary of Mr. Guan­yuan, Lin ­Hsien-tang, a pioneer of the movement for greater Taiwanese autonomy under Japanese rule, describes a freewheeling mealtime conversation with friends held in 1930 when visiting Tai­nan: “…visited the Tai­nan Exhibition Hall. Then took lunch at the Hu­kuisu restaurant. [Liu] Ming­zhe invited [Wang] ­Shoulu and [Han] Shi­quan to join us, and we discussed religion for over an hour….”     

Eateries bridging cultural barriers

Founded in 1912, Hu­kuisu was a luxurious ryo­tei-style dining venue in Tai­nan during Japanese rule. Due to its proximity to the prefecture’s administrative headquarters, it was dubbed the “underground decision-making center.” Having suffered a long period of abandonment, disputes over whether it should be preserved or demolished, devastation by the forces of nature, and an awkward repositioning as a cultural asset, in 2018—more than a century later—it reopened its doors to diners.

In his ­Meiji-mura on Paper: The Demolished Classic Buildings of Taiwan, cultural scholar Lin ­Tzung-kuei lists Hu­kuisu and Tai­pei’s Ki­shu An Forest of Literature as two buildings dedicated to dining that embody the especially rich historical ambience of Taiwan under Japanese rule. Although Hu­kuisu lacked the riverside beauty of Ki­shu An, the former excelled with its purely Japanese garden landscaping that hinted at Zen and ­Shinto philosophical thought. A leisurely stroll allowed for contemplation and relaxation, making it an ideal place for socializing and political gossip.

In the north there is Ki­shu An, and in the south is Hu­kuisu. Each represents a ­Showa-era colonial dining space that transcended the gap between two cultures. Their fates were similar; both form part of the imprint left behind by the Japanese when colonial rule ended in 1945.

Bumpy road to rebirth

After World War II, both sites reverted to the public sector. Ki­shu An served as a dormitory for civil servants, but the main building and annex suffered a massive fire, and only the banquet hall escaped unscathed. Hu­kuisu functioned for a while as a dormitory for Tai­nan First Senior High School, but a typhoon in 2008 badly damaged the main structure. The remaining unutilized wooden­-framed building was gradually neglected, and local residents even demanded its demolition. In recent years, however, with the rise of the “spatial native language” movement, which advocates using traditional cultural elements as components for new architectural design, the importance of these two examples of classical Japanese-era architecture has gradually been recognized by groups fighting for the preservation of folk culture. They have requested that these buildings be protected as part of our cultural heritage.

In 2004, the faculty and students of National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Building and Planning proposed to the Tai­pei City Department of Culture Affairs that Ki­shu An’s banquet hall be officially designated as a Municipal Historic Site. That same year, the Tai­nan City Cultural Affairs Bureau convened the Monument and Historical Building Review Committee, and Hu­kuisu won designation as a Tai­nan Historic Site in 2005. However, due to flaws in the administrative process, it was disqualified in 2006. In 2009, Tai­nan classified Hu­kuisu as a landscape installation, and landscaped the site in a way intended to give a sense of the original ambience, while retaining parts of the original structure. It was reopened to the public at the end of 2013.   

Steps to freeing up space

Due to urban planning and building regulations, the uses that the renovated Hu­kuisu could be put to were limited. To resolve this issue, the Tai­nan Cultural Affairs Bureau began by revising local legislation. In 2014 it formulated rules for setting up review panels for commemorative buildings, and then drew up regulations for approving their renovation or reconstruction. Finally, the Hu­kuisu site was rezoned as “land for public education,” thereby loosening restrictions on building a new structure on land previously designated for a plaza.

Via this three-part solution—dubbed the “Hu­kuisu Provisions”—Hu­kuisu’s wooden-framed building was ­designated as Tai­nan’s first commemorative ­building in 2015. In 2016, the operating rights to the remains of the white structure located immediately opposite the entrance were obtained by A-Sha Restaurant, itself renowned throughout Taiwan as the dining venue “frequented by the most presidents.” Renovations began in 2017 and were completed in 2018. At a cost of NT$10 million, this structure was converted into a two-story building fusing the old and the new. It has been dubbed “Eagle Hill” by A-Sha’s head chef Wu ­Chien Hao, great-nephew of the restaurant’s founder.

For Wu, who grew up in a lane off ­Zhongyi Street, Hu­kuisu is an organic part of daily life. How to make this culinary brand shine once again and attract more people to take part in its revival has become a personal challenge.

In a tribute to Hu­kuisu’s eel don­buri of yesteryear, Wu combines the restaurant’s signature sticky rice cake with specially prepared eel, and wraps it in shell ginger leaves to form a steamed fan­tuan (rice ball). From the 90-year-old Chinese chestnut tree in the courtyard garden he picks the fruit—“phoenix eyes”—to make seasonal chestnut glutinous rice cakes that are both mouthwatering and visually pleasing.

When it comes to the details of the refurbishment, Wu has endless tales to tell: at the first-floor entrance, the reception desk and floor feature traditional ya­ga­suri patterns that evoke arrow feathers, while the avian­-themed lighting fixtures on the second story and the bird shapes at the end of the sloping roof trusses are all modeled on the Japanese bush warbler (the name Hu­kuisu comes from ­uguisu, the bird’s Japanese name).

Eagle Hill evinces Hu­kuisu’s cross-cultural gourmet spirit and attracts visitors to venture inside its fusion of new and old. As they wander about, they can tour the Japanese-style courtyard and buildings, encounter musical performances and tea parties, nibble on chestnut cake, sip white wax-apple herb tea, sit under the veranda eaves listening to the patter of raindrops, or enjoy the lantern-lit courtyard at night. A new cultural bright spot in the city, the renovated Hu­kuisu brings Taiwan’s cultural history alive once again.                                 

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