Turning back the sands of time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2012, 12:00am


Hidden inside the neighbourhoods of Taipei, several cafes, bookstores and restaurants are turning used collectibles into a new trend for interior decor.

Inside, customers can marvel at stuff that no one really uses any more, from antique typewriters and rotary-dial telephones to old wooden tables and mismatched chairs.

The success of vintage decor coincides with a wave of nostalgia washing through Taiwanese pop culture. Hit films, such as Cape No. 7 and You Are the Apple of My Eye, chose small Taiwanese towns in the distant past as their settings.

Characters lived in traditional homes, where possessions were accumulated by Taiwanese parents and grandparents who had little sensibility towards modern interior design.

But as new condominium developments go up in Taipei and younger generations increasingly prefer design styles of the West, reminders of how life in the city used to be are becoming increasingly rare.

At Across the Ocean 181, a cafe near Taipei's Yongkang Street, patrons who enter its red gates will immediately be taken to a Taiwanese living room of 50 years ago. Old black and white box televisions are hollowed out and used as bookshelves.

Cafe tables and chairs come in all shapes and colours. The menu is written on a classroom chalkboard, while an old wooden door becomes a notice board for community events.

'This is the stuff from our childhood,' says Sonia Sung, one of the cafe's founders. 'Many of our patrons get so excited when they come in because it makes them remember how things used to be.'

One of the cafe's most popular pieces among older customers is a set of old yogurt bottles from the 1940s.

Ian Chang, another cafe founder, says many older patrons are surprised when they see the bottles for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Other patrons are reminded of their high school exam days when they see a small, tan wooden table with a metallic lamp against the wall.

Chang says he got the idea of decorating his cafe with used furniture after seeing all the things society throws away.

All of the pieces come from used furniture shops, or piles of trash on the side of the street.

This strategy saved Chang and his colleagues a lot of money before the cafe's opening in October last year.

'I really want to keep this stuff to preserve a part of Taiwan's history,' he says.

'Our world is all about creating new things but, hopefully, this cafe will let guests learn from what we, as a society, have already made.'

A similar philosophy drives Grace Wang, the founder of the VVG Group. Wang started two restaurants, a bakery and a bookstore called VVG Something that has been voted as one of the top 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world by the cultural website Flavorwire.

'Our modern, hi-tech world gives people a colder feeling,' Wang says. 'Old stuff, on the other hand, warms you up.'

Wang has trawled through furniture shops and flea markets in more than 30 countries to find decorative pieces. VVG Something was opened so that she could display some of her finds, which were previously kept in storage.

Inside, these artifacts are intermingled with carefully selected books on art, literature and food.

Her collection includes a set of Japanese craft glassware that was made in 1940s, with flowers hand-engraved into the glass.

Another display case holds rare lead ink-block stamps, which are made by the only remaining manufacturer in Taiwan.

Patrons can also find metallic coffee grinders with handles to crank by hand, and a typewriter with keys in Korean characters only.

'My goal is to make my customers' eyes light up when they come into the store,' Wang says. 'I want them to feel like they're in a new environment, filled with things from the past, that they can emotionally identify with.'

Cameras are certainly lighting up in the store. During this interview, at least half a dozen visitors came in to snap away at the odd knick-knacks throughout the shop.

A Singaporean couple played with a handmade, mechanical wind-up soldier before buying one to take home.

VVG Something reminds us that even though the world had less technology in the past, life was still good.